Gota and Muslim predicament

Tuesday, 3 March 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, caught in the grip of the supremacists, is not in a position to deliver justice to Muslims, just as he is not willing to solve the problem with Tamils


Over the past few years, I have contributed several pieces to this and other journals on a number of issues regarding Sri Lankan Muslims, such as MMDA, burqa, niqab and abaya, ifthar dinner parties, madrasas, mosques, sharia, Muslim leadership, and so on. Those pieces, as expected, attracted measured appreciation as well as outright condemnation, both by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. 

In all those contributions, my views were governed by lessons I learnt from social science disciplines such as history, politics, economics and sociology. Even my views on Islam were and are shaped by those disciplines. If one could go through all what I had published, one would not fail to delineate the single most pertinent theme that I was trying to discuss, i.e., challenges facing Muslim minorities living in non-Muslim societies and polities. 

I want to go back to this theme once more, because some of those issues I discussed earlier are now re-emerging with disturbing sentiments, as preparations are afoot for another General Election. Those who read my earlier pieces may accuse me of repeating the same arguments, but I want to summarise them to contextualise Muslim predicament under Gota’s presidency. 

An international canvas

Wherever Muslims live as minorities, they, their religion, culture and economy have come under attack, especially after the year 2000. Whether in a predominantly Christian environment, as in Europe and America, or, Hindu environment, as in India, or, Buddhist environment, as in China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Muslim minorities are facing enormous challenges. That there are specific factors at play in each case is not denied. 

Taken together however, there is one common issue that bedevils Muslim relations with majority, and that issue emanates from a confusion between believing and belonging. How to live as a believer in Islam while belonging to a non-Muslim polity or country is a problem that arose recently in Muslim history. Broadly speaking, the genesis of this issue could be sought in the post-World War II unequal economic development between the First and Third Worlds on the one hand, and post-Khomeini Islamism on the other. 

There were two stages in the growth of this problem. Its first stage goes back to the immediate post-War decades, when Muslims in their thousands from former colonies, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Algeria, flocked to First World countries such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and North America, and filled First World farms and factories with cheap labour. Rapid economic growth and prosperity in the First and economic slowdown or stagnation in the Third was the underlying reason for this migration. 

However, while the receiving countries were happy to accommodate these immigrants and profit from their labour, without too many restrictions, they failed at the same time to take any measures to naturalise these communities, because these migrants were expected to be repatriated once their contracts were over. That did not happen. As the migrants stayed long and were even permitted to bring in their immediate family to join them, there began a gradual ghettoization of Muslims in several cities of Europe, Britain and North America. 

Not only these ghettos exhibited their religious and cultural identity by way of ‘azhan’ (call for prayer), open air congregational prayers, halal food, cultural dress and native language, but also reluctance to integrate with the society that accommodated them. Thus, in the first stage, both sides, the hosts and the guests adopted a policy of live and let live. 

Into this environment entered the second stage, which was marked more by the migration of Islamic ideologies than Muslim people. This stage may be reckoned to have started after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The success of this revolution followed by the collapse of socialist economic experiments, and both occurring in an environment of petroleum-propelled prosperity in Muslim Middle East and North Africa gave birth to a new wave of Islamic awakening throughout the Muslim world. One outcome of this awakening was the re-emergence of the pre-19th century de-territorialised notion of ‘ummah’ as a determining identifier of Muslim belonging*. 

Originally, it was the Prophet of Islam who introduced the concept of ummah to include all believing men and women. It should be noted however, that in Prophet’s Medina, those believers included not only Muslims, but also ‘ahl al-kitab’ or people of the Book, namely, Christians and Jews. After his death, the concept of ummah was defined narrowly by Muslim theologians to include Muslims only. Thus, all Muslims, wherever they live, belong to one ummah. 

As long as Islam and the Muslim Caliphate remained the dominant imperial power there was no clash between believing and belonging. The situation changed with the rise of nationalism and formation of independent nation states. Today, the Organisation of Islamic Countries has a total membership of 57 or 58 depending on whether one includes or excludes the Palestinian Territory. Among this family of nations the primary allegiance of a citizen is to his/her country (watan) and not to the universal ummah. Demand for territorialised patriotism overwhelms the demand for de-territorialised ‘ummatism’. 

However, to Muslims living as minorities in non-Muslim countries, the idea that they belong to the Prophet’s universal community created a dilemma at times. For example, in times of wars between India and Pakistan and during Hindu-Muslim riots in India, Muslims of both countries face excruciating pains of mental agony. In the first case, local Muslim neutrality was often portrayed as unpatriotic by Hindus, while in the second as un-ummatic by Muslims. Yet, until the birth of militant Islamism following the awakening after the 1970s, Muslim minorities remained unconcerned about their divided allegiance between watan and umma. 

With the ascendancy of Militant Islamism however, one could witness the reassertion of ummatic feeling, and with the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS in 2013, the allegiance to ummah took precedence over allegiance to watan at least in the minds of some young Muslims. The migration of hundreds of such men and women from minority zones to fight for ISIS caliphate was the product of this ummatic reinvigoration. 

Sri Lankan scene

Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has a unique history. From the time of its first appearance in the 8th century right down to the last decades of 20th century the history and growth of this minority was a story of exceptional integration and peaceful coexistence with majority Sinhalese Buddhists and minority Hindu Tamils. Nowhere in the world could one find another example of a Muslim minority that became so thoroughly indigenised and integrated with the rest of the plural society while protecting its religious identity, as in Sri Lanka. In short, until the rise of Islamism internationally, there was no conflict between believing and belonging for Muslims in this country. 

Between the theological binary ‘dharul Islam’ (abode of peace) and ‘dharul harb’ (abode of war), Sri Lanka fell into a third category introduced later and called by various names like ‘dharul sulh’ (abode of truce), ‘dharul hudna’ (abode of calm) and ‘dharul aman’ (abode of safety). As a member of the third category, Sri Lanka’s treatment of Muslims and respect shown to them by Buddhist monarchs was so magnanimous, that at it is difficult to find a similar example anywhere in Asian history. 

This explains why that community became so quickly indigenised, ubiquitously settled, and became an inseparable part of Sri Lankan economy, in spite of attacks by Sinhalese nationalists in the 19th century. For instance, when riots broke out in 1915 between Sinhalese and Muslims for the first time, and in spite of material losses incurred by indigenous Muslims at the hands of rampaging Sinhalese thugs, none of the victims chose to run away from the country, but remained even more solidly rooted to native soil and decided to become even more integrated. 

The fact that the flow of Islamic teachings and practices switched direction after 16th century, from Islamic Middle East to Hindu India, and particularly to its southern quarter, was largely responsible for Islam’s peaceful penetration into and coexistence with Buddhism in Sri Lanka. After all, Islam is not a monolithic entity. It is ethnically, regionally, culturally and philosophically a differentiated product. 

This situation began to change however, from late 1950s, when Indian born Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), began its activities in this country. TJ’s mission was and is to make Muslims more committed to Islam by conscientiously following the religious obligations. Because of its activities, mosque attendance over the decades increased by manifold demanding roomier mosques to accommodate crowding worshippers. Likewise, the number of pilgrims to Mecca, not only for the annual hajj but also for umra in between, multiplied by several fold, so much so pilgrimage, the fifth pillar of Islam, has grown into big business today. 

With a strong commitment to ‘ibadat’ (religious duties), Muslim attachment to the de-territorialised ummah also grew stronger at the expense of watan. While transforming into a more devotional community however, the millennium old attachment shown by previous generations of Muslims to the traditions, culture and ethos of this country began to show signs of ebbing under TJ influence. By becoming too otherworldly in outlook and too detached from worldly affairs, they, quite innocently, neglected the demands of the nation. Once attachment to life in this world itself devalued, why should a believer bother about the nation? This is the unfortunate outcome of TJ’s approach to Islamic preaching.

It was into this TJ-moulded otherworldly religious community that Islamism with its calamitous theocratic ideology began exerting influence after the 1970s. The essence of Islamism is its assertion that Islam is the answer to all problems of the world, and that it is the duty of the ummah to unite under the banner of Islam to create an alternative World Order. Fundamentally therefore, Islamism is a political project, and in its militant form has no tolerance for other religious or secular philosophies. The failed ISIS caliphate represented the crudest of its models.

Tragically, JR’s ‘Dharmishta Samaajaya’ and open economy became an accidental conduit to the influx of Islamist ideas through multiple channels. Wahhabi puritanic teachings and practices, Muslim identity through personal accoutrements, Muslim identity politics, resistance to gender equality, domineering role of ultra-conservative bodies like ACJU and so on, reflected the different symptoms of Islamism. Together, they accentuated the ebbing detachment noted earlier and set a trend towards Muslim self-alienation. It was a tragedy of monumental proportion that Muslim political leadership from 1990s took no notice of this disturbing trend, but started making political capital out of it. 

It was this gross neglect that led to radical and violent reaction towards Muslims by Buddhist supremacists after 2009. The cycle of anti-Muslim riots that began in Aluthgama in 2014 and ending in 2019 with the macabre act of Easter Sunday massacre by Zahran and his murderous mob, as retaliation to supremacist violence, should all be contextualised within the historical developments summarised so far.

There were of course, desperate calls from Muslim intelligentsia and Muslim civic societies, including Muslim women groups for serious reforms in Muslim affairs. But once the supremacists, supported by radicalised monks, posed an existential threat to the community, reformists had no option but to take a back seat. External threat jeopardised internal reforms. Thus, when Gota entered the presidential race the millennium old community faced a cruel choice between him and his opponent. Muslims were in a terrible predicament. 

Muslims and Gota 

It is true that majority of Muslims, did not vote for Gota at the Presidential Election, even though they suffered more under silly Sirisena’s Yahapalana regime than under Rajapaksa’s? However, when Gota publicly admitted this fact, and promised to be a president for all Sri Lankans, Muslims in particular had a sigh of relief and hoped that the new president would protect their interests and mete out justice should injustice be committed against them. 

Even their anger against Gota for his inaction to stop that hate spreader and rabble rouser Buddhist monk Gnanasara, before he sparked the Aluthgama riots (one of the main reasons why Muslims did not vote Gota for presidency), was slowly slipping away from memory. GR’s argument that had he interfered it would have escalated into an island-wide riot was entirely hypothetical and did not convince any Muslim, let alone others.

However, since GR was elected to office, there had been three incidents, all involving Muslim places of worship, which called for decisive action by the President to honour his pledge to be president for all Sri Lankans. Disappointingly, he has shown the same attitude of non-interference as he demonstrated in Aluthgama. The first was the one in Nelundeniya in the Kegalle District where some unknown miscreants erected a statue of the Buddha at dead of night right below the premises of a 125-year-old mosque. 

The fact that it was done stealthily showed the illegality of the act. It was done deliberately to provoke Muslims. The community was obviously disturbed and reported the matter to police, who advised them to go to the court. When a group of Muslims went and complained to the ‘viharadhipathy’, the prelate had told them that it was Buddhist tradition to place Buddha statues at every street corner, and that the said statue should therefore be left where it was and unmolested, while Muslims should carry on worshipping in the mosque. 

The affected party realising that further protest might bring more troubles took the matter to the court. The magistrate’s verdict was mischievous to say the least. He ruled that a wall separating the mosque premises from the statue should be built and Buddhists and Muslims should worship peacefully. This solution, accepted by Muslims, obviously out of fear, not only had set a precedent but also sown the seeds for more troubles in future. 

Firstly, what is there to prevent recurrence of similar incidents in front of mosques elsewhere? Will there be more dividing walls and fences? Secondly, if a temple is built around the statue sometime in the future, the rituals and ceremonies in that temple may create problems between the two communities. There will be complaints and counter complaints, and there is no guarantee that violence will not break out. 

Finally, in the case of that mosque, it is situated on a higher elevation than the statue. Will Buddha accept sitting below Allah? One should not forget in this context, protest by monks in the past over a plan to build minarets to a mosque in Kandy, which according to the protestors threatened to tower above the Maligawa. 

The second incident was in Chilaw. A commemorative annual feast at the site of a Muslim shrine in which even Christians used to participate was ordered by the court to be stopped because of security reasons. Muslims accepted the order and stopped their ceremony. Ironically, a court order was issued during Sirisena Presidency to stop Gnanasara and his crowd from cremating a monk’s dead body in the premises of a Hindu temple in Mullaitivu. Gnanasara quite brazenly ignored the order and went ahead with the cremation. Of course GR was not involved in it. Yet, he came to power on the promise of providing security for all, and dispatched soldiers to all parts of the island to take care of security. Couldn’t they provide protection for an annual feast at the Muslim shrine? 

The third incident was in Mahara, where the prison police has taken over a 100-year-old mosque, converted it into a rest room and placed a Buddha statue for worshipping. In other words, a mosque has become a Buddhist temple. There is now talk of an amicable settlement. In all probability, and following the precedent set in Nelundeniya, Muslims will lose at least part of their mosque.

These three incidents in which Muslims are the losers should be evaluated and interpreted in the light of Muslim community’s elaborate participation in this year’s Independence Day celebrations. Even in the most conservative Muslim town, Kattankudy, which produced Zahran and his Islamist mob, a special stage was erected, national flags were hoisted, national anthem was sung and public speakers were invited, including a Buddhist monk, to talk on the significance of the day. Similar celebrations were also held in other Muslim towns and mosques. It appears that Muslim leaders are now coming to realise that patriotism is part of the Islamic faith (hubbul watan minal iman), as the Prophet is supposed to have said. 

While Muslims are turning direction, trying to rectify their past neglect to be a community of and not in Sri Lanka, and remove the contradiction between believing and belonging, Buddhist supremacists are trying to choose India’s Hindutva path of Muslim oppression if not cleansing. This was the underlying fact behind the three incidents cited above. 

President GR, caught in the grip of the supremacists, is not in a position to deliver justice to Muslims, just as he is not willing to solve the problem with Tamils. In the meantime, native informers from the Muslim community, more for their personal gain than anything else, are singing praise of GR and trying to sway the community to vote for MR headed SLNPP at the forthcoming General Election. Will they? Predicament continues. 


(*For an interesting historical analysis of this phenomenon see, Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, Harvard University Press, 2017.) 

(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)

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