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Lankan Muslims and Their Image Problem

ResolvingEthnicConflict

This article was first published in the print version of the Ceylon today on 24 July 2013 (view online soon) and  is in response to an interview of Dr.Ameer Ali published on the Ceylon Today on 19 July 2013 titled ‘Muslims are self-alienating’.

The state of Muslims in Sri Lanka has been closely observed over the last few years. Indeed the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims has become somewhat dire; new radical Sinhalese groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Sihala Ravaya (SR) have hijacked Buddhism and are both committing and advocating crimes against the Muslim community. It is in such a context, that Dr. Ameer Ali’s interview was published a few days ago.

When asked if he concurs with the widely asserted notion that a peaceful Muslim minority are under threat by elements representing a hegemonic Buddhist nationalism, Dr Ali opines that after more than a hundred years of ‘rationalism’, religion is once again in the ascendency. As such, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is seeing a revival.

There are multiple loopholes in this argument and if anything it is rather febrile in the face of the main structural issues at hand. While a global revival of religion has been noted, it is important to highlight that this has manifested in an increasing of religiosity amongst people who already profess a faith rather than a marked resurgence in the numerical ratio of people claiming to subscribe to a religion. Secularism too is on the rise, with atheism becoming more numerically prominent. Therefore, what is seen is not the reversal of a status quo where the numbers of atheists is diminishing to make way for the religious; rather it is the concentration of the strengths of already set religious and or other value systems.

Attributing the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sihala Ravaya to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is insulting to good decent Buddhist Sri Lankans if it isn’t farcical. For example, the BBS has been acting in contravention of law and order, embracing violent means and initiating vile, organised hate campaigns against ethnic minorities and those who have stood up against their methods. If the good Doctor sees this as the birth pangs of a revivalist Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there will be many who would spring out of a kicked bush to question his sense of reason.

Further, Dr. Ali states that since the 1970’s, there has been a spread of ‘orthodox Islam’ in Sri Lanka, supposedly brought to our shores by Sri Lankan workers returning from the middle East. This argument which has been liberally thrown about by many commentators, is fast gaining traction.

Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church which is the institution of an independent Christian denomination of its own, ‘orthodox Islam’ is a Western linguistic construct which has no definition except where the West would like to use it as it sees fit. From a Western lexicon, the rigid conservatism of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 70’s for instance was a non-issue when the Soviets had to be fought; Margaret Thatcher even reportedly celebrated with some of them in Downing Street.  The applicability of the phrase ‘orthodox Islam’ to the case of Sri Lankan Muslims therefore is in serious dispute.

Moreover, Dr Ali exhibits a rather futile sense of nostalgia for the state of the Muslims in the 1970’s which he uses to denigrate Lankan Muslims of today. Those who were born after the seventies were born to a different Sri Lanka and share a different identity and seek no avenue to revert to a time unheard of to them.

If the inference is that Muslims today will do well to revert to customs of the 70’s, it igoes against the epithets of any form of liberal or social democracy to want to impose the culture of a bygone era to a current generation who are a product of an entirely different time with different needs and issues. Incidentally, there is an interesting correlation where the allegation that the Muslims of the 70’s were different stem from those who left Sri Lanka domicile elsewhere in the 70’s, and therefore scrutinise Sri Lankan Muslims after a gap of a generation. The culture of Muslims today is a response to what is and what happens around them and it would be a synthetic intervention to modify that. If it is sentimentalism or nostalgia that is needed, then of course the interviewee would be forgiven if he limited himself to his harmless persuasions.

But if these nostalgic affirmations have serious political undertones, they are rather analogous in theory with the right wing loons in the US Tea Party who struggle to accept the US for the racial diversity it boasts of today, but yearn for times of yore when an all-white US bureaucratic hegemony trampled down the black communities and native Americans with impunity.

Therefore, that the Muslims seen in Sri Lanka in the 70’s were different remains only to be an innocent fact.

It is a basic anthropological ideal that societies, communities, faiths and belief systems evolve in response to the inevitable changes occurring around them. All religious and ethnic communities in Sri Lanka have responded to the changes around them, culturally or ideologically. The Tamils of Sri Lanka who were subjected to ostracism by sections of the Sinhalese majority for the last thirty years, are naturally different today than they were decades ago. The simplistic argument augmented by this commentator that the Muslims of the 70’s were somehow better, needs to be laid to rest. Things change and communities change around them, The once white America now has a Black President, it was a Conservative (not liberal) Prime Minister that pushed through legislation legalising gay marriage in Britain

Further, the majority of the Muslims of the 1970’s were either mono-lingual Tamil speakers, with a limited elite who were both Tamil and English speaking. Contrast this with today where the average Muslim is bi-lingual with the class of Muslims who are tri-lingual  increasingly on the rise, thus making the Sri Lankan Muslims the least polarised and most diverse Sri Lankan community when it comes to languages. This is notwithstanding the fact that there are recognisable sections of the Sri Lankan Muslim populace who speak Malay, Arabic or Urdu in addition to the three main languages. The Muslim community therefore is linguistically the least insular of all communities

Since communal conflict in Sri Lanka has more precedent to be based on ethnicity (perhaps language related) than religion, that Dr. Ali doesn’t see the receptive position of current day Lankan Muslims vis-a-vis integration is deplorable if it isn’t laughable. Therefore, to cite ideological changes in a community over a period of thirty years, a natural development that is hard to measure or quantify and to simultaneously ignore and overlook other quantifiable socio-political development indices of the Lankan Muslim community is both biased and inaccurate.

The interviewee then goes on to making some facetious claims of how Muslims should be part of the Dalada Perahera. That they don’t take part isn’t a crime and Muslims give due credence to the event as being of national significance and its purity doesn’t have to be adulterated by Muslims taking part, unless if requested to do so, I am reluctant to believe that this was the puritarian orthodoxy that he mentioned of earlier.

Other aspects raised by Dr.Ali, include the supposed banes of Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan, thereby exercising a liberty he has to express himself at the cost of opening academically irrelevant cans of worms. I myself was educated at a Christian Missionary school in Colombo and therefore never had holidays during Ramadan, but Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan has never been an impediment to social integration.

Moreover, he highlights the fact that there are funds coming into the Muslim community from Saudi Arabia which in turn helps institutionalise a Saudi brand of ‘Intolerant Islam’. The record of the Saudi’s is nothing to be proud of, reports increasingly suggest that that oppressive regime of the Saudis with a host of other Arab states connived with the US to depose the first democratically elected President of Egypt. Therefore, the Saudi’s have little virtue to extol.

However, Sri Lanka is a democratic country underpinned by a legal system; it is not anyone’s concern what comes from where, as long as it doesn’t impinge local laws and regulations. His concerns of Saudi money coming in is akin to some Sinhala extremists crying foul that the Norwegians are funding Christian groups in Sri Lanka and importing a foreign brand of Christianity that seeks to proselytise the majority Buddhists. Of course he callously neglects to calibrate his argument by failing to recognise the dangerous development in relationships between the radical monks in Myanmar who are responsible for many violent deaths of the Rohingya and local radical monks.

The dominant image Dr. Ali seems to conjure of the Lankan Muslim community is of a conclave of black burka wearing women & bearded men donning flowing white robes, He blatantly fails to recognise the image of a non-violent resilient community, brutally uprooted from their domicile in the north by the LTTE exacerbated by the indifference of successive governments to its plight, a community hounded by a fringe of Tamil terrorists in the past and hounded by a fringe Buddhist extremists in the present, a community that has overcome discriminatory bureaucratic patterns to become highly entrepreneurial.

Very regrettably, When atrocities of the LTTE stole the image of an educated and upwardly mobile Tamil community, and when violent escapades of Buddhist extremism is distorting the pristine image of the Sinhalese, it is both whimsical and flippant of the Doctor to think that Sri Lankan Muslims are plagued by an image problem.

Image from here.

NOTE: Dr Ameer Ali’s callous remarks somewhat fall in line with an older post of mine titled ‘For Muslim Critics of the Lankan Muslim Community’

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Filed under 2013, Islam, politics, Sri Lanka

The Sinhalese & Schindler’s List

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Below is an excerpt from my post for The Platform, “Does the Silence of the Sinhalese Signal Complicity”.

“There is that scene from Schindler’s List which had a profound impact on me. I had forgotten about it, I never knew it existed, except that it has lain somewhere in the fibre of my brain, dormant, latent, waiting for the opportune moment for it to be of use. The state of Muslims in Sri Lanka is changing, it is perilous, getting graver with each rising of the sun, and suddenly this scene makes a lot of sense. It draws lessons from the attitudes of races and ethnicities and the chemistry between religious communities in Sri Lanka, a chemistry which is at threat of losing its equilibrium.

In the film Ralph Fiennes, playing the character of Amon Goeth, an SS officer, is in his bedroom with a girl. He rises to use the bathroom from where he sees an inmate in the concentration camp taking a break from the heavy painful labour he is being subjected to. As Goeth sees it, he is wasting time, being disobedient. So with the girl still teasing him in the background, he picks up the rifle and shoots him. He then surveys the working landscape from the balcony and walks the few feet back to the room where he and the girl continue to laugh and argue, as if they never had an interlude in which misery was wreaked on another.

For all the details in this scene, it is the image of the girl that recurs – she didn’t kill anyone, she was only an onlooker.

Except she wasn’t. There are no mere onlookers or observers under such circumstances. Inadvertently or not, you are a participant. You contribute to a crime, to someone else’s suffering by inaction, by a silence that spells out consent.

Were the Nazis, the Serbs, the Hutus or Tutsis, the monk-led groups in Myanmar or ironically the Israelis, who are largely descendants of those killed in concentration camps, able to go on the rampage with their killings because of Ralph’s character? No, it was because of people like the girl, the silent majority, who in their silence precipitated the suffering of others.”

Read the full post here.

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Of Sinhalese Buddhism and Racism

I write this post with some level of pain and sadness. I write this also as a Sri Lankan and as a Muslim. My credentials in the Sri Lankan blogosphere are established, if not anything at least as someone with genuine love to Sri Lanka where I was born, where I lived except for five years of my life and where I hope I will be buried when I die.

Those of you who know me, know me for various reasons, one being my fluency in Sinhalese and the fact that it wouldn’t be discernible that I am a Muslim when I speak in Sinhalese to someone who doesn’t know me. Never in Sri Lanka (or elsewhere for that matter) have I been affected by racism, never have any of my Sinhalese friends (who consist of the vast majority of my Lankan friends) addressed me in racially derogatory tones with intended venom or malice, unless in instances when I myself have referred to me and other Muslims facetiously as ‘Thambiya’s.

However, racism has been present in Sri Lanka right throughout my life; I am in my mid twenties now. Never have I known a Sri Lanka devoid of racism. Sadly it seems, racism may be an intrinsic part of Sri Lankan society for years if not for decades to come, in fact one wonders if there will ever be a time in Sri Lanka devoid of racism. Racism is usually propagated by a majority community towards a minority, that is true for almost any instance in the world where racism takes place. By this almost golden rule of how racism takes place, Muslims and Tamils have been mostly at the receiving end in Sri Lanka. I am not suggesting that Muslims have in Muslim majority areas not preferred a Muslim over a Sinhalese or a Tamil.

But forget not the contribution Muslims have made to the Sri Lankan social fabric and forget not how loyal Muslims have been to Sri Lanka as a nation and as a state at its most crucial moments. From spilling their own blood for Sri Lanka in fighting colonial invaders to the crucial political struggles Muslims have made to gain independence from Britain. Remember ‘Parangiya Kotte giya wagey’ ? How Muslims took the colonial invaders on an almost wild goose chase?

Unlike in Britain, where Muslims are mostly immigrants not more than a few generations old, the question of Muslims in Sri Lanka isn’t even a question!

There have been several instances where Muslims have been attacked recently in various instances. There was this whole debacle surrounding the Grease Yaka, and now the following incident I am about to relate.

I don’t know much about this; Groundviews told me they are looking into it. But it is not a pretty sight.

Images suggest that Sinhalese youth under the guidance of Buddhist Monks and the connivance of the Police (who clearly are meant to be acting on the contrary) destroying a sacred place of Muslims in Anuradhapura.

These are Buddhist Monks we are speaking of, whatever happened to the very Buddhist principles of causing no harm? Of course it does not help the Buddhist philosophy when monks stand by watching and those desecrating the premises do so with Buddhist flags being waved about.

This news piece suggests the place was built illegally. Perhaps it was, or perhaps it wasn’t, I for one do not know. If it was should there not be a court order for it to be demolished in such a way? If there was indeed a court order should it not be the state that carries out such a demolition and not hooligans and thugs waving Buddhist flags with Monks monitoring their every step with hawkish scrutiny ?

It sets an extremely dangerous precedent when vigilantism spreads its thorny fingers around with the state doing nothing about it, more so when such vigilantism has been encouraged when there wasn’t even any harm done to anyone.

Traditionally, Muslims and Sinhalese have been on the best of terms. I have always maintained how Muslims (then Arabs who later married local women) have been in Sri Lanka before Islam itself and Muslims in Sri Lanka have a history as old as Islam itself. Halik writes about this here.

This is not the first time I am blogging about a mosque attack, I blogged here a few years ago.

I refuse to believe that the primary seed that is creating such hatred towards Muslims by Sinhalese Buddhists comes from Sri Lankan Buddhist themselves. The vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhists are innocent human beings who want to get on with their lives; the slim minority who physically sweat to do such laborious tasks are just the labourers. They have no ideology, they have no world view, they do not even live by the sacred texts of Buddhism (some monks included), they are just that – labourers who can wield an axe. Their capacity to wield an axe is being used, exploited by someone who would like to see the dangerous effects of what they do.

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but I see a third hand involved, a third hand that would benefit in seeing Sinhalese – Muslim clashes. The Sinhalese – Muslim riots in 1915 were unnecessary and were based on an incitement. I have read material suggesting that with 2015 being the one hundredth anniversary of those riots, they should be commemorated. I fear for the Muslims of Sri Lanka when those commemorations take place.

This is beneath the vast majority of Sinhalese to do. This country does not need another conflict to screw us deep into an abyss. It is in the best interests of all to identify these elements and have them dealt with.

The problem with Sri Lanka is that you see negativity on such a regular basis where that which was abnormal once, becomes such a normal thing where people are desensitised to consider it serious.

I will not appeal to the Sri Lankan Muslims to remain calm, I know they would. Being the ever patient and resilient community they have been in the wake of so many difficult and tumultuous events, they would dismiss this as just another incident and try and get on with life. But the fact remains, these incidents keep happening, and the danger lies in the fact that the frequency doesn’t seem to diminish.

I am currently living in the UK. I will eventually return to Sri Lanka, I have never been part of the ‘Diaspora’ and intend never to be so. But when my friend asks me, Machang when are you coming back, and I see images like these, least I can do is tell a date and just shrug or sigh to myself.

Enjoy your weekend.

Click image to see larger.

UPDATE – For some reason I am having problems uploading images. Please save the above image to desktop and view it large. My post would seem less substantial without the images.

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On Sinhalese Political Oratory

Sinhalese Oratory is something that has enthralled me almost if not as much as English Political Oratory. I get access to very good orations here in England, where one would understand is the place the best English is spoken. Unless you are American and you beg to differ.

In the recent past, Sinhalese Oratory has been hijacked by Mervynesque jargon and good Sinhalese orations are not always what Sri Lankans get to enjoy.

There are some brilliant Sinhalese orators still around, amongst the JVP for example but surely they do not get a platform of their own to appeal to the public. When I said JVP has good orators, I am not necessarily endorsing their substance – rather the choice of words, the delivery and the way the sentences are constructed.

This speech here by Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar delivered recently was something that caught my eye and is most certainly one of the better Sinhalese orations I have heard in a long time.

Anyone who appreciates Sinhalese oratory would do well to listen to it.

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On speaking in Sinhala, and things going wrong..

Most of us are bilingual and some of us are tri-lingual. I find it extremely satisfying that i am trilingual.But being multi lingual has its disadvantages too, like speaking one language in another language’s context. One little boy i met once at a childrens camp, on seeing that i was playing around with my camera kept telling me “touch my photo, touch my photo”, obviously i was confused, until his English teacher told me that the boy had translated the sinhala “magey photo ekak allanna” as “touch my photo in English. Not many multi-linguals are exempt of this natural slight mix up.

anyway..

I remembered an incident when i saw this post.One of my Sinhalese friends was once copped for speeding and his licence was confiscated by the traffic police. So, as is the norm he had to go to the police station in Colombo fort, collect a dhada kolaya (err crudely translated – fine sheet) go to the nearest Bank of Ceylon to pay the fine and come back to the police station to get another document, producing which he can retrieve his licence.

When he got his fine sheet there was a male police officer, and my friend had addressed him as Raala Hami as policemen are called and had done the needful.

But when he came to the police station for the second time, there happened to be a female police office at the counter. And my friend who being sinhalese and someone who is very good in his colloquial sinhalese walked to the counter with his usual unconsciously confident aura around him.

On seeing a female there he was a bit disturbed as he didnt know what she should be called, not knowing the feminine of Raala-Haami and clearly desperate, he had addressed her as Raala-Haamine (Haminey means wife..usually) and the police office obviously amused had said “malli danne neththang mukuth nokiya inna” 🙂

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