Colombo Telegraph

Muslim: The Identity On Trial!

By Mohamed SR. Nisthar –   

Mohamed SR. Nisthar

Logically, it is right to say “I am a human” when the question  “who are you?”, is posed, which tries to identify the real “us”.  But technically it may not be right, because this apparently simple question requires an answer within the context in which it is asked.

In a multi-ethnic country like Sri Lanka or elsewhere if the question is asked to a Muslim person from Sri Lanka it should not be answered equivocally. For instance, I happened to be faced with the question in London once when I was in an academic circle for a different purpose. Being a Muslim by religious belief, I paused a little purposely and said “though my mother tongue is Tamil, I am neither Tamil nor Singhalese”. I could then see a confused new question emerging by their facial expression; “what is he saying?”, because the question was based on the perceived understanding that Sri Lankans are either Singhalese or Tamils ethnically.

One would say that my answer was a stupid one and it should have been simply “I am a Muslim”. Of course I could have said that and they also would have nodded to confirm that they understood. This is the very point I am intending to expand a little bit more here. No doubt, I strongly believe that I am a practicing Muslim. But the question asked was not to know about my religious identity. After all they did not bother to know my religion. Then I would have had to explain to them who I really was. Before I take you further on this we shall  just concentrate on the points below.

Every living being, which is more than one, should be identified in one way or another. For instance, humans can be identified in general as males and females. But this not enough, so then they can be differentiated by individual names, followed by birth place, language, caste, tribe, religion, nation and nationality etc. All these different identities are to make a clear picture of a person and deal with him or her justly. It is like narrowing a wider question and to put it in context for a right answer. However one or many different identities can be used in different circumstances by the same person, which is most suitable to address an  instant issue.

Through the eye of Western Europe I am an Asian, then Sri Lankan, then what? This is a very important question in a place like Sri Lanka where multi-ethnicities and religions have to co-exist and live with each other peacefully with due respect and with all the rights that they deserve. That is why I have put our identity on trial.

Many of us prefer to identify ourselves as Muslims. There is no harm in that. It is our birth right to accept and follow a religion of our own choice and acquire the name. Like our incumbent President, who is a Buddhist or like the TNA leader Mr. Sampanthan, who is a Saivar (Hindu) or  Selvam Adailkalanathan MP , who is  a Catholic. Our President, however, has another identity, Singhalese, which is his ethnic identity.

However when it comes to minister Rauff Hakeem’s identity without hesitation we say he is a Muslim. The problem arises when someone wants to know whether he is either a Tamil or Singhalese ethnically. Here we still have the same answer, he is a “Muslim”. So we try to portray that Mr. Rauff Hakeem is religiously a Muslim and ethnically a Muslim too. Does this make any sense?

Mr. Rauff Hakeem’s  counter parts elsewhere or any other Muslim ministers or Muslim head of  state of any other countries seem to have not been confused as to their religious and ethnic identities. Here are some examples; Mr. Syed Muntaz Alam Gillai of Pakistan a Muslim but Punjabi by ethnic origin. King of Malaysia  Al Wathiqu Shah is a Muslim, but a Malay by ethnic. Mr. Susilo Banbay Yudhoyano, the Indonesian President is a Muslim by religion, but his ethnicity is Javanese. Prime minister of Bangladesh Mrs. Sheik Hasina, a Muslim but her ethnicity is Bengali. The Afghan President  Hamid Karzai is ethnically a Pashtun, but a Muslim. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad is a Muslim, but ethnically a Persian.

The Iraqi President  Jala Talabani is a Muslim, but his ethnic identity is Kurdish. The Turkish Prime minister Reccip  Erdgon is a Muslim, but ethnically a Turk. The President of Kazakhstan  Nursultan Nazarbuyav a Muslim but Kazakh by ethnicity. Most of the Arab speaking leaders of the Arab world are Muslims and their ethnicity is defined as Arabs. Likewise, Muslim leaders of African nations are not necessarily ethnic Arabs but have their unique ethnic identities, like the current Senegal President Mr. Abdulaye Wade religiously a Muslim but ethnically something else. And all these people remain as what they have been, ethnically, before and after the advent of Islam. 

So what is wrong with our Sri Lankan Muslims? Where did we get the ethnic name as Muslims? Or do we not  have an ethnic name at all? Or are we considering ourselves as either Tamil or Singhalese descendants? Or as crossbreeds? Whatever it may be, then don’t be shy to say so. It is not an anathema. Otherwise we are creating a myth in that to say that a people came into existence all of a sudden out of the blue. The conundrum, which we create may put us in and make it very difficult for us to come out of it in the future. Therefore there is no logic ignoring our identity question I believe. 

Our birth certificates unambiguously confirm that our ethnicity is “Moorish”, i.e “Moor” in English. It is “Yonaka” in Singhalese and “Sonakar” in Tamil. It is not clear whether the term Moor is a direct translation of “Sonakar” or “Yonaka”. Some interpret that the term Moor represents   Muslim. This connotation was in fact given by the early invaders of our Island, the Portuguese. If a people were identified as Moors/Muslims or Moors equal Muslims,  then what were they before Islam was introduced to them in 7th century? Therefore the world “Moor” is a name of convenience, coincided with the arrival of Portuguese. The original name sounds like “Sonakar” derived from the word “Suvanar” implicating  the decedents of the  first ever human being,  Adam and Eve, who were supposedly sent down to Earth from the heaven know as “Suvanam” in the Sonakar language “Elu”, which is the early form of present-day  Tamil’s base language. Regardless of this profound ethnic identity, we keep on saying we are Muslims in each and every respect. My contention is that this “one size fits all” approach or one dimensional answer to all is not wise and it is dangerous in political context, especially in Sri Lanka. Let me explain why.

When the Norwegian brokered peace negotiation between the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tigers was in its infancy, the Sri Lanka Muslims, who had also been victims of the Tamil Tigers, wanted to be included in the peace process. No one noticed of their cry. The Tamil Tigers put up a stern  blockade to the idea of Muslims participation as a separate entity in the talks, and simply said  “you can be a participant within the government team”. The Muslims said; we have a separate ethnic origin and the talks were intended to solve the ethnic problems of Sri Lanka, we have our grievances. Therefore the GoSL can be a party representing the Singhalese, the Tigers should represent the Tamils, and thus Muslims should be represented by Muslims. A little bit complicated, but a fair request it seemed.

In pursuit, there was a protest in front of the Norwegian Embassy in London initiated by the Muslim youths of Jaffna on  24th April 2002. I was making a video clip about the protest for my own documentations and saw one of the organizers, Mr. S.M.M Bazeer, a Sri Lankan lawyer in London, triumphantly  coming out of the embassy after handing over a petition/memorandum requesting, presumably, a separate participating right in the peace talks. I interviewed him by a simple question pointing to the banners the youths hoisted “Muslims are a separate Nation”, are you demanding a representational right as a Muslim or a Moor (Sonakar)?   His answer was “we are demanding separate representation for Muslims”. I was appalled. Because the talks were aimed to solve ethnic issues, the parties involved should therefore go with their ethnic identities. If we go with religious identity then there has always been a possibility for other religious groups   to be Singhalese Buddhists, Singhalese Christians, Tamil Saivars, Tamil Christians, Malay Muslims and the like asking for the same treatment for no apparent reasons other than “they got it, therefore we should get it”, making the peace efforts pointless and complicate to solve or making the existing complication far more complex.

Why would the Norwegian or anyone else listen to one group of religious people and not to others? Where is the justification? His answer was once again “we have a duty of Dha’wa”(religious enlightening service). Of course I appreciate that. I do on my own, but participating in Norwegian peace talks was not a Dha’wa mission after all. No plausible answer was given by Mr. Bazeer, thus there was no continuation of  the interview.

I did not give up. I delivered a brief lecture to the youths at the scene on our identity issue. Some understood, but some were reluctant to take it on board, however, it seemed that they at least allocated a tiny place in their mind for future exploration. Later on I wrote a detailed argument with my reasoning and sent it to the key players of the organizing body of that event Dr. Siddiq, Accountant Mr. Farook and Lawyer Mr. Bazeer, calling for a meeting to discuss these issues further, but there was  no  courtesy to respond.

Two years later one Mr. Mohideen, who participated in the peace conference in Norway as a Sri Lanka Muslim Congress representative, held a debriefing session in London. I was invited to it and I put this identity question to him. I was not sure whether he fully understood my reasoning for an ethnic identity even though he said there was a point in what I said. But unfortunately there was no follow up. Now I see him advocating  the Sri Lankan Muslims to learn Arabic as their home and school language rather than our mother tongues Tamil and Singhalese. His reasoning for this is not to be divided ourselves by language lines, revitalise the knowledge of our religion and to better understand the  Holy Qur-an. Is he pioneering a new home and educational language for the Sri Lankan Muslims and  later on to claim that the Sri Lankan Muslims are Arabs because they speak Arab?  I’ll touch on this very subject in the second part of this article.

A year or so ago the former head of the Sri Lankan Muslims Forum in the UK, Mr. Najaa Mohamed quoted from someone else’s speech that we are human first, then Muslims. In addition to this he said that there is a Hadith,( Prophet Muhammed’s exemplary life)  which says, “ do not divide yourselves as Arab or non-Arab”. It seems that he did not understand the Hadith to its entirety. The above forbids  divisions among Muslims( do not misinterpret that we can make divisions among non-Muslims) with that statement.  However I am talking about distinguishing ourselves from other ethnic groups and in the political context in Sri Lanka and not among Muslims to say we are above or below other local or regional or international Muslim Ummah (community). I would like to add that there are many verses in the Holy Qur-an about the creation of humans with clear differences, such as “We have made you in different tribes and nations in order to mutually understand each other” and “There is no nation or tribe without a messenger”

My understanding is that our Muslim politicians as well as the general mass do not fully apprehend the issue rightly. The Tamils (political parties), who cry for a separate state, rightly or wrongly include us only to some extent under the banner of “Tamil speaking people” to gain something. At the time of sharing it fairly they say “you are Muslims”, what we have is for Tamils, not for Muslims. If we are Tamil speaking people too then there should not be a different identity as Tamil speaking Muslims, because they treat Tamil speaking Catholics as part of them and not a part of someone else. Why is this? Because they know that Sri Lankan Muslims are not Tamils by ethnicity. In a way it does not matter whether they know this or not, but the question is whether we know that we are not Tamils ethnically, and to make them understand that we are a separate ethnic group with a profound identity that is Sonakar, which goes all the way  down to the very start of  human existence on the planet earth. This existence began from the top of  the Adam’s Peak. With this identity we can  legitimately claim what we are entitled to.

From the period of independence of Ceylon, the question of our identity came out and went back to the sleeping stage time to time. Our prominent Mr. Sithy Lebbe, Mr. Aziz, Sir. Razick Fareed and others tirelessly worked and proved to their opposite number Mr. Ponnambalam Ramanathan and others that we are not Tamils. However due to our political unawareness and sometimes inferiority complex without any resounding reason we do not worry too much about it. Now the danger is on the brink of coming out.

Despite the fact that there won’t be a legally binding merger (it is highly unlikely that the President would announce a referendum on the question of a merger) of the North and East of the country, on what basis would we support or resist the demand for the merger, the area  the Tamils refer to as the “Tamils Homeland”, should a referendum be held? Our support may be on the basis of our Tamil speaking nature, and our resistance because we are Muslims. What if the Tamil National Alliance surprisingly announces that the first First-minister of the merged North-East province would be a Muslim by a covert act to extract votes for the support for the merger?    What’s wrong with a demand by a Tamil speaking Catholic for a First-minister post rather than a Muslim in the merged area? Do we recognise that it is a fair demand? The situation is getting more and more complex, isn’t it?

If we push Tamil Catholics into a Tamils ethnic identity  and Singhalese Catholics into a Singhalese ethnicity would they not accuse  Muslims in Sri Lanka as being favoured by corresponding to their religious identity whereas others are not? Yes they will. We may have a counter argument that they cannot be considered twice politically, once as Catholics and second time as Tamils or Singhalese. But we cannot make them keep their mouths shut for ever. The current world (dis)order is eagerly seeking a loophole to brand us terrorists, trouble makers, people without a sense of compromise and so on.

In this situation I advocate a dusting exercise, making a rebirth possible as to our ethnic identity. As long as Sri Lanka tries to settle its internal problems in line with ethnicity we proudly and strongly say we are Sonakar (Moors) and we are entitled to our fair share. As long as the people of Sri Lanka are identified along with their religious identity we once again proudly and strongly say we are Muslims demanding a fair and just treatment like other religious groups. We do not need to confuse our fellow citizens and we do not need to have fear of discrimination either. Sri Lanka is not a dual-ethnic county. It is  a multy-ethnic country; Singhalese as the majority, Tamils as a minority, Sonakar as a second minority with the possibility of changing the place, Burgers as the least minority and other sporadically appearing minorities in descending line.   Without a profound ethnic identity there are a lot we will lose, but keeping it alive we do not lose anything. Just think.

Back to Home page