Deciphering a carnage and a crisis

Tuesday, 7 May 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A comparatively small, disproportionately dynamic, unbelievably influential group calling itself ISIS is seeking to impose a totalitarian version of Islam on the world. 

To fight an idea, we must understand the idea. The common-sense approach demands that we define who we are and accurately ascertain who they are.

Terror takes tolerance hostage. We define ourselves by not abandoning tolerance. 

First things first. Fighting ‘Velupillai Prabhakaran’ and fighting ‘Abubaker al Baghdadi’ are two different ballgames. 

It suits the political purpose of those who claim a proprietary patent on the military defeat of the LTTE that the ‘Tigers’ were the most vicious, savage and atrocious known to the world. Call him what you may, Prabhakaran subscribed to the notion of the ‘modern nation state’. He wanted and fought for a piece of the post-colonial nation state. 

This new guy Abubakar al Baghdadi and his kind are different and drastically so. They reject the notion of the modern state, the role of citizen in the polity and individual human rights. ISIS or whatever they call themselves have found fertile soil to sow the seeds of mindless butchery in the Arabised towns and villages of our Eastern province. How did that happen? 

The well-known history scholar of Sri Lanka, Lona Dewaraja in her 1994 book ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka – One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony,’ narrates the trajectory of the relationship between the Sinhalese-majority community and the Muslim minority over a period of thousand years. That is, from the time of Sri Lanka’s first known contacts with Islamic world in the eighth and ninth centuries till the beginnings of the British rule.

She examines the relationship between the migrant Muslim traders and the agricultural Sinhalese culminating in the structural assimilation of Muslims into the Kandyan body politic.

The Muslim community of Sri Lanka integrated while avoiding the natural process of cultural assimilation where the migrant culture is totally submerged in the host culture. 

The Muslims were loyal subjects of Sinhala kings. They remained a distinct and cohesive group in the Kandyan Kingdom. They devoutly adhered to Islam and preserved their cultural attributes. 

The Eastern Province was an intrinsic part of the Kandyan kingdom. The Eastern Province had the largest concentration of Muslims in the country. The community was frozen in time and happily comfortable in antiquity until M.H.M. Ashraff discovered the value and the promise of the ethno-religious identity of Eastern Province Muslims under proportional representation and in the context of the 13th Amendment. How it happened and how it evolved is another story for another day.

But we must unravel the mystery of how the Eastern Province became an assembly line production plant of Salafist Jihadists.

The Eastern Province Muslim community was frozen in time and happily comfortable in antiquity until M.H.M. Ashraff discovered the value and the promise of the ethno-religious identity of Eastern Province Muslims under proportional representation and in the context of the 13th Amendment

In his ‘History of Sri Lanka’ (1981), Professor K.M. De Silva narrates how the Muslims of Sri Lanka were insulated from Western colonial cultural influence. 

“The Muslims of Sri Lanka had been notable for their refusal to succumb to the blandishments of Christianity. The resistance to conversion had persisted throughout the nineteenth century, but the survival of Islam in Sri Lanka had, in a sense, been secured at the expense of the social and economic advancement of the Muslims. Since the education provided in the schools was primarily English, there was among Muslims, an attitude (natural to a conservative and cohesive community) tending to reject it because of the impact on Islam of a foreign culture… This manifestation of zeal for their ancestral faith had some regrettable consequences and by the third quarter of the 19th century, the more enlightened Muslim leaders were profoundly disturbed to find their community sunk in ignorance and apathy, parochial in outlook and grossly materialistic.” 

This isolation was harshly so in the case of the Eastern Province Muslim community. Eastern Province Muslims were primitively pastoral and were trapped in oppressively feudal hegemony of the west coast Muslim elite whose entrepreneurial talents were appreciated first by the British raj and later more avidly by their successors – the native comprador class. 

The Eastern Province Muslims were our equivalent of the Russian peasantry who did not know of an electric bulb before the revolution. The 19th Century and the first two decades of the 20th Century skipped past them. They represented the classic post-colonial marginalised under the hegemony of an elite leadership based in Colombo negotiating first with the colonial rule and later their native successors. 

The Muslims of the Eastern Province were literally dumb. For centuries they had no voice. They were so dumb, that they rejected Badi ud din Mahmud, one of the pioneering Muslim educationist and socialist politicians who as Minister of Education made trained teachers out of Muslim girls who had hardly reached the eighth grade in secondary school.

The 13th Amendment and the idea of an Eastern Provincial Council made the hitherto forgotten Eastern Province Muslims a pivotal factor in the politics of the centre where competitive politics became something of a game of Russian roulette under proportional representation. 

M.H.M. Ashraff and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress made their Eastern Province bailiwick in to a springboard to reach the portals of power at the centre. The centre of gravity of Muslim politics moved from the plush salons of Colombo, Beruwala and Galle to Kattankudy, Nintavur and Eravur. 

In the 10th Parliament, the Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress got up to congratulate the Speaker on his election. The Deputy Speaker Anil Moonasinghe, Trotskyite, grandnephew of Anagarika Dharmapala, was presiding. The man who gave voice to the voiceless Muslims of the Eastern Province commenced his peroration recorded in the Hansard. 

“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, La-ilaha Illallahu Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar Walillahil Hamdu... Hon. Speaker, I have great pleasure in conveying our congratulations and felicitations on behalf of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress.”

Some members interrupted. The Deputy Speaker called for order and let the SLMC Leader proceed with his speech.

“Sir, this is the first time in the history of Parliament that a Muslim member in his capacity as leader of the political party has been given the opportunity of felicitating the Speaker. I am proud and thankful to Allahu Th’ala’ that I have been given this opportunity.” 

With Buddhism accorded the foremost place, ours is a quasi-theocratic ethnocracy. Had our Constitution been a strictly secular constitution, the SLMC’s Founder Leader would not have been permitted to turn his perch in Parliament into a pulpit. What goes around comes around. 

The identity politics of the SLMC served the narrow purpose of serving the short-term objectives of competitive electoral politics. I am not suggesting that the SLMC knowingly encouraged extremist jihadists. 

M.H.M. Ashraf and the SLMC opened Pandora’s Box. The Jihadists found its contents wrapped in smartphone modernity, but in essence encased in medieval antiquity. How convenient?

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