By Ameer Ali –
Whatever happens to them, the Muslims of Sri Lanka, like the Sinhalese, are here to stay, and they, like the Sinhalese, have nowhere else to go. It is malicious to spread the canard that just because Muslims follow Islam they can migrate to Arabia. It is also a myth believed by some Muslims that if anything untoward happens to them the world of Islam will come to their aid. Those who have some inkling of understanding of how the world order works will realise the absurdity behind these beliefs. The global aspirations of so-called Brotherhood of Islam has never overtaken sectional aspirations of nation states. Every community in Sri Lanka therefore, has to confront and solve its problems with its counterparts by working within the national framework, and no foreign power or its agency is going to intervene to solve for them. This is one bitter lesson that the Tamil community must have learnt after the civil war, and a lesson that others cannot ignore. The country belongs not to any one community but to all communities inhabit there.
The civil war it faced was an unnecessary and a costly political tsunami driven by ego. It only showed that the political system the country inherited from the British failed to produce statesman when it needed one, but instead allowed self-centred and megalomaniacs to take the country along a blind alley. The current wave of violence against Muslims reinforces my belief that the country needs a systemic change to get out of its ethnic quagmire. Former president JR and leaders who followed him wanted to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore without realising that Singapore achieved its growth and prosperity on the solid foundation of ethnic harmony. Lee Kwan Yew, with a technocratic cabinet and an iron fist, kept the Chinese chauvinism at bay when it clamoured for Chinese to be the official language. Where is the leader in Sri Lanka who can provide this foundation?
The recurring anti-Muslim violence from a short term perspective is a law and order problem but from a long term perspective is a symptom of political pathology. As a law and order issue the solution is simple. Take immediate action whenever and wherever violence breaks out. It was the government’s delayed action that allowed the incident at Digana to snowball. In this era of instant communication technology lack of information to act upon is no excuse. This only allows one to suspect that the delay was deliberate. Such delayed action is not new. SWRD did that in 1957 and JR did it in 1983. Time in their hands became a political weapon. Related to this is the role of funeral marches. It was the funeral marches in 1957 and 1983 that triggered widespread violence against the Tamils. Needless to say that it was also the long funeral march to Horogolla that swung peoples’ sympathy for Srimavo to become Prime Minister. Had the funeral march been stopped in Digana it would have at least reduced the severity of the mayhem. The political exploitation of funerals must be stopped.
However, these measures can only help prevent anti-Muslim violence from escalating. To stop them occurring at all the fundamental issues that I discussed in the earlier parts have to be tackled, both by the Muslim community as well as by others. Let me take the Muslim community first.
The progress of the Muslim community and its peaceful coexistence depends crucially on the quality of its political leadership. Any political leadership of any community for that matter should be one that must be unreservedly patriotic to start with and should staunchly believe that the advancement of its community is not possible unless the country advances. Without enlarging the size of the national cake, competing for larger pieces is an exercise in futility. On this score, the attitude and performance of the current Muslim leadership is shockingly disappointing. On national issues such as rising cost of living, mounting national debt, depleting natural resources, privatization of education and healthcare, role of foreign capital and so on, has any Muslim parliamentarian made any positive contribution to the national debate? True, Muslim community has a number of grievances, but should that be the only concern of their representatives in the national legislature? Shouldn’t they care about the nation as a whole? By concentrating solely on their own community’s problems, the leadership becomes parochial and inward looking. The importance of the national outlook and patriotic commitment cannot and should not be underestimated because, it is that which is ultimately going to create the image that Muslims are not simply in Sri Lanka but of Sri Lanka. It was the absence of that national concern among Muslim leaders, which once prompted late Colvin R. De Silva to remark that Muslims in Sri Lanka are “like the cow and the grass”.
This is why I said in part II, that the formation of SLMC was a historic blunder. It worsened the community’s image in the country not only by isolating the Muslims politically, but also and more dangerously, by promoting communal parochialism at the expense of nationalism. Had Muslim political leadership, even before SLMC was born, been more nationalistic and inclusive in outlook, they would have been the bridge builders between the Sinhalese and Tamils. SLMC in particular, accentuated ethno-nationalism. What have the SLMC leaders achieved so far except ministerial positions to accumulate wealth for themselves and their cronies? Does it have an economic policy? The long-term solution to the current crisis demands that the community produces a political leadership that is patriotic, intellectual, honest and inclusive.
If the political leadership is bad enough a backward looking religious leadership is making the situation even worse. Part (II) of this article pointed out to certain developments that took place within the community since 1980s, in the name of religious purity, which appeared confronting to non-Muslims. This is a phenomenon that happened word wide wherever Muslims live as minorities. Whether those developments were actually necessary and whether they enhanced public welfare – two important criteria on which Muslim jurists in medieval times accepted or rejected any phenomenon – was never discussed by their modern counterparts. This is a fundamental problem facing Muslim minorities everywhere. Today, almost one-third of world Muslim population live as minorities in 149 countries. Islamic jurisprudence that is in practice today is more than a millennium old and developed by Muslims for Muslims when Muslims were a hegemonic power. There is guidance in it as to how a minority should be governed by a Muslim regime, but there is hardly any guidance as to how Muslims should live as minorities under non-Muslim regimes. There is therefore a desperate need for a serious revision of this jurisprudence by modern Islamic scholars. Even though some efforts along this line have been undertaken, their achievements remain largely rudimentary and incomplete. This explains why the ruling orthodoxy in Islam remains so rigid and Sri Lanka is no exception to this rigidity. The controversy over the MMDA is a classic reflection of this problem. The spread of ultraconservative Wahhabism with financial resources from Saudi Arabia has made the ruling orthodoxy even more uncompromising and oppressive.
This throws a challenge to secular intellectuals in the Muslim community to open the debate on controversial religious issues and initiate changes in the larger interest of the community and country. Their silence is understandable because of the fear of reprisals from orthodoxy, which, as I mentioned before, has the habit of shooting the messenger without reading the message. The time has come for these intellectuals, though small in number, to become a catalyst for change. In this context, I may even employ the contentious term jihad to emphasize the importance of their role. If they continue to remain on the sideline and be as mere observers, history will condemn them for abetting the rule by the ignoramus.
In a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society such as Sri Lanka, cross-pollination amongst religions and cultures is unavoidable. If that pollination does not affect a believer’s inner faith while helping to foster communal amity and togetherness those must be encouraged and should not be allowed to be crippled in the name of religious purity. In the current situation of deteriorating Buddhist-Muslim relations Muslim leadership should look for such opportunities even if orthodoxy becomes a bulwark. This was how Muslims and Buddhists lived in the past for centuries in this country and should live in the future. About three years ago, I made some specific proposals along this line to a small group of Muslim activists, but nothing has materialised.
The reason why Islam was able to spread so fast and so widely across different cultures is not because of the sword as the orientalists try to make us believe, but because it was able to blend its religious precepts with the cultural ethos of new societies that it encountered. The burka and niqab for example, the two confronting pieces of cloth some Muslim women wear, is therefore not religious but cultural. How else can one explain the growth of Muslim music and musicians in Egypt, India, and other parts of the world when religious orthodoxy condemns music? Umm Kulthum, the nightingale of Egypt, was not the product of Islam but of Egyptian culture; so was Muhammad Rafi of India and Mohideen Beg of Sri Lanka, and so is Baba Mal of Mali. While religions divide communities, culture unites them. If there was one Muslim sect that blended the two in the extreme it was the Sufis, against whom the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia waged war in the 18th century and continues to wage even now. Needless to emphasise here that it was the walking Sufis in their coarse robes, like the Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, more than the Arab traders and ulama, who spread Islam in Sri Lanka. It was the failure to separate the religion of Islam from the culture of Sri Lanka by an Islamic orthodoxy, and the failure of Muslims to adapt to the cultural ethos of the country, which contributed to the deteriorating relations between Sinhalese and Muslims after the 1980s.
Thus, from the Muslim side, a qualitative change in political leadership, an enlightened religious leadership, and the entry of secular intellectuals in religious debates are imperatives to reverse the current tumultuous relations between the Sinhalese and Muslims. What about the others?
The descent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism into a philosophy for ethnic cleansing is the legacy of the civil war. Yet, the vast majority of the Sinhalese and Tamils, and the mainstream Sangha are as disgusted as the Muslims at the way this nationalism has allowed lawlessness to rule the country. The government’s delayed action has proved its incompetency. The Sangha, which has more than 15,000 monks, is surely aware of the few amongst them who spit racist venom whenever they open their mouth. This tiny minority, which is now running riot, will certainly lose its stamina and voice when the majority in Sangha starts speaking out loudly and publicly. Only the Sangha can weed out its bad elements, and if possible, de-robe them to protect its image as an embodiment of compassion, peace and tolerance. As I mentioned in part (I) Sinhalese Buddhist politicians, on both sides of the fence, are not ready to put the racist genie back in the bottle, because they will lose a trump to win elections if they do so. It is therefore, the prelates of mainstream Sangha and prominent Sinhalese civil society leaders, who should come to the aid of the Muslims at this critical hour. It is they, who has the power and influence over political leaders and their supporters. It is heartening to hear that members of the Sangha went to protect the Muslims during their Friday prayers. It is time the Muslim leaders, individually and as a group, approach this sector of the Sinhalese society and appeal to them to speak out on their behalf. Invite these dignitaries, together with political leaders from all camps, to a public arena, preferably a mosque in the capital city, and appeal for a public declaration condemning anti-Muslim racism and for a public pledge to douse the racist flame permanently. Following that event groups of Muslim leaders visit Buddhist temples around the country and with permission from their prelates address Buddhist worshippers. The pledge so obtained should receive widest possible publicity in the Sinhala print and electronic media. Muslim leadership has to work with the Sangha, which is the heart of the Buddhist community, and Sinhalese civil society leaders. The only way to put out this racist fire is for Muslims to work with the Sinhalese grass roots. THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.
Even then there are other groups like the BBS and the Sinha-le, whose ethno-chauvinistic ravings have no bounds and are now leading the anti-Muslim campaign. They are a post-2009 product representing the darkest side of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Their message is the carbon copy of Myanmar Buddhist extremism. These groups neither have a coherent political philosophy nor an economic agenda except to exterminate every minority in the country. One should not attach too much importance to this lunatic fringe, some of whom may even be hirelings of certain external forces. They are now being used by certain domestic political factions to make the country ungovernable for them to rule the streets. They should simply be treated as a law and order problem. To go back in history, and to early 1970s, even JVP started its campaign with such ravings though unlike the current delinquents had a radical agenda about the economy and society. Yet, how JVP transformed itself, after experiencing the debacles in 1971 and 1987-89, and did become a credible alternative to choose by voters is a lesson the BBS and Sinhale will also learn in due course. The Sinhala Buddhist civil society and the apex of the Sangha are too wise, matured and experienced to allow these political juveniles to dictate terms to them. As long as the government is alert and instruct its security forces to monitor their activities, and keep them within the bounds of law, the nation can be saved from falling into a dangerous kakistocracy.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia