Being a Muslim (and Practicing) in a Western Country

When I went to an Indonesian mosque in Den Haag to break my fast, I was left with astonishment. I was told to sit in a room designated for children and youngsters — there were perhaps 30 pupils or even more crammed into a small room! Few minutes before we broke our fast, suddenly a guy (whom I knew) led us to recite salawat and a number of short surahs from the Qur’an. I saw from little children to young adults excitingly recite the Qur’an together. They remembered it and believe me, there were no better words to express it here until you experienced it yourself! I was speechless. I never saw anything like that before (except in Muslims country of course!). They really did impress me! Yes, many of them were Indonesians. But most of them were born in the Netherlands or had lived in this country for years. They all spoke Dutch to each other, having to slip some Indonesian sentences between their conversation. Many of them went to Dutch school (not Indonesian or Islamic school). But they fasted, recited the Qur’an by heart, and prayed. In a country where everything is literally legal and accepted except what they call “hard” drugs, it really is hard to be blended in and absorbed to the society and at the same time be committed to our religion. There are too many challenges. It takes a courage for some people to admit that they don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and will never have sex before marriage AND be proud of it. It takes a great courage to be different from the whole society. Some people succeed in that. But some could not resist their desire and temptation.

So after my visit to the mosque, many questions popped out of my mind. How could they do it? How could their parents do it? I had lived in an extremely conservative Saudi Arabia for most of my life, so practically I was entirely not exposed to such things that were against my religion. Our everyday life was surrounded, influenced, and “ruled” by Islam. The society expected me to hold my religion closely and be devoted. My parents did not need to worry about a lot of things… for example with whom I made friends or where I went to. I must say that it made their life so much easier. I felt like I had been given so much freedom from my parents, but not from the society. But it would have been different had I grown up in a country like the Netherlands, where the majority of the population are either atheists or agnostics. Even when I moved to Jakarta for high school, my parents were so worried. Yes, the majority of Indonesians were Moslems but that didn’t make my parents sleep peacefully. We had (and still have!) a lot of problems in the society. The clash of eastern and western culture, along with all Hollywood sexy images influence our way of life, creativity, and thinking. But the problem is that people tend to hide those problems. People tend to ignore them and refuse to talk about them. So those problems become even much bigger problems.

I have met several people (and heard many stories similar to this) who have lived in western countries for a very long time and have expressed their concerns over their children’s life/future/behaviour/etc. It is kind of a clash between our religion, the culture back in our home country, and the culture where we currently live in. In western countries, children tend to express their opinions bluntly. Doing something they believe in is definitely more important than doing something for other people and not feeling good about it. They are used to grow up in an “ignorant” society, where people don’t give a damn about other people’s business. Therefore, they feel freer to do what they want and often do not care about the judgments of other people. Parents cannot control their children’s life in the same way as most people in Indonesia or in Moslem countries. It is not easy to educate and influence your kids on something that cannot be seen and touch (i.e. believe in God). They would wonder, nobody cares about it, why should I? It is certainly not easy to expect your kids to behave the way our religion or culture wants. They will behave and think differently because they live in a country where you have the right to do whatever you want and no one has the right to stop you. No one would accuse you of committing adultery when you have sex with someone before marriage. No one would arrest you, ignore you, or talk bad things about you when you live together with your boyfriend. No one would talk behind your back when you work as a prostitute in Red Light District. Everything is a matter of choice. You are the only one who is capable of controlling what you can or cannot do. Everything is in your hands.

My parents always told me that it is very important to develop, grow, and build up a child’s faith since a very young age. Once it is built strongly, it will stay with you forever — of course, that depends on a lot of things ( an environment where you eventually live, your behaviour/emotion, your way of thinking, etc). For example, my mom enrolled me into Qur’an studies class where I had to attend in the afternoon after my school. We (the kids) were also encouraged to read the Qur’an, especially during Ramadhan where we got some extra money if we could finish reading it before Ramadhan ended. Performing prayers together (instead of alone) also sets an example to the kids and encourage them to do the same. So, forcing is not the solution. Setting examples, giving encouragement, and having dialogues are the way to make them involved. Having a close-knit family is also very important. Their family is the first thing they would turn to when they have problems. It also makes them value, listen to, and consider your opinion rather than ignore it without any thoughts.

My friends always ask me which language I speak at home. Well, my parents never encouraged me or any of my siblings to speak Arabic at home. Yes, we used Arabic outside or at school, but not in our house. Even for my sister and brother who went to Saudi school and speak Arabic just like the natives do. They could speak Indonesian very fluently with Indonesian accent and they learnt how to read and write Indonesian letters since a very young age — taught by my parents. Though we had lived in Saudi Arabia for years (and went back to Indonesia once every 3 — 4 years in the first 10 years there), I grew up in an Indonesian home. I am grateful that my parents value the importance of introducing and “implementing” their culture to their children. When you think about it, well… ok, it’s nice to get to know the culture of where you originally come from, but what does it have to do with religion?

I must say that learning the “other” language is very important. Most of my friends who are at least from the second or third generation Indonesians in the Netherlands can speak Indonesian (with or without accents!). It will not only give them so much advantage when going back to their own country, but it will also give them the sense of belonging and confidence when interacting with the Indonesian Moslem community in the Netherlands. Why does it need to be with a Moslem community of the same country of origin?? Why can’t they just be with other Moslem community? Well, I see this a bit hard because the Moslem community in the Netherlands (and other Western countries) are not entirely mixed. When you go to a Turkish mosque, the sermons, speeches, etc will be conducted in Turkish. The same goes for the Moroccan mosques. When you attend a religious event without understanding its true meaning, what’s the point of attending it then? It’ll definitely discourage you to participate because you’ll feel practically isolated from the rest of the people. The ability to speak your mother’s tongue also enable you to be more active and involved in the community.

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine who had been to one of the Islamic schools here. She told me, “yes, of course, they were all in hijab and learnt Islam at school, but who knows what they had been doing outside of school?” There were some students who had even had sex though they were barely in high school. It’s a reality that can’t be ignored, really. These children were perhaps confused between what they had been taught at home and school and what the society around her viewed these kinds of issues. It’s scary yet real. It freaks me out! This reminds me of a good friend of mine who once told me, “if I meet a person growing up in a country in the Netherlands and still holds her religion very closely, I’ll look up and give applause to his/her parents. They really know how to teach their kids.” Can’t agree more!

I am not a parent and I haven’t even married yet so this post is just based on what I learnt from other people. My main objective of writing this post is to share what I have seen and observed from my friends and family friends who have lived here for so long. I have talked to a lot of people about this and it’s an interesting topic I should say! One day I’ll be a parent too and I must not be ignorant about this issue. I must be prepared. Who knows where I’ll end up living in! :-S It really scares me out and it makes me realise that having children and taking care of them is not easy!

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6 Responses

  • Akmil

    May God Peace and Mercy Be Upon Them. I live in Kuta Bali, an island of party by western people. I know its not easy to keep “istiqamah” and be a good muslim in a circumstance which is full of temptation like the country you live now. Salute and respect buat saudara2ku yg ada disana.
    Good Posting 🙂

  • Dear Amelie,
    I always like your writings, it’s thoughtful and inspiring. Thanks for sharing this great experience!

    have a great day!

  • amellie

    Akmil & Rethar: thank you 🙂

  • Coming from Ireland, which used to be a staunchly religious country, coercian and blind faith is counter productive imo.

  • qonit

    “So, forcing is not the solution. Setting examples, giving encouragement, and having dialogues are the way to make them involved. Having a close-knit family is also very important. Family is the first thing they would turn to when they have problems.” –> hey you’ve learned from your own family! great parents you have, and may you hold this dear in your heart.

  • jc

    luv this article very much, guess we are in the same shoes, having been living abroad and having to deal how to practice our religion. Indeed the key is basic education on Islam and how we are raised; in this case I’m glad that I had experience the Western World but yet still raised with eastern values (budaya timur) so it sticks to our attittude n how we perceive other’s life or how we counter temptaions . So back here, as parents I would prefer to enroll my kids in islamic schools; and yes you are absolutely right it is how you give example in your life not how you enforce them to do what you want them to do. May Allah be with you wherever you are, indeed Allah is always in our presence, in every breath we take.

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