By Ameer Ali –
Andreas Johansson’s Pragmatic Muslim Politics: The Case of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Switzerland: Springer, 2019, is the latest piece of academic research on SLMC, based on Parliamentary Hansards, official party documents and information received from interviews with members of SLMC hierarchy. Because earlier researches did not adequately deal with the role of Muslim politics of the party, in the sense of how its representatives “discursively used the “pool of resources” that is Islamic tradition in terms of references to beliefs, practices, and a “sacred terminology”, Johansson’s study tries to fill that gap and concludes, that “the role of references to Islamic tradition, is pragmatic in the sense that it seeks to get maximum power at minimum risk”. Hence, “Muslim politics of the SLMC is basically pragmatic” (p. 139).
What follows is not strictly a review of this book, but to use the opportunity it provides to (a) explore the long history of pragmatic Muslim politics in Sri Lanka, (b) bring to light an untold truth about the origins of SLMC, and (c) show how, SLMC, because of changing circumstances, has become more of a problem today than solution to the travails of the Muslims. In discussing these issues there will be cross references to Johansson’s analysis and findings.
Muslim Political Pragmatism
After living harmoniously and integrally in a predominantly Buddhist environment for more than a millennium, which was an exceptional experience for a Muslim minority anywhere in Asia, the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riot came as a shock to the Muslim elite. There is one question about that riot, which has not been adequately addressed in researches so far, and the answer to which is crucial to understand the history of Muslim political pragmatism. Why did that riot, which originally targeted the 19th century immigrant Coast Moors soon engulfed even the indigenised Moor community? To answer this question one has to go beyond the symbiotic economic and commercial interests of the two Moor segments and look into the realm of religion.
Between 1980 and 1915, the Muslim community in parallel with Buddhist and Hindu communities underwent a period of religious and cultural awakening1. One of the end products of this awakening was the emergence of a Muslim or umma consciousness, which ingrained in the Muslim mind that every Muslim irrespective of all other identities is a member of a universal Islamic community. This consciousness is different from the “objectification” of Muslim consciousness described by Eckelman and Piscatori, and referred by Johansson (p. 26). In fact, Johansson quotes the following from the two authors: “Objectification is the process by which basic questions come to the fore in the consciousness of large number of believers: “What is my religion?” “Why is it important to my life?” and “How do my beliefs guide my conduct?” In contrast to this consciousness about belief, umma consciousness is about belonging. It is also grounded in the sacred sources of Islam namely, the Quran and Hadiths (See, “Believing and Belonging: A Muslim Dilemma”, Colombo Telegraph, 10 June 2019). It was this consciousness that impelled the indigenised Moor community to sympathise with their immigrant brethren in 1915 and made both a joint-target for Sinhalese rioters. Also, it was this belonging to a world umma that, as Sivasundaram suggests, “may have seen Muslims as fair game, because … (the rioters) believed that … (Muslims) were at one with the Turks, who had sided with the Germans”2.
These memories were not lost in the minds of Muslim elite after Sri Lanka became independent and adopted a party based parliamentary democracy. “If there was any lesson that the Muslim community learned from that episode, it was the fact that Sri Lanka … is a Sinhalese country and that to confront the Sinhalese with violence is to risk the traditional harmony which has been existing between the two communities.”3 It was this rationale that convinced Muslim leaders not to establish a political party of their own with Muslim identity. It was a pragmatic move, given the numerical weakness and ubiquity of Muslim population. Yet, it was a move that turned weakness into strength, and its wisdom became clearer when, quite fortuitously to Muslims, the other two communities started bitterly engaging in identity politics after 1950s. With a bargaining trait acquired historically through centuries of involvement in business and commercial pursuits, Muslim politicians, while keeping politically aloof from the Tamil community, ingratiated themselves with the Sinhalese parties and maximised benefits to their community. It was political pragmatism at its best and practised long before SLMC came to the scene. However, there was a big difference between SLMC’s pragmatism and its predecessors.
The main objective of pre-SLMC pragmatism was to maximise Muslim communal benefits by joining the Sinhalese parties. With that strategy, Muslim politicians were able to garner the support of even Sinhalese voters to win parliamentary seats at General Elections. How else one could explain the emergence of Muslim parliamentarians from Sinhalese majority electorates? Religion or reference to Islamic tradition rarely entered their political campaign. Whereas, SLMC deliberately politicised that tradition to achieve hegemony over the right to represent the Muslim community politically (Johansson, p. 138). SLMC under its founder Ashraf wanted to replicate what Savumiyamoorthy Thondaman achieved amongst the Indian Tamil community, where he became the unchallenged leader and chief spokesperson for that community. That in essence was the secret of SLMC’s political pragmatism.
Johansson however views that it was a strategy to get “maximum power at minimum risk”, and explains that “Risk avoidance need not only be seen in relation to a Muslim audience of potential voters but can also be detected in relation to non-Muslims and to persons within the state apparatus who may be skeptical to the party. Hence, the SLMC avoids using terminology or symbols that could be used in order to brand the party as extremist” (p. 139). On the contrary, those who witnessed, as I did on a couple of occasions, the public rallies organised by SLMC, would know that there were ample religious slogans and symbols intentionally used at those gatherings to raise the ethnic emotions and religious fervour of the audience, which, as Johansson rightly found out, his successor Hakeem avoided because of changed circumstances. Therefore the argument that SLMC’s pragmatism was intended to minimise risk has to be contextualised.
The risk of mixing Islamic traditions and symbols with political propaganda was always high, but it was ignored by Sinhalese politicians because, to them the danger of Tamil separatism at that time was a far more serious and existentialist crisis than that of Ashraf’s Islamic-political gymnastics. For example, the televised debate he had with Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera, which perturbed many a Buddhist at that time was soon forgotten in the volatile environment of Tamil terrorism. It would be suicidal for the community it such an act of verbal bravado be repeated by his successor in the present context. Thus, everything changed after 2009 and SLMC is now increasingly becoming an irrelevant political entity among Muslims. Before discussing this new context, a hidden fact about SLMC’s origins need to be recorded.
Origins: An untold Truth
Before Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) emerged as a political entity in late 1980s, the philosophical foundation for its emergence was laid by two idealists of whom one was a philosopher-poet and educationist, Abdul Cader Lebbe from Kattankudy, and the other, a respected district magistrate and an autodidact historian, Muhammad Husain, an uncle of SLMC’s founding leader M. H. M. Ashraf. While Lebbe was working as a school principal in Guruthalawa, Husain used to visit him and they both shared their thoughts on several subjects including Islam and the status of Muslims in Sri Lanka. It was during one such visits sometime in 1976 or 1977 that Husain introduced his nephew Ashraf to his poet friend. From that introduction until the poet passed away in 1984, Asharf was in constant touch with him, first as an admirer of Lebbe’s poetry and later as student of his political and religious thoughts. Without an understanding of the intellectual influence of Lebbe and Husain on Ashraf one cannot write a complete history of SLMC. The seed of SLMC was sown not in Kalmunai in the Eastern Province where Ashraf was born, but in Matale in the Central province where Lebbe spent his final years of life. It is unfortunate that M. L. A. Cader, in his biography of Ashraf written in Tamil and published in 2002 does not even mention the name of the philosopher-poet.
When I visited Ashraf at his residence in Colombo in 1998, he showed me a file with a caption in Tamil, “Abdul Cader Lebbeyin Araciyal Cinthanaikal” (Political Thoughts of Abdul Cader Lebbe), which contained a collection of letters Ashraff received from that poet. After Ashraf’s death that file too disappeared mysteriously and my attempts to recover it were unsuccessful. Lately, I came to know that a photo-copy of those letters are available with Mr. Musadiq, a writer and journalist in Tamil who lives in Kundasale in Kandy. I visited his home once and inquired about it. He told me that they were kept safe in a house in Maruthamunai in the East. It is more than two years since that visit took place and until now I have not had a chance to read those letters.
Lebbe and Husain were admirers of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a secularist and father of Pakistan, whose legal brilliance and political sagacity won the struggle for an independent Muslim country, even though Muslims were a minority in British India. However, the secrets behind Pakistan’s victory, according to these intellectuals, were the unity of Indian Muslims under the Muslim League and the tenacity of Jinnah’s leadership. From this Pakistani-Jinnah model, Lebbe and Husain deduced that if Sri Lankan Muslims could also unite under a single political organization or party and led by a leader of Jinnah’s calibre, the community would be freed from its predicament of depending for its welfare and development on the benevolence of Sinhalese dominated governments. Muslims, they argued, should not depend on special favours from governments but should demand and win their citizenry rights based on political strength. The strength that comes from unity, they averred, would more than compensate the numerical weakness of their ubiquitous settlements4. They also looked at the history of Islam and learnt that the Prophet of Islam’s biggest achievement was to bring all the tribes and clans of Arabia under the single unit of umma.
Of the two idealists, Lebbe in particular, whose poems backing the demand for Pakistan was once banned in British India, took the unity argument further and believed that a United Muslim Organization (UMO), extinguishing all sectarian divisions in Islam, was a necessity to withstand the competing pressures emanating from a then bi-polar world. Obviously, he had no confidence on the ability of the Organization of Islamic Congress formed in 1969 to play that role.
In the Sri Lankan context however, both Husain and Lebbe saw in young lawyer Ashraf a budding local Jinnah. With benefit of hindsight it can now be argued that theirs was an overrated estimation of Ashraf. Had the poet lived little longer, perhaps, he would have at least cautioned Ashraf of the dangers of politicising Islamic symbols and traditions to win votes and guided him through the challenges that Ashraf and SLMC encountered after 1984. Obviously, by the time Johansson started his research neither of the two thinkers were alive, but there is no indication that he even contacted Ashraf’s widow to know this philosophic background.
Irrelevance of SLMC
That year 2009 marked a watershed in the history of modern Sri Lanka. The absolute defeat of LTTE armed resistance by a predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist army, navy and air force had an almost instantaneous liberating and empowering impact on Sinhala psyche simultaneously. Firstly, the euphoria over that victory vaporised overnight the psychological fear that agonised Sinhala Buddhist mindset for centuries. It was the fear of a possible Tamil invasion from neighbouring subcontinent, anchored in distant historical memories but kept reminded by nationalistic Sinhala historians, archaeologists and politicians of modern era. The total betrayal of Tamil Nadu in 2009, by failing to come to the aid of LTTE fighters at the final stages of the war, proved to the Sinhalese that their fear was baseless, given the post-Cold War political world order in which India is firmly entrenched. Secondly, that victory, while removing the fear, implanted at the same time the hope of Sinhala Buddhist dominance over the entire polity of this country. In other words, it was the 2009 victory that provided the momentum for the rise of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy as a grand political ideal, which has transmogrified into a powerful electioneering mission, and is currently campaigning with violent provocations to minimise the status and role of Muslims in the political and economic affairs of the country. The April Easter carnage has given the supremacists a golden opportunity to accomplish this mission in the name of eradicating Islamic fundamentalism and Wahhabism in the country. The prevailing international environment of Islamophobia, similar to the anti-Arab environment around the 1915 riots, is making Muslim bashing a fair game to the supremacists. When Secretary Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera of Bodu Bala Sena, one of the supremacist groups, openly proclaimed when addressing the June 7th rally in Kandy that Buddhist are the sole owners of Sri Lanka and other communities by implication are only their leaseholders, the agenda of the supremacists was made unequivocally clear. Tragically, none of the Sinhalese political leaders except Minister Mangala Samaraweera was prepared to challenge this supremacist contention. On another occasion the same Thera asked the government to leave the Muslims in the care of Buddhist priests so that they could ‘mould’ the Muslims, perhaps like what the Chinese government is doing to the Uighurs.
There was also a new development after 2009, and that was in Tamil politics. Except for a small LTTE rump based solely in foreign soil, all Tamil parties in Sri Lana, including TNA, have renounced the idea of separatism, accepted the unitary state and are committed to work for devolution of power to provincial councils in Tamil areas. To achieve that objective and to seek workable solutions to other simmering issues they are now resorting to the strategy of bargaining with Sinhalese political parties. In other words, Tamil leaders are also practicing politics of pragmatism. That both UNP and SLPP are desperately trying to woe Tamil votes via TNA at the forthcoming presidential election is an index of this Tamil pragmatism.
All this has changed the context dramatically, and SLMC finds itself powerless to turn the tide to its favour. The wholesale resignation of Muslim parliamentarians as a last resort to show their disapproval of what was happening to the Muslim community proved futile, when a couple of them, who were not from SLMC, broke ranks and re-joined the government. SLMC and ACMC leaders followed soon. Their excuse was that Buddhist prelates requested them to serve the country. Actually, it was personal desire that won over public bravado. When the Sinhalese and Tamils were divided Muslims were able to swim. Now that they are coming together will the Muslims sink? SLMC’s hegemony over Muslim voters has dwindled so much that only one of its representatives dared to contest on its ticket and won at the 2015 General Elections. The rest entered the parliament through the UNP door. The party has become increasingly irrelevant to Muslim voters in the present context, and it is time for prospective Muslim politicians to go back to the pragmatism of pre-SLMC leadership. The choice facing the troubled community is to choose a leader and his party that promises to protect the nation’s democratic political structure with all its entrenched freedom, and to treat all citizens equally irrespective of whether they are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims. So far only JVP’s AKD is talking along that line.
1. Vijaya Samaraweera, “The Muslim Revivalist Movement, 1880-1915, in Michael Roberts (ed), Collective Identities, Nationalism and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, 1979, pp. 243-276.
2. Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 332.
3. Ameer Ali, “Politics of Survival: Past Strategies and Present Predicament of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol.7, No.1, 1986.
4. Ameer Ali, “The Muslim Factor in Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1997.