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Lankan Muslims and Their Image Problem

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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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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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Guru and Indi debating Sri Lankan issues on Al Jazeera

My good friend Guru and Indi Samarajiva debated issues on Sri Lankan politics and the way forward just a couple of hours ago on Al Jazeera’s The Stream.

I met Guru for dinner last night and we discussed some of these issues on a very casual level, I knew the outcome of this debate long before it started.

My personal opinion on this video, followed by the twitter conversation Indi, Guru and I had afterwards is that Guru clearly comes out on top. His argument was clear and concise, Indi’s on the other hand stemmed from a more cosmetic and idealistic perception of the sufferings of those in the North and East which seemed out of touch with ground realities of those at the grassroots.

It doesn’t help Indi that his connection timed out (or so I like to think) a little after Guru threw a barrage of arguments, and he goes on to say ‘I am not a very good Sinhalese’. Which begs the question, who was he representing ? By his choice of argument one would understand that he certainly didn’t represent a holistic ‘Sri Lankan’ identity, surely not – and he proceeds to reinforce this ambiguity furthermore by saying what I have quoted above. Guru on the other hand had a stronger sense of what he stood for.

This is purely my opinion, to be fair to both Guru and Indi watch the video above and make up your own minds.

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Sri Lankan Moors & Misconceptions

We all keep racial, religious, cultural and other misconceptions in our own minds and at the behest of those ‘others’.Sri Lanka is no exception. Granted however, that the country’s less than 20million people are divided between a dominant ethnic majority (Sinhala), two significant minorities (i.e. Tamil and Muslim), and myriad other sub-groups it’s hardly surprising that misconceptions about ‘the others’ are enmeshed in the Sri Lankan psyche and the social subconscious of its’ people.

What are misconceptions? Broadly defined a misconception is a wrong understanding; or a belief in a concept that is false. Largely innocuous even if left unchecked and unrestrained, a misconception becomes potentially dangerous, when it sinks into the realm of the stereotypical.

A stereotype – “an unvarying form or pattern; specific., a fixed or conventional notion or conception, as of a person, group, idea, etc., held by a number of people, and allowing for no individuality, critical judgment, etc.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary) – is the worst of the two vices.

Repeatedly, history has demonstrated the disastrous consequences of stereotypes. The world has witnessed all too well stereotypes of women (‘women are weak’), Africans (‘blacks are intellectually inferior’) and more recently Muslims (‘Muslims are terrorists’) thereby breeding precarious repercussions. Sociologically speaking, stereotypes are often viewed as necessary and inescapable. The mental categorization perpetuated by stereotypes is what enables us humans to simplify, predict and organize the world around us. It saves us the difficulty of having to take into account all the complexities of our world. Breaking down stereotypes therefore becomes a herculean task. Misconceptions however can be erased with the presentation of credible facts that establish the contrary in relation to the subject at hand.

So what are the misconceptions unique to the case of the Sri Lankan Muslim? ‘Muslims are rich’ and ‘Muslims add to the population like no other community’ are two misconceptions that come to mind instantaneously. My own life is dotted with several encounters with common misconceptions. On my first job at an advertising agency I was taken aback when I inadvertently came across a post-it note stuck on my interview assessment – a note evidently not intended for my viewing. Minutely inscribed were these words: “she is best suited for the job, but she looks so conservative.” This was an obvious reference to the hijab sitting comfortably on my head. That Muslim girls and women in hijab are ‘conservative’ is a common misconception in Sri Lanka. ‘Conservative’ connotes the sense of being unsociable, not progressive and generally not being the ‘go-getter’ Sri Lanka’s bustling private sector passionately seeks. Those ‘others’ often react with a look of shocked disbelief at the sight of hijabis at the helm of the corporate ladder. Fortunately though, with several hijabis daring to break the glass ceiling this misconception is on a downward spiral.

One particular misconception about the Muslims of Sri Lanka, namely the false belief that, ‘Moors are Tamils’ carries with it some serious connotations. Moors are “the descendants of Arabs who espoused local women they are largely a mixed race with a considerable infusion of Sinhalese and Dravidian blood.”

“The epithet (Moor), was borrowed (from the Spaniards) by the Portuguese, (the earliest colonizers of ‘Ceylon’ – as Sri Lanka was then known) who, after their discovery of the passage by the Cape of Good Hope, bestowed it indiscriminately upon the Arabs and their descendants, whom in the sixteenth century, found established as traders in every port on the Asian and African coast, and who had good reason to regard them as their most formidable competitors for the commerce of the East.”

Presently “Sri Lankan Muslims” are sub-divided as Ceylon Moors, Malays, Pakistani Moors and Indian Moors by the Census Department.

What is meant by ‘Moors are Tamils’ is that Moors do not form an ethnicity that is distinct from that of the Tamils of the country, and it is only religion that sets the two groups apart. Accordingly this argument supposes that, the Tamil race is sub-divided religiously into those who follow Islam,as distinct to those who embrace Hinduism or Christianity; like the Sinhala race, the group that adheres to Buddhism and the other to Christianity.

The misnomer that Moors are ethnologically Tamils, first found expression in a speech delivered by Hindu-Tamil Political leader Sir Ponnanbalam Ramanathan, in the heyday of colonial British divide and rule policy. Ramanathan based his contention primarily on the facts that Tamil was the spoken language of the Moors, that certain customs were common to Moors and Tamils (particularly in relation to marriage) and the etymology of the word ‘sonahar’(commonly used Tamil word to denote Moors). Vehemently opposing this contention was renowned Moorish Scholar and editor of Muslim Guardian I L M Abdul Azeez:

“In 1885, in the Ceylon Legislative Council, and in 1888, in the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), Mr Ramanathan, ……announced that the Ceylon Moors were Tamils in nationality and Mohammedans in religion. Though there is nothing humiliating in being Tamil in race, the persistent attempt of that gentleman in attributing to the Moors an origin which they do not claim, in spite of their assertion to the contrary, is annoying, if not offending; and it becomes very necessary that his statement should be examined and his references sifted before his conclusions are adopted.”

It has been proven beyond doubt that the Moors of Sri Lanka are “the descendants of those Arabian colonists, who settled in Ceylon many centuries ago. Alexander Johnston has recorded that:

“…the first Muslims who settled in the country, were, according to the tradition which prevails among their descendants, a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the eighth century by the Umayyad Caliph Abd-al Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southward, established settlements in the Concan, the southern parts of the Indian peninsula, Sri Lanka and Malacca. He adds that the division of them that came to Sri Lanka formed eight considerable settlements.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other historians of the country including Dr. Lorna Dewaraja in “The Muslims of Sri Lanka, 1000 years of ethnic harmony 900-1915 AD”, Dr. M I M Shukri and Professor K M De Silva.

With reference to the etymology of the term Sonahar Hussien comments;

“The appellation given to the Moors by themselves as well as by others also indicate their Arab origin. The Moors have traditionally referred to themselves as Sonahar in their peculiar dialect of Tamil, the pure Tamil form of which, Sonagar, refers to a native of Arabia (Sonagam).”

Refuting the argument that Moors are Tamils because their mother tongue is Tamil, Hussein says:

“Although it is likely that it was Arabic that was the spoken language of the early Arab settlers of the country, and perhaps of the early Moors whom they sired, it is today largely Tamil, and to a lesser extent Sinhala, that has become the ‘home language’, so to say, of the present-day Moor community. Arabic is today employed by them only as their liturgical language in their prayers and other religious observances. Tamil is by far the predominant speech of the Moors.

“The Tamil spoken by the Moors is however not quite the same as the Tamil spoken by the Tamils of Jaffna and South India. Indeed, this peculiar dialect or rather patois of the Moors is derogatorily referred to as ‘Sona Tamil’ by conservative Tamil folk. This Sona Tamil speech seems to have largely derived from a South Indian Tamil patois…..

“It has also been considerably influenced by other languages such as Arabic, Hindustani, and Sinhala, all of which goes on to show that it approaches a sort of Creole, albeit considerably influenced by a Tamil dialect …..”

In retrospect it appears that Ramanthan’s contentions were governed by political aspirations rather than a desire to set history straight.

“Moreover, it was thought, nay believed, that his (Ramanathan’s) object in calling the Moors, Tamils in race was to dissuade the Government from appointing a Moorish member in Council. It has leaked out then that the Government was contemplating the appointment of such ones, and making them understand that there was no necessity for taking such a step, as the Moors did not form a distinct race (Mr Ramanathan was then representing, in the Legislative Council, all the Tamil-speaking inhabitants of the Island).”

Relevant to this context is the findings of Dennis B Mcgilvry and Mirak Raheem in Muslim perspectives on the Sri Lankan conflict:

“Muslim leaders immediately perceived their well argued, but politically motivated conclusion that Moors were simply Muslim members of the Tamil “race” as an academic excuse for continued political domination of the Muslim community by the Tamil leadership. Although Ramanathan’s strategy failed when the British governor appointed a Moor to the Legislative Council a year later. His essay seemed to embody the patronizing Tamil outlook found on some parts of the island, where even today some high caste Tamils look down on Muslims as their inferiors and uneducated neighbors. Muslim/Tamil acrimony over the Ramanathan “ethnological” thesis has been festering for well over a century, evoking feelings of betrayal on the part of Tamil chauvinists, and the LTTE in particular over the Muslims alleged disloyalty of the Tamil nationalist cause.”

The writer of the above,Farwin Fousdeen is a Sri Lankan, freelance writer, currently based in Doha, Qatar. She contributes regularly to publications in Qatar and has worked with local and international NGOs in Sri Lanka in the field of Human Rights and Development

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