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HomeTamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Muslims & Tamil Eelam > Islamic Revivalism in Harmony and Conflict: The Experience in Sri Lanka and Malaysia - Ameer Ali, 1984


Islamic Revivalism in Harmony and Conflict:
The Experience in Sri Lanka and Malaysia

by Ameer Ali, 1984

[Source: Asian Survey, March , 1984, vol.24 no.3, pp296-313. Only the sections relating to Sri Lanka are presented below. Inter-twined sections on Malaysia, though good per se, have been omitted for reasons of lower relevance to the readers of this website.]

with a A Critical Front-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

A Critical Front-Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Here are ten stereotypes about Muslims in Sri Lanka.

(1) ardent defenders of Islam faith;
(2) bridge builders to the Arab market;
(3) cake keepers cum cake eaters;
(4) designated collaborators;
(5) entrepreneurs;
(6) government mercenaries;
(7) model minority community;
(8) naughty deal makers;
 (9) opportunist linguists – ‘Neither here nor there’ elements;
(10) Pakistan loyalists.

As stereotypes, positive as well as pejorative, of humans are not looked favourably by sociologists and peace makers, one shouldn’t perpetuate the labels. But, what if an academic belonging to the Muslim community provides a portrait which more or less confirms the prevalent stereotypes? Academic Ameer Ali himself in another old research paper (Asian Survey, March 1984) on Muslims refers to quite a number of stereotypes such as,

(1) entrepreneurs,
(2) the metaphor of “economic cake”,
(3) the use of Muslims by the Sinhalese government as Sri Lankan mascots for Arab munificence,
(4) opportunist(?) lingual juggling of Muslims and its effect on the education of young minds,
(5) model minority community from the government point of view, and last but not the least
(6) defenders of Islam faith.

I present below the sections on Sri Lankan Muslims authored by Ameer Ali. For reasons known only to him, he failed to cite this 1984 paper, in his 1997 paper published in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. It could be that his guess (made in 1984) relating to the Muslim political party in 1984 was proven wrong by the emergence of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress of M.H.M.Ashraff in late 1980s. In addition, a couple of his inferences are too truthful to cause a little bit of discomfort for both Muslims and Sinhalese. Two examples are as follows:

(1) “while the Sinhalese political parties try to keep the Muslims within the Sinhalese camp, the Muslims have come to realize that by playing politics between the two major communities and between major parties they can achieve maximum benefits”;

(2) “All the government wants are Muslim votes with which to win the next election and the community’s contentment to be put on display to the outside world.”

In his text, Ameer Ali had inadvertently omitted the vital fact that the “first major racial riot in Sri Lanka in 1915” was between Muslims and Sinhalese Buddhists. However the Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims attempt to fake communal harmony between themselves, the hostility flares up frequently at unexpected times.

Check for a moment, when on October 13th, in a television program, the politician monk Athuraliye Rathana Thero had opened the discord with a comment that thugs and Muslims [whom he had referred to as Thambi Minissuth] were responsible for the 1983 Black July violence against the Tamils in the island. For this assertion, the Muslim United Liberation Front (MULF) has vehemently protested retorting that “it was the racialist extremist forces who unleashed such violence against Tamil. The Muslim community amidst all risks provided maximum security to innocent Tamils. A large number of Muslims were also killed during the clashes for the reason they did not talk Sinhala.” [source: www.lankamuslims.com , 18 October 2005 news item captioned, “MULF condemns Rathana Thero’s comments; Rasthiyadu Karayoth Thambi Minisuth responsible for 83 Riots”].

The real fact is both parties indulge in half-truths. Monk Athuraliya Rathana Thero was correct in his assertion in that the Muslim goons supported by a then powerful Muslim minister of UNP, representing the Borella section of Colombo, indeed indulged in looting and other atrocious carnage on Tamil-owned property. This has been well documented. Similarly, the rebuttal of Muslim United Liberation Front is also true in that quite a number of civic-minded Muslims helped and provided security to innocent Tamils. Not that I’m a flag waver for the politics of Buddhist monk. But for the MULF to hide the Muslim goon activity during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots under the rug to score brownie points with Tamils is pretty pathetic.

Though the passage of 21 years have made the cited numbers on economic indicators (before the emergence of LTTE) of this paper slightly outdated, in realistic terms nothing much had changed drastically. Thus, I consider it is worth a look to understand the Muslim political thoughts (of 1970s and early 1980s) which prevailed in the island, before I present the 1979 paper of Urmila Phadnis on Sri Lankan Muslims, which appeared in the International Studies journal.

The Environment

In terms of its economic resources and per capita GNP, Sri Lanka is one of the poorer nations in the contemporary Third World. With tea as its major export, accounting for more than 50% of the export revenue; without any significant mineral or oil deposits; and with a total population of nearly 15 million people, increasing annually at the rate of about 2%, the island’s economy is in dire straits. The World Bank estimates Sri Lanka’s per capita GNP for 1981 at $230, and according to another survey the country ranks 116th of 145 countries in terms of per capita GNP. If the current inflation rate of 45% and the unemployment rate of 15% are added to this gloomy picture, Sri Lanka’s economic difficulties become clearly evident.
The Muslims in Sri Lanka form only about 7% of the country’s population. In Sri Lanka, Muslims are a subject community without any special constitutional status accorded to their religion.

Since the Muslims in Sri Lanka are a minority scattered over all parts of the island, there is less possibility of that community organizing itself into a single political group to fight for its rights or for a particular share of the country’s economic cake. The fact that there has been no Muslim political party in Sri Lanka illustrates this argument. The strategy the community has adopted so far has been to join hands with the majority parties to try to win concessions from whichever government comes to power. They live more by their privileges than by their rights.

In Sri Lanka the Muslims are noted for their entrepreneurship and hard work, and are considered to be the most business-minded community in the country. Consequently, they prefer a free-market capitalist economy to one that is state controlled or socialistic. This explains their traditional support to the ruling United National Party, which believes in the superiority of the capitalist system and uses all its endeavors to implement it.

The Revivalist Movement in Sri Lanka

Islamic revivalism in Sri Lanka requires a definition. Historically, one can speak of a Muslim revivalist movement in that country as far back as the closing decades of the nineteenth century. In fact it was that movement that was partly responsible for the first major racial riot in Sri Lanka in 1915. Although that particular episode has long been forgotten, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has continued to preserve the essence of that revivalist movement – namely, the desire to safeguard the religious and cultural identity of Muslims. The international events of the 1970s did not initiate a new revivalist movement in Sri Lanka; instead, it added a fresh momentum to the already existing religious awareness of the Muslim community and made religion its permanent preoccupation. It is the nature of this preoccupation and the problems arising out of it that is termed the revivalist movement in Sri Lanka.

Constrained by the smallness of their number and their scatered settlements, the Muslims of Sri Lanka realize that any endeavor to transform the entire Sri Lankan society into the Islamic ideal is a utopian dream. Naturally, therefore, the revivalist movement is of a conservative nature. All that they can hope to achieve is to make the Muslims live a true Islamic life and to win occasionally through spiritual persuasion some new converts to the faith. The tabligh movement, which has its headquarters in New Delhi, has been very active in the country since the 1960s and has attracted activists from a variety of people ranging from school children to businessmen, magistrates, doctors and engineers.

The enthusiasm and the dedication of these followers sometimes earn the envy of other communities, particularly the majority Buddhists. But this envy rarely manifests itself in open enmity towards Islam or the Muslims; instead, it generates criticisms of the inaction of the Buddhist leaders to propagate their own religion. The annual tabligh ijtima (conference) that takes place in various parts of the country, the grand 1980 celebrations of the 1400th year of Hijra (the prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina from Mecca), and the International Muslim Conferences held in Colombo are all in a sense the outcome of the revivalist fervor in Sri Lanka, and they kindle feelings of frustration among the Buddhists. In fact such feelings were expressed in the country’s legislature soon after the International Muslim Cultural Conference held in Colombo in March 1982.
Nevertheless, both the Buddhist community and the government, which recognizes only Buddhism as a state religion, have tolerated the activities of the Muslim activists. More significantly, the government of Sri Lanka has been magnanimous in acceding to several of the Muslim community’s demands. The following are some of the facilities currently enjoyed by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka:

(1) If more than 50% of the total student enrollment in a government school consists of Muslim students, then that school is considered to be a Muslim school that can have a Muslim name and in which the majority of teachers will be Muslims. (It should be remembered that the government of Sri Lanka, having nationalized most of the private schools and having done away with the denomination system in the 1960s, continues to operate some Muslim schools almost exclusively for Muslim children.)

(2) Muslim schools have Muslim inspectors to supervise their work. (During the SLFP regime of Mrs.Bandaranaike, there was even a Muslim Director of Education in charge of all Muslim schools.)

(3) Islam is a subject in the curriculum of all Muslim schools, and Muslim Civilization is a subject that can be offered at the G.C.E.Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations. Arabic is another subject taught in all Muslim schools.

(4) Even though all Muslim schools have opted for Tamil as the medium of instruction, in teaching Tamil literature they have excluded from use all the famous Tamil texts in preference to those written by Muslims with an Islamic content. The reason for this exclusion is that the popular Tamil texts have a Hindu content.

(5) The Muslims have requested and have obtained the government’s authority to keep their children, especially the girls, from studying subjects such as music, art, dancing and sculpture. The reason given is that these subjects could lead Muslim children astray.

(6) All Muslim schools have a separate calendar that enables them to have their term holidays during periods of religious importance. For example, all Muslim schools remain closed during the fasting month of Ramadhan.

(7) The Sri Lankan National Radio Service has allocated at least an hour a day for the exclusive use of the Muslims – a facility not enjoyed by nearly 100 million Muslims in India.

From this sample of facilities, it may appear that the government of Sri Lanka is genuinely concerned with the spiritual development of the Muslim community. The Muslim leaders in the country even cite these facilities as the index of Muslim cultural welfare in Sri Lanka. But there are other and more important reasons for the government’s generosity and concern towards the Muslims. Attention was drawn earlier in this article to the state of Sri Lanka’s economy.

With the increase in oil prices and the resulting affluence of the Muslim Middle East, Sri Lanka has tried to earn the friendship of the Arab countries to gain some economic advantage. The closure of the Israeli embassy and the appointment of a Muslim as the Minister of Education during the SLFP regime (1970-77), and the appointment of a Muslim as the Minister of Foreign Affairs by the ruling UNP were all aimed at presenting an appropriate image to the Arab nations. The publicity and the extraordinary reception accorded to the Arab leaders during the Non-Aligned Conference in Colombo in 1976 were also intended to advance this image.

The government’s favored treatment of the Muslims in Sri Lanka is thus a part of this strategy to win Arab favors. This approach has yielded three types of economic return: bilateral aid from Arab nations, a sizable export market for Sri Lankan products in the Middle East, and job opportunities for tens of thousands of Sri Lankans in that part of the world. According to the provisional figures supplied by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for 1980, the Arab countries contributed a total of Rs.317 million to the country’s foreign assistance receipts that year. The Middle East, including Libya, accounts for more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s tea exports both in terms of volume and value.

According to the same source, between 1978 and 1980 nearly 75,000 Sri Lankans migrated in search of employment abroad, and of these the majority went to the Middle East.

In addition, there are internal political reasons why the government is so generous towards the Muslim community. These arise out of the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. The position of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that it speaks for all the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka is discredited by the refusal of the Muslim community, whose members also speak Tamil as their mother tongue, to join the party’s ranks. In fact, the strength of the TULF would be greatly enhanced if the Muslims who live in the Eastern Province and who form nearly one-third of the island’s Muslim population were to join the TULF. Thus, while the Sinhalese political parties try to keep the Muslims within the Sinhalese camp, the Muslims have come to realize that by playing politics between the two major communities and between major parties they can achieve maximum benefits.

Finally, the nonpolitical nature of the Muslim religious ferment in Sri Lanka has led the ruling governments to extend not only their toleration but also their support. From the government’s point of view, the Muslims are not engaged in any organized political activity; they do not put forward any hard demands and all they ask for is the freedom to educate their children in the way they want, to practice their religion wherever they live, and to earn their living through their own enterprise and effort. To a government that believes in the capitalist philosophy, no community can give less trouble than the Muslims. By tolerating the Muslims and keeping them satisfied, the government stands to gain politically and the country economicaly. Muslim revivalism in Sri Lanka thus operates in harmony within the country’s environment.

But there is a dilemma. It is a dilemma confronting not the government of Sri Lanka or the country but the Muslim community itself. It arises out of the shortsightedness of the revivalist movement and the generosity of the Sri Lankan government. The Muslim community has overplayed its religious enthusiasm by giving a religious color to all its activities, and it is ignoring long-term dangers in favor of short-term advantages.

Consider, for example, the curriculum of the Muslim schools. The language policy of the country dictates that children should study in their mother tongue – i.e., either Sinhalese or Tamil. To a Sinhalese or a Tamil child, the choice is simple. They study in one of those languages and choose English as their second language in order to further their higher education and take advantage of future job opportunities. But to a Muslim child that choice is not so simple. Since the Muslims have openly opted to study Sinhalese as well as their mother tongue, and since the Islamic fervor dictates that Arabic should also be studied, all Muslim children learn three languages in their schools; when the desire to study English is added the total becomes four. It is not uncommon to see children in Muslim primary schools spending more than half their school hours studying languages. In addition, Islam is also taught as a separate subject.

One can easily imagine the problems this creates in the intellectual development of a Muslim child. At a mid-1982 Muslim educational conference in Colombo, some Muslim leaders expressed their concern over the low admission rate of Muslim students to Sri Lankan universities. They seemed to imply that there was open discrimination by the Education authorities to shut out Muslims from the universities. But when one considers the curriculum in Muslim schools, one is not surprised at a high rate of failure of the Muslim students in the university entrance examination. The Muslims are solely to be blamed for this sad consequence.

A further shortcoming has to do with the Muslim school calendar. Since the ‘fasting’ month comes at varying periods each year, Muslim schools remain closed for their holidays accordingly. It so happens almost every year that when the majority of schools in the island are open, the Muslim schools are closed, and vice versa.

This creates a major administrative problem since the Education Department functions to suit the needs of the majority of schools and thereby the needs of the Muslim schools tend to be neglected. Muslim teachers often lose the opportunities to participate in teacher refresher courses generally conducted during school holidays by the Education Department. Likewise, Muslim teachers also miss opportunities to earn additional income by supervising and proctoring at public examinations, which are also held during school holidays.

To overcome this disadvantage, the government decided to close all schools during the examination weeks. But the Muslim schools will have to make up the loss of school hours by conducting classes on Saturdays. School discipline, administration, and teaching content all stand to suffer simply because of the Muslim desire to close their schools during Ramadhan. Whether this is the correct way of observing the fast or not does not matter here. What matters from the point of view of this discussion is that the Muslims ask something from the government in the name of their religion, and that the government, without seriously considering whether that particular demand is in the true spirit of Islam or not, or whether it is to the real advantage of the community, readily grants it.

All the government wants are Muslim votes with which to win the next election and the community’s contentment to be put on display to the outside world. And it appears that the current Islamic trend in Sri Lanka operates to the long-term detriment of the Muslim community in that island, not to its advantage.



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