By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Edge, 4 September 2011
This year is only the second time I am celebrating Hari Raya in Malaysia since returning in late 2009. I celebrated seventeen Raya – or Eid as we call it there – before that in the United Kingdom.
For six years before moving back, my family home was in Luton, a town about 50 kilometres north of London. Even though I worked in London, we chose Luton because the cost of living there is cheaper compared to the capital. Plus, there was a reliable direct train service from Luton to London Bridge, where my office was. So choosing Luton made sense.
With a population just under 200,000, Luton is not a very big town. The economy used to be better, with engineering and hatmaking being among the important industries. But with the decline of manufacturing the town’s economy is no longer what it once was.
Sixty five percent of Luton’s population is white. Muslims are not even 15 percent. The number of Malaysians living in Luton is statistically negligible. As far as I can remember, there were only around 15 families.
Despite the small percentage of Muslims in the population, there are many mosques scattered around Luton. I know of at least 13 mosques. There may be others that I don’t know about because some of these mosques are simply converted residential houses.
The mosques are built and maintained by the Muslim communities themselves. Government assistance is close to none. As a result, Muslims there become highly independent and creative. They would find some very interesting ways to raise funds, from organising jumble sales to holding fundraising picnics. Applying for government grants is just simply not in the dictionary. Some stricter Muslims in the mosque that I attended actually believe that it is unIslamic to be dependent on government for matters related to religion.
Despite Muslims being the minority in Luton, the level of acceptance shown by the majority population is respectable. This can be clearly seen on festive days like Eid.
For example, among Malaysians in Luton, it has become a tradition that we would do the house to house ‘takbir’ the night before Eid. Usually, what would happen is, as soon as the date of Eid is announced, we would quickly send SMS to each other, booking a slot for the ‘takbir’.
The older ones among us would lead the ‘takbir’ session in the first few houses. Usually these would be the more sombre sessions, with many of us remembering what it would be like if we were back home in Malaysia. But as we get later into the night, we would allow the younger ones to take the lead and the fun starts then. You would hear various tunes of ‘takbir’ from these British-born young Malaysians, with some of them very creatively mixing the Malaysian version ‘takbir’ with English accent and Bollywood rhythm!
The session would usually go on way past midnight. Just imagine how noisy it would be when 15 families with young kids move from house to house singing the takbir. But the non-Muslim neighbours very rarely complain, despite us clearly causing disruption to their sleep pattern with the noise that we create. In fact, some would even join in.
The worst part for the non-Muslim majority must be the first day of Eid. Mosques would be overflowing with people wanting to do their Eid prayer. Pavements are blocked. And roads are jam-packed with cars parked in double and triple layers causing delays for the non-Muslims going to work.
It doesn’t end there. Immediately after the prayers, we would once again visit fellow Malaysians as well as our local Muslim friends. After all, as Malaysians living abroad, friends are the closest replacement to families. I still remember how my young children were so excited every time Eid comes. It is a rare opportunity for them to spend time with their friends, and to make new friends, for the whole day.
Nevertheless, the disruption we caused were not only tolerated, but accepted by the non-Muslim majority. Some of them even joined in our religious celebration. I myself probably hosted more non-Muslims than Muslims in the open houses that I hosted. Despite all these, it is rare to hear the majority non-Muslim population complain about how we, Muslims, practice and celebrate our religion.
Reflecting back, it felt as if tolerance and acceptance, two very Islamic virtues, are alive and well in a country like Britain, whose majority population are non-Muslim. Better still, over there, it felt like religion is a tool to bring people of different faiths together.
That brings me back to Malaysia. I cannot help but to wonder, now that I have returned, will I live to see the day when religions in Malaysia unites rather than divides?