Strengthening the National Identity of Sri Lankan Muslims

What’s in a name ? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet” goes the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

So, is ‘name’ merely an  ‘identification label’ as the good Bard of Avon would like to tell us ? Is it something that can easily be superseded  by another without any significant change in the interpretation process ? This would clearly be true under ceteris paribus conditions. The knowledge, for instance, that Mary has changed her name to Anne would not keep her friends awake at night, but that she has changed her name to Fathima or to Tom would certainly do. The reason for this is quite straight forward. As long as the change in name does not include any major changes in the image of the individual conjured up by that name, the recipients of that knowledge will remain oblivious to the name-change.

On the other hand, how about the case of a ‘label’ used to identify a specific Community ? Consider for example, the situation where an individual has been introduced as a ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’. When interpreting this single item of information, the recipient will consciously or sub-consciously bring to bear all his knowledge of, his attitudes towards and his prejudices regarding members of the Muslim Community. This is in a sense, quite natural. The recipient will associate with this individual  all the favorable and unfavorable attributes that he associates with the Muslim Community.

The general belief is that the Muslim Community in SL is perceived by the Majority Community as not being as strongly patriotic as themselves – that Muslims give preference to their Global Identity over their National Identity. The behavior of some SL Muslims who choose to voice their support for a visiting Pakistani Cricket Team over the local team only serves to strengthen such beliefs. This belief is not quite correct, but perception is stronger than reality and sustains such beliefs. To correct this misconception, the reasons for such beliefs have to be identified and neutralized by the Muslims, whose ultimate goal should be to be perceived as being equal stake-holders, along with the other Communities,  in the process of national healing in Sri Lanka. There are many things that should be done in this regard, but let us put that aside for the moment.

One factor that is of immediate concern is that of the current ‘brand-name’ of the Muslim Community, viz. ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’.

If the Majority Community interprets this brand-name to mean ‘He is a Sri Lankan AND he is a Muslim’, then there would be no perceptual issue, since the term ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’ is interpreted to mean that the individual is perceived with the same intensity to be both a Sri Lankan and a Muslim.

If however, the Majority Community interprets the brand-name in one of the following mutually exclusive ways :

He is a Sri Lankan BUT he is a Muslim

ALTHOUGH he is a Sri Lankan, he is a Muslim

He is a Sri Lankan, HOWEVER he is a Muslim

He is a Sri Lankan, NEVERTHELESS he is a Muslim

it then would mean that they are discounting the term ‘Sri Lankan’ and emphasizing the term ‘Muslim’ in their minds when it comes to the members of the Muslim Community. This would explain as to why some members of the Majority Community harbor a degree of doubt regarding the patriotism of SL Muslims. People whose mental framework causes them to perceive ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’ in such a manner will always have doubts as to the ‘Sri Lankan – ness’ of the local Muslims.

The ‘image’ of the Muslim Community is clearly not driven by a single factor, but is shaped by the synergistic effect of several factors. If therefore it is indeed the case that the Sri Lankan Muslims are perceived rather negatively in this regard by the Majority Community, then it cannot be solely due to the adverse impact of it’s present name.  However, the question does arise as to whether the current label used to identify the local Muslim Community contributes significantly towards promoting, strengthening and perpetuating the phenomenon of it’s members being perceived as possessing a weak National Identity and a strong Global Identity ?

The simple method of neutralizing this ‘problem’ is to change the current label ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’ to ‘Muslim Sri Lankan’, which should result in the attribute ‘Sri Lankan’ being emphasized in the case of the local Muslims.

In fact for purposes of strengthening the National Identity of the population, it might be a good idea to henceforth refer to the major Communities as Buddhist Sri Lankans, Hindu Sri Lankans, Christian Sri Lankans & Muslim Sri Lankans, which should downplay the different Global Identities and enhance the common National Identity of all the major religious groups in Sri Lanka.