By Ameer Ali –
Yet, a question should be asked whether the Muslims themselves did contribute in some ways to become a target for attack. There are two elements that provided sustenance to the nationalists’ poisonous propaganda against Muslims. One is political and the other religious. Politically, the formation of an ethnic political party for Muslims, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, was a historic blunder committed out of parochial interest. At no time did the SLMC represent the entire Sri Lankan Muslim community contrary to its claim otherwise. Yet, by hiding behind the support it had in the Eastern Province and by arrogantly claiming to representation at a national level SLMC jeopardised the security of Muslims in all other provinces, especially at a time when Sinhalese and Tamil sub-nationalisms were clashing violently. Also, while the Sinhalese and Tamil firebrands had their respective languages to rouse the masses to act, SLMC, without a language to claim its own, had to resort to religion to move its supporters to act. This unfortunately drew Islam into the ethnic cauldron. This is a new and dangerous phenomenon in Muslim politics of Sri Lanka. Before the birth of SLMC, Muslim leaders were shrewd enough to rally behind one or the other of national parties to gain access to political power, and indeed they achieved a lot to the community. SLMC on the other hand singlehandedly managed to make the Muslims a target for attack not only by the Sinhalese politicians but also by their Tamil counterparts. It is time to dissolve this party and stop forming any other of its type if Muslims were to win back the confidence and trust of the other communities.
Islam as a religion was never a problem in Sri Lanka until the last quarter of the previous century. How did it become one after that? The answer to this question will lengthen this piece beyond limit. However, a few points need elaboration in the interest of clearing certain myths about Islam in this country. Firstly, the religious awakening amongst Muslims in the wake of the sudden influx of petrodollars into the coffers of OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) resulted in a frenzy of activities in the Muslim world with the ultimate goal of Islamising the ruling World Order, both in its economic and political dimensions. What gave the impetus to this frenzy was the fact that for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate Muslim nations, at least its petrodollar quarters, had the financial capacity to design their Islamization programs without depending on Western powers for any economic aid or policy advice. The newly acquired wealth also gave the Muslims in general a false sense of pride in that they felt that the Muslim countries have become a power to be reckoned with in the international arena. Sri Lanka had a glimpse of the size of this rising Muslim power when the Non Aligned Movement’s conference convened in Colombo in 1976, which brought a galaxy of Muslim leaders with their entourage travelling through the city in glittering cavalcades. Naturally, the local Muslim community was elated. However, a few Sinhala nationalists looked at this event through their warped lens and feared the early signs of a distant Muslim invasion.
Secondly, even before the 1970s, the religious activities of the Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), a peaceful missionary movement whose foot soldiers, contrary to many false propaganda, devoted their time and energy solely to make many nominal Muslims become real Muslims. This they did by preaching to them to regularise their prayers and other obligatory religious rituals, and adopt the simplicity of the Prophet, as the governing moto of their life. Without the TJ many mosques would have remained to this day empty of worshipers. However, as the number of worshippers increased mosques had to be enlarged to accommodate them. Mosque renovation works therefore became a common sight in the 1970s. After the 1980s however, in consequence of the new religious awakening, foreign funds flowed generously through state and private sources to supplement local collections and new mosques started springing up, some of them appearing very ostentatious with an architecture not entirely alien to Sri Lanka. How many of the mosque-haters and mosque-lovers in Sri Lanka would know that the dome that crowns many mosques here and all over the world has a Buddhist origin from Central Asia? (Incidentally, the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, where the famous collector of Hadiths or traditions of the Prophet, Imam Bukhari was born derives its name from vihara, another Buddhist connection to Islam.)
Sri Lankan Muslims are mostly an urban community and therefore the proliferation of mosques in crowded cities and towns became an eyesore to the Sinhala nationalists. The situation made worse by the irresponsible use of loudspeakers to call for prayers, five times daily, starting from before dawn until late in the evening. When several mosques in a small area started calling through loudspeakers simultaneously the cacophony naturally became a nuisance to non-Muslims. Hence the frequent complaints against mosques from the Sinhalese and others. In this era of technology, when there are countless other means available to inform the worshippers know of their prayer times, why choose loudspeakers? This shows the failure of effective leadership among Muslims.
Thirdly, and this is the most contentious of the issues regarding Islam in Sri Lanka, is the rising influence of an ultra-conservative wave of the religion called Wahhabism. This is a religious sect, which claims purity in belief but remained largely confined to the Arabian Peninsula until the 1970s. It became global in its spread in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This needs some explanation. When Ayatollah Khomeini kicked out the Americans from Iran and threatened to export his hijacked Islamic revolution especially to the Sunni Arab world, US administration panicked. The Iranian fever at that time was infecting the minds of Muslim youth everywhere. If for example, the regimes in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt were to be toppled by a religiously inspired revolution mixed with anti-Americanism, US dominance in the Middle East would have been in serious jeopardy. The challenge that confronted the super power therefore, was to find some way of stopping the Iranian virus from infecting. It was in that context it discovered that the safest way was to allow a counter force to influence the Muslim mindset. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi puritanism backed by Saudi riyals came quite handy and was licenced to capture the Muslim mind. Through funds to build mosques and educational institutions, by offering scholarships to young Muslims to study in Saudi Arabia and Saudi nominated colleges and universities, by sponsoring conferences and colloquiums to which imams and Islamic religious functionaries from all over the world were invited and entertained and by offering free air tickets to Muslim leaders and members of their organizations to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Wahhabi influence spread far and wide. In addition, the expatriate Muslim labour force in the kingdom after been indoctrinated by the singular teachings of Wahhabi imams became a cheap conduit to spread the sect’s doctrine in their own countries when they returned home.
Whereas the preaching of TJ drew Muslims, particularly the males, in large numbers to the mosques and beseeched them to adopt simplicity as the way of life, which is also a goal of Buddhist teachings, Wahhabism on the other hand added a new dimension to this preaching by defining even the external appearance of Muslims, both males and females. In Sri Lanka too the attire of Muslims underwent radical changes after the 1980s. To Muslim women in particular, the traditional sari and the salwar went out of fashion and in their place came the Arabian long black abaya and jilbab with covered faces. Likewise, to Muslim men the traditional sarong, shirt and coat gave way to the long Arab gown or jibba with white cap and long beards. The criti cism that this attire provoked both within the official circles and among common people in plural societies was countered by the justification that it was the attire of the Prophet and his wives and that Muslims are only following the sunna or practice of the Prophet and his family. Why do Muslims pick and choose only certain practices of the Prophet and not the others, like for example, why do they not use a camel to travel instead of a car. Such questions are not encouraged and never answered. It is the failure to contextualise the teachings and practices of Islam that has led Muslims face the criticism that their religion is irrational. It is unfortunate that the spread of ultra-conservatism has frozen the history of Islam with the seventh century.
One should also understand why many nations feel jittery, to put it mildly, with Wahhabism, because it was from its womb that the children of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Jama’a Islamiyya, Boko Haram, ISIS and of several other Islamist groups were born. The fact that these are all, to borrow Arundathi Roy’s apt description of ISIS in plural form, “macabre progenies” of US invasion of Iraq is no reason to condone their bloodthirsty horror unleashed on thousands of innocents. Did the Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, which is claiming to be the apex Islamic organization ever condemned their actions by naming them? To say that “we don’t support their actions”, and then to go on repeating the hackneyed phrase “Islam is Peace” is not enough. That type of response leaves many questions unanswered. It is this ambivalence, which makes others feel suspicious of the Muslim religious hierarchy.
In short, there are a number of contentious elements in the way Islam is practiced, which in a religiously and culturally plural environment, can and do create tensions, and which, on closer scrutiny may prove frivolous and non-essential for a Muslim to be faithful to his/her religion. Such elements, held passionately by religious orthodoxy and failed to be highlighted and questioned by pussyfooted reformers, are now picked up by Islamophobes to propagate anti-Muslim venom. Regretfully, when issues like these are raised by progress minded individuals within the Muslim community, the hierocracy has a habit of shooting the messenger rather than reading the message. Since the 1980s therefore, complaints by others against some of the practices of Muslims in the name of Islam began to snowball and added sustenance to the vicious campaign of the anti-Muslim ignoramus. Thus, Muslims have at least indirectly contributed to the current crisis. The question we face is what should be done. I will submit my thoughts on this question in the concluding section.
To be continued….
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia