Religious Freedom in a Muslim Country

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“You know, I hope you have a daughter just like you someday.”

The line played in my head on the tail-end of my flight. Her tone revealed this wasn’t a compliment. Instead, it was my mother’s reaction to being told I was going to a Muslim country alone for my vacation. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that popular media refer to Muslims as terrorist or jihadists, but like many Americans, my mom doesn’t want her daughter traveling alone to a Muslim country.

“You shouldn’t go,” she said.

I looked up as a voice came over the intercom.

“We are now preparing for landing. Fair warning: drug and human trafficking are forbidden in Malaysia. Penalty is capital punishment. Enjoy your stay and we hope you enjoyed our Malaysian hospitality.”

It’s not every day you hear the phrase, “enjoy your stay,” prefaced with, “penalty is capital punishment.” For that matter, it’s not every day you hear “capital punishment” prefaced with “fair.” But I couldn’t think about it; a comparable fate awaited me in my near future. I had a 12-hour long layover at KLIA.

After too much time spent looking at my shoe laces and getting ideas, I walked around and learned that the KLIA was voted the best airport in the world in 2003. But don’t get too excited (dare I say you didn’t), it’s still an airport. Everyone is like Sisyphus, pushing their burdens around; seemingly no end in site. I waited in line at a free internet kiosk in order to e-mail my mom to tell her I was safe. An Indian man, dressed in business casual, stood at the only working computer, apathetically scrolling through an article on Wikipedia. The woman in line in front of me voiced her frustration through heavy breathing. When she finally gave up and walked away, the man on the computer followed her irreverently with his eyes before returning to his article. I eventually gave up too, unsure if this was the type of guy to defend myself around.

I spent the night in the airport so that I wouldn’t have to buy a hotel room– that, and apparently because I’m a masochist. At 4 a.m., I was woken up by a guy playing his ring tones in my direction. As I walked away, he turned them off.

Through one bloodshot eye, I made it to immigration where the immigration officer looked around me toward the empty line.

“You’re going alone?” he asked.

“Yes, why? You think it’s unsafe?”

Validating my mothers warnings with one long, audible hesitation, he finally said, “Just don’t take a taxi.”

So I walked outside and actually considered turning around. But I didn’t. Or I couldn’t. Instead, I took an airport limo from KLIA to the LCCT terminal where I was to fly to Kota Bharu.

Nervous being an understatement, at this point I was checking every street sign, checking the rearview mirror, waiting for the driver to look back at me with a head full of ideas. But he never did. Instead he dropped me in front of the airport where the mysterious Malaysia, shrouded by night just a few hours before, was finally revealed to me.

I got out of the car hesitant and also surprised. There were women wearing heals and short dresses, travelers with their traveling hats, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians; a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a KFC, a McDonalds and a Starbucks. This place wasn’t scary. My nerves started to settle. It seemed less conservative than Korea–women were showing cleavage.

Once I arrived in Kota Bharu, I was greeted by a man holding a sign with my name on it. I piled into a bus, surprised to find myself surrounded completely by Europeans.

I wondered if Mariah Carey and Martina McBride know they’ve been to Malaysia. I wondered why everyone seems to be traveling in pairs. I wonder why the only empty seat is the one next to me…

Not one for subtle hints, it was only after a speedboat dropped me on the Perhentian Islands at Coral Bay and I saw not one person who wasn’t holding the hand of another that I realized– I am alone on a freaking island of honeymooners.

But at least I’m not on Nancy Grace.

That evening I walked to a nearby restaurant and stopped dead, horrified to read this sign:

“ABSOLUTELY NO BEER, LIQUOR OR WINE SOLD HERE.”

Damnit my mom was right!

Something about the words ‘absolutely no’ in reference to alcohol, in capital letters, conjures up more fear in me than ‘capital punishment.’ But after visiting the dive shop to figure out a schedule, I inquired if there was any alcohol on the island and, thank Allah, there was.

So that night, I got to know the dive instructors who work there. We took some beers and the island liquor, called “Monkey Juice,” and trekked through the jungle up to some abandoned chalets a few of them were squatting in.

And there, in the quiet candlelight under a jungle canopy of trees and stars, a Danish girl passed me a joint and I pondered the meaning of the word “trafficking.”

She had lived in Malaysia– in Kuala Lumpur– most of her life.

“It’s funny,” she said, exhaling as she changed the subject back to its original topic, “You go into a bar where Indians have taken over and it’s all this Indian music and everyone’s bopping their heads. You go to a bar where Europeans go and it’s all house music and cigarettes. “

“Yah,” agreed another, “This place is strange– so many different groups and never any real problems. It’s a great example of tolerance.”

In the company of my new friends, over the next few days I went diving; I wandered around the island, smoked shisha (hookah) and jumped off jetties way passed my bed time. Alone in the evenings, I would snorkel out to the coral and watch the fish come in to feed; so thick in some parts, I felt I was crowd surfing. I swam in the calm ocean at night and watched the plankton sparkle neon around me in the moonlight. I didn’t know it could do that.

A boat and then a bus would eventually take me back to the airport where on the way, I would wonder if Dido and Rihanna know they’ve been to Malaysia. As we drove, we passed open-air mosques with brightly colored Muslims, kneeling and praying for Ramadan. Some were inside and some were talking on the path outside. Other, non-Muslims were smoking cigarettes, casually watching from across the street during pauses in conversation.

The arm of the driver stretched across my field of vision and motioned to a tall statue of Buddha standing stark white over the palms.

“Look there,” he said. “It’s a free standing Buddha. Beautiful isn’t it? Many Chinese live here.”

The Hindu god, Rama, danced from his rearview mirror to the sway of the road, a little out of synch with Dido’s “Thank You.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”

Anne-Claire Siegert
Anne-Claire Siegert is currently living in South Korea. She is a journalism graduate from The University of Tennessee and has worked as both a photographer and journalist for print and web in the U.S. and in Italy. Her passion is travel and so currently, she is teaching in Seoul, South Korea where she funds her own adventures until the day she can make it as a travel writer. She loves red wine, reading and, most of all, Kris Kristofferson.
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