One of the most important lessons that living in Indonesia and Malaysia has taught us is the following: all Muslims are not Arabs. Of course, we certainly knew this in an academic sense before coming here, but we never really appreciated it fully and internally before living here. Few people in the West talk about non-Arab Muslims at all, and the vision that you get when you here the word "Muslim" in the Western press is not one of Bangladeshi, Somali, Turkish, or Javanese Muslims, but of Arab or maybe a Pakistani or Afghani Muslims.
It turns out, most Muslims here do not like being lumped in with Arabs. It’s considered by many to be a bit offensive. In fact, even though there are small but distinct Arab Malay and Arab Indonesian communities that you can find, they are a bit marginalized by the majority Muslim groups here.
We have had cause to think about this a lot in the past month. Ever since our friend Lindsey got here, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of Arab tourists around town. We used to see maybe one Arab couple a day here, these days we often see dozens. It must be vacation time in the Middle East, and Arab tourists love to flock to Malaysia because the food is good but definitely halal, the infrastructure is pretty modern, the weather is comfortable, and their petrodollars go far. We know that the tourists are from the Middle East because the women are completely covered in black, with only a tiny bit of their eyes showing. While many women here do cover their hair, complete covering like this is almost entirely non-existent among Malays.
We have three anecdotes that speak volumes about many Malay views of Arabs.
1. About two weeks ago I (TP) caught a cab from our local mall. In front of me was an Arab couple, and the man was very mad, yelling at the cab driver and then at his wife. They seemed to be negotiating where the couple wanted the taxi to go. After about a minute, the cabbie just hit the gas and drove a dozen yards forward, then motioned for me to get in. The couple was busy looking angry, but didn’t pay attention to me, so I got in and we drove off. The driver was a Malay guy named Othman bin Something. He was livid, just seething with anger, and proceeded to tell me that he could not stand Arabs because they never wanted him to use the meter in his taxi and tried to screw him out of money. He kept saying, "they are so rich with their tourist money but they never want to spend it for the regular people".
2. About a week ago I was getting a bottle of water at the 7-11…yes they have them here too. In front of me in line again was an Arab couple, and there were two cashiers, 20-something Malay women wearing headscarves. The Arab man could not speak English and he wanted to buy some Fisherman’s Friend cough drops, but he didn’t know how to say it so he just pointed and said "buy! buy!" The cashier helping him was a little frustrated and had a bit of an attitude. She commented to her colleague "Si Arab ini tak tahu cakap Inggris"–Mr. Arab here doesn’t know how to speak English, with the implication that she of course, like any good Malaysian, could. Her friend snapped back "Tanya isterilah!"–Ask his wife! UPDATE: I almost forgot, after this they both howled with laughter. This was quite a dig, implying as far as I could tell her disapproval of a situation where a husband does not let his wife talk to the cashier and seems to pretend that she does not exist. The wife, of course, was completely covered, and silent throughout the exchange. This is some bitter social commentary. You could read volumes from these two sentences from these two Malay women.
3. Today we caught a cab together amidst several Arab families. Like always we were waiting in line. Apparently, one of the families had insisted in trying to hop in a cab a bit further back in the line, with no avail, for the driver knew that there were others waiting in line and he was a nice guy. The same cab that he tried was the one who took us. When we got in, we drove past the family, and our Malay cab driver smirked at them and said "these Arabs hate standing in line" to us. His tone was utterly dismissive. We got to talking in Malay and he gave us some classic commentary on terrorism and George Bush.