Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lankan Muslims In America

By Imtiyaz Razak , and S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Dr. Imtiyaz Razak

The Muslims of Sri Lanka are the second largest minority after the Tamils and by demographic trends due to the ethnic conflict may soon form the largest minority.  The male ancestors of the Muslim community are believed to have entered Sri Lanka a thousand years ago through seafaring Arab traders who married local non-Muslim women, Tamil as well as Sinhalese, and settled principally in the port cities. Slowly as itinerant traders, Muslim villages were established in the interior too. Affinity with large Muslim settlements in South India meant that they would marry Tamil women more and adopt Tamil as their home language.

However, communal rivalries and Muslim elite politics resulted in Muslims explicitly declaring themselves a community distinct from the Tamils. As the Tamil revolt against the Sri Lankan state gathered momentum from 1983, Muslim masses got caught in the middle over whether Muslims were agreeable to being incorporated in a Tamil geographical unit, while the Muslim political establishment centered in Colombo offered explicit support and cooperation to the Sinhalese dominated government against the Tamil quest for justice.  The reasons behind the Muslim elites’ support are complex and difficult to understand. However, scholarly studies suggest that the Muslim political establishment supported the Sinhalese polity against the Tamil cause to win positions in Sri Lanka’s polity to maximize their trade interests.

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Muslims’ trade interests have integrated them heavily with other communities.   Sri Lankan Muslims in America understand this logic and thus progressively mix with other Muslims rather than with their Sri Lankan counterparts. Their energetic participation in community building activities in America such as establishing mosques and Islamic education centers significantly suggest their commitments to wider Islamic goals and their social and political endeavors with other Muslims in America.  Their social life is increasingly adoptive of the mores of the wider world-wide Muslim community. In some ways this is a continuation of the ongoing processes in Sri Lanka, facilitated by new wealth and accelerated by separation from the community – change away from the sari to North Indian Muslim clothes and more recently among younger girls to jeans and shirt together with a shawl to hide the contours of the figure.

Though the caste system is one of the key traits of identity formation among South Indian Muslims, it plays no significant role among the Muslims of Sri Lanka, though they too share intrinsically complicated social practices such as dowry with other South Indians.  Generally speaking, Sri Lankan Muslims desist from the practice of dowry.  It is important to mention that Islam permits Mahr, a gift in Arabic, which it mandates that a groom give the bride at marriage.

Islam strictly prohibits Muslims marrying non-Muslims unless the non-Muslim adopts Islam.  As a result, American-Sri Lankan Muslims seek partners within their own community, usually from Sri Lanka.

American-Sri Lankan Muslims maintain loosely maintained organizations such as the Association of Sri Lankan Muslims in North America. Sri Lankan Muslims have less interest in organizations run by Sri Lankan non-Muslims because of their disinterest in connecting with those who do not share their faith.

American Sri Lankan Muslims, deeply concerned about global post-cold war developments that panic Muslims across the world, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, are harshly critical about the US led war on terrorism that they see as targeting Muslims. They see a hostile milieu for Muslims in America, including Sri Lankan Muslims. Their attitudes and choices pertaining to their social and community life such as their food, clothing and thinking patterns have changed dramatically as a symbolic attachment to their religion. The recent conversion of a Sri Lankan Muslim teenager to Christianity and her running away while the US courts prevented her being restored to her parents alleging that the father would kill her, increased the sense of siege as the episode seemed to caricature and  stereotype Muslims of Sri Lankan origin.

For further reading:

1.    Q. Ismail, “Unmooring Identity: The Antinomies of Elite Muslim Self-Representation in Modern Sri Lanka,”  in Q. Ismail and P. Jeganathan (eds.), Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, pp. 55-105. Colombo: SSA, 1997.

2.    A.R.M. Imtiyaz,  “Eastern Muslims of Sri Lanka: Special Problems and Solutions.” Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 44, No 4, August 2009, pp. 404-427.

A.R.M. Imtiyaz and S.R.H. Hoole, ‘ Sri Lankan Muslims in America’, in Jonathan H.X. Lee and Kathleen Nadeau (eds), Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife [Vol. 3 ] (Santa Barbara, CA:ABC-CLIO, 2011), pp: 1068-69.

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