Part Three: Brooke Benoit talks with Dr. Jamillah Karim, professor of religious studies at the all female Spelman College, “anthropologist at heart” and author, about her mini hijrah to Malaysia and how becoming an immigrant and Other will help Karim in her life’s work within the ummah.
What brought you, your husband and your two young sons to Malaysia, and is it the only Muslim-majority country you have visited?
Malaysia is the first Muslim-majority country that I lived in and visited. I traveled to Malaysia the first time in 1997 as part of a forty-member Muslim youth delegation, invited by the Malaysian government to see an example of Islam thriving in a modern society and to then apply our discoveries in our home communities. At that time, our group was impressed with the way in which the Malaysian government sought to apply traditional Islamic thought and law in ways that accommodate modern values. As ethnic and religious minorities in the United States, we found it especially compelling that Malaysia emphasized Islam as the majority religion at the same time that it embraced its religious and ethnic diversity. We also found the treatment of women in Malaysian society favorable. Women in traditional Muslim attire appeared to fully participate in the public sphere.
After that visit, I traveled to Cairo for an eight-week Islamic Civilization course, to Mecca and Medina for the hajj, to Fez as part a ten-day interfaith pilgrimage, and to Istanbul for my honeymoon. In 2010 my family lived in Malaysia for a year while my husband to attended the International Center for the Education of Islamic Finance (INCEIF). My husband has an MBA in finance from Georgia Tech, but he has always been interested in Islamic Finance and exploring how this alternative system could be applied in the American context.
I appreciated and embraced the display of diverse religious communities.
Was there anything markedly different about how Islam is presented in Malaysia compared to the other Muslim-majority countries you visited?
It had been over a decade since my first visit to Malaysia and with my travels and acquired academic background in the studies of Islamic cultures I did have insight of the unique features of Malaysian Muslim socity. Many of the features of this society that stood out back then reemerged during my recent residence in the country. Certainly, what makes Malaysia unique compared to all of the other Muslim-majority countries that I visited is its substantial non-Muslim population. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and other religious groups make up forty percent of the population. I appreciated and embraced the display of diverse religious communities. This appreciation is influenced, I am sure, by my American ideals of religious inclusion, but not even in America do you see minority religious holidays recognized with such high public profile in the way that you see them celebrated in Malaysia. I kept my eye toward the Chinese and Indian Malaysian experience in the country, as opposed to that of the Muslim Malays, which was definitely influenced by the fact that I lived in an upper-class expatriate area where a substantial number of Chinese Malaysians lived or owned businesses. My eyes were opened as I listened to non-Muslims describe their feelings about social policies that favor Muslim Malays and the recent proposals made by political groups to create laws that impose religious standards or preferences.
Living in Malaysia I gained a better sense of the ethnic and religious tensions and realized how the substantial minority presence actually contributes to Malaysia’s reputation as a progressive Muslim-majority. The diverse voices, even within the Muslim population, continue to push the society to think about and embrace ways to identify as a Muslim society in which religious minorities feel fully recognized and integrated in the society.
Do you feel that you practiced your deen any differently while living in Malaysia? How has living there improved your deen, if at all?
I loved the way in which decorations for Eid were put up well before the holiday and the way in which Eid was cherished as a time to spend with family. It reminded me of the Christmas holiday season here in the US. In the convert community in which I grew up, I saw Eid practiced as a community affair, but now with my generation having children and our Muslim families expanding, Eid is increasingly becoming more family-based, being experienced as a time for extended family to come together as well as community activities. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say that living in Malaysia made a great difference in the practice of my deen. Islam as practiced in the United States is so rich and accessible that I never imagined traveling abroad as a critical component to increasing my personal faith, except for the pilgrimage to Mecca, of course.
On your blog you have said that as a stay at home mom in Malaysia you had the unique opportunity to connect with women from all over the world and this would be the #1 thing you would miss when leaving Malaysia. This was a little surprising to me, after all we both come from The Melting Pot where diversity is loudly touted, so what was the difference that made these connections possible in what, I would think, is a less diverse country than the US?
In the states I live in a black neighborhood in a majority-black city, I work at a black college for women, and I attend a black mosque. Depending on where you reside in the United States, there may not be opportunities to connect with people from all over the world. In my book I highlight the ways in which many of us are tied to ethnic locations in the United States while occasionally we have the chance or we deliberately make an effort to cross ethnic boundaries. Living in a diverse expat area in Kuala Lumpur, I had neighbors from all over the world. I wasn’t the only one making this observation. I remember an expatriate from Australia talking about how wonderful it was to meet people from everywhere.
Before going to Malaysia you were very candidly told that you would experience racism in more “direct” ways than in the US. Why wasn’t racism a deterrent for going abroad and how was the racism different than what you experience in the US?
It wasn’t a deterrent because we wouldn’t let the scare of racism prevent us from missing a once in a lifetime opportunity. Perhaps too it is because we haven’t experienced racism directly like our parents and grandparents did to really be scared. When my husband mentioned to his aunt that people said we might face racism, she responded that we don’t even know what racism is as our ancestors had experienced it in the last century.
Racism in Malaysia was different in that it was direct, but not just towards black people. Malaysia is a very race and ethnic conscious country and it is understood that people are preferred in different situations based on their race. In the United States, if you call an apartment complex to inquire about leasing, no one’s going to ask you directly or immediately about your ethnic or racial background. Perhaps they will take cues from the way you speak or discriminate after seeing you, but they wouldn’t directly ask you if you are black or immigrant on the telephone as I experienced in Malaysia.
In your book, American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class and Gender within the Ummah, you explain some of the dynamics which keep the ummah in the United States from being more unified, especially among immigrant and African American Muslims. How has living as an immigrant in Malaysia evolved your perspectives of these dynamics?
I thought about this question a lot. I am now more understanding of the dilemma that immigrants face as they try to make it in a new country. How is it even possible to integrate into the new society without ascribing to some of the long-standing race and class dynamics? I still agree with the tone of my book as it celebrates those immigrants who’ve tried to resist wholesale assimilation into these racial patterns, but I’m more sympathetic to those who haven’t.
How long have you been back in the states and are you experiencing any of the repatriation discomforts? What, if anything, are you missing about Malaysia and do you have any plans to live abroad in another Muslim-majority country?
I have been back in the United States over two months and I’m experiencing hardly any discomfort. I’m very happy to be with my family and community. Of course I think back fondly on my time in Malaysia. I miss the friends that I made, especially those in the expat Muslim community. I’m missing the Malay family that took us in last Ramadan. I’m missing the food, sweet and savory and halal. I’m missing all the vacationing and tourist stuff we did in Malaysia.
No, I don’t have any plans to live abroad. I’ve always been exceptionally hopeful and excited about the great things American Muslims are destined to do here at home. I’m grateful to be among the first generations of Muslims in America. I look forward to making a contribution and continuing the legacy of establishing an American Muslim home and community for my children.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine (the magazine for fabulous Muslim women).