Interfaith relationships. What do you think of when you see these two words?
Do you think to yourself, “Oh, it’s good for understanding different religions and traditions”, or does your face crease together in a big frown and say, “It’s not going to be easy nor is it going to work out”?
If you’ve gone for the latter, you’re probably right in feeling that way. In Malaysia, the issue of converting to another religion is quite a thorny subject for couples, especially for Muslim-Non Muslim (MNM) relationships, where the non-Muslim partner is legally obligated to convert to Islam after marriage.
In this article, I spoke to one such couple to hear their story on how they navigated through a multitude of challenges, ranging from family disapproval to their struggles in reconciling their religious past in the bid to be in a relationship that lasts for a lifetime.
‘Our relationship? Contentious and unfortunate’
Meet Carla and Abdullah*, two young adults who have been dating for 2.5 years. Now, some of you might relate to them as they both do not share the same religion — Carla was a Christian, while Abdullah was a Muslim.
Why “was”? Well, it turns out that Carla and Abdullah no longer practice the teachings of their former religion and identify themselves as agnostics.
But religion aside, many often assume that as long as both parties love each other, all’s well in the world, right?
Unfortunately, reality is, more often than not, less pleasant and it was no different for Carla and Abdullah.
“Our actual relationship dynamic is like any other normal couple. We talk about major life decisions, financial management, shared goals, disagreements, etc. We’re happy with each other. However, our relationship with external forces is contentious.”
“We know that countless MNM couples are battling against the country’s institutions which refuse to legalise MNM marriages,” says Carla.
She added that the burden of conversion is mostly placed on non-Muslims, where the odds are often stacked against them that they are compelled into converting just for the sake of maintaining the relationship.
Even if I do convert, I know I’m just another Muslim statistic added to the tally. That’s the bitter truth.
For Abdullah, he shares the same frustrations over the matter of conversion after marriage.
“In this day and age, love does not conquer all. It is not simply societal norms, cultural differences or even politics; it is deeply ingrained and deeply set notions so inherently tied to religion and life at large that makes an interfaith relationship difficult at best, and entirely impossible at worst.
“No matter how much the two align internally on their views pertaining conversion, it is inevitable that the world will be against you,” he says.
A bittersweet mix
On a more positive note, Carla and Abdullah have both concurred that they had the opportunity to enjoy the cultural aspects of each other’s race through the various holiday seasons and cuisines.
They also have been able to exchange their religious views and overcome language barriers on a day-to-day basis, creating a more homogenous and resilient relationship for the both of them.
However, Carla revealed that she was also subjected to a host of judgmental and borderline offensive remarks from friends and family about her relationship with Abdullah.
“Among the many statements thrown my way were ‘Are you gonna start wearing the tudung?’, ‘Our lives are gonna be destroyed if you convert’, and ‘You’re gonna be second-class all your life’. I’ve even been told to be prepared for a forced conversion if the Selangor Islamic religious department (JAIS) were to knock on my door!
My “Muslim” partner doesn’t even believe in Islam anymore and according to Islam, he’s better off dead. That’s extremely traumatic.
For Abdullah, he sees balancing religious beliefs as the only way to maintain a civil form of communication with loved ones, including those who strongly oppose his relationship with Carla even though he never choose the religion he was born into.
“We only speak to them on what is absolutely necessary or kosher, and keep the rest of our lives to ourselves so that it will not agitate them in any way, shape or form,” he adds.
Is love truly enough?
Sadly for the young couple, the answer currently remains as a big “no”.
“This has affected our relationship because we’re stuck in a limbo where we can’t take the next step. No matter how great our relationship is, breaking up one day is a very real possibility. Love doesn’t conquer all,” says Carla dejectedly.
As for Abdullah, he says that his family still remains stubbornly opposed to the relationship.
My family themselves are against my relationship in general but have begrudgingly put up with it as a means to not lose me from their net of influence.
However, Abdullah is deeply grateful that Carla’s family is doing their best to view their relationship in a more accepting manner.
“Her parents are able to objectively see us as just a young couple who are figuring out how to establish a healthy relationship and what’s the best way to support their partner long term.
“They’ve also given us advice on how to grow our relationship, encourage us in our careers, and how to be more transparent in our communication,” he says.
Despite the seemingly warm reception from her family, Carla admits that the prickly issue of conversion still hangs over her head.
Conversion is still a no-go with my parents, no matter how much they support our relationship.
“But, they have expressed their support for a marriage taking place at a different country which doesn’t practice marital conversion.”
Tough but not impossible
Unlike non-Muslim interfaith relationships, MNM relationships are fraught with way more obstacles and legal implications than most think.
“You can’t paint a pretty gloss over MNM relationships and categorise them as the same as other interfaith relationships. The very existence of MNMs is an ugly political discourse.
“Until then, it looks like we’ll be going overseas in the foreseeable future where we can be accepted and leave everything behind with a heavy heart,” says Carla.
As for those who are currently in a MNM relationship or know of someone who’s in one, Abdullah has a message of hope for them.
My key takeaway would be for you, dear reader, to truly mull over what it means to be in an interfaith relationship. It is up to you to decide, what is worth sacrificing, and what is worth fighting for.
“The road ahead is long, and I won’t promise you that it’s easy. But give it enough thought, and a partner who is supportive and aligns with your goals, and you might just make it work.”
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of WeirdKaya.
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