24 May, 2022


Mosque & The Market In Muslim Politics

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Mosque and the market in Sri Lanka represent two principal agents of change influencing Muslim political thought and action. By saying this, what is meant is not that these two institutions act as platforms for any particular brand of political ideology or campaign, but that the type of religious indoctrination relayed through the pulpit and the rationale underpinning economic behavior and attitude of Muslim traders and businessmen, a representative profession in Islam, have combined historically to nurture a mode of political thought, which believes that the only way by which the Muslim community could survive and prosper in post-independent Sri Lanka is by joining the ruling party and government. This was why from the time of political independence and introduction of party-based parliamentary democracy, a vast majority of Muslim candidates who contested elections did so either as members of the two dominant and winnable parties, UNP and SLFP, or as independents. After winning their respective seats however, these independents, with one or two exceptions, joined the party in power. Although party hopping is not entirely a Muslim phenomenon and has been a trademark of political opportunism in all communities, this practice among Muslims has a religious and economic rationale, which has escaped the attention of social scientists. 

To start with, Muslims arrived in this country as traders, and Islam came along with them. Although it was the Arab traders who first introduced Islam into this country, it was the Indian Muslim traders, who during the 16th century and after, spread that faith vigorously, so much so, until the infiltration of Wahhabism in 1980s, Islam in Sri Lanka was sealed with an Indian stamp. It was not the so-called purified Saudi-Wahhabi variety, but the syncretic Indian type, influenced largely by Hinduism, that dominated Sri Lankan Muslim religious beliefs and practices. Thus, historically, trade and religion had been the two principal agents that molded the thinking and behavior of Muslims. How does one relate this phenomenon to modern day political behaviour?

To a trader, market size and stability is the chief determinant in profit making. Larger the market size in terms of customer volume, and lower the turbulence or volatility, greater the opportunities for sales and profit. In Sri Lanka, it is the majority Sinhalese and their spending habits that mainly determine market size. Even today, almost all successful retail trading outlets owned and operated by a handful of Muslim businessmen are located only in Sinhalese districts, towns and cities, a development that has given room for anti-Muslim propaganda and spread of Islamophobia among groups of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalist zealots. However, from the point of view of the trader, everything in the trader’s arsenal of skills should be employed to keep Sinhalese customers happy, friendly and satisfied.  For example, the trader should be fluent in the language of the customers, be familiar with their customs and traditions, and be able to train and employ, wherever possible, supporting staff in his/her shops, members from customers community. Besides, to maintain peace and stability in the market, the trader should also be supportive of dominant political trends found in the clientele community. 

One glaring example from Sri Lanka’s post-independent past should illustrate this mentality. This was in relation to the Sinhala Only Bill in 1957.  In spite of the fact, that Tamil being the mother tongue of more than ninety per cent of Sri Lankan Muslims, two-third of whom live in the Northern and Eastern Tamil dominant provinces, and that Muslim contribution to Tamil literature and is amazingly sizeable, every Muslim political leader without exception supported that Bill. Because, being essentially a “business community”, its economic survival depended on that support.  Sinhalese is the language of the majority of Muslim business’ clientele. The same argument may be lodged for the unanimous approval of Muslim politicians when Buddhism was given “foremost place” in the Republican Constitution of 1972. No Muslim parliamentarian dared to object that move, because once again Buddhism is the religion of the customers. The commercial adage, customer is always right, is typical of Muslim thinking. In short, political pragmatism dictated by economic necessity compelled the community to support the actions of whichever party or faction that captured power.  Even when the community created its own ethnic party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, it was only a vote catching mechanism and a platform to bargain for special favors and coalesce with the party in power. Thus, Muslims had always been with mainstream of politics.       

This attitude of siding with the majority was reinforced by religious indoctrination. Throughout the history of Islam in this country, the most consistent message relayed by imams and religious preachers has been that human life is transient, (no one disagrees with this) and that the reason why we are born in this world is to serve Allah and to prepare ourselves to attain paradise in the Hereafter. Serving Allah meant observing the religious obligations encoded by the Five Pillars of Islam. Taken together, these two messages, one constantly reminding about death and impermanency of life and the other promising heavenly rewards for those serving Allah, create a mindset that shuns or marginalizes serious involvement in mundane matters such as politics. Why should a mind impregnated with otherworldly commitment bother about politics, human rights, democracy, climate change, patriotism and so on? Why should a pious Muslim care about who governs this country and how? So long as a government maintains peace and stability to earn a decent living and practice one’s religion, a Muslim would support that government even if it turned out to be tyrannous. After all, imams in the past had already laid down a rule that tyranny was preferable to anarchy, and there are numerous sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal judgements that condemned social conflict and disorder and suggest that Islam encouraged unconditional obedience to a ruler.  

With this background it is worth reviewing the prevailing campaign by Muslim candidates who are appealing to their community voters to support Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP on 5 August 2020. Although MR and his sibling, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, proclaim publicly that they have no prejudice against any community, and that they consider every one a Sri Lankan, forces that are working behind the scene and campaigning at grassroot level, including some academics, members from the Sangha, certain media moguls and their team of journalists, are openly anti-Muslim and Islamophobic. Not only under MR’s second term of presidency, but also under the current GR’s presidency, Muslims have suffered immensely at the hands of ethno-nationalist Buddhist supremacists. True, the Macabre act of April 2019 carried out by a bunch of Muslim lunatics provided these forces a powerful propaganda weapon to spread hatred against Muslims. However, neither MR nor GR nor anyone from their team had taken any measures to restrain these forces.  The situation does not seem to improve. 

Yet, a group of Muslim politicians, realizing that SLPP has a good chance of capturing government, are contesting under its banner and advocating the idea that Muslims should be a partner in the coming regime.  There is also no doubt that even those Muslims contesting under different banners and symbols, if they win, would eventually join the government. The same mentality of joining the winning party continues to prevail despite bitter experiences suffered by Muslims since 2013. The community seems to think that larger their number in the legislature greater would be the chances of checking the anti-Muslim forces backing the SLPP. Once again wining special favours and privileges seems to dominate Muslim political strategy. Little they realise that all that SLPP wants from Muslim parliamentarians is to lend support to its move to revise the constitution and make the Presidency more dictatorial. It is a pity that Muslims refuse to consider this danger seriously and are prepared to be hoodwinked by their own leaders.                

Never in the history of post-independent Sri Lanka did Muslims back progressive forces in the country. Even when some progressives joined in a coalition with SLFP in 1970, Muslims, who were benefited substantially in terms of education under that government, eventually deserted the coalition and supported UNP in 1977. Badi’s state supported Islamic Socialist Front, that wanted to change the community’s mosque-market oriented political direction proved no match to the mullah-merchant reactionary Anti-Marxist Front cobbled up by M. H. Mohamed. Thus, the political conservatism of this community and its readiness to join the winners after every election is the natural outcome of their unique history and religiosity.  It is the mosque and the market that ultimately rule Muslim politics. If this is what meant by pragmatic politics then, in the context of the current wave of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism, which is forcefully othering the minorities, it has outlived its use by date. 

In conclusion, of all the parties and candidates that are vying for power at the forthcoming election only Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s JVP-led NPP has the most constructive ideas to save Sri Lanka from descending into a militarised state with economic misery, communal frictions and compromised territorial sovereignty. NPP is not the old JVP driven by Sinhala chauvinism, and NKD is not campaigning on behalf of any ethnic group or class. Will Muslim voters wake up and vote for NPP at least to strengthen its hands in the next legislature? If not, let them at least reject SLPP outright.

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 19

    Dr. Ameer Ali.
    You are 100% correct.
    “””Mosque and the market in Sri Lanka represent two principal agents of change influencing Muslim political thought and action”””
    And you wants “Pansala” & “Monks” to stay away from politics…
    There is a sinhala saying ” Kata Boru Kiwwath Diwa Boru Kiyanne Na”

    • 4

      Controversal SCP@

      Why not the muslims in SL be granted their own relgious freedom, so long that would not harm non-muslims ? Why should we the buddhgama followers be empowered to criticise non-buddhgama religions ? If pseudo monk led BUDDHGAMA can take over the control of everything in that rotten island ? THe place given to Buddhgama has ruined the nation and its politics of the day.
      Mind you, if lanken SANGARATHANA would have been NEUTRAL in compliance with true treachings of Buddha, politicians like Rajapakshes would ever be able to lead srilanken nation ? Twisting the mind set of THE PASQUALS, they criminals are on their looting manouver for their family politics. No matter over 40% of the population would fight for their 3 meals ye today, Rajaakshes should put above and be treated like gods… my gosh, our slaves are even stupidier than that of caste based indians.

      I now fully stopped giving ALMs to SRILANKEN fake monks, because Rajakashe led groups have given them ARMS over the past few years, mobilizing BBS or the like FACIST religious groups also letting srilanken buddhism be compared with that of Myanmar. Remember how the bugger monks invited that murderous ASHIN Wirathu on the invitation of srilanken counterpart (Ghanasara).

  • 8

    Ameer Ali

    Why do you keep writing Absolute Rubbish about Muslims in Sri Lanka? Just like the Muslim trader who, you allege, looks to please his large Sinhala customer base, you want to please the large Non-Muslim Readers who enjoy reading your diatribe against the Muslims, right?

    Your words “It is the mosque and the market that ultimately rule Muslim politics.”, are the Furthest from the Truth and they can come ONLY from a person who is an Ignoramus or who looks for cheap publicity or both.

    • 2

      You want to hear the truth. Here is the truth. The rubbish is flowing from you! Silence is the virtue of those who are not wise.

  • 0

    Ameer Ali

    This is a very important article–in understanding Muslims by Muslims themselves as well as others inhabiting this island nation.

    This is an opinion of a non-Muslim, hence mistakes are excusable.

    Mosques and the market may have influenced the thoughts and behavior of Muslims may be up to the 80s.

    But after 80s of the last century, revolutionary changes that swept through Sri Lanka with the opening of economy that had radically changed the behavior of all communities in Sri Lanka.

    The Sinhalese entered trade in a big way with the patronage of JR government.

    Muslims faced stiff competition forcing them to diversify and Muslims entered the professions in large numbers.

    The Muslims were flexible enough to compete successfully in all fields with other communities..

    This coincided with the formation of all Ceylon Muslim Congress and the political strategy of Muslims also changed dramatically in a big way.

    Now the Muslims have formed their own political parties without completely alienating with the traditional mainstream political parties forming strategic alliances with the winning parties in the South.

    The Muslims have changed in a way, but remained unchanged also.

  • 6

    Demala speaking Muslims came as traders as well as refugees to escape from persecution in Hindusthan.
    After saving Muslims from persecution by Portuguese, King Senerath settled them in Sinhala areas. They were also allowed to marry Sinhala women and convert them to Islam. So, Muslims were more or less forced to learn Sinhala.

    Demala people came to Sinhale either as invaders before 1505 or as coolies after 1505 to work in tobacco plantations in Yapanaya and tea plantations in central part of the country operated by colonial rulers. Those who came as invaders were chased away. Those who came as coolies had to live in ghettoes without having the opportunity to get exposed to Sinhalayo.
    It was during British rule that Demala people, mainly Vellala in Yapanaya got the opportunity to move out of Yapanaya. Majority of Vellala Demala people who moved out worked for the British colonial Government and communicated in English.
    After the country gained independence, G.G. Ponnambalam told Demala government servants not to learn Sinhala. That is the reason why Vellala Demala politicians opposed the decision to declare Sinhala which was the official language in Sinhale before colonial rule once again as the official language in independent Sinhale (aka Ceylon) replacing English.

    • 3

      Eagle Brain Dead Blind Eye

      “Demala speaking Muslims came as traders as well as refugees to escape from persecution in Hindusthan.”

      What language did exiled thugs Vijaya and his fellow Sinhapurians (your ancestors) speak when their Kallathonies landed on these shores?

      • 6

        Native (Fake) Vedda,
        “What language did exiled thugs Vijaya and his fellow Sinhapurians (your ancestors) speak when their Kallathonies landed on these shores?”

        They spoke ‘Asia Esperanto”.

    • 0

      EE: Is there an end to this venom. Just be a human for a change.

  • 6

    Ameer Ali,
    “ forces that are working behind the scene and campaigning at grassroot level, including some academics, members from the Sangha, certain media moguls and their team of journalists, are openly anti-Muslim and Islamophobic. Not only under MR’s second term of presidency, but also under the current GR’s presidency, Muslims have suffered immensely at the hands of ethno-nationalist Buddhist supremacists.”

    We are getting sick of listening to this BS again and again. Sinhala Buddhists are not anti-Muslim. They are against Wahabi Muslim extremists who shattered the peace they were enjoying after going through hell for three decades with LTTE Tamil terrorism. Good that large majority of Sinhala Buddhists do not read your BS. If they do, even those who are not anti-Muslim will become anti-Muslim.
    If Muslims suffered it is not the fault of Sinhala Buddhists but the fault of your own people that allowed Wahabi extremism to flourish and provoking Sinhala Buddhists. In almost all the instances that clashes occurred between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims, the first stone was thrown by Muslims. They do that and when Sinhala Buddhists react very cleverly put the blame on Sinhala Buddhists. Sinhala Buddhists have to go through this nonsense because of the blunder made by King Senerath.

  • 2

    It is a pity that ‘Muslim’ writes almost always write only on ‘Muslim’ issues

  • 1

    It is a pity that ‘Muslim’ writers almost always write only on ‘Muslim’ issues . I remain hopeful that one day Dr. Ali will share his expertise on ‘business and governance’ with the CT readership, preferably without once mentioning the words “Muslim” or “Sinhala Buddhist” .

  • 1

    Like in sri lanka muslims Most Buddhists in Malaysia come from the Chinese community. Many of them combine Buddhism with Taoism or Confucianism, making Buddhists the second largest religious group dominant image of Buddhist welfare on the Malaysian landscape. in Malaysia after Islam. And dominant image of Buddhist welfare on the Malaysian landscape.

  • 0

    An accurate piece about Ceylon Moors mentality. Those who are in Islam can only be concerned about their community; so it is always a community within community in all non-Muslim countries and they always support the rulers as traders, besides they cannot have social intermingling with the host society. One would wish if there some relaxation in its control.

    . However, it is not working well nowadays, especially after penetration of Wahhabism with money from Middle East with aim to control power in the nation; and hence the Easter Day terrorist attack on the society that fed them.

    . By necessity as traders, they betrayed the language on the Language Policy, besides emptying the Tamils of their population by conversion. Then at least be a fellow traveller.

    . Tamils political position has then become like an ant stuck in a piece of stick that burns on both ends.

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