The Muslim Sri Lankan Population : Debunking Myths & Phobias

A common belief, bordering on paranoia, among many Sinhala Buddhists is that some time in the foreseeable future the Sri Lankan Muslims, driven by unfettered population growth, will emerge as the Majority Community in this Island Nation, thereby reducing the Sinhala Buddhists to a minority in what they often describe very emotionally as “the only Country in the World that they can call their own”. The following popular perceptions of Muslims are very often mentioned as evidence of this inevitable catastrophe.

  • SL Muslims have the highest population growth rates
  • SL Muslims have large families
  • SL Muslims do not practice family planning
  • The percentage of SL Muslims in the total population is steadily increasing
  • SL Muslims are wealthy
  • Muslim Males can have four wives simultaneously
  • Muslims have high fertility rates
  • Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World

Although many Muslims have attempted to address this issue and allay such fears, it continues to  persist and is made use of by various racist elements and groups to foment and aggravate anti-Muslim sentiments to achieve their own political, economic and social goals.

This article is yet another attempt to lay to rest once and for all this irrational, atavistic fear among the Sinhala Buddhists. It will examine the impact of the Muslim Population in two distinct stages – the past and the future – and will demonstrate beyond any and all doubt that there is absolutely no valid basis for any such fear on the part of the Buddhist Community.

The Past Scenario : According to the data published by the Department of Census & Statistics, the Buddhist and Muslim Populations at each of the 13 Censuses conducted periodically since 1881 are as follows :

census

The size of the gap between the numbers of Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka has continued to increase steadily since 1881. This is illustrated more clearly in the chart below.

pop-graph

If the Gap between the two populations is steadily increasing, then one does not need to possess an intelligence of Einsteinian proportions to conclude that the number of Muslims  is not poised to exceed  the number of Buddhists in the foreseeable future in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, based on official Government Population Statistics for the past 130 years, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the Buddhist Community to harbor even an iota of concern, apprehension or fear that they will be reduced to a minority by the Muslims in Sri Lanka.

The Future Scenario : The focus then shifts to the future – specifically the population estimates based on past trends. These estimates are of two types – ‘share-based’ and ‘growth-based’.

Share-based Forecasts:  This refers to the oft-quoted ‘share’ of the Total Population accounted for by the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka. The relevant share for each Census Year is given in the chart below.

share-graph

It is fairly common nowadays to find ‘analyses’ being performed on the population shares of the major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka over the past 100 years to justify and reinforce the fears of the Buddhist Community that sometime in the very distant future, they will swamped by the Muslims of Sri Lanka. A noteworthy feature of all these forecasts is that the unit of analysis is the seemingly harmless ‘percentage’.

In their rush to identify the date of this catastrophic event, these ‘Analysts’ appear to have forgotten the fact that a ‘Percentage’ is merely a number or ratio expressed as a fraction of 100 and is calculated on some specific base. For example, the base could be the Population of Sri Lanka in 2011 and the proportions accounted for by the Buddhist and Muslim Communities are 70.2% and 9.7% respectively. Moreover, ‘Percentages’ are used essentially to compare the status of a single variable in two or more different bases or of multiple variables in a single base. For example, Muslims accounted for 7% of the total population in 1981 and 9.7% of the total population in 2011.

Being numerically a type of index, percentages cannot be subjected to any mathematical operation (i.e. addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) unless – and only if –  such percentages refer to calculations performed on the same base. It is therefore mathematically incorrect to calculate a forecast based on trend data consisting of percentages relating to different time periods for the simple reason that whatever be the model used for estimation (i.e. Linear, Exponential, Polynomial, Moving Averages or whatever), the method will involve the use of a combination of mathematical operations.

Therefore, future population estimates cannot be based on historical ‘shares’ (or percentages) data.

Growth-based Forecasts :  This refers to the use of ‘Rates of Growth’ of the different Population Groups between any two Census Years. Proponents of this method of analysis focus on the Population data for the 1981 and 2011/2012 Census. This is given in the table below.

growth-1

First, a word about trend lines or trend curves based on growth rates. The simple fact of the matter is that any two trend lines or curves must intersect at some point unless the lines are perfectly parallel as illustrated in the three charts below.

charts

If the growth rate of the ‘Upper’ Trend Line is greater than that of the ‘Lower’ Trend Line, then the two lines would have intersected sometime in the past. (Chart 1)

If the growth rate of the ‘Upper’ Trend Line is less than that of the ‘‘Lower’ Trend Line, then the two lines would  intersected sometime in the future. (Chart 2)

If the growth rates of the ‘‘Upper’ Trend Line and that of the ‘Lower’ Trend Line are equal, then the two lines would never intersect. (Chart 3)

In the cases of the trend lines or curves for the Buddhist and Muslim Population data, the growth rate of the ‘Upper Buddhist Line’ (1.1%) is less than that of the ‘Lower Muslim Line’ (1.9%). Therefore the two lines must intersect sometime in the future. And at that point in time, the Muslim Population would be equal to the Buddhist Population.

In order to determine the point in time when the two populations are equal, the two populations are extrapolated exponentially using the 2012 data as the base and the applying the corresponding growth rates annually. The detailed estimates at the end of every decade are given in the table below.

[The formula used to calculate the annual estimate is as follows :

Estimated Population for a specific year = Estimated Population for previous year x (1+r), where r is the rate of growth expressed in decimals.]

trend-1

Pop1

Therefore it appears to be the case that, 251 years hence, in the Year 2263, the worst fears of the Buddhist Community will be realized with the  Muslim Population emerging as the Majority Community in Sri Lanka ! An underlying assumption, as in the cases of all such extrapolations , is that the political, economic, social and technological factors that existed during the 30-year period 1981 – 2011 , will continue to exist during the next 250 years too. Is this a realistic, sensible assumption?

To test the credibility of this ‘Growth-based Forecasts’, similar extrapolations of population size are also developed for two other religious groups – Roman Catholics and Non-RC Christians. The relevant basic data are as follows :

growth-2

The annual estimates of population size are given below for all four religious groups.

trend-2

Pop2

Pop3

So in a nutshell, what the above extrapolation exercise, based on Census data for 1981 and 2012 tells us is that :

conc

Thus, if the exponential growth Method of Extrapolation is deemed to be acceptable and accurate, then it appears to be the case that in the Year 2203, Sri Lanka will become a Majority Christian Nation pushing the Buddhists to second place in terms of population. Then a further 60 years later, in 2263, the Buddhists will be pushed to third position by the Muslim Community.

And the icing on the cake is that at this point in time (Year 2262), the Total Population of Sri Lanka will be in excess of 1.1 Billion !!! (which is the current population of India). Looks like Sri Lanka is heading for a pretty crowded future.

The very nature of such estimates reflects very strongly the crassness, stupidity and ridiculousness of estimating population sizes beyond reasonable limits of time. The purpose of introducing the two Christian Groups into the calculations was not to create problems for that Community, but merely to highlight the absurdity of using this method of estimation.

Conclusion : Based on this analysis of the Past and Future Scenarios, it is therefore concluded that the Muslim Community in no way poses a credible threat to the Majority Community of Sri Lanka with regard to population growth.

Are Arab Dress Codes being referred to erroneously as Islamic Dress Codes ?

There is a significant difference between the  ‘stipulated code’ and the ‘implemented code’ for a specific purpose. In many instances, a serious mistake is often made by referring to the ‘implemented code’ as being the ‘stipulated code’.

Take for instance the highway code. There was a time before the advent of the wheeled vehicle, when the need for such a code was not felt by society. However, as the types and numbers of wheeled vehicles began to soar, society would have realized the importance of introducing some kind of ‘order’ to resolve the chaos on their streets and roads with people and vehicles travelling in all directions. This would have given rise to the birth of the Highway Code which in it’s simplest form would have stated that ‘All vehicular traffic heading towards the same direction must use the same side of the road’. This is the stipulated highway code. However, when implementing this code, some countries identify the term ‘same direction’ to mean the left side of the road, while the majority have chosen it to mean the right side of the road. Yet all countries refer to their codes by the generic term ‘highway code’.

The Dress Code for Muslims is defined by the Holy Book and the Traditions and it essentially makes it mandatory for all True Believers (males and females) to ensure that they dress modestly at all times. This incidentally is not unique to Islam but is also part of the teachings of all major religions. In communicating this important message however to the largely illiterate, uneducated Arabs of the 6th Century (this was a time when pagan Arabs used to circumambulate the Ka’aba naked), the Almighty and his Messenger used concepts and terms which would have been readily understood by the Arabs  – a process of spoon-feeding one might say, given the circumstances. So for instance instead of merely instructing Muslims to dress modestly / cover themselves at all times, reference was made to the existing dress habits of the Arabs as the starting point for this purpose. The essence of the dress code for males and females as defined in the Holy Book is ‘to dress modestly at all times’. The dictionary defines the word ‘Modest’ as ‘Observing conventional proprieties in speech, behavior, or dress, especially in the avoidance of arousing sexual interest’. This is the stipulated Islamic Dress Code. As mentioned previously, the implementation of the Islamic Dress Code in a specific region would be dependent on  the social, cultural and climatic conditions of that location. Unfortunately however, it appears that in the process of interpreting the Quran by Arab Scholars, the fact that the Arab dress code is referred to in the Holy Book and in the Traditions has resulted in the belief that Islam sanctifies the Arab dress code and  more critically has resulted in the Arab dress code being promoted as the Islamic Dress Code.

Are there Religious Dress Codes ? Are there Christian Dress Codes, Buddhist Dress Codes and Hindu Dress Codes ?

Isn’t the Dress Code of a specific country determined by it’s own climatic conditions, it’s socio-cultural factors and religious influences rather than that of some country 1000’s of miles away ?

Do non-Arab Muslims have to imitate Arabs in speech, behaviour and dress if they are to be ‘good’ Muslims ? Can’t a person be a ‘good’ Muslim without observing the Arab dress codes ? Does this explain the global phenomenon of the Arab-isation of Muslims ?

And finally what about the Hijab – a term that is mentioned just 5 times in the Holy Book (Q 7:46; Q 19:16-17; Q 33:53; Q 41:5; Q 42:51) and not once in connection with the terms ‘head’ or ‘hair’ ? How has a head dress tightly worn by all (male and female) Arabs from pre-Islamic times as a protection against the hazards of frequent sand-storms and sand-infused desert atmospheres been elevated to an ‘Islamic Dress’ with a sanctified label ‘Hijab’, that Muslim females are obligated to wear in totally unsuitable climatic conditions where a simple loosely-worn veil might be more appropriate ? Universally, ‘Hijab’ is not compulsory, ‘Modest Dress’ is.

So we should not rush to judge the ‘Muslim-ness’ of a female purely by her choice of dress. We must heed the words of Allah SWT in our Holy Quran ” O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as to adorn you. But the best garment is the garment of piety/righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, so that they may be mindful”. [7:26]

The picture below is that of the Founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah with members of the women’s wing of All India Muslim Students Federation.

 

jinnah-bueqa

The style of dress of these young females is clearly appropriate for the socio-cultural and climatic conditions of South Asia, while ensuring that it adheres faithfully to the Quranic decree “…… that they should draw their veils over their bosoms …” [Quran 24:31]

Every female in the picture is an epitome of modesty  – the quality, in women, of dressing in a way that is intended to avoid attracting sexual interest – as instructed in the Holy Book.

Do females living in non-Arab countries have to adhere to the pre-Islamic dress-styles of Arab women which may have inadvertently or otherwise been interpreted as being sanctified by Islam (e.g. Hijab, Abaya or Niqab) to be good Muslims ?

“No Islamic Jihadists in Sri Lanka” – Fact or Fiction ?

Sometime towards the end of March 2016, a study commissioned by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) reportedly claimed that there are no ‘Islamic Jihadist groups in Sri Lanka’. The reliability of this inference unfortunately is highly debatable in view of the fact that the methodology adopted for the study was qualitative in nature and the analysis of data elicited was inductive. Aristotle in his publication Posterior Analytics described induction not as a process of reasoning, but as ‘the examination of instances that results in a common feature coming into view’.

Subsequently, an article in the DailyFT of 06th April 2016 under the caption ‘No ISIS in Sri Lanka’ carried the following statement “ISIS operations are not carried out in Sri Lanka and the Government has taken adequate measures to prevent foreign terrorist organisations from making use of Sri Lanka, the Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka confirmed to Parliament yesterday”.

This initially raises the question as to what exactly is meant/understood by the term ‘ISIS’ in this regard.

If by ‘ISIS’, the Government and Muslim Religious Organizations are referring to individuals (Sri Lankans or Foreigners in Sri Lanka) who are formal members of the ISIS Organization, then we are faced with an acute problem. To claim that there are no ISIS members in Sri Lanka, one has to prove beyond all doubt that there is not even one individual in Sri Lanka who belongs to this Organization. Are those who claim that there is ‘no ISIS in Sri Lanka’ able to provide such undisputable evidence to support their claim ? Or are they simply construing the ‘absence of evidence’ to mean ‘evidence of absence’ ? While seeking to prove a negative statement, the defining attributes of the subject under discussion have to be kept sharply in mind. For instance, to prove that at any specific point in time, there are no Elephants on a large grassy field such as the Galle Face Green is simple and straightforward. But can it be proved , at any specific point in time, that there is not even one Grass-hopper on the Galle Face Green ? Are those who deny the possible existence of ISIS/Jihadists in Sri Lanka making the perilous mistake of perceiving potential ISIS members in Sri Lanka as Elephants rather than as Grass-hoppers on a large grassy field ? One has to therefore act with great care and responsibility when issuing sweeping statements/pronouncements to the effect that something is totally absent in a specific environment.

The organization ISIS does not refute the fact that they are Muslims who interpret and practice Islam literally and have thereby earned the sobriquet of being ‘Extremists’. There is a however world of difference between the terms Islamic Fundamentalist and Islamic Extremist. An Islamic Fundamentalist is one who chooses to adhere strictly to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah, but does not impose such practices on other Muslims, verbally or otherwise, and who are basically at peace with themselves at the thought that they are following Islam as it was intended. An Islamic Extremist is also one who  chooses to adhere strictly to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah, but however is ready and willing to go to extreme lengths including violence to ensure that other Muslims too adhere to such practices.

There is only a very thin line separating the ‘Fundamentalists’ from the ‘Extremists’. As Fundamentalism becomes more intense in depth and width within a Community, it is only a matter of time before some of the more passionate and zealous members reach a ‘tipping-point’ and develop thoughts  which are compatible with Extremism. Clearly, Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam (the Sri Lankan ISIS fighter killed in July 2015) and some of his family members had reached such a point. If there is documented evidence that the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka has had the dubious honor of producing at least one active ISIS member, what is to prevent one from inferring that many more such Extremists could emerge in due course at some future point in time ? Has any Muslim Organization conducted any study to identify the factors that influenced and shaped the religious thinking and behavior of Nilam that led him to become an active member of ISIS ? In the absence of such information, how do the ACJU, the Shoora Council and other Muslim Organizations hope to introduce measures to prevent the germination and growth of extremist tendencies among members of the Muslim Community ?

The ICES Report referred to previously states ‘With regard to degenerative factionalism, the researchers also investigated the accusation made both within and outside the Muslim community that a Jihadist Movement was emerging in the East. On interviewing several Thablighi, Thawheed and Sufi representatives, it was found that while there is talk among discontented youth about espousing jihadi practices, these are just idle youth responding to the global trend in Islam, but with no motivation or the means to make this a reality. Local organisations such as mosque federations are also keeping tabs on the community and nipping such ideas in the bud. The ACJU, Shoora Council and local Mosque Federations confirmed that there are no Islamic Jihadi groups in Sri Lanka’.

What a flippant and dismissive ‘conclusion’ ! Based as it is on the public chatter of idle, discontented youth, on the supposedly strict ‘monitoring’ of the community by Muslim federations and (here’s the kicker) on the ‘confirmation’ provided by the ACJU, the Shoora Council and other exalted Muslim Organizations, can one really accept this finding ?

Therefore rather than making empty, meaningless, unsubstantiated and unprovable statements such as “there is no ISIS in Sri Lanka”, should the Organizations representing the Muslim Community not take effective steps to prevent the drift of the Community towards radical Fundamentalism. Their task should be to obviate the emergence of more S.M.S. Nilam’s in Sri Lanka.

It is clear to all Sri Lankans, that the members of the local Muslim Community have shifted and are continuing to shift to the right of the Secular – Spiritual scale over the past 30 to 40 years or more. This pace has gained traction and increased considerably due to various internal and external factors in the past 15 – 20 years. The increasing sight of men sporting beards and women in black abhayas may be conveying the wrong signals to the other Religious Communities, especially the Majority Community.

The International War against Islamic Terrorism has contributed towards the strengthening of extremist views among Muslims world-wide in much the same way as the 30-year war against Tamil Terrorism contributed towards the strengthening of extremist views among the Sinhalese and Tamil Communities. It would be a serious mistake to think that Muslim Sri Lankans have not been touched by this international trend. To continue insisting that there are no ‘ISIS/Jihadists’ in Sri Lanka would therefore amount to wishful thinking on the part of such individuals / organizations. Rather than remaining in a state of denial, it is time that the powers-that-be accept that the potential, I repeat, potential, for the emergence of Muslims  with such extremist beliefs in our Motherland is extremely high.

Organizations such as the ACJU and the Shoora Council are wasting valuable time and resources  on activities such ‘Raising Funds for Earthquake Victims in Nepal’ and the ‘Submission of Proposals for Electoral Reforms’. They should be spending an inordinate proportion of their time planning, implementing and monitoring strategies aimed at containing and diffusing the possible development of extremist tendencies among Muslims (young & old) and harnessing such energies for the benefit of the Community and Country. This is by no means an easy task. But the longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes.

It is time that the members of our Community took their blinkers off.

Update

The following relevant article appeared in the Ceylon Today newspaper of Sunday 24th April 2016.

http://ceylontoday.lk/article20160321CT20160630.php?id=442

 

Update 2

On the 20th of May 2017, the ejournal  srilankamirror carried an article titled ’60 Sri Lankans join IS’.
http://srilankamirror.com/news/3152-60-sri-lankans-join-is

 

Hate Speech Laws : The Unshackled Thoughts of a Muslim Sri Lankan

The mind is everything. The way one thinks, one becomes” : The Buddha

The Dimensions of Speech

Should the proposed Hate Speech Laws (in it’s present or amended form) be incorporated into our Penal Code or should it not be so ? Opponents and proponents of these new laws have raised various arguments in support of their respective points of view on this subject, demonstrating clearly that although freedom of expression is alive and well in Sri Lanka, adversity does indeed make strange bed-fellows.

Speech is a form of communication. According to Allan Pease, author of the book Body Language, 8% of any communication is accounted for by it’s vocal component (i.e. what is said), 37% is accounted for by it’s tonal component (i.e. how it is said) while the balance 55% is accounted for by the accompanying body language ( i.e. gestures and facial expressions).

Therefore any laws enacted for the explicit purpose of curbing Hate Speech would make it incumbent upon the people to ensure that when expressing their opinions, the form and content of their statements adhere strictly to specific norms, that the tone and pitch of their voices are within respectable boundaries and that at the moments of delivery of such statements their facial expressions and bodily gestures are not perceived as being of a threatening or offensive nature. Is this practically possible under any and all circumstances ? If the law-enforcement Authorities are perceived as being selective in their implementation of this new law, it may lead to accusations of discrimination.

Is it then a realistic solution to ban Hate Speech in a bid to prevent the deterioration of inter-communal harmony ? Should we not examine the possibility of introducing more holistic measures that will not just curb this degenerative behaviour, but will also simultaneously contribute towards re-establishing and rejuvenating ethnic harmony ?

Hate Speech or Hate Thoughts ?

The possible introduction of Hate Speech Laws raises a few troubling questions in my mind.

Will the new laws adversely affect the right of every Sri Lankan to free speech ? Should we not be fighting against the imposition of such laws which may be interpreted and implemented selectively to suit various political agendas ?

Will the suppression of this aspect of free speech cause some members of every ethnic group to become more bigoted, prejudiced and paranoid in their thoughts and deeds ?

And the most important question : can the mere banning of Hate Speech prevent or destroy the development of Hate Thoughts ? After all it is a truism that ‘Thoughts’ drive ‘Speech’ and shape ‘Behaviour’. Moreover, a problem should always be resolved by addressing it’s root cause, not it’s symptoms. As long as the factors that create and shape Hate Thoughts exist, there can never be a long-lasting, harmonious relationship between two religious groups. Can legislation be introduced to prevent the germination and growth of Hate Thoughts ?

Perceived Muslim Issues

The words and deeds of the various anti-Muslim groups that were active during the period 2012 – 2014 revealed that the major complaints levelled at the Muslim Community at that time were the Halal issue, the Population issue, the Black Abaya issue, the Azan issue and the Proliferation of Mosques issue. Rightly or wrongly, these issues were causing immense concern, apprehension and fear among members of the Majority Community, some of whom chose to give voice such concerns – in accordance with their right to do so. Is it proper on the part of the Muslim Community to insist that these individuals be prevented by law from expressing their perceived apprehensions and fears just so that the Muslims may continue to live their lives peacefully ? Doesn’t it strike the Muslim Community that their behaviour and attitude in this regard is reminiscent of a ‘Minority with a majority complex’ ? Banning Hate Speech is at best a temporary, short-term measure. What is required is a long-term strategy that will effectively discourage Hate Thoughts against the Muslim Community.

Proactive Empathy

I believe that a much more pragmatic, inclusive approach towards the resolution of any ‘Muslim Issue’ is the need of the hour. For this purpose, the Muslim Community has to consider the feasibility of adopting a strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ by taking the steps necessary to identify, negate and neutralize the concerns of the Majority Community before it becomes a serious issue like the Halaal problem. We need to voluntarily examine the issues critically and dispassionately and ask ourselves such soul-searching questions as “Why are we continuing with a ritual that causes our non-Muslim brothers and sisters to curse our religion 5 times a day ?” (in the case of the Azan Loudspeaker issue). Would it not be perceived as a wonderful gesture and a significant contribution on the part of the Muslim Community towards ethnic harmony, if we decide of our own volition to confine the use of Loudspeakers to only Friday Jummah Prayers except maybe in Mosques located in areas such as Kattankudy which are predominantly (99%) Muslim ? A truly pious Muslim after all will definitely not rely on a public address system to remind him of his religious obligations. Rather than blindly following the practices of Muslims in a Muslim-majority country, we should as Muslims in a Muslim-minority country, engage in lateral thinking when seeking solutions to such social issues.

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 more importantly, that we are willing to walk-the-talk. This will moreover empower the more liberal members of the Majority Community to speak-up on behalf of the Muslims if and when required. The effective implementation of a strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ would inhibit or definitely diminish the possibility of Hate Thoughts taking root among members of the Majority Community.

Council for Buddhist – Muslim Relations

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 and confidence 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. We need to take the initiative to establish a Council for Buddhist – Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka, consisting of even-tempered, level-headed men and women of standing from both sides of the religious divide, who are ready, willing and able to listen, to consult and to arrive at consensual decisions in seeking solutions towards establishing ethnic harmony in our Motherland.

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 our Buddhist brothers and sisters should not be misconstrued as acquiescence on their part.

Addressing the Concerns & Apprehensions of the Majority Community : The Black Abaya

The last three decades have witnessed a growing sense of religiosity among members of the Sri Lanka Muslim community resulting primarily from a heightened awareness and better understanding of correct Islamic rituals and practices. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that the potential to impose a specific brand of Islam among Sri Lankan Muslims was identified by certain Islamic Nations, which used (and are continuing to use) their enormous wealth to achieve such objectives. Their efforts, inter alia, led to the growing visibility of black abaya and black burqa  wearing women in Sri Lanka. It should be mentioned here in passing that there is even a popular rumour to the effect that a certain Islamic Country has sent and is continuing to send container-loads of black burqas to be distributed free-of-charge to Muslims females. It would appear that this specific Country is attempting to impose their cultural dress-codes on the local Muslims.

Nobody will contest the fact that the members of the Majority Community do not give two hoots as to what the SL Muslims choose to eat, drink or wear. It is therefore an utter waste of time and effort on the part of Muslims to explain and justify their lifestyle habits based on Quranic instructions  to non-Muslims. Why then are the members of the Majority Community so perturbed at the sight of black abayas ? It cannot be the abaya itself, after all the female members of the local Borah Community have been wearing similar attire long before the other Muslims. So then we must conclude that the hostility and antagonism generated by the abaya is not caused by the abaya per se, but rather by what is conjured in their minds by the black abaya.

Based on extensive discussions with members of the majority community, it appears that the increasing visibility of black abaya-clad females has created a deep sense of concern and apprehension among such persons based on two prejudice-driven perceptions.

Firstly, it appears to confirm the belief that the Muslim population is growing rapidly and is well and truly on it’s way towards emerging as the majority community at some future date.

Secondly, it signals the emergence of extremism / terrorism among the Muslim Community – based on the simple argument :

Black Abaya                       = Saudi / Wahabis / Salafis
Saudi                                   = Islamic Extremism / Terrorism
Therefore, Black Abaya   = Islamic Extremism / Terrorism

Since it is an accepted fact that perception is stronger than reality, any attempt to allay the concerns and apprehensions of the majority community by simply denying the possibility of the above phenomena is bound to fail and is therefore an absolute waste of time.

Empathy is the need of the hour. If the shoe was on the other foot, how would the majority Muslims feel if they perceived the minority Buddhists overtaking them in terms of population size and becoming more extremist in their religious outlook. Not a nice feeling, is it ?

If the Muslim Community wishes to address the concerns and apprehensions that the Majority Community may have regarding the growing visibility of black abayas, then all it has to do as a first step is to make a collective effort to advocate a switch from the color black to other acceptable colors among abaya-wearers. Islam does not require women to wear only black abayas to project modesty. Such a voluntary move would have the effect of demonstrating the ability and willingness on the part of the Muslim Community to empathize with the Majority Community. Moreover, there will be absolutely no reason thereafter for abaya-wearers in Sri Lanka to be referred to rather derisively as ‘Goni Billas’. Local Muslim women should be encouraged to dress modestly in accordance with Sri Lanka’s culture and ‘hot & wet’ climatic conditions (with an average relative humidity of 80%) – not in accordance with the cultural patterns and ‘hot & dry’ climatic conditions of some distant Middle Eastern country (with an average relative humidity of 30%).

Furthermore, what measures have the Muslim intelligentsia taken to address the issue of population growth ? Other than issuing feeble statements denying the possibility of the Muslims exceeding the Buddhist population at some distant future date, would it not be more effective for the Community to appoint a Group of Professionals to study this problem to determine the accuracy of such predictions ? Or, are the Muslims waiting for the SL Government to produce such a Report ?

Unfortunately, the leadership required to give direction to such collective efforts is seriously lacking. Self-proclaimed ‘Muslim civil society’ groups like the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema and the National Shoora Council are far too busy to bother about such trivial matters. Continuing to turn a blind eye to such critical issues which adversely affects Buddhist – Muslim relations only lends credence to the oft-levelled accusation that the Muslim Leadership in Sri Lanka is influenced by ‘petro-dollars’.

Re-launching the Brand : Sri Lankan Muslims

Over the past 1000 years, as the members of the Muslim Community of this Island began to take root and become an intrinsic part of it’s political, social and economic fabric, there were certain specific attributes that came to be associated strongly with this Community by the Majority Community. Some attributes were seen as the ‘strengths’ of the Community, while others were perceived as their ‘weaknesses’. Very few traits, if any, were considered as being ‘threats’ by the Majority Community. The ‘Brand Image’ projected by Sri Lankan Muslims would have been shaped and defined by the Valence and Salience (in a psychological sense) of the attributes associated with the Community as perceived by the Majority Community. However, Brand Image is not a constant entity. It varies with time and with changing outlooks and expectations. It undergoes revision not only because of changes in the lifestyles of the Muslim Community, but more importantly because of changes in the perceptions of the Majority Community.

It is a matter of fact that over the past 3 – 4 decades, the level of piety among Muslims has deepened. It is not intended in this post to examine the causes for this phenomenon. A consequence of this heightened religiosity is that the perceived ‘strengths’ of the Muslim Community have declined, the perceived ‘weaknesses’ of the Community have increased and most critically, there has been a quantitative and qualitative amplification of the ‘threats’ as perceived by the Majority Community.

The primary objective of the Muslim Community must be to take the necessary measures to ensure that it’s members can live in our Motherland with self-respect and dignity without fear of physical harm or mental trauma by virtue of being followers of Islam. We need to take the required steps to be perceived as being equal stake-holders in the process of establishing ethnic harmony and nation-building. The Muslim Community must be perceived as being ready, willing and able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Majority Community in this national endeavour. Any doubts that the Majority Community may have regarding the ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ of the local Muslims must be eliminated completely.

This short article will discuss the need for a course of action for an aspect which has to date not received the attention of the Muslim Community.

Is the term ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’ a brand ?

For purposes of this paper, if we put aside the formal definitions proposed by Professor Phillip Kotler et al which may cause some confusion in the minds of readers, and focus on a much simpler definition such as “Any brand is a set of perceptions and images that represent a company, product or service“, then replacing the terms ‘company, product or service’ with the term ‘Community’ will justify considering the term ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’ as a brand.

The primary Target Group for this proposed exercise in Social Marketing would consist of the members of the Majority Community in Sri Lanka. It should be emphasized that “Social Marketing seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good. Social Marketing practice is guided by ethical principles. It seeks to integrate research, best practice, theory, audience and partnership insight, to inform the delivery of competition sensitive and segmented social change programmes that are effective, efficient, equitable and sustainable“.

Why is Brand Image an Issue ?

The highly-reputed International Marketing Guru, Dr Phillip Kotler, has this to say about the concept of ‘Image’. “We use the term ‘image’ to represent the sum of beliefs, attitudes and impressions that a person or group has of an object. The object might be a Company, Product, Brand, Place or Person. The impressions may be true or false, real or imagined, right or wrong, images shape and guide behavior. Companies need to identify their image strengths and weaknesses and take action to improve their images“.

Furthermore, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK) explains the concept of brand image as follows. “People don’t react to reality but to what they perceive as reality. So the set of values people associate with any particular brand is based on both direct and indirect experience of it. This makes it unlikely that two people will have the same image of a brand, although the image may have common features. Understanding this forces managers to analyse consumers’ perceptions and take action to encourage favourable perceptions – and to do so either more or less extensively, depending on customers’ levels of involvement.”

The image of a brand is given a particular form and shape by the positive and negative attributes associated with it by target consumers. It is extremely important therefore to bear in mind that the image of a brand is not the desired picture that the owners of the brand would like to, or strive to, project. The image of a brand refers to the picture that is conjured up in the minds of it’s target consumers whenever he thinks of the brand name.

What about the Brand Image of the Muslim Community ?

As stated previously, 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 were formed ostensibly to ‘look after the needs of the Muslims’. Islamic Theologians assumed responsibility for issues which were perceived to be 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 the Majority Community, amplifying the ‘Us vs Them’ sentiment.

This gradually heightening sense of apprehension expanded in width and depth among the Majority 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, after Tamil Terrorism was militarily eradicated, 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 Community  regarding the Muslims became more sharp and fearful. The Target Group was willing and ready to listen to the correct message. The Conveyors of the message came in the form of the anti-Muslim Groups. The content of the message resonated with the Majority 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 ?”) Simply put, such groups were at the correct place at the correct time.

If the attributes currently associated with the Sri Lankan Muslims by the members of the Majority Community are discerned largely as being ‘negative’ and ‘threatening’, then brand image is definitely an issue and has to be addressed urgently.

Identification of Image Attributes

The process of identifying and classifying attributes associated with Muslims into perceived Strengths, perceived Weaknesses and perceived Threats can be done in two stages.

Firstly, by conducting content analyses of relevant posts and articles in stridently anti-Muslim websites and blogs. This should reveal the nature of the negative attributes.

Secondly, by conducting informal depth interviews with selected members of the Majority Community. This would not only enable the elicitation of the more favourable attributes associated with Muslims, but more importantly will reveal the extent and intensity of each negative attribute and the reasons for such sentiments.

This exercise would be the first of two occasions which will cause much consternation, dismay and antagonism among the Muslim Community as they are compelled to acknowledge their perceived weaknesses and the threats that they seem to pose to the Majority Community. Not to do so however would amount to continuing to live in a state of denial. This is a time for objective analysis and independent reasoning. A time to maintain one’s mental composure. A time to demonstrate what it truly means to be a minority Muslim.

Strategy for Change

The Muslim Community must adopt an ‘Empathy-driven’ approach when planning and developing strategies for change. This is easier said than done since most Sri Lankans (including Muslims) suffer from an Empathy Deficit Syndrome (EDS), especially when it involves such emotional subjects as ethnicity and religion. There is no question of Muslims having to ‘give-up’ any of their Islamic beliefs or practices for this purpose. That would be preposterous. It would only be a case of a group of selected Muslim Scholars discussing the merits and demerits of each such change based on the Islamic Principles of Shura (Consultation) and Ijma (Consensus) as recommended by the Holy Prophet (sal).

Why should it be ’empathy-driven’ some may well ask. The answer is quite simple. Unless the Muslim Community is ready, willing and able to look at themselves through the eyes of the Majority Community, they will not be able to identify the attributes that are perceived as being ‘negative’ and ‘threatening’. In developing solutions to such unfavourable attributes, the modus operandi of the Muslim Community should be to introduce measures that would effectively neutralize or diminish the effects of such perceived negative attributes.

This is the second of two occasions in this whole exercise which may cause serious differences of opinion among the Muslims. In the case of each perceived negative attribute, what specific steps should the Muslim Community take to negate such perceptions ? Arriving at consensual answers to such questions will subject the Muslim Community to internal stresses never experienced before. Their leaders will have to demonstrate exceptional skills if they are to produce effective solutions to these questions.

Do we change the Brand Name ?

The general rule when a brand is given an ‘image make-over’, is to re-launch the brand with a new brand-name. If it is a simple change in image, one could merely add the term ‘New’ to the brand. (e.g. New Brand X ). However, if it involves major re-adjustments of the image, then a completely new name is essential for the simple reason that the continued usage of the  old brand name will only evoke the old image in the consumer’s mind.

One very important step that we could take in this direction is to insist that our brand-name be changed from the current ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’ to ‘Muslim Sri Lankans’. The latter conveys more forcefully the message that we are foremostly Sri Lankans and that we differ from other Sri Lankans by our religion only. In fact it would contribute  greatly towards the building of a National Identity if all major religious groups were re-labelled as ‘Buddhist Sri Lankans’, Hindu Sri Lankans’, Christian Sri Lankans’ and ‘Muslim Sri Lankans’.  The current term ‘Sri Lanka Muslim’ is so weak that even a Muslim Academic questioned in a recent article as to whether it refers to ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka’ or ‘Muslims in Sri Lanka’. Just imagine what this term must concoct in the minds of the members of the Majority Community ?

The previous post titled Strengthening the National Identity of Sri Lankan Muslims offers a valid argument for the proposed change of name.

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.