A Proactive and Empathetic Approach is needed to resolve the Muslim Problem

Many articles and papers have been written over the past few years by various Commentators attempting to analyze the sudden emergence of stridently anti-Muslim Groups in Sri Lanka. The conceptual framework which underlies most of these analyses is based on the postulate that the cause of the ‘Muslim Problems’ is the emergence of these Groups. This amounts to a convenient externalization of the solution to the Muslim Problems, which simply put would then be to ‘Ban the Racist Buddhist Groups’. But silencing the voice of Racist Groups through legal procedures does not mean that the various allegations made by such groups against the Muslim Community have been proved to be null and void. If these allegations are not addressed effectively, they will continue to fester, to grow in intensity and extent and will almost certainly surface again in a far more violent form some time in the future.

In a previous post titled ‘Identifying the Muslim Problem’, I have argued that ‘the key Muslim Problem is therefore the deterioration in Buddhist – Muslim relations.’

I am of the view that, far from being it’s root cause, the emergence of anti-Muslim Groups is actually a symptom (or effect) of this deterioration in Buddhist-Muslim relations. To identify the possible contributory factors that led to the weakening of ethnic relations, the minority Muslim Community must start looking within themselves by conducting an objective ‘Introspective Analysis’ of their Islamic Way-of-Living in the context of a non-Muslim Majority Nation. It would be a serious mistake on the part of the Muslim Community to adopt the stance that they have not in any way contributed towards this deterioration of relations.

The big question then is : Did the Muslim Community, by their words & deeds, create the space necessary for the emergence of the various anti-Muslim Groups over the past few years ? For instance, it is alleged by the anti-Muslim Groups that Muslim Extremists are rapidly gaining a foot-hold in Sri Lanka. Who is responsible for the creation of this perception among the Non-Muslims ? Could the fact that, of the four major Religious Groups in Sri Lanka, intra-religious violence has erupted ONLY within the Muslim Community have contributed towards the shaping of this particular view-point ? Has there been any ‘Buddhist versus Buddhist’, ‘Christian versus Christian’ or ‘Hindu versus Hindu’ violence of a similar intensity during the past 30 – 40 years ?  Some Muslims are disdainful of such perceptions, but one should bear in mind that perceptions are more important than reality in molding public opinion.

We are Sri Lankan Muslims – a unique ethnic group found only on this Island. Our lives and life-styles are inextricably linked to that of the other 90% of Sri Lankans. We cannot expect to live in harmony with other Communities if we choose to build ‘walls’ around our Community. Over the centuries we have evolved a somewhat liberal outlook, but have not strayed away from the basic tenets of Islam. Our life-styles have emerged as being compatible with the more secular lifestyles of Muslim Countries such as Turkey and Malaysia / Indonesia rather than that of the rigid, spiritual life-style of Saudi Arabia. Let us  try to keep it that way. Let us ensure that our way of living, while adhering broadly to the rules of Islam,  empowers our young men and especially our young women to face the future with confidence and courage. We owe them that much.

We should  therefore  perceive the recent upsurge in anti-Muslim rhetoric as a timely warning –  a wake-up call – that everything is not quite hunky-dory with regard to our standing among the other ethnic groups – specifically the majority Buddhists. We have to ask ourselves as to what exactly it is about our way of living that is causing concern, apprehension, anger and even fear among our Buddhist brothers and sisters. We have to accept the fact that we may not like the answers to such questions, but should not shy  away from asking such questions for this reason.

Some of the key issues that have emerged to date as causing great concern to the non-Muslim Community are the Halal issue, the Black Abhaya issue, the Azan issue, the Mosque-building issue, the Population issue and more recently, the Shariah Banking issue. The only way to disperse effectively the heat generated by each of  these issues is to destroy the embers that kindle the fires that give such issues life. Simply dousing the flames will not ensure that the embers are extirpated. A case in point is the Halal issue which was ‘resolved’ by shifting the procedural responsibility from the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema (ACJU) to a not-for-profit Organization, Halal Accreditation Council (Guarantee) Limited, founded by 11 Muslim Professionals. Has this move effectively countered and completely eradicated the complaints and criticisms leveled against the Halal process by the anti-Muslim groups ?

What we should realize is that these concerns are perceived by our Buddhist compatriots as being promoted by Muslim Extremists and creates the fear that Sri Lanka is gradually undergoing a process of ‘Islamisation’. Street name-boards emerging in Kattankudy with Arabic letters only serve to strengthen such perceptions and worsen the situation for the Muslims of Sri Lanka.

Arabic Name Boards

In their approach towards the resolution of the Muslim Issues, the  Muslim Community has to adopt a strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ by taking the steps necessary to identify, negate and neutralize the concerns of the Buddhists before it becomes a serious issue like the Halaal problem. We need to voluntarily examine the issues critically and dispassionately and ask ourselves such questions as “Why are we continuing with a ritual that causes the non-Muslims to curse our religion 5 times a day ?” (in the case of the Azan issue, for example). With regard to the Population issue, other Muslim Professionals have been able to allay the atavistic fears of many Buddhists that they will be reduced to a minority in Sri Lanka by the Muslims, using a simple non-mathematical explanation of census population data trends.

Addressing the above and other related issues voluntarily will only help our Community to be perceived as being sensitive to the concerns and apprehensions of the Majority Community and importantly, that we are willing to Walk-the-Talk. This will moreover empower the non-racist members of the Buddhist Community to speak-up on behalf of the Muslims if required.

The implementation of the proposed strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ requires persons with strong leadership skills and who are ready, willing  and able to think out-of-the-box. We need a Leadership,  consisting not of Politicians or of the Ulemas, but of respected Members of Muslim Civil Society who are capable of winning the trust of the Ummah because of their standing in the Community. We need a Leadership that can persuade the Ummah to look not just at the ‘dots’, but rather at the Big Picture obtained by connecting the dots.

Are the Muslims of Sri Lanka able to put aside their differences and to focus on the urgent need to introduce measures to ensure the physical and mental well-being of the members of their Community in the years ahead ?  Are the Muslims able to empathize with their Buddhist Brothers and Sisters to the extent that they of their own volition change patterns of their behavior which cause concern and apprehension to the Majority Community ? Or do the Muslims feel that they alone are entitled to the right of being angry and offended ? We should bear in mind at all times that the tolerance of the Buddhists should not be misconstrued as acquiescence on their part.

The Less-tolerant among us are going to resist any move on the part of the more secular Muslims to address the concerns of the Majority Community . However, we should bear in mind that the future of our children and their children depends on what we do now to ensure that the members of our Community can continue to live in our Motherland with self-respect and dignity without fear of physical harm or mental trauma by virtue of being followers of Islam. And do it, we must.