Shifting Religious Identities since the 1980 s

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One generation after Malaysian independence, a major shift in Malay identity became apparent. The late 1960s saw a second Islamic resurgence emerging, and the arrival of new religious ideas and immigrants to Muslim Southeast Asia. The revival emphasized Malays’ membership in the global Islamic community (umma) beyond their ethnicity, and they became linked to events in Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Malays now thought of themselves as Muslims first. Most of the Malay leaders were young, and the youth were the first to follow this “call to the faith” (dakwah) movement, whose ideas spread rapidly among school and university students, along the timeworn conversion paths of personal, peer, kin, and friendship networks. The visible signs of dakwah include a shift to more Arabic styles of dress: long robe, white skullcap and beard for men, while women substitute a more voluminous, body-obscuring dress (baju kurung) for the traditional sarung, adding a fuller head covering (tudung), leaving just the face visible). In matters of dress, Malay women often display remarkable creativity, managing to be religiously. Malay Muslim women generally stand out from their Middle Eastern cousins in their ability to make the most of richly colored local batiks and silks, inventing stylish ways of draping their headscarf, and adding personal touches of jewelry, high-heeled shoes, fashionable umbrella, and parasol. In this they are aided by an active local fashion (fesyen) industry, promoted by alluring magazine features. This is the now standard modern Malay female style in rural and urban areas, a new ethnic costume with Islamic characteristics. Some women claim to find this form of dress liberating, as it relieves them from the body-image tyranny of modern international fashion, while still allowing individual expression.

Initially, under pressure to become more visibly Muslim, each Malaysian woman faces a personal decision: how and when to cover her head and shed jeans and tee-shirt or tight sarong for baju kurung. University dormitory life allows women to share their thoughts on these matters with each other, as well. As a way of “self-testing” (pecubaan sendiri), some girls vow (niat) to wear a veil if they pass their exams; more frivolously, her vow may be contingent upon being noticed by a boy. Covering one’s head with the tudung is invariably the first and most important symbol; girls at this first stage may enter a swimming pool in a long wetsuit and a towel on her head as a “veil.” Having made the first step, wearers realize that Muslim dress conveys expectations of piety to others, creating anxiety about giving up movies or eating in non-halal fast-food places. To backslide is to lose face. Once these young women embark on experiments with their new religious images, girls act as vigilantes over each other’s food and dress habits. They take care not to be seen outside during prayer times, accompany one another to prayer, carry prayer robes in their briefcases, and in sisterly style, push stray strands of hair inside a friend’s veil after ablutions. Thus evolves a whole new lifestyle of insider rituals, which reduce the possibilities of eating or socializing with non-Muslims and with even non-dakwah Malays.

Within their families, newly veiled girls and bearded, robed males often encounter opposition from their parents, who remain clad as traditional Malays. Zealous daughters chide their bareheaded mothers for “not being sufficiently Islamic” and are reprimanded in turn for lack of respect to their seniors. One frustrated woman I knew told her dakwah granddaughter that the grandmother would “not go to hell for not wearing a tudung.” Young Malaysian Muslims ready for marriage are now asking their parents to find them suitably religious spouses, and to bypass “non-Islamic” adat wedding rituals, a blow to large family gatherings and feasts. One mother claimed to feel like a hen who had hatched a duck egg when her daughter who had left Malaysia for university overseas wearing jeans, had returned in a robe and tudung. Parents fear, too, that outsiders see their dakwah offspring as “fanatical and narrow-minded” ( fanatik dan berfikiran sempit) and that this renders them unable to get government jobs. But another mother I knew confided that she preferred her children to be with a Muslim group than with gangs or doing drugs.

A more extreme expression of Malays-as-Muslims-first was the reform Darul Arqam movement (founded in 1968 and banned in 1994), which espoused that the value of religious unity transcends (Malay) ethnicity. Arqam members of both genders were mostly young Malay graduates of local and foreign universities, noted for their technological and business skills and their success in selling commune-produced crafts and products across Malaysia and Indonesia. In Arqam communes, everyone was family, “brothers and sisters” in Islam; Malay relations were expressed in Arabic terms. Their missionary strategy drew on old conversion patterns, of recruitment by marriage, especially of female converts outside Malaysia, who became second or third wives to missionaries. Families were patriarchal and often polygynous, and all women wore full purdah (long black robes, full face veil, gloves, and socks). The sight of a gloved woman managing a computer or camera in tropical heat was common. Some of Arqam’s own promotional magazines illustrated how professional jobs, such as nursing, could be performed by women in purdah: the movement aimed to show that Islamic attire is not anti-modern.

Sixty percent of Arqam’s recruits were women, whose apparent subservience to males was a mystery even to Malay feminists. From their own statements, they showed no evidence of coercion: “It is a privilege to serve Islam€.€.€. as a right-minded and disciplined example to society for the sake of Allah. But they also calculated the benefits. Some joined to follow men they admired, and since “dating” in a Western sense was impossible (it was considered “un-Islamic”), it was a fast-track to a marriage, even if one were to be a second or third wife. The women were also swift to justify the advantages of multiple wife arrangements. Co-wives could rotate jobs outside the home with domestic duties of marketing, cooking, and child-minding, such that there was always one wife at home. One could thus “have it all” without the need for a servant. Co-wives called each other by older/younger sister terms in Arabic, and their children collectively called them all umi, Arabic for mother. Where women had jobs in other communities, co-wives lived separately, and the husband was expected to rotate and treat each of them equally, even to ensure they had the same number of children. For Arqam women, this lifestyle meant freedom to enjoy both a profession and the security of a religious community. Their attire, intimidating to outsiders, was a protective barrier, liberating them from the fashion and consumer tyranny of the “moral stone age [where] the miniskirt is of the dark age.” In addition, their clothes constituted a statement of their chosen identity. However, Arqam communities were rife with covert sexual tension. Single men can only imagine the looks of women they cannot see; curious men would ask other women (including this writer) to observe women in quarters forbidden to unrelated males, in order to determine whether “Aishah is pretty” without her veil. Behind the scenes, women, well aware of this interest, would let down their hair, make sweet snacks, and joke, “if only the men could see us now!”

Life was not necessarily austere in Arqam communities. Bonding and evangelism were promoted by group chanting (dzikr) and music, a reminder of older Sufi practices. To this end, groups of men and boys would regularly perform in Malaysia and overseas with their haunting chants, entertaining Muslims and others in public places. Non-Muslims, audiences, were entranced by the music, and eventually the original Nada Murni (‘noble rhythm”) troupe mutated into best-selling commercial pop groups (Sufi pop). Arqam was eventually banned by the Malaysian government for fear that its devaluation of ethnic nationalism threatened the Malaysian state.

Malayness today is defined almost exclusively by Islam (but not all in the Arqam lifestyle). The religious (Shari’ah) courts intrude deeply into daily life. In fact, Malays have no freedom of religious choice, since to be Malay, by definition, is now to be Muslim. But what happens today if a Malay converts to another religion? By constitutional definition, a non-Muslim Malay is an anomaly, a nonperson without an ethnic identity. Rejecting Islam is also a sin of apostasy, with severe penalties under Shari’ah law. One Malay woman, Lina Joy, who publicly declared herself Christian, was forced to surrender her identity card and passport, and with them, her Malay identity. She was threatened by the religious courts and was unable to live a social life in any Malaysian Muslim community, and eventually fled to Singapore. At the time of this writing, her case is still the unresolved subject of acrimonious political, religious, civil, and human rights debates in Malaysia. Notwithstanding the historical record of Malay Hindu-Buddhists, in today’s Malaysia, it is impossible to be a non-Muslim Malay. Expressions of Malayness and its relationship to religion have changed constantly over the centuries, and this may not be the end of the saga.




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