By Ameer Ali –
The military victory led by an overwhelmingly Sinhala-Buddhist army over the tyrannous LTTE in 2009 has, among other things, injected in the minds of certain sections of the Buddhist community that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Sinhala Buddhists and others are permitted to live here only at the behest of the Buddhists. This twisted ideology which is now developing into an anti-Muslim, anti-Christian and anti-Tamil paranoia is totally contradictory not only to the noble teachings of the Enlightened Buddha but also and more significantly to the millennial historical tradition of ethnic and religious tolerance indelibly engraved in the long legacy of the island’s Buddhist monarchs. To deny this historical truth is to court intellectual dishonesty.
The current series of attacks, spearheaded by the so-called protectors of Buddhism dressed in monkish garbs and backed by elements of Buddhist petti-bourgeoisie, on Muslim shrines and mosques, Muslim property and even Muslim lives is a sad reflection of this post-war paranoia. It is time to expose the intellectual bankruptcy, and political hypocrisy of this paranoid group before explaining the state of paralysis in the Muslim community that has allowed this tragic episode to gain momentum in the first place. The grievances of the paranoid fall into three categories: religio-political, economic and demographic.
Photo courtesy – Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka Facebook page
To take the first issue, it is true that Muslims in Sri Lanka, like in many other parts of the world, have become at least outwardly more Islamic since the 1980s as demonstrated by their increased punctiliousness in observing religious rituals and in organizing and promoting religiously inspired gatherings, conferences and other such activities. These large gatherings naturally called for a parallel increase in the number of religious centres such as mosques and madrasas. Quantitatively and qualitatively the number of mosques in Sri Lanka has increased, but whether that increase is disproportionate when compared to the increase in Hindu temples, Christian churches and Buddhist vihares require statistical evidence. Neither the paranoid mob nor the Muslim community has so far provided such comparative data. It is however beyond dispute that the outward appearance of at least a section of male and female Muslims as reflected in their mode of dressing has changed rather dramatically over the last three decades. The black abayah or robe and niqab or facial cover with cleavage for eyes for Muslim women to see, and for Muslim men, similar robes with turban although not necessarily black in colour, and thicker and longer beards are all of Middle Eastern cultural influence but misconceived by many as religiously prescribed. Were Muslim ladies of yesteryears who wore white and coloured saris and Muslim men dressed in sarong, shirt, coat, shawl and cap were less Islamic than these pseudo-Arab purists? That this confronting attire has become a symbol of Muslim alienation in plural societies is common knowledge. Yet, this is something that the Muslim community itself has to tackle through intra-religious dialogues and intellectual debates, which do not seem to be happening in the country at the moment. Even the current debate on Muslim personal laws should not have waited until provoked by the EU.
However, to tie these outward appearances and elements of religious fundamentalism with a hidden Muslim political agenda, as alleged by the paranoid Buddhist rabble, is mischievous, malevolent and at times sounds comical. At no time in the history of Sri Lanka did the Muslims even contemplate to bring the country under Muslim rule. Even after independence while the Tamils were aspiring and fighting for a separate state the Muslim community uninterruptedly worked as political partners with the majority community. It is true that a few misguided Sri Lankan Muslim youth has joined the ISIS bloody caliphate, but that doesn’t in any way indicate that the Muslim community here is conspiring to create an ISIS vilayet. Even when the IPKF armed the Muslim Home Guard the community accepted those weapons to protect the Eastern Muslims from the LTTE killers and not to establish a Muslimstan. This allegation by the paranoid against the Muslim community, unless driven by a foreign hand, is groundless and should be rejected.
The economic grievance that Muslims are taking over the economy is a repetition of the 1915 scenario with one difference. In 1915 the target of the Buddhist nationalists was a foreign minority but the target of the current crowd of ultra-nationalists is a domestic minority. The fact that Fashion Bug and No Limit – the two leading Muslim retail establishments that have become the marked objects for the paranoid arsonists – which are able to out-beat their commercial rivals should be seen in the context of Sri Lanka’s post-1977 neo-liberal open economic environment rather than as an index of an all-conquering Muslim economic hegemon. The open economy unleashed once again the freedom for Muslim business acumen to explode which remained repressed under the previous socialist regime. With the re-born freedom for economic enterprise and with capital accumulated previously from working as expatriates in the Middle East or by liquidating inherited property a few Muslim individuals like the owners of the two establishments noted above entered the retail sector and through hard work, skill and intelligence were able to capture a niche in the competitive world of business.
Economists and social scientists who have studied the operational dynamics of plural societies have discovered the fact that in such societies when ethnic and religious minorities outshine their rivals in economic pursuits their success provokes envy within the majority. Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia, Indians in Burma and Kenya, Jews in pre-twentieth century Europe are examples of this phenomenon. In times of economic crisis these minorities invariably become victims of communal jealousy and anger. When that anger breaks out into violence elements the petty-bourgeoisie from the majority community exploit the atmosphere to make political and economic capital out of it. This is what is happening in present day Sri Lanka. However, in a democratic polity if political governance is based on principles of freedom, equality and justice successful businesses and industries, as long as they meet their state sanctioned legal and fiscal obligations, must be protected and promoted. While Singapore for example is proud to advertise an ethnic-minority-owned retail firm Mustapha Samsudin & Co., in Sri Lanka, which wanted to become a Singapore at one stage, successive governments and their security agents by not taking decisive action against minority-slayers have let themselves to become silent partners to this ethnic and economic crime. How does one expect this country to prosper?
Allied to these economic crimes is the propaganda about an imminent Arab threat to Sri Lanka. This is similar to the so called Indian threat though the local Tamil community which lost all its credibility when India supported Rajapakse Government’s military moves to eliminate LTTE. Does anyone even with an iota of knowledge about the Arabs, who have virtually sold out the Palestinian cause and killing each other instead, think that they will come to the aid of Sri Lankan Muslims in times of crisis?
The third grievance of the paranoid is demographic. Muslims are accused of inordinate fecundity. Their evidence for this is the census figures of 1980 and 2012. Without entering into any statistical exercise it should be pointed out that the net increase in population is the result of the interplay of three forces: birth rate, death rate and migration. The forces of outward migration and internal transmigration have significantly affected the inter-ethnic population balance between the 1980s and 2012. While the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese and Tamils to settle permanently abroad reduced their total number remaining at home, the relatively small emigration from the Muslims naturally enhanced their ethnic ratio. At the same time internal dislocation caused by the civil war caused large number of Muslims from the Tamil districts to transmigrate to the Sinhalese areas especially to Colombo and its surroundings. This upset the ethnic balance in these districts in favour of Muslims. These facts are totally and deliberately ignored in the vicious propaganda carried out by the paranoid about an impending Muslim population threat.
In spite of a government that is more interested in preserving its vote bank than in the long term welfare of the nation, all these issues are easily solvable if the Muslim community has a visionary leadership. With a bunch of opportunistic politicians who are more focused in amassing their own fortunes than in attending to the community and national issues, and with a gutless intelligentia which is too afraid to lead a social reform movement within the community the Muslims are left at the tender mercies of an unenlightened religious leadership. The Muslim community is in a state of paralysis and what is happening now is a tragicomedy.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia