Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Learn From Malaysia's Diversity

Take Malaysia. There, Islam is very present in the public sphere, but there is a recognition that non-Muslims are also part of the public consciousness. It is hard to get around that fact with such a large non-Muslim minority. Malay Muslims are neighbours with Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus and others. They rub shoulders with Chinese, Indians and people from all over the world: it is quite possibly the most multicultural society in the Muslim world.
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When you grow up looking diversity in the face

Hisham Hellyer

Anyone who has been in Abu Dhabi for long has met the proverbial “international school brat”. They’re similar to “army brats” who have had the blessing (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) to be born in one place and raised in several others, usually thousands of miles apart.

I am one of those. I was born in Abu Dhabi back when you could drive from one side of the island to the other in about 15 minutes, but I managed to go to five different schools in three countries.

The most upheaval my father went through was probably going to a boarding school, which was still not far from his home in Sussex. That experience is no longer the norm, owing to modernity and globalisation. Many more people today are forced to look diversity in the face because of the massive movement of peoples.

But in some places, people have been looking at diversity for generations. In the Arab world, Egypt is one of the great examples. Alexandria used to be a hodgepodge of Greeks, Italians, Sephardic Jews and many others, in addition to the present-day mix of Muslims and Christians, including Copts, Catholics and Protestants. All of them were Egyptians and spoke Arabic as their common national tongue – but each group had a complicated and complex narrative.

It’s a type of multiculturalism I find interesting. As a Briton I am constantly reminded of how much tension there is in the British and wider European public sphere regarding the word “multiculturalism”. Its basic premise of respecting diversity is seldom questioned, but many of the details are. As I study the Muslim world, I find many examples of multiculturalism existing in a much more relaxed setting.

Take Malaysia. There, Islam is very present in the public sphere, but there is a recognition that non-Muslims are also part of the public consciousness. It is hard to get around that fact with such a large non-Muslim minority. Malay Muslims are neighbours with Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus and others. They rub shoulders with Chinese, Indians and people from all over the world: it is quite possibly the most multicultural society in the Muslim world.

I was in Kuala Lumpur during Ramadan last year, and the multicultural Muslim society that Malaysia is could be seen very clearly. Many Malays, being Muslim, were fasting. Many other Malaysians, being non-Muslim, were not. The cafes and restaurants were not shut down, and there was another sight that I had never seen during Ramadan in any other part of the Muslim world – iftar bazaars.

I am not talking about the massive iftar banquets that characterise many of the five-star hotels. There are whole streets in Kuala Lumpur where people set up stalls with food cooked in front of patrons – Malay food, Indian food, Chinese food – all for the breaking of the fast.

But it is not an exclusively Muslim affair. Yes, it is on the occasion of the Islamic month of fasting, which is, to be sure, an entirely Muslim affair. In other contexts, you can read in historical texts of non-Muslims who partook in the rituals of Islam (and indeed, some can still be found today), but they are not so much becoming part of the ritual, as the ritual is becoming part of them.

But the patrons at these stalls? They were both Muslims and non-Muslims of all kinds and types. The mosque was in the background of the street I visited. But everyone seemed to be very comfortable; the pious, the non-pious, the Muslim, the non-Muslim.

My short stay in Malaysia allowed me to see mosques on one street, Hindu temples on another, and churches up the road. No one really seems to be particularly bothered. Even in the heavily Muslim Malay state of Kelantan, where an Islamist party governs, Buddhist temples are cared for and respected.

Now, Malaysia is no paradise of intercultural or inter-religious relations – there are certainly tensions. But the sign of a healthy society is not the absence of tensions, it is the ability to deal with such tensions without showing disrespect towards anyone or any community.

Recently a countryman of mine, Siddique Khan, the MP for the London suburb of Tooting, issued a document called Fairness, not Favours: How to reconnect with British Muslims. In it, he notes how there are still gaps between this minority and the majority in the UK, and tries to chart a course between them. The issues about how to deal with multiculturalism are frankly key to many European countries today. Britain has been doing better than many of our cousins on the European continent, I would maintain, but perhaps we can also learn lessons from elsewhere in the world. Malaysia has my vote.

Dr H A Hellyer is director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Fellow of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations

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