By Ameer Ali –
If there is one area that needs serious reparation in the current context of economic catastrophe, it is that of Lanka-Arab relations. Arab connection with Sri Lanka is millennial old. From the time when Arab traders set foot on this island, sometime in the 8th century if not earlier, mutual interests between the Muslim Caliphate and Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monarchy evolved into a relationship that was unique in the annals of Asian history. While spices, precious stones and forest products from the “land of rubies” or jeziratul yaqut, as was known to the Arab world, found their way to the largest market in the world at that time – the caliphate, and via Arab merchants crossed into Europe, the legendary fame of Adams Peak among the Sufis of Islam combined with Buddhist influence in the Abbasid caliphal court of the Barmakids – an Iranian family from Balkh and hereditary Buddhist leaders attached to the Nawbahar monastery, a fact completely ignored in researches of local historians, began the flow of Muslim pilgrim tourists to the island. It was from those traders and tourists cum mendicants the nucleus of a Muslim community of Sri Lanka was born. From then onwards Arab-Lankan relations developed continuously over centuries that in 1283 when King Bhuvanekabahu I sent an emissary to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt for a commercial deal, the monarch described in his epistle that Sri Lanka was Egypt and Egypt was Sri Lanka. Long before that in early 8th century, the Umayyad invasion of Sind in India was provoked by Rajah Dahir’s capture of Muslim women travelling from Sri Lanka, which was reported to the caliph by the Lankan monarch. The monarch’s desire to ingratiate himself with a rising power in that part of the world was obvious. This is not the place to detail this fascinating history but to drive home an important historical point that nowhere in the recorded history of Asia that one could find a parallel to the religiously, economically and even politically intertwined relationship that existed between the minority Arabs and their mixed descendants and majority Buddhists as in Sri Lanka. That exceptional record with a short disruption in 1915 continued smoothly until the end of the colonial era in 1948.
Muslim Window after Independence
After independence and right through the decades when Sinhalese-Tamil relations deteriorated to the point of military confrontation, it was through the Muslim community that Sri Lankan governments demonstrated to the world its acceptance of the nation’s ethnic and religious pluralism. In that demonstration, it was through the Muslim window that those governments showed the Arab World Sri Lanka’s hospitality to Islam and its followers. It worked immensely well and to the benefit of both with Sri Lanka’s non-aligned foreign policy. The year 1976 was a memorable one to the island when for the first time in its history the government hosted the NAM conference in Colombo and spread the red carpet to welcome a galaxy of Muslim leaders from Middle East and North America (MENA). One cannot quantify the benefits accrued to Sri Lanka, but the country’s reputation in MENA reached its summit in consequence. Just to point out two instances, one during Sirimavo’s leftist coalition government and the other during JR’s presidency. The former faced a foreign exchange crisis and the other an oil crisis. To get assistance for the first, Sirimavo dispatched her Minister of Education Badiuddin Mahmud to the Arab world, and to meet the oil crisis JR sent his Foreign Minister Hameed to Libya. In both instances outcomes were prompt and positive. Even today, it is MENA and particularly its Arab half that had come to the rescue of an otherwise unemployed surplus Sri Lankan labour and it is that labour’s hard-earned dollars that fills at least part of the coffers of government’s treasury. In these gloomy days, only those families that have someone from their members working in a foreign country are able to make both ends meet. A majority of them are working in MENA.
Curtain Over the Window
Regrettably, since the time of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005, and in particular, after its victory over the LTTE in 2009, there had been a sharp shift in Sri Lanka’s attitude towards pluralism. This shift has thrown a dark curtain to cover the Muslim window blocking the view to and from the Arab half of MENA. The ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy born out of ethnonationalism is a post-independence phenomenon that views the island’s minorities as aliens to be tolerated rather than accepted as Sri Lankans as it was during the pre-colonial era. This pernicious ideology was systematically theorized and propagated by a group of politicians, intellectuals, academics and priests who in their post war triumphalism turned attention towards Muslims. Having defeated the Tamil enemy, they saw no reason to keep the Muslim window open to exhibit pluralism to the world. In their view and as openly expressed by one of the priests on June 7th 2020 in Kandy, Sri Lanka belongs only to Sinhala Buddhists and the others are their long-term tenants. The current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) is in many ways an embodiment of this ideology.
It is true that even when the Muslim window was open there were periodical skirmishes between Muslims and Sinhalese. But they were localized, sporadic and lacked any ideological grounding. Governments of that time were quick to send security forces to put down those outbreaks before the news spread to the world outside. All that changed after 2009 as anti-Muslim violence was systematically encouraged beginning with the Aluthgama riots in 2014. The Defense Secretary at that time who was none other than GR took no action to counter it. His tolerance sent the wrong message to security forces and they became onlookers when similar occurrence took place in Ampara, Digana, Kandy, Minuwangoda and several other places.
To the Sinhala Buddhist ideologues (SBI) and their activists, Tamils are separatists determined to divide the country and create an Eelam. To the sympathizers of LTTE on the other hand, they want a Tamil Eelam to coexist with a Sinhala Eelam. But to SBI, Muslims are far more dangerous than Tamils, because they are deemed as Islamizers of the whole nation. The old and discredited Western concoction of Quran in one hand and sword in the other still rules the minds of SBI in some modified form. The Indian Tableeghi Jamaat missionary movement (TJ) that entered in late 1950s, and Saudi Wahhabism that found its way via expatriate Muslim labour in 1980s became their chief targets of attack. The fact that neither of these movements have any intention of converting non-Muslims to Islam involuntarily escaped the minds of SBI. Worse than that, what SBI fears most is the exaggerated fecundity of Muslim women to upset the demographic dominance of Sinhala Buddhists. As a corollary to that fear was the baseless accusation of Muslim restaurants and retail fashion outlets to mix contraceptives in their products to Sinhalese men and women to prevent them having children. The scandalous accusation of a Muslim obstetrician and gynecologist said to have sterilized 4,000 Sinhalese women led to a media trial and anti-Muslim frenzy among Buddhist demagogues.
Worse was to follow the macabre incident of 2018 Easter Massacre of Christian worshippers by a bunch of Muslim lunatics operating under the directions of a mastermind. What is more criminal than this massacre is the shelving of the investigation report by a commission appointed by the president himself. More than Muslims it is the Catholic community that is now crying in vain for that report to be released and justice to be met for its victims. But the regime, to put the blame squarely on Muslims is behaving like a lunatic bent on a mission to destroy anything and everything that relates to Islam or Muslims. Books on Islam, translations of the Quran, Muslim personal laws, madrasas, mosques and Muslim attire have all come under the suspicious eyes of the country’s law. The president’s order to cremate bodies of Covid dead Muslims purely on the advice of a soil scientist masquerading as epidemiologist was a calculated negation of a basic human right that shocked the world of Islam. This Islamophobia has pulled a dark curtain covering the Muslim window to the Arab world. The consequence of this madness has come to bite practically every Sri Lankan now.
Arab Oil and Largesse
Sri Lanka has been officially declared bankrupt. Evils of malnutrition, undernourishment and starvation have entered the doors of many a household. Darkness rules days and nights. Peoples’ mobility has been crippled by acute shortages of petrol, diesel and gas fuel, the lifeblood of modern economies. A penniless government is begging internationally for food, fuel, medicine and other consumer essentials. On the other hand, the Arab world has plenty of fuel as well as money to purchase the rest. It opened its largesse in the past to help Sri Lanka, but has been constrained to do so now because of the dark curtain. The Arab governments showed their displeasure through a motion passed through OIC in 2020 on the eve of the UNHRC session in Geneva. The message was clear. Reopen the window, or, in diplomatic terms, mend the damaged foreign relations between Sri Lanka and MENA.
In response, all that the regime could do was to send its Foreign Minister, a man whose complicity in all injustices done to minorities is well known, to dialogue with his counterparts. In addition, the president himself met Arab ambassadors in Colombo appealing for help. Insultingly and in desperation, he was reported to have approached a Maldivian Muslim intermediary to talk to Arab governments. So far, no success. Why? Simply because, the Muslim window is virtually shut.
The regime should also understand that unlike India, China or the West, MENA does not have any geostrategic interest in Sri Lanka. Its relations with Sri Lanka had been governed by economic, cultural and humanitarian objectives.
Soon after the Bali bombing in 2002 that killed 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians, and strained Australia-Indonesia relations significantly, the Howard Government took a number of constructive steps to bring back normalcy between the two countries. Just as the Sri Lankan Muslim community is a window to MENA the Australian Muslim community is a window to South East Asia and notably to Indonesia and Malaysia. One such step was to send a gender mixed Australian Muslim delegation to those countries and the Philippines as non-state interlocutors to meet Muslim organizations and large Muslim gatherings to explain how Islam and Muslims were treated in multicultural Australia and how they were misrepresented by the so-called Islamists. It is not possible to quantify the benefits of such delegations but they help to improve inter-state relations.
Why shouldn’t the Sri Lankan government try at this critical time to send non-state interlocutors to canvass on behalf of the country and its people for public and private assistance from Islamic countries? But before doing that ground situation for Muslims at home must change to the better. Given the obstinacy and obduracy of SBI and their acolytes that is not possible without systemic change as emphatically and rightly demanded by the young minds behind aragalaya. It is that ideology that had kept closed until today and allowed animals, snakes and bushes to invade 400 houses built for Muslim tsunami victims by the Saudi Government. How anti-Muslim, parochial, jealous and vengeful could these ideologues be, who do not want poor Muslims to receive special favours from foreign governments? In the name of the most supreme humanist that history has ever witnessed, Gautama the Buddha, these political Buddhists are prepared to mortgage his name to hold on to power. The current regime, a product of that ideology, is incapable of initiating systemic change. The stopgap Prime Minister is misusing that concept to hoodwink agitators. He seems to believe that his fiscal measures and the negotiations with IMF would lead to systemic change. On the contrary, they are means to strengthen the status quo that has bankrupted the country and pauperized its people. With that ideology on driver’s seat, it would be difficult for Lanka-Arab relations to resume their pre-Rajapaksa normalcy.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia