By Ameer Ali –
There is one irrefutable fact about the Sri Lankan Muslim community and that is, this minority which has been living in this island peacefully for over a millennium since its origins in the 8th century and prospered exceptionally well in comparison to similar Muslim minorities in the rest of Asia, has, during the last two to three decades, got deliberately enmeshed in narrow ethnic politics and irrational religious fanaticism to such an extent that it is now confronting a virtual existential crisis. Unless the community’s problems are properly diagnosed and remedies meticulously prepared and presented for action the future of this minority appears unsettled and troublesome to say the least.
The responsibility for the prevailing crisis falls heavily on the community’s leadership, which is mostly shared by Muslim politicians and the ulema or religious scholars. Historically and prior to independence it was the Muslim commercial class and landed gentry that monopolised community leadership, but since then because of the country’s overall political, economic and educational changes the social dominance of the business class has declined relatively to that of politicians and the ulema. Unfortunately and seriously what is missing here is the leadership of the secularly trained Muslim intellectual class, an aspect about which l will have more to say later in this short piece.
Even within the political leadership the birth of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the 1990s marked a turning point. Before that, the Muslims of Sri Lanka never dreamt of forming a separate political party of their own. Aspiring politicians from the community joined the national parties, contested and won parliamentary representation and a few of them even became cabinet ministers. While the leadership of the Tamil minority was treading a divisive and ethnic based political line Muslim leadership on the other hand, with a commercial shrewdness historically and uniquely inherited, chose to work with the majority community so that the advantages to their own community could be maximised. This strategy, contrary to the criticism it receives from the SLMC politicians and their cronies, worked out very well, and owing mainly to the selfless dedication of some of the then Muslim leaders the community made several strides economically, educationally and culturally. Of course there were substantial shortcomings in these achievements some of which were superficial and even carried hidden disadvantages, like closing schools during the month of Ramadhan. However, the main reason for this shortcoming was not the political strategy but the absence of a carefully crafted agenda or program focusing on the long term interest of the community but designed in consultation with Muslim intellectuals and thinkers. Many of the reforms recommended by the pre-SLMC political leaders were ad hoc and resulted from random thought bubbles. It is the absence of a thoughtfully structured program that is still bedevilling the long term progress and national integration of the community. Sadly at that time such an intellectual class was too small to count, but now the situation is different.
The change of strategy by forming the SLMC, an independent political party based on ethnicity and religion, was the most populist but short sighted political move that some sections of the community undertook driven by selfish motives. ‘United we stand and divided we fall’ is an age old mantra that is always nice to listen but too difficult to put into practice. This is true of the philosophy behind SLMC and a supposed unity of the so called umma was the basis on which the original advisers of SLMC justified the party’s formation. The scattered nature of Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka, the conflicting linguistic and economic interests within the community, and even regional cultural differences were not given due consideration and was thought to disappear under an emotionally concocted political unity. In reality however, SLMC has ultimately become a party mainly for the Eastern Province Muslims and because of leadership squabbles and character assassination within the party there is currently a move to form another one. The SLMC launched its political campaign with the religious slogan “Allahu Akbar”, and resolved to fight for and win the rights of the Muslims. Nowhere in its party manifesto the leaders of the party spelt out what those unique rights for which they were going to fight and nowhere in the party’s latest conference speeches and publications was there any reference to how many of those mysterious rights has the party won for the community so far. Instead, corruption, nepotism, regionalism and personal animosities have become the bane of this party, and its narrow ethnic image and reckless religious sloganeering have added fuel to the communal fire in the country. Can the community afford this leadership? One can fool all the people sometime, some people all the time, but not all the people all the time.
The ulema of Sri Lanka like their counterparts in several parts of the world are the most influential class within the Muslim community simply because of their monopoly over religious knowledge. Although the actual quantity and quality of this knowledge is not uniform within this class the fact that the masses are virtually illiterate to read and understand the holy texts in Islam, which are written in Arabic – a language foreign to the vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims – has bestowed upon this class a disproportionate degree of exploitative influence and power. Also, to the majority of ulema this knowledge is their chief bread winner, and therefore it is needless to stress that it is to their advantage to continue keeping the masses in a state of religious ignorance. The ulema are the chief interpreters of religion and there is no central body or institution in Sri Lanka, and for that matter anywhere in the world, that can monitor and standardise these interpretations. In Islam there is no place for monkhood or for a Church or Pope. The Ceylon Jamiyatul Ulema (CJU) is not an elected body and has no control over all the imams in the country. Each alim (singular for ulema) is a law unto themselves. Recently this class of leaders has fallen prey to powerful foreign influence. The infiltration of Wahhabi ideology accompanied by financial and other tangible perks from Saudi Arabia has turned great many of the ulema to become foot soldiers to Wahhabi fanaticism causing thereby irreparable damage to the millennium old Buddhist-Muslim tranquillity in Sri Lanka. Muslim ethnic politics combined with religious fanaticism is a recipe for disaster.
To the Muslim politicians however, the support of the ulema is crucial to enrich their vote bank. Yet, to either of these classes this shared leadership is a poisoned chalice. Is there a way out? Yes, if the secularly trained intellectuals within the community, though they are still small in number, can play an active role in exposing to the public the hollowness and vacuity of this shared leadership and come out with a program of their own and rally the support of not only the Muslim masses but even others in the wider community. These intellectuals must be able to earn their credibility by courageously speaking the truth in front of power.
Landlessness, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, gender inequality, domestic violence, religious fanaticism, inappropriate education and larger family size are some of the issues which will continue to pull the community backward unless some preventive measures are taken immediately. Some of these issues such as the first four mentioned above are common to all communities but the rest are more acute within the Muslim community. What are unique to the community cannot be solved by the government but must be tackled by the community itself and to tackle them one requires as first step solid facts and figures. Only the intellectual class can handle the task of research backed by solid data and analysis. After nearly twenty-five years of its existence one would have hoped that the SLMC would have recruited at the least a team of Muslim intellectuals to populate a think tank which will make facts-based recommendations for political action. Sadly, that has not happened until now and with its bitter internal power struggle may never happen in the near future.
Even after starting late the Muslim community since the 1970s has produced a nucleus of dynamic scholars and intellectuals from both genders who are progressive and nationalistic in outlook but remain unrecognized by their own community. This is the tragedy of Muslims. While business magnates, landed proprietors, religious functionaries and political charlatans are treated with respect and honour intellectuals and rationalists are disregarded as unworthy of recognition. Historically it was when the intellectuals and rationalists were given the pride of place Islam enjoyed its high noon and produced a glorious civilization. When rationalism was shunned by orthodoxy after the 12th century the decline started and continues till today. Are we witnessing the same phenomenon in tiny Sri Lanka also?
Intellectuals by virtue of their dedication to seek knowledge are not economically resourceful and to expect them to deliver a factually backed action program demands economic resources. Unless the community wakes up to this need, mobilize resources and encourage the learned to engage in productive research about problems that inhibit the welfare and tranquillity of Muslims in Sri Lanka, their community will continue to misplace their expectations and trust on an ineffectual leadership.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia