Identifying the ‘Muslim Problem’

[ This unpublished short post was written in May 2014 and reflects the unsettled social conditions of the day which reached it’s peak two months later in the town of Aluthgama. However the establishment of the new political environment in early January this year has been extremely conducive to the gradual reinstatement of the violated basic need of SL Muslims – the Need for (Physical) Safety. But the fact remains that the activities of the anti-Muslim groups during the period 2012 – 2014 did create a major schism between the Muslim Community  and the Majority Community, resulting in the perceptions of members of both Communities being revised and re-shaped.  So while ‘peace’ of a kind has indeed descended, it is my considered opinion that it has only served to ‘freeze’ the process of estrangement. It is a false peace. It only needs a spark for matters to heat up again. The on-going debate regarding the ‘Wilpattu settlements’ is a case in point  – where  a purely political issue is being given a strong ‘Muslim’ flavor. True ‘peace’ will only prevail if the ‘gap’ between the two Communities is successfully sealed. This is a huge and challenging task, but as the Chinese Philosopher, Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC) said “ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” signifying the importance of action from a state of ‘stillness’.

 But please do read on, my Brothers & Sisters, ……………………………………………… ]

Prior to conducting any Research Study, the critical importance of identifying the Research Problem correctly cannot be emphasized strongly enough. It is the Research Problem that will determine the Hypotheses generated, the Design of the Study, the Sample Design, the Questions to be asked and the Analysis and Interpretation of the Results. It is obvious therefore that an incorrectly-identified Research Problem will result in a total waste of time and other resources. Worse still, if the Research problem is not identified as being incorrect even at a later stage,  this may result in the application and implementation of incorrect recommendations – which may actually exacerbate the correct Research Problem.

One does not need to conduct any Survey at this point in time to identify the ‘Muslim Problem’ as perceived by the Muslim Community. Over 90% will have no hesitation in stating that it is the ‘Bodhu Bala Sena’ that is the cause of their distress. Their simplistic solution would then be to remove the BBS and other similar anti-Muslim Groups from the scene and everything will be ‘normal’ again. The Muslim Politicians and Theologians choose to address this perceived Problem to bolster their own standing in the Muslim Community. Do these Politicians and Theologians realize that they may have contributed to the creation of the Real Problem and are therefore trying to find an easy way out by externalizing the solution (i.e. the GOSL must ban the BBS) ?

What then is the real Muslim Problem ?

As in the case of most major religions, Islam has it’s share of Extremists, Fundamentalists, Moderates, and Secularists. Now, it is a matter of pride to all Muslims that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the World. If this is accepted as being true, would it then not be correct to conclude that this growth is being driven to a much greater extent by the Fundamentalists rather than by the Moderates & Secularists ?  And if so, does not this phenomenon lend credence to the belief that Muslim Fundamentalism is spreading all over the world  ? And should we not accept it to be so in our own Motherland ?

The past 30 – 40 years have witnessed qualitative changes in the religious behavior and life-styles of the members of the SL Muslim Community. Social and Religious Walls have been built and are continuing to be built and strengthened between the Muslims and the other Communities. Muslim Political Parties are formed ostensibly to ‘look after the needs of the Muslims’. Islamic Theologians assume responsibility for issues outside their mandate such as Issuing Halal Certificates and joining the GOSL delegation to the  UNHRC Sessions in Geneva. This created a sense of uneasiness and apprehension among members of other Communities, especially the Majority Buddhists, amplifying the ‘Us vs Them’ sentiment.

This gradually heightening sense of apprehension expanded in width and depth among the Buddhist Community over the last 3 decades. However, it found no outlet for expression since the whole Country was engulfed by a far more vicious and widespread danger due to Tamil Terrorism during this period. With all Communities facing a Common Enemy there was no opportunity for the surfacing of inter-Community differences – at least not on a major scale. But there were signs that such concerns existed. It will be recalled for instance that protests were raised when some Muslims chose to extend their support to the Pakistan Cricket Team when they played against our National Team in Sri Lanka. So the ‘dots’ did emerge, but no one appears to have felt the need to join-the-dots at that time.

Then in May 2009, Tamil Terrorism was militarily eradicated and the attention of the populace turned towards re-building their lives and the Nation. Under these changed conditions, the pin-pricks of apprehension and concern experienced by the majority Buddhist Community  regarding the Muslims became more sharp and fearful. The Majority Community was willing and ready to listen to the correct message which would address such concerns. The Conveyors of the message came in the form of the anti-Muslim Groups. The content of the message resonated with the Buddhist Community although many were not happy with the methods of delivery. While criticizing the actions of the anti-Muslim groups, many members of the Majority Community would end their statements by saying “Namuth kiyana eke aththakuth thiyanawa ne ?” (Translation : “But there is some truth in what they are saying, no ?”). These anti-Muslim groups succeeded not so much in rousing the members of the Majority Community against the Muslims, but rather in further enhancing their concerns and apprehensions regarding the ‘extremist’ Muslim Community by giving shape and form to such irrational ‘fears’ (e.g. Halal issue, Population issue, etc).

The key ‘Muslim Problem’ is therefore the deterioration in Buddhist – Muslim Relations. Apart from the serious ‘blip’ in the harmony trend line that occurred in 1915, the relationship between the two Communities have to a very large extent remained cordial and trust-worthy over the last 1000 years. The fact that quite a few Muslim Politicians were elected by large majorities in pre-dominantly Sinhalese electorates bears testimony to this fact. So what caused chinks to appear in these bonds of inter-faith relations which until then withstood the test of time ?

The Cause of the ‘Muslim Problem’ are the changes that have occurred and are occurring to the Islamic Lifestyles of the Muslims of Sri Lanka since around the late 70’s. For a very long time the Lifestyles of Muslims were influenced by the cultural practices and rituals of other religious communities. However, with the growing awareness that some aspects of their lifestyles were not quite compatible with the tenets of Islam, the members of the Muslim Community began to effect the necessary changes, which drew the attention of the Non-Muslims, many of whom experienced such changes while attending Muslim Weddings (separation of genders) and Funerals (non-Muslims being prevented from ‘seeing the body’). A serious lapse on the part of the Muslim Community was their failure to educate other Sri Lankans of the pressing need to rectify existing Islamic practices which until then may have been performed incorrectly. Not being aware of the reasons that lead to such changes in lifestyles, almost all Non-Muslims attributed it to the influence of an external source –  ‘Muslim Fundamentalism / Extremism’.

The Symptom or Effect of the ‘Muslim Problem’ was the emergence of anti-Muslim Groups.

It must then be stated – and I am not going to win any new Muslim friends for saying so – that it was the religious propensity of the Muslim Community to ‘correct & strengthen’ their Islamic Lifestyles that inadvertently created the space for the emergence of anti-Muslim Groups over the last few years.

The Muslim Problem cannot be resolved by addressing the Symptom or Effect. This would be like trying to ‘cure’ your fits of sneezing when you have Viral Flu. The problem can only be resolved to the greatest extent possible by identifying and neutralizing the Causes of the Problem without abandoning our Islamic beliefs and practices. And to do this the Community requires respectable and distinguished members of Muslim Civil Society (excluding the Politicians and the Theologians) to step up to the plate and provide the necessary leadership and direction.


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