all towns are one, all men our kin.
|Home||Whats New||Trans State Nation||One World||Unfolding Consciousness||Comments||Search|
Home > Tamils - 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
MUSLIMS & TAMIL EELAM
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
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.
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.
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
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.