During the entire month of December, the Foundation received a deluge of Christmas cards from well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) Christians. They weren't very imaginative in their messages--usually all that was scribbled inside the card was an assurance that "Jesus loves you!" or that "We're praying for you."
Included in one such card was a digitally remastered photograph of Jesus on a cross with his skin burned off. I'm still not sure how sending such a photo was supposed to inform us about the sender's loving and almighty God.
(Of course, if Jesus loves us so much, then we must be doing something right.)
The whole thing amused me, because back home, nobody would think of sending religious cards to those who didn't practice said religion.
"Back home" for me is Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country sandwiched in between Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. It's a small country with a population of 22 million, and this population consists of three main ethnic groups. There are the Malay and indigenous people, which make up 58% of the populace; the Chinese, about 27%, and the Indians at 8%. Other ethnic groups make up the remaining 7%.
After the country gained its independence from British colonialism in 1956, the ethnic groups conferred and agreed that Islam would be the official religion, but everyone would be free to adopt their own religion (or lack of) and not be persecuted for it. Therefore, even though Islam is the official religion, citizens are not expected to be Muslim. Buddhists are not expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, nonMalays are not required to wear clothes that cover their arms and legs, nor are there Hindus who try to convert the nonreligious.
(One thing that does strike me as interesting is that the few people who go door-to-door in an effort to convert others are Christians. I have yet to see a Buddhist or a Taoist try to sell his or her religion door-to-door.)
There's no denying that religion plays a big part in Malaysia--the main religions consist of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and to a smaller extent, Christianity. If you glimpse our calendar of national holidays, more than half of them are religious: Aidilfitri (Muslim), Vesak Day (Buddhist), Thaipusam (Hindu), Deepavali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), etc. The holidays apply to all public/government operations, so even though Deepavali is a Hindu celebration, all public workers get the day off, no matter their religion (or lack of).
Before the main religious holidays, it is common practice to send greeting cards to friends or family who celebrate the event. If you were a Muslim, friends would send you Aidilfitri cards during the Ramadan season. If you were Chinese, you'd receive Chinese New Year cards in February (although Chinese New Year is actually more cultural than religious). The senders don't even necessarily share the same religion; a Muslim could send a Deepavali card to a Hindu friend, etc. The point of sending cards is to convey goodwill, not to cheerfully inform the recipient that "Jesus loves you and we'll be waiting to receive you with open arms once you decide to return to the true path."
During religious holidays, the celebrating groups have an "open house." A hosting family has all their friends and families visit, regardless of race and religion. Some Malays/Muslims restrict their visits during celebrations like Chinese New Year, since pork is often served in Chinese households and Muslims cannot eat pork. However, I know of several households that make the extra effort of cooking certain dishes separately, so that their Muslim visitors can partake in the feast without having to worry about eating something against their religion.
Winter Solstice isn't a celebration back home. This is partly because nontheists are such a minority in Malaysia, but another reason is due to the fact that our tropical climate is the same all year long. The days don't grow shorter or longer, so there is no symbolic representation of the sun's "rebirth."
Nontheists may lack a holiday on the calendar, but in my experience they could always tell friends about their nonbelief and not expect any backlash for it. When a friend of mine commented in passing that she was a freethinker, the most she got was an "Oh" from others before continuing the conversation. I suspect most people assume freethinkers just practice a different kind of "belief." They receive the same treatment of tolerance that others do.
Officially the government lists "belief in god" as a virtue for citizens. Pledges cited in schools, as well as the national anthem, include the word "god." Because of its "freedom to choose any religion" clause, though, the government cannot persecute citizens for their religious or nonreligious beliefs. For example, in rural parts of Malaysia, many indigenous tribes practice shamanism. The government cannot order them to convert to Islam, even though Islam is the national religion. Unless a person is from the Malay ethnic group (in which case that person is expected to be Muslim), there is no expectation of anyone being of a certain (or any) religion.
Religion weaves in and out of our daily lives (sort of like the U.S., you could say, whether we like it or not). We have both a justice system and a syariah court system; however, the latter only applies to Malays and Muslims, and tries them according to Islamic law. I've always been glad not to be subject to syariah law, because for one thing, if you are caught being in the same room (or enclosed space) with a person of the other sex, and both of you are unmarried with no chaperones around, you are committing a crime and can be tried for it. Even if you have a group of peers with you (sometimes that becomes even greater cause for scandal). Public spaces are fine for socializing, but heaven forbid a group of Muslim teens hanging out at home by themselves.
Religion maintains an uneven balance, sometimes intruding outright, sometimes not even an issue. Take the public school I attended, for example. As Islam is the "official" religion, the weekly school assemblies always include a minute of Muslim prayer read by one of the Malay students. NonMuslims were not required to say it, but we had to remain silent "out of respect" for our Muslim classmates. Unlike some U.S. schools (or like some U.S. schools), we didn't have the option of leaving the assembly while the prayer was being said.
Two or three times a week, classes are divided in two: the Muslim students would study Islam, and the nonMuslims would study (literally translated) "moral education." This essentially consists of the same old syllabus from primary school (grade school to Americans) to high school, with little variation in questions: "If you find a wallet with money in it, what would you do? If you turn the wallet over to the police, would this be an example of (a) honesty, (b) kindness, (c) purity of heart?"
So even though religion has a presence in public schools, these schools aren't considered "religious schools" because the religious education that takes place in the classroom only affects Muslim students. The other students were not required to study the subject. My high school class, by chance, had no Muslim students in it.
Also, in every public school, there is a surau, a Muslim prayer room. I used to think (with considerable amusement) that it was for "emergency prayers," when one would suddenly get the urge to pray and had to race to the surau in order to do it. However, as far as I can recall, none of my teachers or classmates ever missed a class "because they had to pray," nor would such an excuse have been acceptable. Also, considering that Muslim men and women are not allowed to pray together, it would have been more convenient for them to pray at home rather than suffer the hassle of reserving the room or creating a prayer schedule. Therefore, the surau was mostly used by those who were still in school during prayer time, after classes were done or before they had begun.
For the schools in my district, there were no classes during Friday midday periods, as that was one of the five prayer times for Muslims. School morning sessions had schedules ending around noon, and afternoon sessions wouldn't begin until after 1 p.m., allowing Muslim students to pray at home or in a mosque. This was easier than requiring students to pray at the school surau, since the room could only fit a few people at a time.
Aside from that, though, religion didn't pervade the classroom much. Everybody learned the same subjects, unless if it was a language class or the Islam/"moral education" class. We had no Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu religionists coming into the classroom to preach, and I'm certain that if any tried, the teachers would have been piqued (they guarded their allotted classtime jealously).
Neither did the teachers try to push their religious doctrine on the students, because of the tolerance and "everybody is entitled to their own beliefs" clause. Plus it would have been difficult for them to try to convert a class full of diverse races and religions.
At one point my high school class consisted of 80% Buddhists, so despite Islam being the official religion, my Muslim teacher would have definitely failed if she had tried to promote her religion to us.
We also have convent schools, and a long time ago its teachers were Christian nuns. Not anymore. These schools are now run by the government instead of churches. Despite still being called "convent schools," these schools have no classes on Christianity, and do not subject students to religious indoctrination.
In short, there are no public religious schools, other than privately owned ones. However, one instance in which religion was emphasized in the curriculum does come to mind. Students in Form 4 (10th grade to Americans) have to study a history chapter dedicated to Islam, learning its origins, various prophets, architectural influences, scientific contributions, etc. This chapter consistently bugged me during my school years, because in the rest of the textbook, other religions were only given a cursory half-page introduction. The only consolation I had was that it didn't try to push readers into converting, although it did do its best to highlight the wonders of the religion (I suspect they left out much of the unpleasant details).
The extent to which religion (Islam in particular) is practiced varies according to location. In urban areas, such as Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital, not all Muslim women wear veils over their heads. Many wear T-shirts instead of clothes covering their limbs, as required by the Koran. In rural areas and villages, however, Malay traditions are strongly heeded, and the women cannot be in the presence of men without covering up appropriately. While not as restrictive and as much of a hindrance as the Arabic burqa, these veils and clothing can be stuffy in our hot and humid climate.
Fortunately, Malaysian women do not suffer a "second citizenship" status that some Islamic nations impose on the female sex. We work, we earn our education, and we are not confined indoors. However, Muslim women are subject to syariah law, which among other things, states that a husband can divorce his wife by telling her so three times.
Religious extremists do exist here, just like they exist everywhere else. In the state of Kelantan, the ruling political party is PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia. This is the group that wants Malaysia to be a "true" Islamic nation, instead of the moderate and modern kind of Islam practiced in other parts of the country. This is the group that wants the full syariah legal system in practice, meaning thieves would have their hands chopped off and adulterers would be stoned to death. They have already banned discos and karaoke clubs, and Kelantan women must wear a veil over their hair and not wear jeans.
I remember going to a Kelantan shopping center once, and standing at a check-out lane with my mom and other women. The other check-out lane had only a few male customers, but none of the women in our long line went to that one. My mother explained that here, men and women were required to stand in separate check-out lanes. The concept seemed inane to me, considering that at that time of the day, few men visited the shopping center. All those women could only use one particular lane until the male customers were gone from the other lane!
Another incident I recall was of a billboard poster of a locally made movie. I had seen that poster several times back in my hometown, and it appeared innocuous enough: a close-up of the hero and heroine's faces. In Kelantan, however, I saw the same poster, except a white cloth had been stretched and pinned over the heroine's hair to imitate a veil.
Kelantan's tourism revenue may suffer because of such growing extremities, as well as because of visitors' fears and discomfort. The BBC once reported that female tourists here felt uncomfortable being stared at when they wore shorts and sleeveless tops. I recall walking through a Kelantan town in a close-fitting top and jeans once, and although I was ready to stand my ground had anyone objected to my attire (which they technically had no right to do, of course, since I was not Muslim), I did feel a brief twinge of wariness.
As tolerant as my experience of religion has been in the past, sometimes I wonder how long it will be before some of PAS's right-wing mindset seeps into the federal government. It concerns me whenever my friends back home tell me about the dress-code specified by the local public universities. Students--female students, in particular--must wear clothing that covers their legs (and in some cases, their arms). This is an Islamic practice, but in Malaysian public universities, it extends to nonMuslims as well. Fortunately I attended a private college, otherwise I would have rebelled strongly against the dress-code.
I'd like to think the worst-case scenario would be that everybody would have to wear headveils, but I wouldn't count on it. Religion has a way of worming into our lives and making us think we're the better for it. Once governments start specifying a certain god to look up to and constructing its laws all around it, you know we're in trouble.
Lynn Lau graduated last May from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Communication Arts, and is currently the Foundation's assistant editor and web"mistress." Besides writing and drawing comic strips, she enjoys spending time with her pet cockatiel, Sin, who still refuses to learn to sing.