In the past 24 hours, three Malays have invited us out for drinks. And I’m not talking soda or tea, I’m talking going out for a beer. It can be difficult to square this with the fact that all three were also observant Muslims unless you understand how many Southeast Asian Muslims approach their faith. For many, Islamic rules such as those that forbid the consumption of alcohol are very personal affairs, not something that has to be legislated or that can be mandated by a religious ruling. Two of the people I was speaking to used the phrase "this decision is between me and God," and apparently, God is much more concerned with other things.
Of course, there is a tension here. Many Malays are much more observant of rules such as those that prohibit the consumption of alcohol. This is something that causes a bit of uncertainty within the Muslim community. There exist bodies such as the Federal Territories Department of Islamic Affairs (known by its initials, Jawi) that go around trying to police the behavior of Muslims. On occasion they have "arrested" Malays found to be drinking or dressing inappropriately at nightclubs. On other occasions, they have detained Malay teenagers for sitting to close to each other at the mall. But most urban Malays oppose Jawi’s interference in daily affairs of Malays, and in fact, the federal government has clamped down on Jawi for overstepping its boundaries as of late.
At any rate, it’s just interesting to see how this tension plays out in real life. Malaysian Islam is in general so moderate that it’s tough, when you get past the fact that there’s no pork in non-Chinese restaurants and that women wear headscarves, to remember that you’re actually in a majority-Muslim country. Then you get the experience of Middle Eastern Muslims who visit Malaysia as tourists. (This is apparently vacation time in the Middle East, as we mentioned about this time last year.) One guy I was talking to today kept bringing up how different Middle Easterners were from Malays, using terms like "impolite" and kurang ajar (literally, "insufficiently taught") to describe their behavior. For Americans (and we were two of them), for whom Islam is represented in the media essentially as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, the fact that there is so much variation within the Muslim world can be difficult to grasp. Then you travel to Southeast Asia, and it becomes so clear.