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Very much proud to be a Muslim despite September 11

Source: New Straits Times
Publication date: 2002-09-01

SOME 25 years ago, at the boarding school I went to in England, the number of foreign students was minimal: out of about 800 girls, there were fewer than 30 of us who came from other shores.

And yet, we, the foreigners, faced no racism, no suspicious glares, no hurried whispers behind our backs. Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps the other girls were too happy being themselves to care.

I was proud of being a Muslim then. My English friends were curious about my religion and I had to be ready to answer their questions. I had my Quran on the shelf above my bed and my tasbih under my pillow. In a foreign land, I felt secure because of these two items in my little cubicle in a large 13-girl dormitory.

Compared to these post-Sept 11 days, I see now that my school years were truly an age of innocence.

It was a time when girls of different faiths and different- coloured skins became friends because of what we had in common and not because of what set us apart.

One important incident during my schooldays proved this: we were not allowed nor encouraged to get phone calls from our parents or guardians so when I was called to the staff-room to answer a phone call from my sister, I knew it had to be something serious. It was - my grandfather had died.

I ran up to the room I shared with two other friends - both English, but one a Christian and the other Jewish - and sobbed my heart out. Both of them left what they were doing and came to comfort me. Other friends from other rooms rushed in, too.

I was aware I was surrounded by friends but not that they were not of the same religious faith as I was.

In fact, I didn't think there was anything unusual or significant about the room-sharing arrangement - until now, that is.

Now I realise what we were - a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim sharing a room. Apart from my older sister, I was the only other Muslim in a boarding-house of about 60 English girls.

Could that still happen now, during a time of suspicious minds and doubt-filled hearts? I wonder.

Nowadays, after Sept 11, being a Muslim in a country like America is difficult and scary. To admit you are a Muslim, to cover your head if you're a woman or to have a beard if you're a man, is akin to wearing the arm-band that every Jew in Germany had to wear during the Second World War. We have become objects of suspicion and enmity.

Apparently, it is the same in Britain - the same Britain where I went as a Muslim foreign student and was offered friendship and comfort.

Brian Whitaker of The Guardian wrote: "It doesn't take much investigation to find tales of British Muslims being ostracised since Sept 11 by non-Muslims who were once their friends, or of Muslim children branded as terrorists in the school play-ground."

In the same article, he stated that he found an increase of articles about Muslims after Sept 11 - rising from 3,075 articles prior to the date, to 8,806 articles including the nine months after Sept 11: "...the changes were dramatic ...the overall increase was 286 per cent."

But even so, he said: "Newspaper readers, on average, are far more aware of Islam now then they were before Sept 11 - though that does not necessarily mean they understand it any better." (Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, June 24, 2002.)

Here in Malaysia, Muslims are now aware of being moderates or extremists - we never did before. What we once took for granted, we now view with the eyes of a people whose faith the world over is being questioned as a negative one. I look at the old men who go to the mosques and question their militancy or extremism. They look so at peace and peaceful themselves to be otherwise. But can appearances deceive?

Once, we made friends with people according to what they do, what we find attractive about their character and what we shared in common: the humane doctor with time for the poor, or that woman who is good at making chapattis. We did not consciously think of our friends as Indian or Chinese, or even if we did acknowledge their race and religion, it didn't matter all that much to us. The racial details came only after the fact that we were friends.

Do I want it to be otherwise? No.

Because, from the time I was little, it was the different cultures and religions of friends and neighbours that formed me and shaped my views, for good or for bad. It has made me become what I am today.

The call to prayers and the phrase "Allahu Akhbar" signified the faithful praying to a God who is great because of His Mercifulness and His Wisdom. Now foreigners see on television scenes of Muslims crying out "Allahu Akhbar" while they are throwing stones, or their arms up in their air, their hands clenched into angry fists, their faces distorted by anger.

What the world conveniently forgets is that these people did not become angry because they simply wanted to but because they cannot be grateful any more for what has happened to them or their families. There is, after all, a limit to patience.

True, Islam is a religion of peace and patience but how can you feel either peace or patience in your heart while you are mourning those who are caught in the crossfire of soldiers and have died needlessly or when your home is no more than a pile of rubble?

I treasure performing my prayers even more so now because I am free to do it, as I know the Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, the Baha'i, the Sai Baba followers and Christians feel just as free to perform theirs.

I used to write English literature essays beginning with the title Compare and Contrast and now I live that way: by comparing and contrasting my life with those of my non-Muslim friends, and by comparing too what we Muslims felt prior to Sept 11 and what we feel since then.

About 10 minutes ago, three non-Muslim men left our home after having had tea with my husband and myself. We had a goal in common: we were discussing a charity dinner that would benefit people defined by what ails them rather than the colour of their skins or the faiths that are in their hearts.

It is moments like these - when Malaysians of every colour and creed put their heads together for a charitable cause - that makes me feel so uniquely proud to be Malaysian.

And dare I say it? Despite Sept 11, I am still as proud of being a Muslim today as I was as a schoolgirl in England many years ago. * This column will appear every fort-night. The writer can be reached at:

©Copyright 2002, New Straits Times

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