By Ameer Ali –
Sri Lanka is getting deeper and deeper into an intractable political, economic, social and geopolitical morass, from which there is less hope for an early relief without avoiding at great cost economic suffering, communal bloodletting, depreciated sovereignty and maligned international reputation. In spite of all theoretical and erudite explanations for this multi-dimensional malaise, by political scientists, economists, sociologists and foreign policy experts, there is no running away from one crucial fact that lies at the core of all this mess, and that is, the failure by successive governments and political leadership to build a united democratic Sri Lanka, instead of, as they did, a majoritarian state founded on political Buddhism. Warnings by leftist parliamentarians in the nineteen fifties and sixties against numerous measures and legislations, such as the Sinhala Only Bill and medium of instruction in schools, which in their view, were bricks laid to construct a Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian state, were scorned by political and religious vested interests, and rejected by a brainwashed Sinhala Buddhist voting public.
Starting with Christians in the fifties, followed soon by Tamils and lately Muslims, the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian state, through subtle and open measures, systematically encroached into whatever regions or domains in which these communities demonstrated some strength, with a determined purpose to aggrandize its own share at the expense of other communities. This majoritarianism, which has nothing to do with Buddhism as a compassionate and universal philosophy that came to free humanity from its miseries, led to the early migration of Burghers, a civil war with Tamils and now an economic and religious battle with Muslims. The last of these started in earnest only after 2009, when the majoritarian state vanquished the Tamil separatists militarily.
Unlike the Burghers, Muslims did not run away from the country to seek asylum elsewhere whenever they were subjected to physical violence and material losses; and, unlike the Tamils, Muslims never aspired for any division of the country. Just as it is foolish for Muslim leaders to expect their foreign brethren to come to the aid of locals, so also it is madness for Islamophobes to think that they could dispatch all Muslims to Arabia. Muslims of Sri Lanka like the Sinhalese were born here, will live here and die here. They have no other country to go to.
Historically, the Muslim community is noted for two unique characteristics: an obsession with commercial pursuits, which earned them the sobriquet ‘business community’, and a passion for religiosity. For over one thousand years, these two characteristics blended harmoniously and cross fertilised within the economic and cultural ethos of Sri Lanka. How and why did they now become problematic? It is in answering this question that one could understand the nature of the prevailing anti-Muslim remonstrance, the emerging threat of another round of violence, and the significance of the July 7 call for 10,000 Bhikkus to assemble in Kandy under the auspices of Bodu Bala Sena.
Ever since Muslims settled in this country and became indigenised they had been the backbone of the nation’s retail trading sector. They were the predominant Vaisya community in a Buddhist and Hindu caste environment, which downgraded the social status of merchants and traders. At a time when roads were not constructed and modern means of transport were not introduced, it was the Muslim tavalam men, who travelled for days and nights across the country, transacting goods of varied sorts and satisfying the consumption needs of many a home and family in the interior that were otherwise remained disconnected to the maritime centres of trade and commerce. In the 19th century, it was the same routes traversed by these men, that were paved, tarred and macadamised to become modern roads, and it was the resting places or caravanserais of these traders, which through conjugality with local women emerged as Muslim villages. As the country developed economically and was modernised with markets, towns and cities, the travelling merchants of yore settled in these centres and opened boutiques and shops that became an iconic marker of the nation’s modernity and urbanity. Thus, the distributive role of today’s Muslim retail businessmen, who are threatened with extinction by far-right Buddhist nationalists, is inextricably intertwined with the economic history and development of Sri Lanka.
In the post-1977competitive open market economy introduced by JR Jeyewardene, success is not guaranteed to any competitor, and that is particularly true in retail business. There are three important variables that determine the success or failure of a retail trader: quality, price and service. If a buyer could find a quality product at the cheapest price from a vendor who serves with smile and treat the buyer with kindness and respect that seller would surely win the attachment of his customers. When the number and visits of such customers increase the seller’s business would expand and prosper. Those retailers who fail to compete on these terms would have to leave the market.
Because of the historical and perhaps even religious attachment to business (the Quran and the Hadith have a special place for this profession) today’s Muslim community has inherited a stock of knowledge that adds to its business capital. Even then, not all Muslim businessmen have succeeded, countless have crashed, quite a number are just surviving and a few have grown big of whom one or two may have become megalithic. It is the last two categories that have earned the envy of rivals from other communities particularly from the Buddhist petty bourgeoisie. There is evidence that behind several attacks that were targeted so far against successful Muslim business premises were hirelings in the payroll of jealous rivals.
However, in the political agenda of the Buddhist far-right the only way to crush the economy of Muslims is to destroy their businesses. The appeal to the Sinhalese to boycott Muslim shops translates this agenda into practice. A number of canards were unleashed to drive away Sinhalese customers from patronising Muslim shops. That Muslim businessmen were distributing sweets mixed with contraceptive powder, as compliments to Sinhalese women customers; that Muslim restaurants were doing the same when selling food and drinks; and, that Muslim salesmen were sexually luring young Sinhalese girls, were some of them. None of these allegations were actually proved either scientifically or in the courts of law. What is even more shocking is the fact that this campaign is supported by some sections from the Buddhist Sangha. The absurdity of this scare campaign reached its height recently when poor patients in certain public hospitals were forced to reject free food distributed by wealthy Muslims in the name of charity. Muslim peddlers and retail traders are also being prevented from entering certain weekly markets. Local councils are denying permission for them to open businesses even though these traders have paid the licence fee. Amidst all this happenings the government is pathetically showing no sign of taking any action.
The interconnectedness of different sectors in a modern and open economy is so tight that when one sector faces crisis others are bound to feel the impact. If the retail sector suffers, and is bound to suffer when Muslim businesses are wantonly destroyed by racially motivated mobs, the wholesale sector, consumption sector, employment sector and the monetary sector will all suffer in tandem. Ultimately, the country’s economy suffers and growth rate declines. It is beyond comprehension how a government that is fully aware of the desperate situation of the national economy and knows very well the economic cost of this vicious campaign can remain so indifferent and allow a racist mob to continue destroying Muslim businesses.
This economic war with Muslims is coupled with war against Wahhabism and Muslim terrorism in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre. It is a popular myth and a propaganda tool in the hands of the far-right that Muslim religiosity in Sri Lanka somehow or other is linked with Wahhabism and that in turn is linked with terrorism. Religious commitment, Wahhabism and terrorism are three separate phenomena each of which is not automatically or self-impulsively connected to the other two.
There is no denying the fact that Muslims all over the world are passionately committed to Islam. That commitment began to be demonstrated openly in Sri Lanka in two stages, both within the last seventy odd years. The first stage occurred after the 1950s when the India-born Tabligh Jama’at (TJ) set its foot in this country. That its heaven oriented ideology is retrogressive for Muslims in the context of modern ideas of progress is a separate subject and not relevant to the subject under discussion. What is relevant is TJ’s tireless and door-knocking missionary work which crowded the mosques in this country with worshippers. It turned hundreds of thousands of nominal Muslims who were lackadaisical about religious observances into committed Muslims. Not only that these missionaries also had an impact on the external appearance of Muslim men many of whom started wearing the Indian sherwani with a white cap or turban. Regular prostration during prayers made the zabeeba (dark spot) on Muslim foreheads clearly distinguishable. Yet, at no time these missionaries advocated violent jihadism. Theirs was a passive jihad aimed to free one’s self from cravings of worldly passion. In this sense, it is closely related to the teachings of Buddhism.
The second stage ushered in after the 1980s after the Islamised and Anti-American revolution led by Khomeini in Shia Iran, which in turn provided an impulse for a fresh wave of religious awakening among Sunni Muslims, particularly in the petrodollar Arab world. This was the context in which slogans such as, ‘Islam the Answer’, ‘Shariah the Solution’ and ‘New Muslim World Order’ began to appear in numerous international conferences and publications. President Zia in Pakistan became a paragon of this wave of religious awakening. Also, it was in the context of this awakening and the anti-American Khomenian impulse that Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative Islamist ideology that remained, until then, confined to the Arabian Peninsula, received the call from Washington to counter the spread of Khomeinian impulse by declaring jihad against Shiism.
The post-1980 turbulence in the Muslim world coincided with JR’s open economic policy in Sri Lanka. Arab money and Arab jobs were too alluring to avoid for a capital starved and labour surplus economy, and both became the conduit to the spread of Wahhabi ideology in this country. Wahhabism’s primary mission is to homogenise Islamic religious practices and cleanse Islam of all syncretic intrusions, which, according to its founder, has removed the faith away from its 7th century purity. The social and communitarian values of a number of rituals and celebrations practiced by local Muslims for centuries were forced to be given up by a Wahhabi indoctrinated ulama, all in the name of homogenisation of essentials and purification of belief. While this mission obviously provoked factional and sectarian fights among different Muslim groups, as happened in Kattankudy in 1990s for instance, a secondary effect of Wahhabism was the reimaging of Sri Lankan Islam with an Arabian outfit. This is what meant by Arabization and it appeared in several forms such as male and female attire, speech, urban development, aesthetic choices and preferences, and gender mixing.
While homogenisation strengthened the Islamic identity of local Muslims and reinforced in their thought the idea of thawheed or unicity of God and His creation, Arabization on the other hand, perhaps unintentionally weakened their millennium old national identity. Even though the community in general, including its leadership, and with few exceptions within Muslim intelligentsia, did not realise this erosion the rest of the country noted it. It is here that one is able to detect the genesis of anti-Muslim feeling in the country. Other factors such as multiplicity of mosques and madrasas, use of loudspeakers and ACJU’s halal food drive added to aggravate the core problem of self-alienation.
In spite of all this, it is wrong to link terrorism directly with Wahhabism. Wahhabi advocacy of jihad, which is popularly misinterpreted as Islamic terrorism, although not passive like that of TJ, was aimed not at non-Muslims but at Muslims who fell outside the fold of Wahhabism. Shias and Sufis are the two principal groups targeted by Wahhabis. On the contrary, Jihad against non-Muslims and particularly against Christians and Jews or Crusaders is a 21st century phenomenon grew out of the Cold War. This violent jihad, bordering outright terrorism, is closely linked with super power rivalry and US imperialism. After years of denials and argument twisting there is now a broader consensus among political analysts that US misadventure in the Middle East was the main cause for the rise of violent jihadism. Therefore, even without Wahhabism, US invasion of Iraq and bombing of Afghanistan, would have produced the ‘Crescaders’ (I borrowed this name from Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Arabs, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) to fight Crusaders. ISIS is one among several groups of Crescaders.
In Sri Lanka, the National Tawheed Jama’at (NTJ) that executed the Easter infamy, was a breakaway faction from main stream Wahhabism. Whether the NTJ jihadists acted on their own or in concert with ISIS or any other foreign jihadist group, or for that matter whether NTJ was used as a tool by some local political or international interest are matters yet to be investigated. In the meantime it is wrong to target the entire Muslim community as breeder of terrorists. This is what BBS and its un-enlightened secretary-monk Gnanasara are trying to do.
Gnanasara’s call for 10,000 monks of his ilk to rally in front of the Maligawa on July 7 is a sinister move to intensify the anti-Muslim wave in the country. The fact that he is allowed to do this while emergency rules are in operation shows a tacit approval from the relevant authorities, including the President. This rally of the un-enlightened bears all the signs of a prelude to further pandemonium and communal disturbance. All major political parties by remaining mute are obviously expecting to make electoral capital out of it. Unfortunately it the country and its economy that will ultimately suffer.