Muslims In Sri Lanka: A new strategy for engagement

Scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy. Thousands of Muslims are disillusioned and uncertain about their safety and security for the future. Well-meaning majority Buddhists have made fresh pledges and called on the government to investigate the violence. As this is being investigated and persons of interest apprehended, fresh revelations emerge every day. This article is not about what went wrong but about what needs to be done.

I was in Sri Lanka when the news of the racial riots in the district of Kandy broke. The magnitude of the attacks came as a shock. Needless to say that this shattered my sense of safety and security. I was in Kandy, miles from Digana and Teldeniya, engulfed in uncertainty as I heard firsthand how family and friend’s homes, and businesses were destroyed. The curfew clamped down on both the city and my mind.

I feverishly scanned many news sources, all the while hoping that this was only a stray incident of road rage between two parties. As the news evolved to encompass the tragic loss of lives, the destruction to property belonging to Muslims, the burning of their homes, all within easy distance, in the city I call home, I sank into a state of despair and sadness. Memories of 1983 were not too far.

Amidst sadness a deeper sense of the reality of the situation dawned on me. We know the perpetrators, they were given labels; extremists, nationalists, a mob of Sinhala Buddhists.  How despicable and inhuman, I thought, for a group of people to wilfully fail to see the humanity in another? Homes burned, mosques torched, businesses destroyed, women and children running for shelter and safety, men frozen in anger and despair, unable to protect their families, their livelihoods ruined and robbed. We must stand in deep solidarity with every person affected by this senseless attack. We must also stand in gratitude to the millions more who have expressed nothing less than love, concern and support to the Muslim community.

PEW Research Centre forum several years ago established that 76% of the world’s population is denied of religious freedom. Attending a conference in the recent past, I was appalled to hear the speaker repeatedly call out Sri Lanka as one of the countries that persecuted religious minorities. Sri Lanka is at a grave crossroads, where communication, connection, and collaboration among majority Buddhists and the minority Muslims in Sri Lanka are at an all-time low. Where there was trust we see mistrust. Where there was understanding, now there is fear; and where there was love, there has been hate brewing for some time now.

Let us identify the crime. It is nothing short of a racist and religious attack targeting the Muslims, without any regard for the innocence and or guilt of that group. It was reprehensible and abhorrent; an ugly display by a violent mob of Buddhist supremacy and Buddhist privilege.  What fear, anger, ill will and greed motivated this mob?

Did the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists exploit global trends in blaming and shaming Muslims for all terror? Were these attacks a sequel to the accusations that Muslim restaurants are lacing food with pills causing permanent infertility in Ampara? What truth in the claims by the Muslims that the Sinhala nationalists often harass them for their business and economic successes? Or was it simply ugly racist and divisive politics calibrating for power?

As an expert in the field of conflict resolution and reconciliation, one of the first things I always recommend is to look within; the answers are there. So I began to ask the question, what did we as the Muslim community fail to do right? Where are we continuing to fall short as Sri Lankans?

Where racists put down, build something up

If Ampara, Digana, Teldeniya has not woken us up nothing else will.

Are you sleeping through this violence and vitriol? What Sri Lanka needs and will benefit from is a courageous, response from you. American political activist Angela Davis says, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

What are you going to change?

Some would say, “We did nothing. It is the people who hurt us who need to atone.” Yes to that. If you choose to be where you are, you can be where you are, but remember you can’t be the same. From supporting strong like-minded political movements to enhancing civic and social engagement, we must know that our time is now. We need some radical rethinking, activism and leadership. Be very clear in knowing that the riots are the latest seeds being sowed of rising Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka. Is this the beginning or the end of a new beginning? This is a question you must be vigilant to ask and answer.

buddhist-monks-protest-in-colombo_286534The outward display of piety

Sri Lankan Muslims and moderate Muslims all over the world are experiencing a crisis in faith. There are no counter-Islamism movements focusing on the threat of the puritan version of Islam. I questioned the rapid disintegration of the Muslim communities, particularly the Muslim women from the mainstream in Sri Lanka, and the enforcement of the veil, niqab and the burqa. This in addition to the relentless questions from my non-Muslim friends and associates about the acquiescence of the Sri Lankan Muslim identity by local Muslims to one that of Arab identity.

I am a strong advocate and proponent of freedoms, upholding freedom of thought, dress and expression. Freedom I believe must stand for something greater than just the right to act or simply to do what one pleases. What about social context? Human interactions? Communication and connection? I am not for a moment suggesting that how Muslim women wear merits racial and religious attacks on them, nor am I suggesting that a burqa can take down a country. However, it is capable of increasing mistrust among other communities.

R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Baba Saheb, an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer once said, “As a consequence of the purdah system a segregation of the Muslim women is brought about. She cannot go even to the mosque to pray and must wear burqa (veil) whenever she goes out…Such seclusion cannot but have its deteriorating effects upon the physical constitution of Muslim women.” His chilling conclusion might speak to an aspect of the deteriorating relationships between Sinhalese and Muslims, “the evil consequences of purdah are not confined to the Muslim community only. It is responsible for the social segregation of Hindus from Muslims which is the bane of the public life in India.”

I must also stress here that not all Muslim women support this dress. Many Muslims who oppose the niqab and burqa themselves have asked me to address this issue.

How many of the women in Sri Lanka are induced, forced or influenced to wear the burqa and niqab? Of the many women I spoke to in the Burqa, almost everyone were taking special Bayan classes, learning Dawa, and they said they were influenced by the preacher who tells  them that a woman must cover her body and her body is to be admired only by her husband.  There is ample proof that youth are being radicalised by listening to the sermons of extremists’ clerics and some ideological Muslims. Indeed women seem to be also.

Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, at a workshop on ethnic harmony on the theme, “building bridges” held at SLIDA a few days, ago referring to the attacks in Ampara and Digana observed, “The claim that a majority of Sinhalese were against the recent attacks on Muslims is wrong. Embracing some aspects of Arab culture by Muslims in Sri Lanka is fanning fires of distrust while Muslim girls were being further and further pushed into an insulated society since they had been compelled to go to the mushrooming small international schools run by Muslims, as they have no schools to attend.”

You might not agree with this, but these are the facts on the ground. I spoke to hundreds of people who expressed the same concern and caution.

I list below three things Muslim must and can implement immediately.

Escalate interfaith partnerships

Religious allyship is necessary to combat the racial and religiously motivated hate crimes facing the Muslim. We can’t afford to wait until tragedy strikes to reach out to the community. We must build those friendships during peaceful times. Reshaping relationships and establishing a mechanism to respond to violence might be a great place to start.

Our mosques should be open to any and every one. We must build mutually beneficial partnerships, founded on community building activities and initiatives. Civic organisations, government agencies, foundations, academia, businesses and interfaith organisations engaged in promoting safety and empathy for the Muslims can effectively understand the effects of attacks perpetrated by fringe groups on the broader community and are hence in a powerful position to stop and thwart any such racial and religiously motivated attacks.

The great mosque at Cordoba,  which eventually became the third largest mosque in the world, was a thriving cultural and intellectual centre. It was a centre for learning that attracted scholars and artists of many faiths. Non-Muslims played an important part in the intellectual life of Cordoba. Particularly Jewish scholars, philosophers, poets and scientists flourished in Cordoba. It was during this time that a true and lasting commitments to preserve intellect through and across lines of faith took root. When we forbid our own women from entering the mosques, we will find it hard to invite the kafir (non-believer).  It is time to change the tide, from all fronts.

Strong visionary leadership

We can’t afford to forget that we are indeed dealing with pressure from outside of our religion, but we are also dealing with anti-modernity trends within it. The world cannot be left out of our mosques and communities. We as a community have a responsibility to respond effectively to challenges and so is there a pastoral responsibility from the mosques to respond to tragic events as this.

Our mosques need strong visionary leadership and vibrant followers. Theological preaching alone and our inability to build strong, sustainable social movements is a precursor for future attacks. The mosques much preach and teach secular values like co-existence, compassion, national unity, nonviolence, interfaith/theological education. Not seek to establish different laws to different people, and respecting the law of the land.

Never has there been a greater pressure upon us to wear the badge of patriotism, integration and peace.

Engaging and empowering women in leadership

Muslims staunchly proclaim 7th century rights for 21st century women. We must move beyond a received theology to a more progressive and functional theology, understanding the tradition of the times when the Quran was written.

Shamefully, Muslim scholars even in the West who ride planes and drive cars, who work and mingle with women are looking for hidden wisdom in scripture to determine eligibility of women to be leaders in the mosques and communities. It is not a secret that even as we debate these issues of participation and partnerships, a group advocating for Muslim reform vehemently oppose women being judges and want to lower the legal age of marriage for young girls.

Mosques and religious scholars must establish a robust program in the masjids to encourage discussion and debate, openly declaring and accepting that some of the teachings in the Quran are not relevant and cannot be applied to face current challenges. In ‘The Epistemology of Truth in Modern Islam’, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl states, “There is a serious problem with arguing that God intended to lock the epistemology of the 7th century into the immutable text of the Qur’an, and then intended to hold Muslims hostage to this epistemological framework for all ages to come. Among other things, this would limit the dynamism and effectiveness of divine text because the Qur’an would be forever locked within a knowledge paradigm that is very difficult to retrieve or re-create.”

In the 7th century, Muslim women had unprecedented rights, which had now declined. Our cultures are not affirming of women’s rights, and mostly affirming of ignorance and patriarchy. Every person has inalienable fundamental rights and it will be a travesty of justice if people interpreting our religion fail to recognise that. Dealing with gender equality must become our work, and not god’s.

Today more than ever, we must be willing to disrupt Islam’s received theology. If we don’t, we will have many who will leave the faith and many who will undermine the faith. We will finally be left with a fringe minority of conservative fundamentalist Islamists who will hang onto every thread of the literal interpretation of the Quran.

Let’s question every answer. If Islam is strong, its truth cannot be diluted or compromised.

Let’s abandon the habitual Muslim responses of making a statement in Parliament, asking for a commission to be appointed, declare prayers for the victims, and wait for our politicians to visit the towns and villages. Prayers, vigils, statements, are all necessary and needed. But more is needed to happen. Sri Lankan Muslims are in a battlefield, and bandages won’t work.

Let’s move from our low expectations of responses of the Muslim community and leaders, by getting out of our own way.

We must not forget that we live in a world where the impact of religion and religious freedom in personal, national, and geopolitical affairs is getting stronger. When coupled with extreme nationalism and fundamentalism, we see an ugly side of humanity that is embroiled in radicalisation, hate, violence, and bigotry. From America to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka to Saudi Arabia, India to Indonesia, we see the divisive impact of religion. Perhaps R. R. Palmer (1793) was right when he said that, “The wars of kings were over; the wars of peoples had begun.”

Buddhists and Muslims must take full and equal responsibility to promote unity and harmony between the communities. Religion must be safeguarded as a human right. Both of the communities must address extreme nationalism, radicalism, and fundamentalism.

We all have work to do.