Liberty: Lessons From Malaysia

I wrote this essay for a scholarship application last year. I think it has a relevant, powerful message, a reminder which we can all benefit from. Let me know what you think!

Liberty: Lessons From Malaysia

As I look around the classroom, I see laughing, smiling seventeen year olds, worried about homework and exams, excited by the new Greys Anatomy episode, smiling at jokes with their friends. I cant always understand what theyre saying, but what I do understand is that they are kind, intelligent, playful, responsible, creative, ambitious, caring people.

These classmatesmy friendsare at risk for being permanently shut out from my country simply because of stereotypes about their faith. The Gods we believe in dont have the same name, and we differ on a lot of societal values, but we do believe in many of the same things. We believe in kindness, friendship, family, love, and our educations.

I am in Malaysia for a year of high school exchange. I arrived six months ago, and eagerly told all my new friends to visit me when Im back in the U.S, saying when you come we can go to Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, and…” But a few months later, as Islamophobic campaign rhetoric about a religious test shifted into presidential objectives and gave way to a travel ban seeming to target Muslim majority countries, it terrified me to realize that in another year, they might not even be allowed to enter my country.

Though 60% Muslim [1], Malaysia is a land of diversity. On the drive to school, I pass mosques, Hindu temples, a Catholic church, and Chinese temples. This year has taught me what religion means. I have been in touch with my version of God far more than ever before, but I have also grown to understand and appreciate the rituals in Hindu temples I go to with my host family, the call to prayer I hear five times a day, and the Buddhist shrines in front of every Chinese house. But while I have been learning about other religious customs and making lifelong friends with people whose beliefs awe and amaze me, our new president has passed an order attempting to deny entry to people of a certain religion. [2]

The U.S. was founded as an escape from religious oppression. Implementing a religious test would signify the betrayal of one of our nations core valuesliberty. The notion of a religious testimplies that there are right and wrong answersthat certain ideas about unanswerable questions are incorrect, and that a consensus must be reached.

That is not American. America was founded by immigrants, beginning with the Protestants who fled the religious mandates of the Church of England and began new colonies based upon the principle of being able to practice their religion freely. One hundred and fifty years later, the First Amendment declared the United States of America a nation in which the government could not establish a religion and people were entitled to the free exercise of their beliefs.[3]

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from advancing or supporting religion, and with the concept of benevolent neutrality, the Supreme Court clarified that the state cannot be hostile to religion. The Free Exercise clause guarantees citizens the right to hold beliefs without government interference. Freedom of religion is freedom of conscience, and while some religious practices can be restricted, religious thought cannot be. The government can only interfere with religion when there is compelling government interest; one could argue that terrorism is a compelling government interest, but there are better ways to keep the nation safe than by prohibiting millions of people from entering safety simply because of their religion.[3]

Statistically,  Americans are more likely to be killed by a toddler or crushed by a couch or television than to be killed in an act of terror by a Muslim. Just as we do not blame acts of lone wolf terrorism upon Christian white males everywhere, we cannot judge all Muslims based on the crimes committed by 0.0009% of followers of Islam. [4]

The Constitution allows for the president to deny entry to a certain group in case of an emergency, but even though the existence of terrorism cannot be denied, we cannot declare that the entire U.S. is facing a severe emergency situation. Presently, the emergency is felt by the families who are terrified they will be unable to find refuge or will be torn apart.

President Trumps plans to keep refugees out of the U.S. mars the central values upon which America was founded. The American Melting Pot, as we are called, was built by immigrants, for immigrants, and it is our duty to remain so. It is our civic responsibility to remain kind, compassionate, and welcoming to people who need us.

We must learn to live in diversity without forcing a religious consensus. Even in countries where citizens fall almost entirely under one religion, differences of thought appear. It is impossible for everyone to agree on a favorite food, a favorite pastime, even a movie to watch; it is certainly impossible for everyone to agree with the same self-defining principles of divinity and the meaning of ones existence. While many people do not profess religious beliefs, many others depend on religion as a central part of life, one which gives them meaning and a sense of belonging. Even if we do not agree with the beliefs of others, we must respect the value which their beliefs hold. As the Williamsburg Charter says, a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist . That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves. [2]

The United States of America is collectively one of the most diverse countries in the world, and it is also the most powerful country. I dont think thats a coincidence. Diversity is strength. When we shut out one belief system, we close ourselves off to new ideas and ways of seeing things. When we expel someone seeking refuge, we are deporting friends, family members, teachers, and coworkers whom we could grow to love. When one group is targeted as the enemy, hatred grows on both sides. As Martin Luther King declared, Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.[5]

I am here in Malaysia to learn to bridge gaps between cultures: to meet people completely different from myself, with a completely different background, and to learn to love them. While some Christians back home are spewing hate at Muslims, I am learning to embrace these people as my friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and family. I do not feel unsafe being a Christian among people labelled by some as potential future terrorists, because the love I spread is reciprocated. I show my respect and love, and I see welcoming, open hearts in return.




[1] Malaysia Demographics Profile 2016.CIA World Factbook. 8 October 2016.

[2] Stack, Liam. Trumps Executive Order on Immigration: What We Know and What We Dont.The New York Times. 29 January 2017.

[3] Haynes, Charles C. History of Religious Liberty in America.Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education. 26 December 2002.

[4] Lipka, Michael. Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world.Pew Research Center. 22 July 2016.

[5] MLK


Other Sources Used:

Alnatour, Omar. Muslims are Not Terrorists: A Factual Look at Terrorism and Islam.The Huffington Post.

Donald Trumps Muslim Ban Is Cowardly and The Editorial Board. The New York Times. 28 January 2017.

Gonchar, Michael and Katherine Schulten. Analyzing Trumps Immigration Ban: A Lesson Plan.The New York Times. 29 January 2017.

Green, Emma.



One Comment Add yours

  1. saraleewolf says:


    How did this essay NOT get selected? It’s smart, direct, compassionate in the face of nonsense barriers. Maybe you should send it to the Sunpaper…needs to be read and appreciated. Thank you for sharing this…does the Malaysia sojourn seem distant? love, Saralee



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