Sri Lankan Muslims at the crossroads – 12

1085289639sllankaby Izeth Hussain

An article by Ameena Hussein seems to be getting wide currency among Muslims, more than one of whom has sent me copies through the internet. It is a superb example of the New Journalism started by Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, in which the techniques of creative fiction are used in journalism. The article brings home to the reader what it means to be a Sri Lankan Muslim today with an immediacy and poignancy that would not be possible through straightforward reportage. It is the poignancy of a people cowering in fear, even terror.

Ameena H’s article makes several points that are of particular interest to me in connection with the series of articles that I am writing on the Sri Lankan Muslims. At a meeting between Sri Lankan and Chinese business people she found that the Sinhalese interpreter was telling the Chinese that the Sri Lankan Muslims had been in Sri Lanka only since 1500. Though evidently an educated man, he was under the impression that the Muslims came to Sri Lanka around the same time as the Portuguese, whereas the historical records suggest that the Arabs were here even from pre-Islamic times. This detail points to the need for other ethnic groups to be better informed about the SL Muslims, as part of a program of national integration. There is therefore a need for more, not less, of the kind of serial articles that I am now writing on the SL Muslims.

Part of the reason, perhaps the major reason, why there is misinformation and misperception about our Muslims among the other ethnic groups arises out of the tendency of Muslims to withdraw into themselves. The Christians confined the Jews to ghettos for centuries, whereas the Muslims confine themselves to their own ghettos. The tendency to withdrawal has been a notable characteristic of Muslim societies in their phases of decadence. After the Second World War, our Muslims were getting out of their ghetto but the process seemed to be reversed from the second half of the ‘seventies, and in recent times they have been affirming their identity and apartness more and more. Consequently they are not seen as properly belonging to the nation, and that seems to be the source of much of the prejudice against them. Ameena H recognizes this problem, and proceeds to make a point that seems to me of the greatest importance. The Muslims may assert their identity and hold themselves apart as never before, but that does not mean that their sense of belonging to Sri Lanka has disappeared. After all, where else can the Sri Lankan Muslims belong except in Sri Lanka? The Sinhalese should bear this in mind in approaching the problem of national integration.


I will now diviate from the main narrative to point to another handicap suffered by the Muslims, apart from their tendency to hold themselves apart. It is that they are the most divided of all our ethnic groups. Jane Russell made that point in her book on our communal politics. When I asked her about it, she replied that she could not think of an explanation but that that extreme divisiveness was indubitably a fact. More recently a member of the LLRC told me that its members were very surprised to discover, after investigations at the grass roots level, that the Muslims were the most divided of all our ethnic groups. He added that it was no secret that Muslim refugees from the North got on much better with the Sinhalese than with their co-religionists around Puttalam. At that time a Sinhalese told me that the lands of the Muslims in the North East were being stolen both by the State and by the Tamils, while the Muslim victims had no one to speak for them. The reasons for Muslim divisiveness, as well as possible correctives, badly need investigation. Here I will merely point out that the divisiveness has certainly handicapped Muslims in securing their legitimate interests.


To return to Ameena H’s article – she expresses exasperation with all the drum-beating on multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism which has left our Governments unfazed and led nowhere at all. I think her exasperation is very important because it points to the way in which our NGOs and think-tanks – our intellectual community as a whole – have refused, consciously or subconsciously, to face up to the hard realities behind our ethnic problems. The Western nation states, as I have remarked earlier, had an exceptionally high degree of unity. After the Second World War their economies required an influx of cheap labour from the ex- colonies, which led to a disruption of that unity. They were faced therefore with forging a unity on a new basis, and they have been doing that quite successfully on the principle of giving fair and equal treatment to all citizens. I bet that that simple and practical conclusion was never reached in all our meetings and seminars on multiculturalism. The idea of giving fair and equal treatment to the minorities would have remained at the level of cliché, without proceeding to any practical measures unlike in the West. The truth is that we have never been in earnest about solving our ethnic problems. The drive has always been for division and hierarchy.


The above deals with matters of particular interest to me in connection with the series of articles that I am writing on the SL Muslims. The reason why AH’s article is circulating among Muslims is quite a different one. She received from the Police what purported to be an election registration form, but it turned out to be inauthentic. The purpose really was to establish whether or not the residents in her house were Muslims.. It was found that several others had also received such forms. All this has an eerie resemblance to what happened in preparation for the 1983 holocaust. It is not alarmist to be deeply troubled about this because practically everyone believes that the anti-Muslim campaign has Government backing.


When I began this series of articles I had in mind coverage of the Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole, without focusing only on their dilemmas over the anti-Muslim campaign of the last two years. That was meant to be a substitute for a book on the SL Muslims which I promised to write, but I couldn’t get round to writing it. Such coverage will require in-depth and lengthy treatment of certain matters, for which the newspaper is not the appropriate format. Furthermore the kind of alarming material given in the preceding paragraph above suggests that practical action to safeguard the lives and legitimate interests of the Muslims should not be delayed. I have long held that the Muslim ethnic problem can be solved by addressing the issues that have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations, sometimes for decades. None of those issues are intractable. I will therefore conclude this series of articles by addressing those issues.


But before doing that I must clarify what seem to me to be some of the fundamentals of the Muslim ethnic problem. It should be seen not in isolation but as part of the problem of national integration, and that should be seen in turn as part of a wider problem facing most third world countries: the problem of transition to modernity. What I mean by modernity in the present context, not the whole range of what it might mean, is the high material standard of life available to the mass of the people in the advanced economies, together with a meeting of their non-material needs in the form of the secular trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. A requisite for modernity in Sri Lanka today is therefore economic development with equity together with democracy. As I have been remarking, a major reason for the extraordinary achievements of the West is the high degree of unity in the western societies. We obviously have a need for some degree of unity in Sri Lanka, while we retain our ethnic pluralism. Our Muslims can fully participate in the struggle for modernity for two reasons. One is that the only properly Islamic form of Government has to be democratic – for reasons that I cannot explore here. The other is that no other world religion places so great an emphasis on the human need for unity. The Muslim struggle to be allowed to live in peace and dignity should therefore become part of a struggle for national integration and modernity.

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