6 August, 2020

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Sri Lankan Muslims At The Cross-Roads – Part 1

By Izeth Hussain

 Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

My last two articles in the Island were under the title Making sense of the Bodu Bala Sena, focusing in both of them on the anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS. There is now a view, still at the incipient stage but which can soon gain wide currency, that the BBS is on the way out. The argument is that extremist movements such as the BBS have no staying power in Sri Lanka, and that the forces of Buddhist moderation are now working to bring about the quick demise of the BBS and related extremist groups. But I began the first of my last two articles by pointing out that the conventional wisdom for well over a year – shared by the President himself – had it that if the BBS were ignored it would evaporate after some time. It did not, and in recent times it showed a renewed virulence.

It is possible that now the BBS – as expected by some analysts – will go into a period of hibernation, for which there could be several reasons. The Government has to prepare its counter-thrust to the UNHRC Resolution, which focuses among other things on the maltreatment of the religious minorities including the Muslims. There cannot be the least doubt that the international community as a whole – with the possible singular exception of Myanmar whose anti-Muslim racism has been absolutely revolting – has utter contempt for our Government over the maltreatment of Muslims. The Muslim Governments may vote for us at the UNHRC, but that is only because they share with our Government a despotic disregard for human rights. What they really think was indicated some weeks ago by that Arab Princess – the Foreign Minister of one of the Gulf States – who asked our President in public a deliberately embarrassing question about the maltreatment of Muslims. The crucial point, of course, is the self-incriminating latitude allowed to the BBS and other extremist groups to break the law with near-total impunity. In addition to that external dimension there is also the internal one: the Government probably asks itself whether it is wise electoral strategy to alienate the Muslims and all the other ethnic and religious minorities to the extent that it has done.

So, it is possible that the BBS may fade away, as some expect, or it may be a temporary demise, a period of tactical hibernation for the reasons that I have given above. In either case I expect the Muslim problem to continue because there are reasons of a structural order behind it. First of all we must note that the Muslim problem did not arise because the BBS suddenly erupted. There were anti-Muslim ructions practically every year from 1976 to around 2002. Later there were the rousing anti-Muslim tirades of the late Rev. Soma Thera on State-owned television. That was stopped by the Government, but after that he availed of a Sunday weekly column in a leading newspaper. Over the last two years we have had the anti-Muslim action of the BBS and other extremist groups. In addition, there have been over the decades several irritants spoiling Sinhalese-Muslim relations: the mosque calls to prayer over loud-speakers, the proliferation of mosques, cattle-slaughter, and so on.

The striking thing about the negative developments that I have outlined in the preceding paragraph is that successive Governments did little or nothing by way of corrective or deterrent action. There was a failure, or rather a refusal, to take such action. I will not go into details about that refusal as it will take too much space, and instead I will put forward the possible reason for it. The reason is that there has been no serious attempt at nation-building in Sri Lanka, no attempt at all to establish stable ethnic harmony, apart of course from hollow verbiage about it, and the reason for that is that the nation is conceived of, particularly by the Sinhalese power elite, as already existing. This has been the land of the Sinhalese people from ancient times, with a special position for the Buddhists because they are the guardians of Buddhism in all its pristine purity. The minorities are no more than “visitors” to this island who should not make “undue demands”, in the felicitous phraseology of Sarath Fonseka. There was no punitive action of a deterrent order taken against anti-Muslim violence from 1976 to 2002, nor an assertion of the rule of law over the BBS monks, probably because all that serves to show to the Muslims who’s boss in this island.

The fact that there is no drive, and there never has been a drive, to build a multi-ethnic nation in Sri Lanka is the fundamental reason why we can expect the Muslim problem to continue: as long as there no such drive there will be a resistance on the part of the Sinhalese power elite to give fair and equal treatment to the minorities, including the Muslims. We must also take into account the fact that the Sinhalese power elite has shown a fierce hierarchical drive – for cultural reasons that cannot be explored here – which leads to a resistance to giving fair and equal treatment even to the Sinhalese. It is not accidental that for the greater part of the period since 1977 Sri Lankan democracy has been deeply flawed, unlike in India where democracy broke down only for a brief period after Indira’s Emergency. Nor is it accidental that in recent years the Government has clearly shown a racist and neo-Fascist drive, which some think could lead to an anti-democratic Buddhist theocracy.

We have to face up to the fact that the BBS may go away but the Muslim problem won’t. The Muslims have now to think of what they should do to secure and promote their best interests. Before proceeding further I want to refer to the two concluding paragraphs of my article Making sense of Bodu Bala Sena in the Island of April 26. I noted that three prominent Muslim politicians, Rauf Hakeem, Azath Salley, and Rishad Bathiudin had become admirably outspoken on the BBS, which would have been unthinkable some time ago. I took that as symptomatic of the profound socio-economic changes that have been taking place in the Muslim community, catalyzed by their taking to mass secular education in a big way after the Second World War. The result is that whereas they were traditionally competitive only in the field of trade, they have become competitive in other fields as well. Kumar David has pointed out to me, quite correctly, that their knowledge of English confers a very special advantage over the other ethnic groups. Therefore, in terms of the racist paradigm to which I referred in that article, they have to be pushed down and kept down, and that is the profound meaning of the sudden eruption of the BBS and other extremist groups.

What should the Muslims do to secure and promote their legitimate interests? It is not difficult to work out the answer to that question. Obviously all the irritants that have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations for decades should be addressed by both sides and removed as far as might be possible. But if that is obvious, why on earth has that not been done over several decades? Part of the answer has been suggested earlier in this article. The Sinhalese power elite has never been interested in forging a multi-ethnic nation with a deep sense of unity, and therefore it has had no interest in establishing  harmonious Sinhalese-Muslim relations. Besides, anti-Muslim violence and the anti-Muslim campaign of Buddhist extremists serve to show the Muslims who’s boss in this island.

But why is it that the Muslims have not been agitating over all these decades for effective action to remove those irritants? After all it is they, not the Sinhalese, who have been the victims. There are several reasons for their adopting what might be called a strategy of political quietism. First of all there is a continuing fear psychosis that was initially set off by the anti-Muslim riots of 1915, and there is a sense of deep vulnerability because they know that they cannot depend on the support of the Opposition or the civil society should the Muslims challenge the powers-that-be. They believe that challenging the Government of the day over Muslim interests would only make their plight worse. But their keeping quiet about anti-Muslim violence over a quarter century has led to the State-backed anti-Muslim extremism of the last two years. The strategy of political quietism has proved to be a total failure and it is time to jettison it. That is why the speaking out by Rauf Hakeem and others is to be welcomed.

To be Continued…

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Izeth Hussain complains about ‘anti-Muslim action of the BBS and other extremist groups’at present and in the past. But he had never mentioned that BBS had also exposed the danger Sri Lanka faces due to propagation of Muslim extremism by ACJU backed and Saudi trained ‘Wahhabi and Salafi’ acts.

    Bisthan Batcha wrote to Lankaweb: “To identify the possible Causes of the Muslim Problems, the minority Muslim Community must start looking within themselves, conduct an ‘Introspective Analysis’ of their Islamic Way-of-Living in the context of a Non-Muslim Majority Nation.” [Edited out]

    • 1
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      ‘I am a Sri Lankan Muslim Pragmatist’ by Bisthan Batcha written to lankaweb on 8/4/2014 is an article that all peace loving Muslims in Sri Lanka should read.

    • 1
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      Mechanic, You have touched the tip of the iceberg. The Saudi Arabian initiative in spreading the fundamentalist form of Islam is in fact alienating people in non Muslim countries. The assertiveness, even aggressiveness of the Wahabi teaching, and the penchant on the part of Muslim people, though sometimes rigidly enforced, to strictly comply with the edicts of the ‘Mullahs’ and the teachings in the Madrassas, has awakened fears and suspicions of the majority Sinhalese. They see the Muslim marches in the streets of England, France and elsewhere, and wonder what the Muslims are planning in Sri Lanka. That is an issue which is not looked at in Izzeth Hussain’s excellent article. May be part 2 of his story will take that up.

      I have always maintained that BBS is not sustainable. It’s actions are so fundamentally opposed to Buddhist teaching that it can only continue it’s violence against Muslims at the expense of annihilating Buddhism itself.

      In order to prevent the disruption of good relations between Buddhists and the Muslims, it is not only the Buddhists who must re-examine their warped attitude to others, but the Muslims as well. So far it is the Muslims who have been patient, even forgiving, and in fact shown forbearance as the Buddhists are expected to! In the multi ethnic, multi religious, multi cultural, and multi somanythings society we live in we need to learn and accept that diversity is truly preferable to the alternative.

  • 2
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    SL Muslims are thinking whether to live in SL or go back to Arabia. Good.

    Please leave Tamil areas alone. Don’t come to Tamil areas.

    • 0
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      Tamil Modaya,

      “SL Muslims are thinking whether to live in SL or go back to Arabia. Good. Please leave Tamil areas alone. Don’t come to Tamil areas.”

      All the para and modays should go back to South India, where they came from, and leave the land of the Native Veddda.

  • 1
    4

    In the last paragraph of his write up this writer wrote about “the anti-Muslim riots of 1915”. It gives the impression that the Muslims were innocent victims of a riot by (Sinhalese). This is contrary to the truth.

    Truth is, Sinhalas had not started the so-called “the anti-Muslim riots of 1915”. It all started like this. The anniversary of the birthday of Buddha or Wesak day in 1915 fell on the 28th of May. As usual, a carol processions was organised and permission was sought and the elected members of the Municipal Council unanimously recommended the issue of the licence.

    Muslims of the mosque at Castle Hill Street objected to the issuance of the licence. But the Government Agent (GA) knew mosque activities is normally closed by midnight and hence granted the licence on condition that the procession should not enter Castle Hill Street before midnight.

    At about 1 am, on the 28th May 1915, the first carol procession with a band of musicians in a decorated cart turned into Castle Hill Street from King Street. Normally the mosque should have been closed, but on that day, it was lit and crowd of Muslims were standing inside and either side of the Castle Hill Street. They have gathered in strength to object the carol proceeding in front of the mosque.

    When an inspector named Cooray and six policemen who was on duty asked the organizers of the carol procession to go to the next street through another, they obediently obliged and carol cart was turned back. And the Muslims clapped hands, jeered and booed. This was too much for Sinhalas so they stopped and watched. Then another carol cart entered Castle Hill Street. And the first one followed that. As they advanced, stones and empty bottles were hurled on the procession from the upper storeys of two boutiques near the mosque and from the platform of the mosque.

    Sinhalas lost their patience. They rushed forward and gave the Muslims back in kind. Sinhalas chased the Muslims and they fled into the mosque. Then they pulled down its iron bars and smashed its glass panes, broke into the adjoining boutiques and flung the boxes, grain and groceries into the streets. Thus paved the way to end wesak festival 1915, undertaken in all piety and reverence to celebrate the birthday of the great peace-maker, named Goutama Buddha. But none lost lives nor had any serious injury at that incident. But there was no inquiry in to how and what caused the riots.

    On the following day, there were scuffles between Sinhalas and Muslims. A Sinhala youth was killed with a bullet from a revolver fired from the upper storey of his master’s shop. The police failed to arrest the murderer. And these are what started the so-called anti-Muslim riots that continued till 5th June 1915.

    Above account was extracted from ‘The Life of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, vol.2 (1910-1930), 1977, chapters 10 (Riots-1915, pp.229-250),’
    Now, who are those Muslims that cause to start the riots in 1915? M. Vythilingam wrote that an exclusive immigrant set from the East Coast of South India and numbered nearly thirty three thousand is the cause to start this riot. Like todays Wahhabi and Salafi extremists, then Hambayas were religious fanatics as well. Hambayas have insisted that all non-Muslim religious processions should proceed in silence when they passed their mosques. Before the 1915 riot there had been a judgement by District Judge of Kandy in the ‘Walahagoda Devale’ case, in which the aggressive Hambayas were bound over to keep the peace.

    As I see it, BBS and other groups emphasize that, today, Saudi trained Wahhabi and Salafi extremists are doing the job of Hambayas of 1915. And we think Hussains are fast taking a cue from Wahhabi and Salafi ideology.

    • 0
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      Banda – I merely referred to the fact that there had been anti-Muslim riots in 1915. From that neutral statement of fact, you have jumped to unwarranted conclusions. I am aware of what really happened in 1915 because I read Ponnambalam’s book in 1961, and later other literature on the subject
      But what is the relevance of all that to what is happening today?
      Over-zealous Coast Moors over-reacted against Buddhists in 1951. But today’s Wahabis are targetting not the Sinhalese but their fellow Muslims. There is no analogy at all.
      What is required to day are the following.Firstly, the Government should apply the rule of law to the BBS etc. Secondly there should be effective action to remove the irritants that have been bedevilling Sinhalese-Muslim relations for decades.

  • 2
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    sri Lankan Muslims should stick to the way they wre about 20 years go, don’t bring any whabism in to lanka, where we are threaten by your attire and attitude, so that’s why all this violence, don’t try to undermine sri Lankan values , you will never win in sri lanka in neat future,

  • 5
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    We muslims should understand that we depend totally on our Rabb and His decree;our patience is the key to jihad;we must not resort to violence as they are provoking us ;we hasve Allah so why fret n worry;travelling by bus;they spit;yell at us ;and even take off whilst getting in; and so many ways they are creating to rouse us;but Allah has said patience and thankfulness and enjoy the hereafter.the hate speech is filth;vulgarity and foul language;we remain humble andkeep asking dua ;its a time for us to be stronger muslims and invoke to Allah

  • 2
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    Muslims, like the Tamils have had it good for yonks.

    The perception is that that these two communities have taken undue advantage, resulting in disproportionate benefits, position and wealth relative to their size especially in trade, commerce and industry.

    Morality, ethics and Rule of Law apart, BBS believes that it is their duty to now balance the equation.

    Throw in the Sinhala-Buddhist politics to the equation, and voila` we have a recipe for social instabilty, human rights abuses, and at worse extremism.

    Muslims need to continuously engage with the powers-that-be to safeguard their personal security, and no more. That is the solution at present as the BBS is not going to disappear any time soon.

    Confrontation may not be the best approach.

  • 2
    0

    As-salamu alaykum!

    Following Al Wahab and Muslim Brotherhood now Boko Haram has come to the Islamic Republic of Srilanka.

    “Muslims are harsh against the unbelievers, merciful to one another. – Al Quran 48:25”

    • 2
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      Link below to an interesting debate on the reasons behind the Kidnappings and the awareness of Islam around the world.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzqCT4OHNN4

    • 1
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      “””…merciful to one another””” You must be having a laugh! Up and down the Arab world, from Tripoli to Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus, the factions are blowing each others ball off.

  • 1
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    It’s the stealth interest in some quarters to let the SinHellists (BBS/JHU/BR/SR) destroy what’s left of their so-called Buddhist way of life. Let democrazy (mod rule) majority wish, take it’s course.

    • 1
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      So, you want us Buddhists to keep practicing our Buddhist ways (karuna, muditha, upeksha) for you to force your Koranic laws and wage your violence on us infidels as in your Quranic verses.

      • 1
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        Perhaps the link below should enlighten; why some Bhikkus trying to save the age old philosophy in ceylonese language.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cMQulbMwVA

        • 0
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          Here is real Buddhist monk who talks facts and reals problems faced by Buddhist in general.

  • 1
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    izeth [Edited out]

    • 0
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      Ela, Good Day !

      You could have written “Izeth Get the hell out of here” or “Izeth what you write is nonsense” this will get published without being edited out this is called expressing your views.

      But what is on the earth r u writing ? what did u have last night ?

      Lets c what u have got !

    • 0
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      Forgot to mention when u write a name you should Capitalize the 1st letter like “Ela Koluwo” or “Thana Kolla”. This is general practice and it is also a mark of respect for the person you are addressing,

      but I am sure u will have some choice words to say about this which may not get published !

  • 2
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 5
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    This is a timely article, which takes a broader view of the issues faced by Muslims. However I do not think BBS is going away or slowing down, BBS is a very controlled process to hoodwink the dumbstruck majority community. As long as MR is around BBS and likes are required for them to stay in power.

    What I can say is muslims are much more organized than what is seen in the surface. Of course we have the jokers and stooges (Hakeem, Azwer, Musta paa..) who are dancing to the tune of regime needs, we cannot change them.

    There is a collective process by Muslim scholars put in place Island wide to address these issues and it has been set in motion.
    One good example of this process is the restraint demonstrated by Muslims.
    Unlike the majority community where their places of worships are being deserted except for a occasional yearly affair, we Muslims are well connected with our places of worship. This is a powerful network which is being used today to propagate peace.

    The day the majority community realize that they are being used like many past government Sri Lanka will prosper as a nation, till that day for many in this country a dream of a better future will remain a dream, while so called new elite will be trampling the rest of the Lankans.

  • 0
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    The Muslims should seriously consider looking at themselves in terms of their ethnicity and not in terms of their religion. For instance in the south there are the Sinhalese who embrace Islam and in the North east there are Tamil speaking people who embrace Islam.They all go as Muslims. They should secularise themselves in order to combat these kinds extremism. A very good example is the world renowned Tamil Singer AR Rahuman who is an ethnic Tamil who converted to Islam but his popularity did not wane. This may be a great ask but some food for thought. Bensen

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  • 0
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    Muslims will never talk about their rapid expansion during the last several decades while LTTE war was going on.

    Because, muslims must lie to non-believers in order to spread their religion.

    Muslims think only they should inhabit the world and not the non-believers.

  • 1
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