As you wander around Kuala Lumpur, it is easy to notice the influence of Islam everywhere. Some buildings such as the Petronas Twin Towers where built with an Arabian traditions in mind, and many shops and marketplaces close temporarily at prayer times. Most mosques are open for tourists, although avoid going at prayer times and remember to remove shoes and dress appropriately.
The official religion of Malaysia is Islam and three in every five Malaysians is a Muslim. By law, all ethnic Malays are defined as Muslim by the constitution. Added to the mix are a number of immigrant Indian Muslims and some Chinese converts. A Bumiputra (son of earth) who renounces Islam immediately forfeits his constitutional rights. But the reverse does not apply and other Malaysians who convert to Islam do not gain the same privileges as Malays.
Islam is central to Malay culture and a large proportion of Bahasa words can be traced to Arabic origins. However, in truth there are a huge number of influences within the language including Chinese, Portuguese, Tamil, Dutch, Sanskrit, French and English. But certainly Islam is so strongly identified with in Malaysia that many religious rituals have been absorbed by the national culture.
While Muslim women are generally expected to wear a hijab (headscarf) to conceal their faces this is not obligatory in Malaysia and many notable female politicians refrain from this practice. Certain institutions deem wearing headscarves as mandatory and similar restrictions are in place at certain Islamic sites such as mosques.
There are similar conservative expectations regarding public behaviour, with men and women discouraged from interacting socially without family consent or chaperones. Flirting and overt displays of affection are also taboo and even Western visitors engaging in such behaviour may provoke starring and comment.
Religious conflict in Kuala Lumpur
Despite successive governments insisting that Malaysia is a secular rather than Islamic state, there have been various incidents that have angered non-Malay people living in the country.
The Muslim majority has not always been supportive of the spread of Christianity with government offices less inclined to back the building of new churches. And reversely there tends to be a pattern of mosques being established in Muslim-minority areas. In late 2009 a church in KL was set on fire after a dispute over the use of the word ‘Allah’ to mean god in a general rather than strictly Islamic sense.
In 2004 and 2005 the Chinese community were in uproar after some ancient temples in traditionally Buddhist areas of Kuala Lumpur were demolished. And in 2006 more than 30 Hindu temples were torn down in Indian neighbourhoods, prompting fierce condemnation from religious leaders. The Malaysian government claimed the buildings were constructed illegally, but opponents retorted that they in fact dated back to colonial times and were simply not registered properly after independence took hold in 1957.
Other religions in Kuala Lumpur
Other than the Muslim majority, Malaysia is made up of around 20 per cent Buddhist and 10 per cent Christian with Hindus making up a little over six per cent. The rest is slip between Taoism, Confucianism and smaller traditional Chinese religions.
Many Chinese who list their religion as Buddhist do so only for bureaucratic convenience and actually adhere to smaller sects of belief. Other than the Hindu majority amongst Indian Malaysians, there are also a large number of Sikhs from the Punjab region and around 50,000 Baha’is of different races.