Malaysians look toward the West

Muslim nation puts forth an actively tolerant face

By Jon Bonné

A shopper walks past a beauty products poster Thursday in a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia, putatively a Muslim nation, offers every modern convenience and puts forth an actively tolerant face.
KUCHING, Malaysia, Oct. 17 — Just a few hundred miles south, workers brushed through rubble of a massive bombing that left over 180 dead in Bali, Indonesia’s harmonious tourist haven. But in this quiet Bornean city, with its subtle Muslim influences, the growing regional sentiment against the West seems a world away.
ON THE SPOTLESS riverfront here, girls in head shawls and long dresses mingle with classmates in short skirts and low-cut tops, sipping iced drinks and seeking a touch of breeze coming off the brackish Sarawak River.
The border of the Indonesian state of Kalimantan is just a couple hours drive, but if Indonesia reveals cultural seams frayed by Muslim extremism, this is the diametric opposite: a placid, friendly and multicultural Muslim society mostly interested in boosting its already hearty economy.
That is not to say the Muslim influence is invisible. A massive state mosque sits imposingly on the western end of the city, gleaming in the steamy jungle heat.
Tucked into the corner of each hotel room, the devout can find a pointer to Mecca. And perhaps because of Malaysia’s recent deportation of terror suspect Ahmed Bilal back to the United States, many folks here remain curious about a traveling Westerner’s intentions.
“Where you from?” asks the captain of a tambang, one of the rickety ferries that pilot all day across the river, a quick passage for just pennies.
“America. United States,” I reply.
“Ah, very good. You Muslim?”
The smile he returns is ambiguous, perhaps a sign of the country’s complex relationship with Islam.
Putatively a Muslim nation, Malaysia offers every modern convenience and puts forth an actively tolerant face. One Malay food court may proclaim its commitment to halal meat and no alcohol, yet the Chinese restaurant across the way does a steady business in pork noodles and beer.
Such is the balancing act Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has accomplished in creating the modern Malaysian economy, and with Mahathir’s pending retirement, many Malays worry that any successor can maintain that balance peacefully.
To that end, Malaysian police eagerly display their vigilance in chasing terror suspects, hunting not only those sought by the United States but anyone on a rather extensive list of potential extremists.
For Malays, these harsher slices of Islam threaten not only stability but also the prosperity that has vaulted them past many of their neighbors in economic clout and global prestige.
Here in Borneo, local officials seek to place a silver lining even on the Bali bombing, suggesting that a trip to the diverse state of Sarawak — with its mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and indigenous tribes — can serve as a safer and more relaxing alternative for those Anglos scared away from Indonesia.
That said, an unmistakable sense of frustration — not anger, yet — seems to be growing among a population unsure why one of its tightest allies has suddenly turned its back. Of special note is the delay by U.S. State Department consular officials in granting visas to residents of Muslim nations.
Though prices for tours to the U.S. have plummeted to absurdly cheap levels, with a package costing perhaps RM2000 ($550), travel agents can’t fill slots: The well-heeled Malay middle class has decided to forego the hassle.
“For visas,” a Malaysian exporter tells me on a flight back from Cambodia, “it now takes two months. Why did the U.S. do this?”
No easy answer exists to that question, nor to the many others posed by Malays to an itinerant American.
If the Bush administration took pains after the Sept. 11 attacks to show its respect for Islam, that message has become thoroughly clouded — in no small part by the growing sense of inevitability about a war with Iraq. Many Malays, including those in the press, see Washington broadcasting a stark anti-Muslim message in its relentless focus on Muslim nations in its war on terror.
As elsewhere, Malays are quick to link that hostility with fervent U.S. support for Israel. Protesters at a recent demonstration at the British embassy in KL, as the capitol is known, carried placards of Bush and Israeli leader Ariel Sharon side by side.
But largely, the United States — or at least its citizens — are seen as friends and allies, not least because U.S. dollars help float the Malaysian manufacturing sector and because U.S. culture pervades every corner of the nation — from malls blasting songs by Pink to the Starbucks on many corners of Kuala Lumpur’s “Golden Triangle,” a commercial hub that puts most Western cities to shame.
The effect is repeated several miles to the West in the KL neighborhood of Bangsar, where the streets are packed with young, charismatic Malays who effortlessly mix with gaggles of Australians, Brits and Americans.
The atmosphere is happily charged, with house music and bad covers of Bob Dylan floating out into the streets from neon-lined bars. Even in this urban proxy of Bali’s thriving party scene, just 24 hours after the Bali tragedy, there was no hint of fear. At the Red Chamber bar, patrons sat lazily on red velvet banquettes, with Malay and Westerner alike smoking tobacco from hookahs and drinking chilled red wine.
Even at the picturesque Jamek Mosque, a palm-shaded island of quiet in the shadow of KL’s massive commercial towers, a quiet American visitor is welcomed in with a smile and a wave.
As I sit barefoot in one of the open halls, taking some shade from the muggy tropical afternoon and jotting notes, my presence gets nothing more than a respectful, silent glance.
For now, then, the fragile balance between Islamic devotion and popular Western modernity seems to hold in Malaysia.
News of the incremental steps in the U.S. fight against al-Qaida and its allies remain splashed across both English and Malaysian-language newspapers’ front pages. A largely young, thriving population seems far more interested in their own prosperity and cultural heritage than in the ongoing American drumbeat of war.
Yes, Malaysians acknowledge, there may be terrorists somewhere in their midst. But that’s no different from a growing list of American cities presumably called home by members of al-Qaida and other factions who would seek to destroy the social fabric of the West. correspondent Jon Bonné is traveling in Southeast Asia.