Recent events call into question the political position of the Muslim community within Sri Lanka, and the historical context which put them there
Last Friday a mob of about 2000 Sinhalese, led by a group of Buddhist monks, stormed into a mosque in the historical city of Dambulla. They caused disturbances so severe that Friday prayers had to be cancelled. Reports suggest that the mosque had been hurled at with petrol bombs the night before, causing minor damage, and security forces were deployed to control the situation. The targeting of the Muslim community was instigated by a group of racist Sinhalese individuals, consisting largely of hooligans, who were motivated by the uproar and attention such an act would create, rather than by any identifiable ideology.
The Sinhalese group that attacked the mosque claimed that it was an illegal structure, although reports have suggested that the mosque is more than 50 years old. This claim is further validated by the local parliamentarian for the Dambulla district, incidentally, a Sinhalese, who is reported to have stated that the mosque has existed in its current location even before he, himself, was born.
Assuming that the mosque is an illegal structure or is tainted by legal controversy (which, indeed, it is not), due process has to be adhered to and there are legal procedures that need to be observed in order to remove the building or evict its inhabitants.
Social media sources are running amok with reports of increased Sinhala-Muslim tensions. There is however, a far deeper context in which these need to be seen.
This history of Muslims in Sri Lanka is not just another story of a minority community. Sadly and very inaccurately, the term ‘minority’ is used to describe Sri Lankan Muslims, in the same vein as European Muslims are described as minorities.
The Muslims in Europe or the US, in addition to being a numerical minority, do not have a history that spans more than a few centuries, and are largely insulated by other cultural distinctions different to the country they live in. Terms like ‘of Asian origin’, for instance, reinforce this notion. This history of Muslims in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is as old as Islam itself.
Geographically, Sri Lanka previously held a central location in ancient trade routes, and was the traditional resting spot of sailors and merchants who were travelling from the east to the west. Therefore, Arab merchants had been frequenting Sri Lanka long before the advent of Islam in Arabia. With the ideological transformation of Arabia, the same Arabs coming to Sri Lanka were now Muslims, and in addition to marrying local Sinhalese and Tamil women, helped create the Sri Lankan Muslim population on the island.
Furthermore, unlike their other Muslim ‘minority’ counterparts, the Sri Lankan Muslims bear the exact same physical resemblance to the rest of the Sri Lankan communities and speak the same local tongue. Traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have had the best of relationships with the two other communities in Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – and have a history spanning well over a millennium.
There are several dimensions to this particular incident that took place. The Sinhalese that attacked the mosque are a part of an extremely small lunatic fringe, and are neither a reflection of the vast majority of the peaceful Sinhalese who have always been good neighbours to the Muslims, nor a reflection of an anti-Muslim agenda of the Sri Lankan state.
This is an extremely delicate situation. There are numerous instances in modern political history where the motivation to foster and nurture extremism is not purely a local construct, but facilitated through the hidden arm of an alien force. Am I insinuating that this incident is a verse in a larger conspiratorial event? No – but I will not rule out the possibility.
In the US sponsored motion against Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council last month, all the Muslim countries voted in support of Sri Lanka, or abstained from voting, thereby sending clear signals of solidarity with the country.
I rarely come out in support of the current Sri Lankan government; indeed, President Rajapaksa and his cabinet have serious questions to answer on human rights violations and corruption. However, as he is a proud Sinhalese Buddhist, and probably the first modern non-Muslim head of state to open a mosque in Sri Lanka – confirmed by this report and these images – such actions need to be recognised. Further reinforcing this notion is the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the founder President of the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinians for well over four decades, a role he passed over when he became President of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is stuck in a cold war of sorts, with the West and the US trying to get a firm geo-political hold of Sri Lanka, alongside an Eastern alliance led by China trying to do the same. Currently, this incumbent regime is towing an anti-US and an anti-Western political line that works well in favour of China and other Asian counterparts. India, which otherwise had a firm political grip on Sri Lankan affairs, has seen its grip slightly diluted by the dual emphasis of the radicalism of the Sri Lankan state, and the increased influence of China. This works in favour of other Muslim countries, and there is no foreseeable risk in the relationship between Sri Lanka and the Muslim world. Indeed, there never has been an instance when Sri Lanka has ever had a diplomatic row with any Muslim country. The Sinhalese and Muslim leadership is well aware of the fact that such incidents as these do not work in the good interests of the Sinhalese or the Muslims, or indeed the country at large.
Media portrayals, so often extremely anti-Muslim, have now portrayed the Sinhalese at large as being racist. This works well in the interests of those who seek to benefit in rupturing the Sinhalese – Muslim relationship. In casting general accusations against the Sinhalese community, Muslims are being emotionally coaxed into responding.
I have seen Facebook and Twitter updates of Muslims visibly upset, as they should be. But the actions of the Muslims should be based on rational thought, accountability and logic, otherwise they will play into the ploys of those who seek to have them driven by their emotions. These communities should be patient and understand that, despite the odds, their interests will be best served in acting within the confines of ethics, morality and legal jurisdiction.
Muslim politicians have to realise these matters and work with the government and the opposition in consolidating their status as a community that has always acted in the best interests of the Sri Lankan state, and continue to enjoy their status as fully integrated Sri Lankan citizens bar none.
Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davestamboulis/6932590909/
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