Gender & Identity, Life

My Malaysian community believes in Arab superiority so much, they’re trying to be Arab themselves

It puzzles me every time they say: “It’s Arab, so it must be Sunnah!”

During Eid this past year, I had on my beautiful traditional kebaya and songket, but most of the girls in my family were wearing an abaya, and the men were wearing thobes. It seemed like most people were more into Middle-Eastern attire than Malay attire and I could hardly remember the last time I’d ever seen anyone in our own traditional dresses and suits.

Middle-Eastern fashion isn’t a new thing in Malaysia, in fact, it has been in this country for quite some time. But it wasn’t as apparent until this year. Back in the day, abaya and thobe were only worn by old people, especially when they were in mosques or during religious activities. But it became a popular trend this year among the younger members of the Malay community.

But it is only fashion, no more than that. At least, that was what I thought.

I was wrong.

It reached the point where the people around me started ‘Arabicizing’ themselves.

Yes, that’s the term we use here for those people who are obsessed with becoming Arab. Currently, there’s a phenomenon called Arabization happening right now in Malaysia. This isn’t just about fashion.

Not long ago, I encountered a few classmates of mine who seemed to have Arabicized themselves completely. In the lecture hall when my elective class ended, I was about to leave when three girls who wore niqab and abaya, all in black, came up to me.  I was completely convinced that they were foreign students from the Middle East. But the moment they spoke, I was utterly surprised.

They were speaking in Malay, except there were few Arabic words in it.

“Anta is senior, right? Ana is a first-year student, we all are,” she said as she pointed her two other friends. “Can anta show us where is Multimedia Hall? Syukran.”

What on earth? I was dumbfounded.

These girls were definitely not from any Middle-Eastern country. They spoke in our local accent, including those Arabic words added. I was still perplexed but tried to keep my face straight. I helped them but deep inside, I couldn’t help feeling strange conversing with them.

Like seriously, what’s with ana and anta? I almost cringed when I heard they said it.

They weren’t Arab at all, not even mixed. I asked them about their hometown, but couldn’t bring myself to question them about the way they carried themselves.

This phenomenon is so peculiar to me, but not surprising.

My community looks upon Arab as a superior race. Since Arab was the first race ever to embrace the religion – Islam – everything associated with Arab including culture, lifestyle and even attire are seen as holy. Our prophet was an Arab as well. Any attempt on criticizing or questioning people for imitating Arabs is considered disrespectful to the religion.

To those engrossed in this phenomenon, everything related to Arab is Islamic. “Arab is Islam and Islam is Arab,” to them. By copying Arabs, they believe it will make them come across as an authentic Muslim. It puzzles me every time they said: “It’s Arabian, so it must be Sunnah!” How can they possibly confuse culture with belief? What’s more unbelievable is that they say that our traditional Malay dresses as non-Islamic. It seems to me, they’re losing their true identity by trying to be what they are not.

Believe me, I have nothing against Arabian culture. In fact, I admire it immensely. I enjoy eating tabbouleh and baba ghanoush, watching dabke dance and listening to traditional Middle-Eastern music. But I don’t believe in the superiority of one race over another.

Trading off my own heritage and traditions with this ‘more Islamic’ culture is completely unacceptable. Admiring the religion doesn’t mean we have to forsake our identity. I am a Muslim, and I don’t have to be an Arab for that. I can be a Malay, an Asian and still be an authentic Muslim without Arabicizing myself.