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Being Muslim Without Being Malay: The Chinese Malaysian Muslim Community

Located over 10,000 kilometres away from the Netherlands, Malaysia is home to 33 million people. Their ethnic and cultural backgrounds vary to such an extent that over 130 living languages are being used on a daily basis. When it comes to religion, the picture is no less complex: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, as well as numerous other belief systems, are ubiquitous under the protection of the Malaysian constitution in which the principle of freedom of religion is enshrined.

The same constitution also, however, equips Islam with special and effectively privileged status by establishing it as the state religion of the country. It is, indeed, quite reasonable to describe Malaysia as a Muslim country: according to the country’s official demographic statistics, 61.3% of Malaysians are Muslims. Interestingly, this number is almost the same as the percentage that ‘Malays’ (or, officially, ‘Bumiputera’), take up in the total population, which is around 62%. A vast number of Muslim foreign labourers also live an work in Malaysia but are often neglected in these numbers. As such, in Malaysia , being Muslim basically means being Malay, and vice versa.

An Obscured Community

For most Malaysian people who share this mindset, non-Malays basically cannot be Muslims without being alienated by their own community. To them, this also applies to the Chinese, who are the second-largest ethnic group in the country and account for more than one-fifth of the Malaysian population. Yet on a recent fieldwork trip to Malaysia, I encountered a thriving Chinese Malaysian Muslim community whose presence in Malaysian society is challenging such a traditional view and practice.

When referring to ‘a Chinese Malaysian Muslim community’, I am actually talking about two groups of people combined. The members of the first group are Malaysia-born Chinese who have actively adopted the Islamic faith but not the Malay ethnicity. There are multiple possible reasons for their being exempted from the Malaysian society’s tradition of identifying all Muslims as Malays. For some, this is simply a personal choice regardless of what others think of them: self-identification is all that matters, and as the number of people making the same choice grows bigger and bigger, a new community emerges and opens its arms to all that follow. Moreover, there is also a socio-political way of explaining the phenomenon: the Malaysian system favours Malays in political, economic and educational spheres over Chinese and other ethnic groups.

For years, the authorities have had to strictly limit the opportunities for non-Malays to be naturalized as Malays (by marrying a Malay, for example) and to become entitled to all the advantages enjoyed by the latter. So, to some extent, when a few Chinese choose to convert to Islam while not claiming the advantages of being a Malay, it is at least condoned by the authorities—in certain cases, it is even endorsed by some Malay social elites who have close connections with the authorities. We may safely assume that the attitude of the government has more or less subtly influenced the way people think of these voluntary Chinese converts.

The second group consists of Chinese Muslim immigrants whose ethnic and religious identities have long been established before their arrival in Malaysia. In the above-mentioned first group’s attempt to expand the Chinese Malaysian Muslim community by preaching to non-Muslim Chinese and by reinforcing communal ties between Muslims of Chinese origin, these immigrants are their natural allies. What also contributes to the building of connection between the two groups is the shared religious sectarian affiliation of some of their leading figures (for instance, there are two renowned leaders of the respective groups who are both Salafis).

Generally speaking, what I witnessed in Malaysia is a vigorous community that has fairly deep roots in the country. Nonetheless, Chinese Malaysian Muslims are relatively small in number and are as yet unable to wield significant political influence. The shared sense of belonging to the same religious community does not always translate into a de facto merging of the two groups mentioned above, however. This is because of their different cultural backgrounds and different Chinese dialects. The Chinese Malaysian Muslim community therefore still has some way to go if it wants to present a unified position in Malaysian society.

Jiang Xiaokun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. His research focuses on Salafism among Chinese communities in China and Malaysia. Photograph: a minaret in Masjid Negara, Kuala Lumpur (copyright Jiang Xiaokun).