Colombo Telegraph

On Muslim Community’s Indifference

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

A recent article titled, “Sri Lanka’s Unfolding Political Crisis & Muslim Community’s Indifference”, by Latheef Farook and published in this journal (Colombo Telegraph, 20 Nov 2018), raised a very pertinent question regarding Muslim community’s callous nonchalance towards the current political crisis in the country triggered by President Sirisena’s equally callous disregard to the nation’s constitutional proprieties. The author was quite justifiably critical of Muslim parliamentarians escaping to Mecca rather than remaining in the country, like their Tamil counterparts, to confront and tackle the crisis head on. He was also equally critical of the silence of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the so called apex body of Muslim religious functionaries, on the same issue. What follows is a brief exposition of the reasons underlying this indifference.

This is a disease that bedevils Muslim community over centuries and has become crucially problematic since the country achieved independence and adopted a democratic form of government. The indifference Farook identified goes to the heart of a more fundamental question that I raised in my earlier writings. That is, do Muslims consider themselves people OF Sri Lanka or IN Sri Lanka? It is in the pick of this choice depends whether the community is patriotic in its commitment, integrative in approach and participatory in action, or, communal in outlook, exclusivist in approach and selfish in behaviour. 

In fact, the community’s indifference towards national issues emanates from a centuries old Weltanschauung shaped and nurtured by a religio-centric but fatalistic interpretation of life by the mullahs, who, through their educational institutions and pulpit sermons have created a communal mindset that refuses to yield to pressures of a modern nation. Historically, mullah leadership in Sri Lanka had been responsible and continues to be responsible for indoctrinating their students and followers with an attitude that considers life for a Muslim in this world transient, that the Hereafter is the permanent abode, and therefore, that Muslims should not get too involved in mundane matters like politics, economics, rational humanism, natural environment, gender equality and host of other issues over which modern nations and societies are struggling to come to terms with.   A good and pious Muslim living in this mullah designed Weltanschauung is one who conscientiously and methodically keeps observing the prescribed Five Pillars of Islam (confession of the faith, daily prayers, fasting, obligatory charity and pilgrimage), avoids indulging in what is prohibited while embracing what is permitted his religion and prepares to achieve paradise in the Hereafter. In the mullah’s scheme of things one should live in this world as if one is about to depart from it the very next moment. This Hereafter focused view of life received further emphasis in the mullah version of Muslim history and settlement in this country. The fact that Muslims arrived principally as traders and that they are a minority meant, in mullah world view, that Muslims here should mind their business of trade and other economic pursuits to sustain their life, and refrain as far as possible from getting involved in worldly affairs such as politics, which are distractors in a Muslim’s journey to the next world. At worst they should remain indifferent and make the best use of any situation that is presented to them.  One only has to attend any of the Tabligh Jamaat gatherings and listen to what those preachers advocate to understand the essence of this other-worldly philosophy. It is therefore unfair to expect a community that has been indoctrinated over centuries to think along this line to commit itself on national issues that would test its depth of patriotism and civic responsibilities as citizens of a modern state.      

This mindset nurtured by religious leadership has not changed even with the spread of modern secular education in Muslim schools, colleges and universities; and it was this mindset that naturally prompted Colvin R. De Silva in the 1960s to remark that Muslims in Sri Lanka are like a cow and the grass. The animal eats the grass without any concern about how that grass is grown and cared for. There were other national leaders from Anagarika Dharmapala to JR Jayewardene, SWRD Bandaranaike, CP de Silva and more who had questioned Muslims’ commitment to the national effort of the country. It is pointless to blame ordinary Muslims for this indifference because they are the flock shepherded by the mullah. How to live as a patriotic Muslim in a non-Muslim country is a question yet to be answered by Muslim theologians. This is an issue confronting Muslim minorities all over the world. 

Given this mind set Muslim politicians, who are also products of the same milieu, have learnt the art of exploiting it for their own personal advantage. They know that issues such as constitutional changes, democracy, rule of law, human rights, environmentalism and so on are non-issues so far as Muslim voters are concerned.  As long as politicians are able to deliver a few benefits to their electors, such as government jobs, trading facilities, dates during Ramadhan and less obstacles to travel to Mecca for umra and hajj, they can capture Muslim votes. This explains the embarrassing indifference of Muslim political leaders not only in relation to the current political imbroglio but also in other matters affecting the nation as a whole. Even in the parliament when the government and opposition debate over issues concerning economic development, sovereignty and the future of the entire nation and so on, Muslim representatives rarely contribute to the debate and mostly remain silent except when raising issues regarding their own community.   

Like the Muslim politicians, ACJU is also noncommittal on national issues and remains embarrassingly indifferent when situations demand a Muslim voice to be heard. It is not surprising that its members did not utter a word about the current crisis. (On another matter, it is shocking why ACJU has said nothing so far about the Saudi engineered murder of Jamal Kashoggi, which has outraged the entire world. Is it afraid of the paymaster?)  ACJU hierarchy, like Muslim politicians, waits to see which political faction wins the government to join hands with the winner. It is an institution that has little to contribute on matters of national importance. This is regrettably in contrast to the dynamic message of the Quran and its Prophet. I shall not go into this comparison for sake of brevity. Just on one point, didn’t the Prophet say that love of the nation is part of one’s faith?  

What the community needs today therefore is a radical change in its calcified mindset and narrow word view. Muslims may be a minority but they must be a committed and lively minority engaging vigorously and productively in every aspect of the country’s life. There is no room for being indifferent on issues of national importance, which only makes the community appear a collection of parasites in public eye. In short, Muslims must be a people OF and not IN Sri Lanka. There is however a glimmer of hope for positive change in the future with the emergence of a class of intellectuals who are aware of the need. It is this class that should spearhead a radical transformation of the parochial mindset that is promoting an aloofness endangering the plural polity. The community desperately needs quality political leadership. The responsibility of producing such a leadership rests squarely on the shoulders of its intellectual class.   

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