Inspiring. That’s what travelling should be, right? This is being written whilst sitting on a not uncomfortable, air conditioned minibus flying along a smooth and surprisingly quiet highway. It doesn’t sound like anything much I grant you, but this highway is leading from Kuala Lumpur up into the Teman Negara. Vast jungle covered hills are intermittently punctured with the tiniest pockets of modest industry, represented by log huts with smoke eeking from their steel chimney pipes. From the window of the bus it’s scale is awe-inspiring, if not a little intimidating. Teman Negara simply means ‘national forrest’ in Malay. Again not that impressive sounding but much like most things I’ve come across in this wonderful country thus far, names often belie the scale and often beauty of what will actually be on offer.
I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this 130 million year old jungle in due course, but that’s not what has driven me to write at this point. In fact it’s a conversation with a car hire branch manager in George Town, Pilau Penang that has gotten me thinking over the last 24 hours. Joanne was chatting to the three of us whilst the notoriously slow Malaysian internet connection was make heavy work of the taking of my passport and driving licence details. A perfectly normal ‘where are you from?’, ‘how long are you here for?’, ‘is your internet in the U.K. as bad as ours?’ chat, abruptly took an unexpected turn. With very little warning Joanne, very matter of factly, mentioned how the Islamic side of Malay society ultimately was leading to the, and I quote Joanne here, “brainwashing” of its followers. I’m not talking about Islamic extremism here, I am talking about the incumbent Muslim population (and here comes another quote) telling their followers “that everything non-Islamic in the world is bad”. It doesn’t take much to see why I’ve been thinking about that over the last 24 hours or so.
Malaysia is a country divided, more so than I think many people realise. Catholics, Anglicans, Hindus, Buddists and Muslims (to name but a few of the flavours on offer) all co exist, with Islam making up the majority. At least thats what I thought when I arrived. Every airport has prayer rooms (gender divided of course) next to their respective bathrooms. People are free to walk the streets in attire that very openly reflects their choice of religion. All good then, right? Isn’t that how things should be? Well, as with the name choices Malaysians give their places and things, the complexity underneath is rather understated. As Joanne’s comment suggests (unsubtle and surprisingly frank as it was) is that there is palpable tension toward the Islamic community here. Naturally my question is ‘why’?
It would certainly be fair to say that the Islamic world has been getting a lot of bad press over the last few years. Of course this is due to the ruthless and evil acts of a few, not of the many, but as is the nature of the modern ‘instant news’ world Islam as a whole has been tarred with the same brush. So maybe that’s why Joanne feels the pressure rising when maybe there is no problem, when maybe there is in fact nothing to fear?
The problem comes when you stand yourself in her shoes. It must be noted that her perspective cannot be unique, the chances of us talking to the one person in the entire country with this viewpoint who is willing to share it with strangers in front of three of her colleagues are minuscule. In fact I’d say millions to one. English isn’t her native tounge either, despite the Anglo-Saxon name, and yet she used the word ‘brainwashing’. Not ‘philosophy’ or ‘way of thinking’ which you might argue would come far easier to a non English speaker, she used a very specific and powerful word. It’s not unfair to assume that she did so as it reflects the strength of her opinion. Her English was more than good enough for that to be the case.
I’m not going to begin to try and fill in the gaps with spurious and massively generalised ideas about Islam. There is no need. Joanne’s choice of word is powerful enough. In a country full of culture where religion clearly plays a massive part and in its many different ways, there seems to be one kid in the playground that is not playing by the rules. It’s the kid standing in corner with three other smaller kids, selling them the idea of strength and confidence whilst bullying and ultimately isolating the rest of the playground. It’s the kid that sees his way as being the only way.
You may think that I’m trivialising a religion, that I’m belittling it and undermining the positive effect that it has on its followers. Much like Joanne’s choosing of her word I choose my analogy equally as carefully. Islam doesn’t see itself as a solution. Islam sees itself as the final solution (where have we heard that before). It quite literally believes there are no other options after itself. Look it up.
I am sure you had a kid in your school playground like the one I described. Maybe you were that kid? How did it turn out for him/her/you? If they were lucky enough to have seen the error of their ways then hopefully they went on to have a prosperous and fulfilling life. If the epiphany didn’t come then what happened to them?
When you advertise the prayer room as an Islamic one (the crescent moons on the signs are the giveaway) and you’re advertising ‘indecent behaviour’ as a no-no on the subway train by depicting a couple kissing, then you are saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’. So ok, maybe I am reading too much into it and maybe I come from too liberal a place. Prayer rooms in U.K. Airports are labelled as ‘multi faith’. A simple distinction but one that is made with the very intention of including the rest of the playground. A move that comes from a Christian country. You wouldn’t get on London Transport and see signs vaguely gesturing toward a preferred form of behaviour. You would see a sign that simply says ‘please give up your seat for the elderly or pregnant’ or ‘don’t play your music too loudly’. It would be a specific request, you wouldn’t have to take a guess at where the boundaries lay. The rules laid out by Islam clearly don’t want to be distinctly defined. Combine that with a fear of describing or depicting a physical act in too graphic detail and you get a sense that the system, much like the bully, wants you on your toes, never knowing quite what it wants.
Time for a clarification. The people we have met on this trip, be them Malay or any other nationality, have been nothing short of wonderful. Smiles and good humour have greeted us wherever we have gone. They have taken politeness and consideration to levels that the west should be aspiring to. The above isn’t about the player, it’s about the game.
Joanne’s comment has ultimately reminded me of a train of thought, a philosophy if you will, that I believe unconditionally. It is important not to make the mistake of taking acts of human kindness and good will as justification for the existence of any intrinsic, circular belief system. If a cancer sufferer decides to use their condition to raise awareness and maybe money toward research, leading to lives being prolonged or maybe even saved then would we stand up and shout from the rooftops ‘Hey everyone! Cancer is a wonderful thing! Look what it did!’. No, of course we wouldn’t. We would say that in spite of such an awful thing a human being has taken something good from it. That, in my opinion, is what people are doing everyday with belief systems such as the aforementioned. Islam isn’t unique, it’s just the most prominent and the one at the forefront of many of our minds currently.
Ultimately it is one word that has inspired me to write this. So as our ride into the outskirts of the jungle is about to give way to a boat ride into its furthest depths, I am left slightly saddened that Joanne will most likely never know what she has done. It’s not been the jungle, or the beautiful beaches, or the amazing food. The most memorable piece of inspiration has come from one woman.