In Malaysia, I visited a mosque – In Pakistan, I can’t

Published: June 23, 2014

Putra Mosque: Malaysia attracts tourists because you can explore the country freely, without having to camouflage yourself in the hues of a particular race, religion or caste. PHOTO: REUTERS

I am a Pakistani, but the first time I visited a mosque comfortably was in Malaysia. I was able to appreciate the house of worship without once feeling like an outsider, something I have never been able to do while living in Pakistan.

As a non-Muslim tourist in an Islamic country I felt liberated to reveal my identity to everyone, and I consciously did so just to relive that feeling again and again before I returned home.

In Malaysia, however, it is not until one utters ‘Assalamu alaikum’ can you gauge if they are Muslim. Although over 61.3% of the population are Muslims by law, the country has opted for a conscious uncoupling of religion from culture. With private and public lives clearly demarcated, nobody talks, dresses, breathes and broadcasts their faith in public. And it’s the country’s pulsating diversity of cultures that has become its asset for tourism.

While living in Pakistan, it is hard to even envision the peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims, in Malaysia it is a palpable reality. The country celebrates a number of major Hindu festivals each year and the festival of Thaipusam, the biggest after Deepavali, is actually a huge spectacle for which scores of Hindus fly in from around the world; this example of harmony is not evident on only a few occasions, it is intricately woven into the very fabric of society. The annual ‘Colours of Malaysia’ festival, popularly known as Citrawarna, is a platform where different ethnic groups in the country come together to celebrate their unique culture with dance and music. And their display of solidarity is so overwhelming it can actually put any Pakistani to shame.

Photo: Dilaira Mondegarian

Let alone a united Pakistan, can you, on your own, even imagine women participating in a dance parade dressed in a sari or shalwar kameez or a skirt in Pakistan?

But in Malaysia you can dress however you want without attracting any unwanted attention. You can go to a club and have a drink and nobody will judge or harass you because they respect the fact that everyone has a different set of beliefs and no one set of beliefs is better or truer than another.

“A bubbling, bustling melting-pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony,” is how the country projects and promotes itself on its official tourism website.

It’s not the rainforest in Taman Negara, the sandy beaches in Pahang, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur or other holiday ‘surprises’ with which they attract tourists, but the fact that you can explore the country freely, without having to camouflage yourself in the hues of a particular race, religion or caste. And the allure of multiculturalism is propelling the tourism market in the right direction as the country celebrates ‘Visit Malaysia Year 2014’ that is expected to boost their GDP by 6.8% to MYR168.9bn as reported by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). An industry which, if Pakistan does choose to give serious thought to, can hypothetically help reduce dependency on foreign assistance to a considerable extent.

Photo: Dilaira Mondegarian

Photo: Dilaira Mondegarian

For the sake of many traditionalists who might argue that beneath Malaysia’s glittering ‘facade’ is a growing wave of disconnect from its Islamic roots and other Islamic nations, the country openly endorses itself as ‘Muslim-friendly’ holiday destination. An estimated 4.3 million Muslim tourists visited the country in 2013, and approximately six million more will be paying a visit this year, as pointed out Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, during a seminar in February.

Photo: Dilaira Mondegarian

In fact, many non-Muslims who visit the country return home with spiritual enlightenment. At the Putra mosque, in Putrajaya, the tour guide claimed that some revisit Malaysia to convert to Islam, and this year, for the first time, a marriage ceremony will be performed at the mosque for one of the converts.

Photo: Dilaira Mondegarian

Pakistan has a lot to learn from Malaysia’s cultural mosaic that has not only catapulted tourism in the country but also cemented its status worldwide as a Muslim-majority nation with a progressive outlook. And while we may still be light years away from mirroring Malaysia’s model for peace and tourism, I guess there is no harm in at least talking about the possibility of it for now.

Dilaira Dubash

Dilaira Dubash

The author is the Commissioning Editor at the Express Tribune with a penchant for food writing. She tweets @DilairaM

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • نائلہ

    Just another reason why I wish Pakistan was secular. This country has SO MUCH to offer to the world. Islam is a beautiful religion; but faith is a personal thing and the state should have no influence on the religion of it’s citizens.

    @author Wonderful writeup!Recommend

  • Pooya

    I wish i could do the same, would love to go and sit inside a mosque. So peaceful and silent, makes you connect to God on a whole different level.Recommend

  • Realist

    What the heck? Havent you able to visit Faisal Mosque or Badshahi Mosque!! What are you talking about lady?Recommend

  • lalagee

    mALAYSIA OR THE land of Malays or we can say land of Indian converts is no different than pakistan…….……….Et please publish facts…Recommend

  • نائلہ

    She said sit ‘comfortably’ in a mosque. Remember, she doesn’t get to choose the title of the blog. Recommend

  • Feroz

    If you are trying to tell us that Malaysia as an country is an exception, it is not. It is Pakistan that is the odd country out where people are too scared to reveal their religious affiliation. Minorities in Malaysia can prosper and their population is not decreasing dramatically due to forced conversions. I think better comparisons are available.Recommend

  • Sami

    Express tribune must do some research before publishing the articles like these. My sister recently visited Faisal Mosque along with the a Foreign friend who was a Non Muslim. Nobody asked her friend about her religion So this accusation is baseless in my view. Yes there might be some mosques where the situation could be different but in general it is not a problem.
    We cannot state that everything is Perfect here but at the same time we cannot give sweeping statements that everything is imperfect here.

    Secondly the Author stated that “”Let alone a united Pakistan, can you, on your own, even imagine women participating in a dance parade dressed in a sari or shalwar kameez or a skirt in Pakistan?””””
    For the above statement i just want to praise the author’s ignorance. Yes skirts will not be culturally acceptable but Atleast as far as Punjab is concerned i disagree with the notion that women never dance. In Punjabi weddings in Pakistan you can see Women dancing during mehndi and Wedding celebrations.
    In Punjabi villages Kikli, Luddi, Sammi and Gidda are famous dances which are dedicted dances for women only. These dances are still Prevalent in Rural Punjab of Pakistan.

    Pakistan is a multi ethnic country and Generalizations like the above article does not make sense to me at all. Also a small research on different cultures in a Diverse country like ours is very much appreciable.Recommend

  • Kashaf

    Have you tried even walking into a mosque in Pakistan?
    What you feel can’t be helped but in Islam, a mosque is open to all. Recommend

  • Kartoos Khan

    This blog reminds me comments of US vice-Presidential candidate, “I can see Alaska from my house”. You can never know deep social divides by visiting couple of worship places and restaurants!Recommend

  • IHateDisqus

    Ethnicity trumps religion every single time.

    Mahathir Mohammed founded UMNO to foster Malay nationalism against the Chinese. Even though Malaysians are mostly Muslim, they give more importance to their ethnicity. Same as Bangladeshis.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    Are we talking about the same country that banned non-Muslims from saying the word ‘Allah’?

    Yes. Such modern, much coexistence. Wow.Recommend

  • Saad

    Please go and visit the Badshahi or Faisal mosques, I assure you no one will ask you whether you are a muslim or not.Recommend

  • PrasadDeccani

    I think it was – “I can see Russia from my house”. The vice-presidential candidate is from Alaska.Recommend

  • Adpran

    “As a non-Muslim tourist in an Islamic country”

    Malaysia is not Islamic country, but Muslim majority country which considered secular although not really secular, just like Indonesia (where I am living). Mosques in both countries are open for everyone. But if you felt very welcomed as non-Muslim foreign tourist in Putra Jaya mosque, it’s because some mosques in Malaysia and Indonesia are indeed, tourism object that often visited by non-Muslim foreign tourists.Recommend

  • MK

    While it is absurd of the country to ban the word “allah” but a lot of places have absurd laws like deeming it illegal to construct minarets or to wear a burka or a turban ( and those very countries are tourist hot spots) However looking beyond your desperate attempt to gain some mileage by making a populist comment, on a bigger practical consideration..malayasia is infact very tolerant and welcoming to people of every faith and orgin, the lady had a good experience there and i believe her she is only wishing if it were the same in pakistan. Maybe a non believe cannot say “allah” but they must be having peaceful ashura processions.Recommend

  • MK

    The comment was made by Sarah palin a republic candidate from Alaska and her comment was that she could see russia from house.Recommend

  • Waqas

    I live in Malaysia and I completely disagree with it as Malaysia is a racist countryRecommend

  • Mariam Malik

    Yup !!! Good article… Agreed!!
    For those of you who are in denial… Let’s not kid ourself here.
    I’m Muslim.. And I believe that I’ve felt more comfortable visiting churches in Europe than I imagine a non Muslim would’ve felt visiting mosques in Pakistan. I’m not saying we’re not tolerant of other religions, but a little more tolerance in our society would be nice. Recommend

  • Low Caste Hindu

    Low Caste untouchables Hindus can not even comfortably visit many brahmin run Hindu temples in India, because upper caste Hindus think lower caste Hindus are dirty and polluted. Almost no mosque will stop a non-muslim from visiting, as long as you are respectful.Recommend

  • Prashant

    Good one :)Recommend

  • Omair

    Lahore has Badshahi mosque and Wazir Khan mosque. While Islamabad has Faisal mosque. You could easily go to those and no one would dare to stop you.Recommend

  • omair

    Dogge meme? EwwwwRecommend

  • Parvez

    Malaysia was fortunate…..they got Mathair Muhammad as their leader and the country made many advances in his time and a positive direction was given to the country.
    Your comment on women in mosques in Pakistan should have been worded a bit more carefully…….it gave the wrong impression.Recommend

  • Talha Rizvi

    Here is my two cents before ‘Friends from across the border’ jump in.
    1) You can visit Mosques in Pakistan all the foreigners that visit faisal mosque, badshahi masjid are not stopped.
    2) Saris are not uncommon in Pakistan both of my Grandmothers wore them except the last few years of their lives when increasing age forced them to switch to Shalwar kameez same reason why my aunts and mother( Working woman) reduced wearing saris.
    3) From your surname I deduce you are Parsi well lady non-parsis can’t enter your temples either. rewind to Sixth standard and my teacher ( a Christian by the way) informed me this out of her own personal experience.
    4) Come into Sadar in karachi and you will find many Christian ladies dressed in skirts and old fashioned frocks. I was having dinner at the beach luxury hotel and a family walked in who seemed to b parsis and they were wearing skirts but nobody stopped them or ogled or harassed them.
    5) Finally a note to Indians. Whenever a person writes about her experience abroad they start ranting that muslims persecute minorities but are living in non-muslim countries! One even suggested that muslims are not fit to rule and must be subjugated!
    How about we apply your logic and say that Hindus hate muslims but have no trouble living in a muslim country and working in muslim middle eastern countries. Since I can’t fall to your level I won’t rub this fact in your face but the hypocrisy of Indians is staggering.
    @ Feroz: Yes we should learn from the peaceful and tolerant country of the world India how to behave!
    @lalagee: Every person is descendant of a convert no religion is confined to the region from it started for example: Christianity started in modern day Palestine. So stop harping about the same point. The ancestors of Pakistanis were non-muslims even I despite being Syed do not deny the local blood that flows due to intermarriages but top call Muslims traitors, cowards and descendants of lower class converts shows the inner hate of Indians.Recommend

  • Midhat

    In US we can go to any local mosque and it is very much encouraged by the imams and the scholars. All mosques have an area for females to pray and gather. Unfortunately in Pakistan we never had this opportunity. It was just a few select mosques like Faisal and Badshahi. Its a shame women in Pakistan can’t go out to pray in the house of God, although there is no such restriction in religion. The misogyny in our culture has taken over our religious rights as wellRecommend

  • Queen

    I have seen several foreign tourists who have visited Faisal Mosque, Badshahi Mosque, and Thatta Mosque, with complete ease. While on the other side, me and my friends were refused entry into a Hindu temple in Malacca, Malaysia, just because we are Muslims. I don’t think it is right to label countries on the basis of personal experiences.Recommend

  • Basharat Khan

    everybody is entitled to have their opinions, feel as they wish, we cant impose anything upon them, we can all learn something from one another, yes there may be some black sheep among the flock, but to stereotype a whole diverse country on those black sheep is unfair.Recommend

  • Sane

    No one stops you even if you are a non Muslim to be in a Masjid. You may go to Faisal Masjid, Islamabad, Badshahi Masjid, Lahore, Shahjahani Masjid, Thatta. A long list.Recommend

  • Adpran

    “Maybe a non believe cannot say “allah” but they must be having peaceful ashura processions.”

    Ashura processions?. Shi’ism is illegal in Malaysia!. But compared with Pakistani Muslims, Malaysian Muslims attitude toward non-Muslims is far better.Recommend

  • Anoop

    Women being sentenced to caning. A scene from Swat similar to this shocked Pakistan. But, this is not Pakistan

    Not Afghanistan, not Somalia, not Saudi Arabia.

  • Rafeeq

    India must allow blanket nationalities to persecuted Hindus from Malaysia and Indonesia and those countries must allow the same to the Muslims in India.

    Guess which way the traffic would be more pronounced per capita :)Recommend

  • JackZFlipper

    If you think Malaysia is a modern and progressive muslim country, then you should probably just convert to islam and stop embarrassing your current religion.Recommend

  • Faisal

    Good article from a non Muslim perspective.
    As a Muslim, are you implying mini skirt dance parade should allow in Pakistan ? By the way I would really enjoy that.
    Of-course you will also feel more safe in Europe rather than in Pakistan. What you say about that ?Recommend

  • Anoop

    Lower Caste Hindus can become Prime Ministers but can’t visit Temples(Modi is a member of a Backward Caste)?

    Can you tell me which Temple in India does not allow Lower Caste people?Recommend

  • BlackJack

    This is the problem – you are happy with misery being inflicted to your own as long as it is inflicted on others as well.Recommend

  • shiraz

    spot on bro…Recommend

  • shiraz

    spot on….nice one bro.Recommend

  • Prashant

    No She is not talking about mini skirts in Pakistan. She might want to say that let the women wear burqa as long as it is their wish but also give her the space to dress the way she likes.

    She might also be saying that let the Muslims propagate their religion but let the very few minorities who are left in your country not feel threatened. Let the Shia’s go to their mosques without getting bombed, let the Ahmedis be allowed to call themselves Muslims.Recommend

  • Mangoman

    I started reading this blog, but then I realised it was just another one of “those” . When will people realise, though obviously not referring to the author of the blog, that Islam doesn’t particularly allow for the country to preach values such as clubbing and drinking openly. While saying it’s wrong for people of your own religion to do it, wouldn’t it be hypocritical to allow people of other religions to do so. While I realise Pakistan’s approach to Islam is completely flawed, I don’t feel Malaysias is the perfect role model.Recommend

  • Duahs

    Sorry to burst the bubble, but most of Shites in Malaysia are considered illegal, they cannot bury their dead openly because the Government does not provide provision for Shia burials and Malaysia is also having an internal genocide against Shias, other minorities.

    But, never the less, i respect your opinion and I am glad you visited mosque in peace, unlike 99% Muslim women in Pakistan who face problems. If you go alone or with other women, always pakistani nonsense sharia brigade is ready to interrogate you from entrance to minaret in mosques etc etc.Recommend

  • Duahs

    I know of Shias who were persecuted by Malay government, alive and dead and there are no Ashura processions. I have many problems with my country, but for the sake of bashing, let’s not bash around Pakistan please.Recommend

  • Mj

    By Malaysian law, a Malay person has to be a Muslim.

  • abhi

    Malaysia has its own set of problems, They depend on tourists and have made some relaxations from outside. There was big controversy that their minister should greet the citizens on Diwali or not, and recently they banned the use of Allah by non-muslims. Also they have sharia courts which can overrule the judgement by normal courts .This doesn’t make Malysia a very tolerant country.Recommend

  • abhi

    This is realy brave of you to accept that you have some blood of natives running in your veins. I think only consolation is that you are a Sayed and that kind of neutralizes the other shortcomings.Recommend

  • Talha Rizvi

    abhi this is the only thing you gained from my comment? Nothing else!? Really some people are so bigoted that it is no point in arguing with them. As for native blood 90% of muslims in Subcontinent are converts. Nobody except a couple of fanatics deny this. This includes people like the Hindu extremists and the muslims extremist who want us to cut all ties with the subcontinent. Both are condemnable.
    @ shiraz: Thank You.Recommend

  • Rafeeq

    Guess what they still heavy investments in Technology from Giants like IBM and Intel (penang). And yes there are truckloads of people trying to get it, including the Tamils who have a very strong base. If it wasn’t really prospering and tolerant, this would not have been the case.
    India has its set of problems too. There are scores of big and small communal strife every now and then brutalizing tens of hundreds of people every year. There are scores of organizations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal who constantly spout venom against minorities and its an open secret that their foot soldiers are ever ready to kill and maim. In that aspect Malaysia does not have any murderous thugs (a la defenders of the old guard) who indulge in rioting and killing every now and then.
    Yet things are moving forward in India. So do they very much in Malaysia. In fact the country’s HDI is one of the top 3 in east asiaRecommend

  • abhi

    Other things in your comment have been written about so many times that it is really not worth the effort of me responding and then you responding back. This was something new and I appreciate your honesty.Recommend

  • Hinduja

    you ever heard of bumipuera non bumiputera. No, didnt think so. Maybe some of your indian friends could give you some guidance on that.Recommend

  • priyanka

    bro this situation was present centuries ago not now!!!Recommend

  • Solfrid

    I visited Faisal Mosque in Islamabad 2013, and only men were allowed inside to pray. Women had a tiny spot outside the men’s big prayer room inside.Recommend

  • TheDatok Aziz

    Local Malaysian non muslim wont allow to visit mosque.. they only open for tourists..Recommend