By Ameer Ali –
The forthcoming General Election is in many ways going to be a litmus test for the future survival, let alone prosperity, of Muslim community in this country. Yet, one is not able to detect that sentiment and seriousness from public expressions and campaigning strategies of dozens of Muslim candidates who are rushing to enter the next parliament. In general, Muslim politics in recent decades has been in a state of confusion and disarray, without any sense of direction and objective.
Immediately after defeating the Tamil rebels in 2009, with untold deaths and atrocities, and at irrecoverable expense, a triumphalist Sinhala ethnocracy1, with its professional, political and clerical apparatus, turned its attention on the Muslim minority, which was on the side of the Sinhala dominated government during the war. While Tamil separatism was viewed as an existential threat to the Sinhala nation, and therefore was legitimised to be wiped out at all cost, the presence of Muslims, after more than a millennium of peaceful coexistence with Sinhalese and Tamils, came to be viewed by the newly emerged Sinhala-Buddhist ethnocracy, as a threat to Buddhism and Buddhist hegemony.
It should be noted in passing, that soon after independence in 1948, Sri Lankan democracy was fast turning into a Sinhala ethnocracy, with the passage of the Lion Flag in 1948 with slight changes in 1953 and n1972, the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1951, and the Sinhala Only Language Bill in 1957. With the 1972 Republican Constitution, which bestowed ‘foremost place’ to Buddhism, while dismantling all constitutional safeguards accorded to minorities in the Soulbury Constitution, Sinhala ehnocracy was set to become a Sinhala-Buddhist ethnocracy.
After 2009, two fallacious and totally outlandish arguments were advanced by Buddhist ethnocrats to justify their stand against Muslims. One was that the birth rate amongst Muslims is far higher than that of the Sinhalese, and if unchecked, within about fifty years or more, Muslims would become the majority in this country. To support this argument they concocted several other canards such as that Muslims were forcibly converting Buddhists to Islam, that at least one Muslim gynaecologist had secretly sterilised hundreds of Sinhalese mothers, and that Muslim businessmen and restaurateurs were distributing contraceptive substances through complimentary sweets and food and drinks served to Sinhalese customers respectively. So far, none of these allegations had been tested and proved scientifically, while one Muslim gynaecologist had been arrested and still waiting for his trial.
The second argument was in relation a supposedly growing economic and commercial power of this minority. Once again, there is no hard evidence to prove this. True, Muslims are experts in trade and commerce and that profession is closely associated with the origins and history of Islam. Even the Holy Quran and Hadiths contain numerous references to trade and its foremost status among professions. This may be one of the reasons why this community earned the sobriquet “business community” during colonial days. It is also true, that there are a few leading retail chains in the major cities owned by Muslims performing excellently well, but several of them were established after JRJ’s open economy in 1978, and they prospered through open competition and hard work. However, that is no evidence to prove that Muslims are taking over the economy of the country. In fact, according to some estimates, Muslims form the largest percentage of those living below poverty line in the country. Pots of flowers inside the window does not mean there is spring outside.
Following from these two was a third argument that Sri Lanka would soon become an Islamic State with Sharia Laws. Rise of Islamism in the Middle East and its extremist outposts in several countries of Europe and elsewhere naturally had added substance to this argument.
In several of my previous contributions to this journal, I had pointed out how Muslim community itself with its short sighted political and religious leadership had contributed, perhaps unwittingly, to the birth and growth of this anti-Muslim propaganda. The failure of that leadership to understand the undercurrents that began destabilising the community in particular and the country at large since 1980s was symptomatic of the confusion that reigns supreme today2. It is with this backdrop that the following observations are presented about Muslim politics and forthcoming election.
A Unique Election
The 2020 General Elections, unlike all its predecessors, is going to be unique in the sense that it is going to be fought and decided on one single issue, i.e., whether the gains made by Buddhists at the Presidential Election in November 2019 should be consolidated and strengthened with a two-third majority victory for the President’s political arm, SLPP. Thanks to the unbridgeable split in the opposition and policy bankruptcy of progressive political forces in the country, SLPP under Mahinda Rajapaksa is destined to win this election, although it is uncertain whether it will get the desired margin of victory.
Although MR claims that he never ill-treated the Muslim community and that Muslims are an integral part of this nation, it was during MR’s presidency that Muslim community experienced its first episode of post-2009 violence in Alutgama in June 2014. Not even three months after that, MR spread out the red carpet to welcome Myanmar’s “face of terror”, Ashin Viratu, on September 26th. His inaction in Alutgama, and his tolerance if not encouragement of Buddhist extremist groups like Bodu Bala Sena and its anti-Muslim cohorts, which were instrumental in bringing Viratu to Sri Lanka, showed his lack of sympathy towards Muslims and endorsement of Buddhist supremacy.
Thereafter, these supremacists, led by BBS’ Secretary Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara continued their anti-Muslim campaign during Yahapalana regime, once again under the watchful eyes of its President Maithiripala Sirisena(MS) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW). The most shocking development under MS presidency was his decision to pardon and release Rev. Gnanasara, who was found guilty of contempt of court and imprisoned for six years. The Easter Sunday macabre act perpetrated by a bunch of Jihadist Muslim lunatics gave the supremacists and their maverick monks a golden opportunity to unleash their attacks on Muslims. Today, the same unshackled cleric continues with his anti-Muslim tirade poisoning the hearts and minds of gullible Sinhala Buddhist masses. Neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) nor his premier MR has shown any willingness to interfere and check this dangerous trend.
Without going into further details about successive incidents and episodes that had no doubt left Muslims in a state of fear and anxiety, the question to be asked is what has Muslim leadership done to counter these developments. In fact, the responsibility for the Easter mayhem itself should be left more at the feet of this leadership, which failed to read, understand and change the radical mindset that was slowly engulfing sections of Muslim youth from 1980s, than at the doors of the killers themselves. Warnings were there, but ignored in the interest of gaining political mileage.
Even on the eve of the General Election, are Muslim leaders and those aspiring to become so, equipped with solid facts and figures about the economic, educational and social conditions of their community? Without that data how on earth could they talk of problems and solutions? In contrast, the Tamil community and its leaders, with assistance from their own academic and professional men and women, possess such data about their community. That is why they are able to draft a specific set of demands and are willing to negotiate for a solution with contesting Sinhala political parties. Data collection and updating should be an ongoing process. Shamefully, even the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which claims to speak for all Muslims, has no solid facts even to argue a case. It only shows how out of touch these leaders are with their own people.
On another level, there are continuing attacks and threats against Muslim religious icons like madrasas and shrines. Apart from Rev. Gnanasara, there is another member of the Buddhist clergy, Rev. Athuraliye Rathana Thera who is in the forefront of this attack. Their knowledge about Islam, its beliefs, preaching and practices are superficial and gathered mostly from hearsay. But, why are they allowed to continue without an authoritative response from Muslim religious leadership? Why is ACJU for example, remaining silent? Is it afraid of speaking the truth or is it in agreement with these clerics?
In the light of this pathetic situation, a bunch of Muslim politicians, several of whom are fortune hunters or carpet baggers, are campaigning to enter the parliament. What choice do they have? None of them, either individually or as a group, has so far submitted either to their voters or to the party they are seeking to join with, any set of demands or a plan of action to accomplish, if they get elected to the parliament. There is one group however, harping an outdated tune of joining the governing party and becoming its partner to maximise benefits. They claim that they are following the footsteps of an earlier and successful leader, Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud. This strategy has passed its use by date, because earlier, the majority community eagerly sought the support of Muslims because of its fight against Tamils. Therefore, both UNP and SLFP enticed Muslim politicians with positions and privileges to join them. Badiuddin was an exception because he was one of the founding members of SLFP and a very close friend of SWRD and his family. He was in a strong position to get what he wanted from the SLFP and its leaders. It is not easy for any Muslim politician to step into his shoes. Today, Tamils have been defeated and there is no need for Buddhist leaders to appease Muslims. With Buddhist supremacists reigning supreme, and with their proven strength at the last Presidential Election, neither the SLPP nor any of the two factions of UNP is willing to entice Muslims with favours and positions. In fact, one minister from SLPP has openly said that Muslim support is immaterial to his party’s victory. So, what are these politicians going to achieve by joining the government? Individually they may gain but community wise they will not. Time has changed and strategies should also change.
Fighting from Opposition
Muslim politicians, unlike their Tamil and Sinhalese counterparts, have very limited experience in testing their strength from opposition benches. What matters for a parliamentarian is not where he/she sits but his/her calibre and contribution. With one or two rare exceptions in the past, Muslim parliamentarians carry a poor record as able debaters and resourceful contributors to national issues. This is because, the community at large, indoctrinated with a distorted philosophy, in the name of religion, about the transient nature of this life, has developed a business-like attitude towards politics, which is entirely a matter belonging to this world – an aspect rarely discussed by Muslim intellectuals, and a subject requiring extended discussion. To put it in a nutshell, why should anyone commit to fight for one’s country or language and community, and for that matter, the environment, if one believes that one may leave this world any time soon? Therefore, if Muslim politicians could get whatever they could from the government, which would make this transient life a little more comfortable, that would be enough. That is what the community expects and that is what Muslim politicians are aiming at. This short sighted philosophy bedevils many a Muslim minority in the world. Preaching from the pulpit endorses this attitude.
On the other hand, if one is committed to politics as a vocation to improve the land in which one lives and people among whom one is born and lives, then one could make a contribution even from the opposition and win the “who enter the legislature. Carpet baggers who want to advance their own fortunes are a liability to the community as well as to the country.
In the past and until 1970s, how did those leftist stalwarts like NM, Peter, Colvin and Philip serve their constituencies when they were not part of the government? Governments were compelled not to discriminate or disadvantage their constituencies and voters, because of the value those leaders were adding to good governance. They were not fortune hunters but constructive critics and patriots. In the current climate, it is extremely difficult to find such leaders in the Muslim community. This is why the community is in such a disadvantageous position. If Muslim politicians are clever enough at least they could support progressive voices from the opposition and render measured support to the government and check its excesses. Regrettably, Muslim politics is in such a state of confusion and disarray, the community has to pay a heavy price in the years to come.
- On ethnocracy and its development in Sri Lanka, see, James Anderson, “Ethnocracy: Exploring and Extending the Concept”, https://express.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/mcs/article/view/5143/5715. Also, Oren Yiftachel and Asad Ghanem, “Understanding ‘ethnocratic’ regimes: The politics of seizing contested territories”, Political Geography, 23(6), pp. 647-676.
- Ameer Ali, “Easter Carnage & Grand Failure of Leadership”, Colombo Telegraph, 23 April 2019; Financial Times, 24 April 2019.