By Imtiyaz Razak –
Many of those observing the happenings in Sri Lanka, both here and abroad, thought that post-war Sri Lanka will breed peace and harmony at all levels among all ethnic and religious groups. However, recent development against Moors [also known as Muslims] shattered the hope that Sri Lanka will be paradise for peace.
Political science studies on post-war conditions suggest different reasons as to why peace is harder to gain in post war societies where there are competing identities seeking domination, hegemony and power. One of such interesting theories deals with fear psychology of a dominant group. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala-Buddhists, who form the majority, are driven to action because they are influenced by their fears toward Tamils and Moors who claim distinct identities and history.
Moors of Sri Lanka, though they don’t make a claim for a homeland as Tamils do, are a very significant minority with sophisticated connections to Muslim majority societies. Moors in Sri Lanka, during the conflict with the Tamils, actively supported the successive regimes in order to win their interests. The results were socio-religious as well as political concessions from the states such as exclusive schools for Moors, school break during Ramadan, establishments of Madrasas and less restrictions over the flow of financial contributions from the Middle East to local Islamic institutions. There was no opposition from Sinhala extremists to what Moors have been enjoying for a while during what is dubbed as Sinhala-Tamil conflict period. However, anti-Moors activities by Sinhala-extremists had surprised many Moors who thought they would be able to enjoy the same concessions in the post-war period. Since then much has been said and written about the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) with regard to their attack and violence on Moors and their symbols such as mosques.
Unlike Tamils of Sri Lanka, Moors of Sri Lanka did not demand a separate state, but actively opposed such agendas promoted by a group like Tamil Tigers. The rebels aggressively punished the Moors by carrying out killings at Mosques while devotees were praying in Kattankudy and expelling Moors from the North and certain parts of the East. The price Moors from the North and East had paid for their opposition to ‘The Eelam Dream’ was huge. So, they had reasons to expect peace after the collapse of the Tamil Tigers. However, the BBS’ aggressive activities haven’t boosted the confidence of Moors.
Moors of Sri Lanka construct their ethnic foundations based on their religion, which is Islam. For Moors, for that matter Muslims across the world, mosques are key meeting point, because mosques serve not only as spiritual guidance sources, but also social and political decision-making points. Therefore, average Moors in Sri Lanka consider mosques as their major religious and ethnic symbols. One reason why Muslims still hate the Tamil Tigers is because the rebels’ brutally attacked Muslims while they were praying, which killed at least 103 Moors on August 3, 1990. Moors experienced the same fears when the BBS targeted mosques in certain parts of southern Sri Lanka, including Colombo. There should not be any justifications for BBS’ activities against the Moors and their symbols. Such activities from the BBS need to be condemned to build a more inclusive society in the island of Sri Lanka.
Having said that I would not think Sri Lankan Moors are perfectly peaceful nor that all their actions contribute to peace and harmony. In a divided polity it is very likely that actions of one community can contribute to a reaction by others. It is important to remember that Moors elites won significant and insignificant concessions from the ruling political class. Some of the cultural and religious concessions contributed to fundamentalism among Moors. In other words, Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka can also be viewed as a by-product of the state’s cultural and socio-economic concessions in the 70s and 80s to the Muslim elites to win Muslim support. Establishment of schools for Muslim women, appointing teachers to teach Islam without looking into the background of schools could be cited as some key reasons for the growing appetite for Islamic fundamentalism, which advances a more exclusive form of world view and Islam. The growth of Wahabists and Wahabist movements generously backed by the Middle Eastern countries and local agents, rise of Madrasas in the major corners of areas where Muslims pose predominance, the growth of Muslim mosques on major roads and localities, steady rise of hijabis [Muslim women wearing a veil that covers the head and chest] are a few that contribute to the BBS actions and politics.
Needless to say, the state’s cultural concessions delighted Muslims, but some cultural concessions offered in the past could have provided a solid platform for the recent growth of Islamic exclusiveness. It is politically wrong to veil the trend. And denial from the Muslim political establishment about the existence of Islamic fundamentalist trends may reduce the Muslim democratic voices as mere voices that are only aspiring for power.
Note that I am NOT justifying what the BBS has been doing against the Moors, but Moors, for that matter Tamils also need to understand the concerns of the majority, and thus should not contribute to the growth of extremists among the Sinhala-Buddhists. There are several political ways to win over the trust of minorities in plural societies. One among them is to offer concessions to minorities. Such concessions might not jeopardize social stability and the very nature of pluralist character when concessions are purely socio-economic rather than religion-cultural concessions. A Muslim political establishment needs to understand the reality and the basic expectations of Muslims. Solutions to the problems of the Muslims, particularly the special politico-socio problems of the north and east, require special attentions and solutions. Muslim politicians (both the south and north-east based) are now with the ruling party and they are actively supporting the regime. Hence it is high time for them to seek solutions for socio-economic problems of the Muslims of Sri Lanka with state cooperation and help. Special efforts need to be grounded to recruit qualified teachers to fill the vacancy on what is known as Muslim schools, redesign the syllabus for Islam and Arabic subjects with the thoughts of modernity, adopt special programs to encourage Muslims to seek education and remove the current socio-economic obstacles for Muslims to gain both traditional and non-traditional education. Besides, there should be mechanisms to monitor the activities of Islamic organizations.
The state and ruling party need not play Islamic religious cards to keep Moors happy. The ruling party and Sinhalese politicians need to address both socio-economic problems, as pointed out earlier, and special problems of Muslims such as the land problems of eastern Muslims and resettlements of the displaced northern Muslims. Also Muslim fears with respect to devolution to the Tamils need to be addressed by a proper political power sharing mechanism. In other words, the state as well as the Moor political establishment needs to embrace aggressive measures by directly addressing the major underlying causes that contribute to the origin and growth of such a trend in the island.
In brief, tensions and conflicts are very likely to occur in a society where there is a politicization of relations/symbols to win votes. Hence, there need be actions from all sides to ease tensions and promote peace. Any failure would not only trigger further tensions in Sri Lanka, but also provide perfect opportunities to external forces to exploit Sri Lanka’s local tensions for their own interests. Moors need to make sure that their actions anyway should not give space for others to hate them.
*Dr. A. R. M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching are mainly focused on ethnic politics. He has published widely in peer-reviewed international journals. He currently teaches at the Asian Studies/Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.