By Izeth Hussain –
I will now make some observations on the external dimension of Muslim extremism, perceptions of which among non-Muslim Sri Lankans tend to impact negatively, very negatively indeed, on the local Muslims. Islam tends to be seen as a religion that encourages fanaticism, violence, and aggression, which has led to the notion that Islam was spread by the sword. That is supposed to be the process by which once predominantly Buddhist countries became predominantly Muslim countries. The local Muslims, together with the wider Islamic world, are therefore too often seen as posing an existential threat to the Sinhalese.
The notion that Islam was spread by the sword was prevalent in the Christian world for centuries, but it has long been established that neither Islamic precept nor practice supports that notion. On the level of precept, Islamic doctrine is clear and categorical: “There is no compulsion in religion”. On the level of practice, the historical evidence shows that usually the conquered were given the option of conversion to Islam or payment of a tax which was supposed to be in lieu of military service to which Muslims were subject. The option offered was never that of conversion or extermination. The IS slogan of “Convert or die” is certainly an aberration. That is the reason why although the Moguls exercised power in India for centuries, Hinduism and other religions continued to flourish there. Complex factors were in operation behind the conversions in India, such as the desire of lower castes for dignity and equality. Anyway, some Bengalis were converted to Islam while others remained Hindu; some Punjabis were converted to Islam while others remained Hindu or Sikh – and so on. It is a fact that at the time the Moguls relinquished power to the British, the Muslims were still in a minority in predominantly Hindu India. That does not square with the notion of conversation to Islam by the sword.
There is also the fact that conversion to Islam took place in many countries without a precedent Muslim conquest. Examples in South and SE Asia are the Maldives, Malaysia, and Indonesia which has the largest Muslim population in the world. There are several Black African countries which are predominantly Muslim although the Arab conquests never extended that far south. I believe furthermore that Islam has been for several decades the fastest spreading religion in Black Africa. There are two other pertinent facts that I must mention. There is not a single Muslim country that can be taken seriously as a military power, except perhaps for Turkey. The two invasions of Iraq showed that it was a third rate military power. The other pertinent fact is that the Sri Lankan Muslims have never engaged in a program to convert Buddhists to Islam. The notion that Sri Lanka could become predominantly Muslim through conquest or peaceful conversion is nonsensical.
I come now to the problem of Muslim intolerance, which seems to figure in the Sinhalese consciousness as something inherent in Islam, as part of its very essence. An illustration is apparently provided by the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The fact that those statues were left intact over many centuries while Islam reigned supreme in Afghanistan is ignored. Furthermore it was a version of Islam that was rigidly orthodox with strict observance of the sharia. But only the fact that the statues were destroyed by an extremist terrorist group, the Taliban – which is clearly a transitional phenomenon – is taken into account. I will explain later why the Taliban should be regarded as a transitional phenomenon. The fact that has to be emphasized at this point is that for certain reasons an extremist Islamic intolerance arises in some Muslim countries but not in all of them, a fact that suffices by itself to establish that intolerance is not of the essence of Islam. Indeed it is arguable on the basis of Koranic and other texts that tolerance, not intolerance, is of the essence of Islam. The Koran asserts in two places that those such as the Christians, the Jews, and the Sabataeans, who believe in the one true God and lead the good life, will go to heaven. I believe that Islam is the only world religion that asserts that adherents of some other faiths could attain the highest good in the afterlife. It becomes arguable that Islam is more in tune with the wider ecumenism, in which tolerance is of the very essence, than any other world religion.
The question that has to be asked is this: Of what practical importance is it to the Sinhalese that some Muslim countries are intolerant towards other religions? In Saudi Arabia non-Muslim religious edifices cannot be built, and though the private practice of other religions is permitted in principle, there is interference in practice in that sphere also. The position may be even worse in some other Muslim countries. But how does that affect the Sinhalese Budhists who are working in Muslim countries? I have posed that question and asked specifically, in an exchange of views in the Island, what are the Muslim countries where permission to erect Buddhist temples has been sought and been refused. There has been no reply, presumably because there are no such countries. It appears therefore that, apart from the singular case of Saudi Arabia, the Sinhalese Buddhists working in other Muslim countries have no problems about practicing their religion. Muslim intolerance should therefore be regarded as a non-problem – except to a marginal extent in the Saudi Arabian case – in regard to Sinhalese-Muslim relations.
I have pointed out that Muslim extremism and Muslim population increase are seen as posing existential threats to the Sinhalese. I have shown above that internally there is no threat from Muslim extremists, nor is there externally. But in the preceding paragraph I have departed from that framework and dealt with an aspect of Muslim extremism, namely religious intolerance, that in no way poses an existential threat to the Sinhalese. However that perception of Muslim extremism can gravely prejudice Sinhalese-Muslim relations. In other ways too perceptions and misperceptions of Muslim extremism – taking into account for instance the sub-human horrors being perpetrated by the Islamic State – can so gravely prejudice the Sinhalese that the mass of them can come to think of the Muslims as a lesser breed who are not entitled to the protection of the law and who deserve to be relegated to the lowest rung of the Sri Lankan socio-economic ladder. In other words it is the Muslims, not the Sinhalese, to whom Muslim extremism poses an existential threat.
My strategy in dealing with the problem of Muslim extremism would be as follows: try to show that Muslim extremism is an aberration, something marginal to mainstream Islam as the very term “extremism” indicates; and secondly try to show that orthodox mainstream Islam in its liberal version is the wave of the future as it can best cope with the pressures of modernity. It is a vast subject on which I can do no more than merely touch in these articles. I will begin by providing concrete illustrations of what I have in mind by the opposition between “extremism” and “mainstream”. In the course of a recent newspaper dialogue with me an eminent Sri Lankan wrote very critically about what he called the “anti-humanism of the 21st century version of Islamic culture” His premise is mistaken in assuming that there is only one version of Islamic culture in this century. He provided three illustrations in support of his argument, the first of which was the famous fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini on Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which included a huge monetary reward for anyone who killed him. I am not sufficiently informed to pronounce whether or not that fatwa accords with Shia jurisprudence but it certainly does not accord with orthodox jurisprudence as expounded in Weeramantry’s book Islamic Jurisprudence – which is now available in Sinhala. Most orthodox Muslims, though outraged by Rushdie’s book, would agree that condemning anyone without trial is repugnant to Islamic principles.
His second illustration was the case of the Danish cartoons which provoked enraged reactions in Muslim countries. Those reactions were excessive, but it would be wrong to assume that Muslims always react to perceived insults to Islam in extremist ways. In a BBS demonstration Allah was imaged as a pig and burnt in effigy. Nothing could have been better calculated to infuriate Muslims than that. We can be certain that every Muslim Ambassador would have reported to his Government on that outrage, including the fact that the Government made no statement to assuage the Muslims, which should have been done considering that practically everyone believes that the anti-Muslim campaign has had Government backing. But there was no reaction against the Government in the Islamic world. This case shows that Muslims don’t automatically react in extremist ways. His third illustration of the anti-humanism of contemporary Islam was the bombing of the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Gilles Kepel, a leading French Islamologist, researched Muslim reactions to that outrage on an extensive scale in Middle Eastern and Western countries and declared in a book that the vast majority of Muslims were against that outrage.
It is unwarranted to speak of anti-humanism as typical of contemporary Islamic culture. There certainly are Muslim extremists who can be regarded as anti-human. It is also true that orthodox Muslims can behave in extremist ways. But on the whole mainstream orthodox Islam stands for balance and sanity. Today we have on the one hand the Islamic State horrifying the rest of the world, including most of the Islamic world, by its subhuman atrocities. On the other hand we have the leader of Indonesia, which holds the world’s largest Muslim population, loudly denouncing the Islamic State. I hold that the latter represents the future of the Islamic world.
*To be continued