By Ameer Ali –
When the nation is going through an unprecedented period of multiple crises, when the most decisive issue to be settled is emerging as one between changing the prevailing socio-economic and political paradigm or system on the one hand, and isolating from that system only the economic crisis and tackling it through support and instructions from IMF and other agencies on the other, and when the country is on the verge of witnessing another aragalaya, Muslim political parties and their leaders are engaged in exploring tactics and seeking alliances to maximize their presence in the legislature if and when an election to be held. Their contribution to the national debate on crises facing the country has been zero so far. Sadly, this nonchalance towards national issues and preoccupation with only those concerning the Muslim community had been the delineating feature of Muslim politics since the dawn of parliamentary democracy in this country. How does one explain this myopic obsession?
It was Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, the late historian, constitutionalist lawyer and politician, who captured this apathy when he made that disturbing remark, “Muslims in this country are like the cow and the grass.” (I picked this quote in Tamil from the diary of Abdul Cader Lebbe (1913-1984), a renowned philosopher poet and incisive observer of Muslim affairs). The cow eats the grass but has no concern over how that grass is grown. To put it differently, Muslims have been schooled in a mindset that has turned them into a community of spectators and not participants in the national drama. How does one explain this parochialism?
This insularism is the combined product of a mindset nurtured by two inter-related agencies: trade and commerce and the type of Islam preached to the masses. Trade and commerce are the most representative profession not only of Sri Lankan Muslims but also Islam. Starting as a community of travelling pedlars and tavalam merchants, before growing into one of sedentary but ubiquitous shopkeepers, Muslim middlemen spent their time and energy predominantly on pecuniary matters throughout their working life. In that pursuit, their main interest remained restricted to the daily happenings in the market and satisfaction of their customers. Their after-shop hours were spent in taking care of their families and performing religious obligations.
The mosque on the other hand functioned not only as the centre of worship but also an institution of religious indoctrination, where the preachers imparted a knowledge of Islam which was otherworldly in essence with associated emphasis on the transient nature of this life and the need to prepare oneself to face the Creator on the Day of Judgement. Another aspect of that preaching was to stress the importance of a universal ummah or religious community with no mention of watan or nation. There was therefore an inherent clash in this preaching between believing and belonging. This narrow interpretation of religion, which is contrary to the actual teachings of the Quran and practices of the Prophet, encouraged Muslims to lead a life of detachment or minimum involvement with matters outside their immediate wellbeing and religious life. Added to the second minority status of the community, this economic and religious base created a mindset which preferred the community to be aloof from the main currents of national development.
After independence and when democracy with party system was introduced, the Muslim mindset developed a type of political attitude that did not care who or which political party should govern, and what national policies and programs should it adopt so long as the holders of power left Muslim economic interests and their religion untouched. In practical terms that attitude translated itself into supporting whichever political party or coalition of parties that captures the government. With very few exceptions, the voting behaviour of Muslim MPs in the parliament is a sad reflection of Muslims so called pragmatic politics.
The irony is that the Muslim strategy of always backing the winning side became an asset to the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian political system in its running confrontation with the Tamil minority from 1950s. Muslim representatives in parliament were given cabinet positions, sometime disproportionately to their numbers in parliament, their nominees were appointed to prestigious positions in public institutions, and the community received preferential treatment not because of the system’s love towards Muslims but because of its hatred against Tamils. The favoured treatment accorded to Muslims allowed the Sinhala Buddhist governments not only to refute international accusation of systematic ethnic discrimination, but also to strengthen relations with wealthy Arab countries. It was a devil’s bargain.
That bargain lost its value to the architects of the system after 2009. With the annihilation of the Tamil militia Sinhala Buddhist supremacists felt that they had gained control of the entire country and that there was no need to favour Muslims. The post-2009 anti-Muslim violence, state restrictions to build new mosques and madrasas and vicious and baseless campaigns to spread Islamophobia among Sinhalese were the result of breakdown of that bargain.
Meanwhile, the internal malfunctioning of the system marked by nepotism, corruption, economic mismanagement, and lack of accountability created crises of multiple dimensions and ultimately bankrupted the nation financially. That “polycrises” awakened a new generation of youngsters who felt that the system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be thrown out. That was the reason for the 2022 aragalaya, which was suppressed by the guardians of the system four months after the struggle began. However, what was started by those youngsters has now grown into a national struggle determined to throw out the system along with its guardians. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who was put into power by the same systemists is trying to do patchwork repair starting with the economy. His cure seems to be more painful than the disease itself. Hence, the increasing chance for a second aragalaya.
Without systemic change there is no hope for the country for a less painful economic revival, communal peace, and political stability. There is no way that minorities could live with freedom and dignity under the current system. The Sinhala youth have awakened to this fact, and their influence, according to several opinion polls, is spreading amongst the Sinhala masses. Ethnonationalism mixed with political Buddhism appears to be losing its electoral advantage and there are signs for a radical change. This is the reason why the President is refusing to call Local Government Elections. But once again, instead of joining this new wave and becoming participants in the national struggle, Muslim community and its political leaders are pathetically keeping aloof and looking for opportunities to strike a bargain at the end. The two Muslim parties, SLMC and ACMC are typical of displaying this opportunism. The apex religious body ACJU is another. But their hackneyed business politics is fast losing its usefulness and will have no place under a new system. The community desperately needs a forward looking and patriotic leadership.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia