Malaysian students in US pressured by fundamentalists

Courted and pressured by Islamic fundamentalists, some Malaysian students attending college in the United States are taking home an educational bonus neither their parents nor their government bargained on. In some cases the wooing and prodding has begun right at the airport when students arrive.

Mark Thackaberry, director of the International Student and Faculty Office at Northern Illinois University where there are 300 Malaysian students, says he can remember a few years ago when moderate and conservative Malaysian groups confronted one another at the airport over who would get to pick up the new students.

``Fundamentalists in effect capture the arriving student and thereafter pretty much write the ticket,'' notes Kenneth A. Rogers, director of Indiana University's Office of International Programs, who has experienced similar airport problems.

Feeling vulnerable to a new and vastly different way of life, many new students join the ranks of Islam Fundamentalists because they yearn for the familiarity of their own culture, US student advisers say.

Shortly after Norela Mokhtar arrived for her freshman year here at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) she began to make friends in the Malaysian community. A brief time later, she was attending ``religious awareness'' classes sponsored by Muslim Malay upperclassmen.

Miss Mokhtar, who looks like any Western student these days in her red ``Illinois'' sweatshirt and trim pink slacks, has stopped attending the classes. ``I have successfully kept myself away from them,'' she says.

``Religion is one thing. But when it's in such an intense state that there is pressure for you to change your life style and do things you really don't want to do -- for instance, marriage, which I'm just not ready for, I'd rather not associate with it.

``You have a tendency to cling to your elders when you first come,'' Mokhtar recalls of her arrival from Malaysia at Southern Illinois University four years ago. ``You're 9,000 miles from home and you have a tendency to -- what they say is -- `forget your roots.' ''

There are some 22,000 Malaysians on United States campuses, more than from any other nation except Taiwan, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). The majority of those studying in the US are Muslim Malays on government and private agency scholarships. Most are expected to put in seven years of government service in return for the college aid.

Why are young Muslim Malays abroad particularly susceptible to fundamentalist pressure? Why is it of special concern when they return home?

Malaysia's state religion is Islam. But, unlike Indonesia, which has had few comparable problems with its students in this country, it is not an overwhelmingly Islamic state. Indeed, Malaysia's government is frequently criticized by the conservative Islamic political opposition. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini has been a leading critic of its constitutional monarchy.

Privately there is some concern in the Malaysian government, according to foreign student advisers in this country, that Muslims influenced by Islamic fundamentalists will become more politically active and less tolerant of ethnic and religious groups when they return.

But publicly, Malaysian officials play down concerns.

``If fundamentalists are a threat to the government, we haven't seen it yet,'' says Hamdan Bin Sulaiman of the Malaysian Students Department in Chicago, an offshoot of Kuala Lumpur's Ministry of Education. ``We agree that students come over here and become more religious. The debatable thing is how extreme they are and how you determine when that becomes a threat.''

The Malaysian government in Kuala Lumpur has a particularly delicate role in trying to balance ethnic and national unity among the Chinese, Indians, and Islamic Malays who make up the country's diverse population.

It is clearly the militant, hard-sell approach that is most worrisome to both government and campus officials. On one Kansas campus a conservative Iranian student tried (in vain) to marry all Muslim Malay women students on the theory that it was improper for good Muslim women to be abroad alone.

Indiana University's Dr. Rogers says he had two Malaysian students in his office a couple of years back who were so ``terrorized'' by a fundamentalist Muslem group that they were afraid to go back to their apartment.

Here in Carbondale, SIU has nearly 800 Malaysians registered -- more than any other US campus. This small community caters to its Oriental visitors with five Asian restaurants and a pair of food specialty stores. Here, as on most campuses, the Malays tend to be excellent students who stick together and keep a low profile.

There is widespread evidence of a more conservative trend in dress and behavior in most Muslim countries, which educators are noticing on campus here.

SIU associate vice-president Charles Klasek says he has attended the annual celebration on campus at the end of Muslim Ramadan every year for 10 years. This year, for the first time, different foods were served to men and women who then ate separately in accord with the orthodox Muslim custom.

For many Muslim Malays the appeal of any religious move to the right has a direct tie-in with their traditional values and the shock of confronting what often appears as a more shallow Western value system.

``When you have bewildered young people in a new culture trying to figure out how to cope, it's very comforting to have someone say, `This is what you should do,' '' notes Dr. Norman Goodman, IIE's Jakarta-based representative for Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indeed, much of the pressure from conservative Muslim Malays takes the form of advice on proper Muslim dress and behavior backed by the threat of sending reports home to parents or the government.

Yet foreign student advisers and Malaysian students themselves generally say pressure has often been stronger in the past than now.

``My sense now is that if it's happening it's underground,'' says Alan Boyd, director of international services at Ohio University where there are 230 Malaysians.

``There's still a strong fundamentalist push, but I'd say things are moderating now,'' agrees Northern Illinois University's Thackaberry.

To reduce the problem, the Kuala Lumpur government is keeping Malaysian students at home to study with American professors during their first two years of college. Then, when they do go abroad, they they are distributed more evenly on US campuses. Malaysian scholarships are now restricted to 150 at any university.

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