Muslim women in Sri Lanka have been wearing either the Indian-style shalwar kameez with or without the hijab or abaya for the last two to three decades – Pix by Shehan Gunasekara
By Mohamad R.M. Farook
The Sri Lankan Muslims as a community are witnessing a very dangerous scenario today, which hitherto has never happened to them. It is not just a casual anti-Muslim campaign but a multi-faceted attack on their religious, cultural, economic and social aspects, which no community in the modern world would ever expect to happen. Yet it is happening and the intensity is increasing steadily day by day to the worst levels. The Government is silent and does not seem to be worried about the dangerous situation the Muslim community is being pushed into.
The Government’s indifference is essentially based on its focus on the forthcoming presidential election in November/December 2019 and thereby not to have any adverse effects in reaping the Sinhala-Buddhist votes, knowing very well that the small group of extremist Buddhists involved could be adequately dealt with using the existing laws against violence, instigating violence and hate speech. Not only the Government, but also the political parties in the Opposition are also silent.
What type of democracy is being practised in Sri Lanka now? Votes are needed but that must be obtained through impartial and genuine governance, and never in sacrificing one community (Muslims) on the whims and fancies of another (extremist Buddhists). In financial parlance, we might call that ‘penny wise and pound foolish’. This kind of behaviour by the Government, Opposition and many civil society organisations will definitely destroy Sri Lanka in the long run, where all communities will suffer and there will nothing be left or remaining to uplift Sri Lanka to the prestigious status of its privileged past.
The anti-Muslim madness started to emerge, of course in a very low tone, a few months after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. That ‘victory’ in the defeat of the Tigers should have been used to rebuild Sri Lanka making all the communities contribute towards the re-building efforts. But it did not go that way. Instead, a notion of superiority of the Sinhalese emerged, without realising the defeat of the Tigers was also due to the help rendered by India, Pakistan, Israel and others in terms of weaponry, training, logistics etc. Understandably, the joyous celebrations that followed the Tigers’ defeat gave rise to a euphoria among the Sinhalese, which the political leadership of that time made use of to cunningly and secretly hatch a plan to suppress Muslims, due to their misguided (Sinhalese) belief that the Muslim community was not adversely affected by the twenty-six-year civil war, and thus were better off than the Sinhalese.
The Sinhalese must know that the Muslims paid a heavy price for not being on the side of Tigers and/or giving a moral support for their cause. The massacre of Muslims in Kattankudy while in prayers in the mosque, the killing of the many Muslim youths in Mutur who were identified by a Tiger-planted spy who functioned as the Muezzin (person calling for prayers), the chasing away of the Muslims from Jaffna, and many other incidences should have made the Sinhalese realise the genuine support of the Muslims for the Sinhalese. The political leadership at that time had a hidden and undeclared motto: “We the Sinhalese political leadership have tamed the Tigers, and it is therefore left to the Sinhalese masses now to tame the Muslims.” This was the planting of the anti-Muslim seeds which has germinated, grown and blown into the present day anti-Muslim madness as we see it today.
Reckoning on what have been said above about anti-Muslim uproar and pondering on the behavioural patterns or the lifestyles of the Muslims, one must be able to infer whether the Muslim behavioural patterns (lifestyles) or anything else whatsoever could have given rise to the prevailing anti-Muslim disorder. Individuals and collectives in every community have their individual as well as collective lifestyles which are cherished by themselves and also must be accepted and appreciated by other communities for harmonious living and sustainable co-existence. No individual or a collective of people of a particular community can point a finger at another community and say that the lifestyles of the latter is not acceptable so long the projected (exhibited) lifestyles conform to decency and moral values.
In the present post-modern world every individual and every community is in a state of flux meaning that they change to whatever that are new, innovative, fashionable, non-conforming and challenging in areas of food, interactions, dress codes, religious rituals, cultural norms etc. Sri Lankans in urban centres have now adopted the habits of the Western worlds in dining out in restaurants, accepting and normalising Western dressing styles, especially by females that go contrary to traditional Sri Lankan dress codes, accepting different sexual orientations as normal, religiosity practised in a fake manner and no rigid cultural values to talk about. In such a scenario, the existence and continued furtherance of racism and hatred should definitely be out of place. But it exists in Sri Lanka and some other places in the world too. Thus the need to find out the root causes of this dangerous phenomenon and seek solutions which will lead to win-win outcomes. Trying to reach win-win outcomes or solutions will not be an easy task, yet it will be a rational alternative rather than allowing Sri Lanka to be permanently enveloped in or engulfed by firstly Buddhist racism, that would in all probability lead to racism from other ethnic groups. In such an eventuality Sri Lanka will definitely go asunder and there will not be anything left to call ‘One Sri Lanka’.
The Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims communities have undergone changes in their lifestyles. Each community have new behavioural patterns today, particularly in their social spheres, and definitely not what they had been in the past – that is natural and therefore no one needs to be perturbed by the changes that have taken place in each community so long as decency prevails. The ariya-Sinhala dress, redhai-hattai; osari etc. of the Sinhalese have changed. The verties, pawaadai and thavanies etc. of the Tamils have changed. Sarongs, shirts, coats, fez (Moors) etc. of the Muslims have changed. All of these new styles are not indigenous to Sri Lanka and definitely copied from outside. That is how the world had moved, while the national dresses of each nation together with the distinct ethnic dresses of each community have been preserved or upheld and proudly exhibited especially at the national events and community functions.
Be that as it may, what we are witnessing in Sri Lanka is the emergence of slanders and casting aspersions on Muslims on their religious commitments, especially in their religious practices and their dress styles. Every religion has many diverse groups within itself, where some will be advocating the pure form of the religion, some others of a middle path, others of a liberal outlook, some advocating a populist religious paradigm while some live just as namesakes of their religion and so on. When such is the story of the nation, why point fingers at the Muslims and treat them as if they are resorting to an alien religious paradigm and culture, naming those as Wahhabism and the change in their cultural outlook, which is nothing but fashion, as Arabisation which is a misnomer?
There is nothing called Wahhabism in Islam now or ever. It is a Western construct having diverse meanings or definitions given by various sponsors or propagandists to the term Wahhabism as per their requirements and has never been part of Islam – this must be clearly understood. It is an Islamophobia-based term used firstly by forces against Islam to damage the purity and sanctity of Islam (or pure Islam) by creating and then making use of fake extremist/violent organisations attaching to them a ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ sticker or badge.
Secondly, the term Wahhabism is also used by deviant Muslims (Muslim organisations) who practise all sorts of polytheistic rituals which have no place in Islam, and call the mainstream Muslims who uphold the pure form of Islam as Wahhabis. Anybody can call anybody else by any name, but that does not make the one being called by that name to be that what the caller intends. This is how the word Wahhabis/Wahhabism is used in Sri Lanka to nickname others by the deviant Muslims practising polytheistic rituals which has no standing in Islam.
Of late, particularly in Sri Lanka, the Muslim groups inclined to polytheistic rituals and practices contrary to the fundamentals of Islam have named themselves Sufis (mystics) as a collective term. Some of these so-called ‘Sufi’ groups are the ones feeding the anti-Muslim Buddhist organisations Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) and the likes with wrong and dangerous information about the mainstream pure Muslims as practising extremism. The BBS, through its lead speaker Gnanasara Thero talks of eliminating so-called Wahhabism, which is a non-existent entity and remains only in the minds of deviant Muslims sects and now eventually transferred to BBS propaganda. It is pathetic to hear what Gnanasara Thero says about the non-existing ‘Wahhabism’ in Sri Lanka, making a fool of himself in the eyes of general public – it is only a ploy for political advantage. Some of the deviant Muslims calling themselves ‘Sufis’ for convenience, covertly feed the BBS wrongful information about Islam and Muslims, are the hypocrites among and traitors of the genuine mainstream Sunni Muslims. They will get their due punishment from Allah (swt) either in this world or in the Hereafter.
Along with the term Wahhabism, there are two other terms that are being used to discredit Muslims – they are Arabisation and Arab Culture. Simply stated, what should be meant by Arabisation is the complete overhaul of a community to the practices of the Arab world. Has that happened? Importantly, is it possible? Certainly not, as it is impossible to do such a macro change – acculturation is a difficult thing to do particularly within Muslims. Simply because the street name boards in some areas in the Eastern Province had their names in Arabic does not qualify as ‘Arabisation’. The people (Muslims) that used Arabic in such situations would have been enthusiastic to be a bit of a show-off, just as in the many un-Islamic rituals practised by deviant Muslims. This is a simple matter and could be taken off easily rather than making it a national issue/crisis – and that is the political face in Sri Lanka both by the doers as well as the opponents.
Next we come to another issue that states that the Muslims are adopting Arab culture. The adoption of fashion which prevails in Muslim nations and is in agreement with the Islamic code of conduct cannot be called an adoption of an alien Arab culture. History teaches us that humanity had always embraced change, and if not for change human society would not have reached the sophistication and modernity (post-modernity) as we see it today. Culture refers to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society and gets developed incrementally through time and is prone to changes throughout a community’s existence. Every community has its own culture that is part and parcel of its lifestyle. Culture of a society or community consists of many and varied sub-cultures within it. Muslim women in Sri Lanka have been wearing either the Pakistani/Indian-style shalwar kameez with or without the hijab (headscarves) or abaya (loose outer/over garments – robe-like dresses) for the last two to three decades, instead of saris, even though they have not given up the sari completely. Some Muslim women reserve the sari for special functions such as weddings and other events even today. It is the abaya that is worn today by the majority of Muslim women for fashion and convenience.
If the wearing of abayas is to be misconstrued by the majority Sinhalese as adopting an alien Arab culture, then it is the duty of Muslims in all strata to correct that impression forthwith by placing the true picture. Instead of doing that, some of the Muslim clerics have openly stated, in some instances in the presence of Buddhist monks, that there will be no more Arab culture that will be practiced in Sri Lanka hereafter. First of all, tell us the Arab culture that is being practiced now? The Arab world will be laughing at us if they hear of our hypothetical declaration of the existence of Arab culture among the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Wearing an abaya, which is also worn by Muslim women in Arab nations and other parts of the world, does not constitute the adoption of Arab culture. Culture is an all-embracing aspect of a community and cannot be targeted at one aspect, such as dressing style. Foolishness has its limits too and moving further from that is nothing but insanity.
Every community has their fundamental right to wear dresses of their choice so long as the dresses as worn does not impinge on immorality or indecency. The abayas are decent dresses, but in most cases have a luxurious appearance, which may give cause to class their wearers as snobs by others, thus eventually leading to dislike, jealousy, hatred etc. This is also one reason to dislike the abaya and contemptuously call it an alien culture, whereas in reality it is nothing but the fashion of the present era that may change in the future. Taking this perspective, or perceptions of others regarding the Abaya, it will be prudent for the Muslim women to wear simple or casual styles for ordinary outdoor activities and reserve the expensive and/or luxury dresses for special occasions such as weddings, waleemas etc. This approach will be one way of avoiding ‘fitna’ or unrest in society.
Muslims have to speak out about their religious obligations regarding how Muslim women are commanded to dress rather than accepting or agreeing to what others say about the female dressing style and hypocritically stating that the Muslims henceforth would not be having any Arab culture, whereas in the first place such a culture had never been in existence. No community have the right to dictate to any other how the latter’s culture should be in par with the former’s cultural values. Throughout history and to date, Sri Lankan Sinhalese leaders have always appreciated and accepted the importance and worth of the multi-cultural dimensions of Sri Lankan society. Thus the speeches and actions by the extremist Buddhist organisations to interfere in the cultural ways of the Muslims are deplorable and definitely be their downfall in the future, as it is practically impossible to venture into such interference and secondly such interference is against the Constitutional rights guaranteed to the minorities.
While all the anti-Muslim propaganda machinery is working in full throttle to undermine Muslims in their religious, cultural, social and espeically economic domains, the Muslim community seems to be nonplussed as to how they should face this chaotic situation. The sure remedy is to seek the help of Allah(swt) through Dua (Supplication) in the righteous (Taqwa) way, fulfilling the Islamic way of repentance (Thaubah) for the wrongdoings that would have been committed in the worship of Allah (swt) and in the interactions, transactions and dealings with other people, whether with Muslims or other faiths. Seeking the help of Allah (swt) should go hand in hand with perseverance for Halaal earnings and to be of service to the Ummah. This way – Insha Allah – the Muslim community on the whole will be able to rise up from their present fall – Ameen.
All the Islamic/Muslim organisations that had been existing for a reasonable period of time had their activities performed with their stated objectives, goals and target audiences without being exposed to any threats or scrutiny from the security forces and/or people of other faiths. Some had hidden ways of ‘earnings’ for the organisations and also for its lead members/officials, yet pretended to perform work as volunteers. Each organisation had their own ways of propagating Islamic teachings. Some were against some other organisations, yet the work was carried on and forward without much care for the opposing points of view – whether that were right or not is not the concern of this write-up. This went on smoothly until the 21 April 2019 when Easter Sunday mayhem happened. Since this tragedy was committed by persons claiming to be Muslims and had been in the mainstream Muslim Ummah (though their commitment to kill others have made them absolutely forfeit the Islamic identity and Imaan), the security forces under the direction of the Government started to investigate Muslims and Muslim religious organisations, and these investigations have made these organisations slow down their usual activities and move on to sundry new activities to help the organisations survive. By this survival strategy, some of these organisations are engaging in various activities which they should not undertake and speak on issues for prominence and exhibitionism. It will take some time for these organisations to fall back to their original commitments/objectives if at all they wish to continue.
What has happened is that the beautiful nation of Sri Lanka, where the elders or the senior citizens, the youngsters, including the young minds of schoolchildren, were mutually loving and respecting one another irrespective of one’s religious, ethnic or racial identity, is being shattered into smithereens by racism, which is paving the way for the irreconcilable destruction of Sri Lankan society. If this is to be curtailed, all right-thinking persons must come together to save Sri Lanka from this menace of evil. Until this is done there is no hope for better Sri Lanka. Let us pray to Almighty Allah (swt) to make this happen and thus make Sri Lanka a better place for all to live peacefully, for the survival of human values.