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 Is it something that can easily be superseded  by another without any significant change in the interpretation process ?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.


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.

An Open Letter to The National Shoora Council of Sri Lanka

The National Shoora Council (NSC)  describes itself as “… a consultative body comprising several Muslim Organisations and individuals which was formed to address the challenges currently faced by the Muslims in Sri Lanka in a proactive manner.” The NSC identified the “… sudden surge in anti-Muslim activity through hate websites, public meetings, press conferences, demonstrations, media publications, attacks on places of religious worship, business places belonging to Muslims, dress code of Muslim females, the freedom to make available in the open market Halal certified clean food and articles, as well as other more insidious actions” as being a matter of immediate concern towards which it would direct it’s full and undivided attention. The establishment of the NSC, an avowed apolitical Muslim Organization, in 2012 offered hope to the beleaguered Muslim Community that finally a leadership had emerged from among the ranks of Muslim Civil Society which would take the necessary measures to rectify the recent violation of the (Basic) Need of Muslims for (Physical) Safety.

Until the 08th of January 2015, the activities of the NSC to a large extent satisfied the aspirations and hopes of the Muslim Community in this regard. Since then however, it would appear to be the case that the NSC has become rudderless and has lost all sense of direction. Consider for instance the involvement of NSC in the collection of aid for the victims of the Earthquake tragedy in Nepal organized by a group of Muslim Organizations. Nobody questions the importance, value or usefulness of such a project, but to begin with does the NSC have the mandate to get involved in such extraneous matters ? Do we not have enough ‘Muslim Refugees’ in our own Motherland who deserve to be helped in the first instance ? What was the true objective of the Muslim Organizations in collecting aid for the Nepali people ? Was it an attempt at cheap one-upmanship over the other religious groups in Sri Lanka ? Why have we not heard of similar aid being collected for the Muslim Rohingyas by these Muslim Organizations ?

The clearest sign that the NSC is at this point completely at sea is reflected sharply by it’s response to the recently-announced 20th Amendment to the Constitution as reported in the Ceylon Today of 12th June 2015. The news item stated :

The proposed 20th Amendment according to newspaper reports is falling short by way of representation for minority parties and the ethnic minorities, the President of the National Shoora Council (NSC), Tariq Mahmud said. He also praised the government’s effort to foster reconciliation between communities which was almost non-existent in the immediate aftermath of the terrorism of three decades.
Whilst addressing press briefing yesterday he also said “The Muslims will be down by 50 p.c. of their representation in the country. We strongly state that to have meaningful reconciliation proper representation must be reflected in Parliament. A token representation is no representation. The national ethnic percentages must be reflected in Parliament. It will be a representative body where all opinion will be viewed. This is our demand; we would like the government to see to it.” He also spoke in favour of the two ballot systems, indicating that it will introduce a more flexible form of democracy. He said, “The idea of the two ballot system will be useful and more democratic where you will be able to choose your preferred party in the same district and diametrically opposite you vote for another person who you would consider is a better politician. The candidate does not necessarily have to be linked to the party you voted for.” Mahmud also said future elections must not contain the cutoff point.
The NSC also said Parliament should represent the real ethnic proportion of the country. It was the most plausible manner in which the Muslim community can participate in national development. “The campaign for fairness is not only for the Muslim community. As citizens of this country, the NSC also supports fair representation for all other minority communities as well. We are not concerned about the particular models as such, as long as fairness can be achieved in representing the minorities,” the NSC said.

What shocked all right-thinking, progressive Muslims to the core was the demand by the NSC that The national ethnic percentages must be reflected in Parliament.’  With this single pronouncement, the NSC has not only adopted a stance in direct contradiction to Clauses 2.1, 2,2 and 2.3 of it’s Constitution, but it has also revealed the fact that it is directly or otherwise dancing to the tunes of Muslim Political Parties. Does this mean that the NSC honestly believe that the interests of SL Muslims are best served by electing only Muslims as members of Parliament ? Has the NSC already forgotten the behavior of the then Muslim MP’s during the critical days following the tragic incidents at Aluthgama on the 15th  of June 2014 ? And has the NSC forgotten the support rendered to the Muslim Community by word and deed by some non-Muslim MP’s during those tragic days ? If at a time when the Muslim Community needed the Muslim Members of Parliament most, these MP’s failed miserably, how can the NSC rationalize and justify their demand for ‘national ethnic percentages’ on the basis that it will be beneficial to the Muslim Community?

A news item posted in the web-journal, Asian Mirror, of 13th June 2015, reads as follows :

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is demanding an assurance that minorities will be adequately represented through the new electoral system, its General Secretary Hasan Ali told Asian Mirror. He said that the government was building up a wrong impression that the minority parties are against the 20th Amendment. He totally rejected this notion and said that the SLMC only asks for proper representation.
Ali pointed out that the Muslim population in the country at present is nearly 10 percent. Therefore, this percentage should be represented in parliament, he argued. If the parliament should have 237 seats, the Muslim community should be assured of being able to elect 23 MPs, he said. However, the suggested system will not ensure this, Ali argued. He said that the SLMC is not concerned about the number of MPs in parliament and added that its main concern was ensuring a fair representation for minorities. This is why the SLMC also demanded for a double ballot where a voter will be able to cast his vote for a candidate and a party, Ali said. He pointed out that it is a system currently used by many democratic countries.

The fact that the President of the NSC and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are singing in harmony by making the identical two demands on behalf of the Muslims – 10% of Parliamentary seats for Muslims and the introduction of a ‘two-ballot’ system – would suggest some kind of collusion on the part of these two Organizations. Can the NSC therefore continue with the claim that it is ‘Apolitical’ ? Or, has the NSC been hijacked by the Muslim Political Parties ? Has the Leadership of the NSC failed to realize that any demand on the basis of ethnicity will only serve to exacerbate the ethnic divide and goes against the grain of contributing to the restitution of national harmony and reconciliation in our Motherland ? In fact this act violates Clause 2.3 of the NSC Constitution which states “To encourage and contribute towards nation building, social security, sustainable development and enforcement of the rule  of law in Sri Lanka”. And while the NSC is in the ‘Demand Mode’ why does it not go the whole hog and demand, inter alia, that 10% of Public Sector jobs, 10% of University admissions and 10% of beds in Government Hospitals be reserved for the Muslim Community in  the name of ‘Ethnic representation’. As quid-pro-quo, the NSC could persuade all Muslim-owned Business Houses to restrict the proportion of shares owned by Muslims in their Businesses to 10%. If this is deemed to be a stupid, ludicrous and impractical demand, then it is only a reflection of the imbecilic political demand being made by the NSC on behalf of the Muslim Political Parties.

The NSC must desist immediately from dabbling with such political matters. The NSC has failed to realize that, by their collective and independent decision not to support the candidature of Mahinda Rajapakse at any future Presidential Election made immediately after the tragedy at Aluthgama on the 15th of June 2014, an overwhelming majority of the Muslim Community displayed their utter contempt for and total rejection of the Muslim Political Parties as ‘Leaders’ of the Community. The NSC should have stepped into this Leadership Gap not by engaging in the dirty game of amateur politics – even in a supporting role, but rather as the ‘Statesmen of the Muslim Community’ by engaging in discourses with National Parties like the UNP, SLFP and the JVP, to impress upon the leaders of these National Political Parties of the acute need to have in their ranks potential candidates who can appeal to a cross-section of the multi-ethnic voters in our Motherland. Candidates who can convince the Minorities (not just the Muslims) that they will not tolerate any activity by groups that violate the basic safety needs of the Minorities. The NSC should have instilled in the leadership of the National Political Parties the importance of introducing and implementing without fear or favor stringent rules pertaining to Hate Speech – the single-most formidable weapon of anti-minority groups.

The NSC has a lot of work to do if it is to regain it’s credibility among the Muslim Community as the primary independent Muslim Civil Society group from it’s present perception as a puppet of the Muslim Political Parties.

The Impact of Electoral Reforms on the SL Muslim Community

“Electoral reforms are not meant to satisfy political parties. They are meant to strengthen people’s representation” – Kusal Perera in ‘20A must have a Referendum’ (

The process of alienation between the two largest Communities in Sri Lanka, driven by the hegemonistic aspirations of the Upper-caste Tamils,  was set in motion in the 1940’s with the establishment of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944 and the Federal Party in 1949. During the decades that followed, the political ambitions of stake-holders on both sides of this ethnic divide resulted in the creation of space that was quickly filled by those who believed that that which could not be achieved by words, could only be achieved by deeds. These ‘militants’ were provided with all the necessary encouragement, advice, training, arms and financial support by various external forces which had their own agendas regarding the future of Sri Lanka.  The following 30-year period of violence conducted on a scale never before experienced by Sri Lankans ensured that the chasm in Sinhalese – Tamil relations continued to deepen and widen to such an extent that bridging it will always remain an elusive dream. During this same period of time, the vast majority of Tamil Professionals and Businesspersons had by choice or circumstances re-located to different Western Countries, which readily welcomed the infusion of top-end human capital to their own systems – human capital for which such Countries did not have to spend a single cent as investment. After the total destruction of the Tamil Terrorist groups in May 2009, the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in Western Countries and their off-spring began to exert socio-economic and political pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, aided and abetted once again by external forces. The Tamil Diaspora, as it is now referred to, were so well organized in their collective efforts against the Sri Lankan Government that today it is said that the Tamil Lobby has the dubious honour of being second only to the Jewish Lobby worldwide in terms of efficacy.

The Muslim Community on the other hand had integrated to a greater degree with the Majority Community in Sri Lanka over a 1000 year period. Other than for one aberration in 1915 instigated apparently by some visiting Muslim Traders from India, Sinhalese – Muslim relations have always been more-or-less harmonious. This was amply borne out by the fact that prior to 1978, many Muslim Politicians representing National Parties have been elected in pre-dominantly Sinhalese electorates, while Muslim voters readily lent their support to non-Muslim Politicians in all electorates. It was definitely not the case of Muslims voting for a Candidate merely because he is a Muslim. Unlike the Tamils, the Muslims did not demonstrate a tendency to vote along communal lines.

The new Constitution enacted by the UNP in 1978 did irreparable damage to Sinhalese – Muslim relations, the effects of which are continuing to reverberate even today, primarily due to the introduction of the ‘Preference Vote’. From a situation where a Candidate had to impress upon a cross-section of multi-ethnic Voters that the policies of his Party are more beneficial to the Country at large than that of a rival Party, he had to now further convince Voters that of all the Candidates of his Party contesting a specific area, he is the one best suited to represent them. In other words, the Candidate had to project himself as being significantly different from the rest of the flock. To use a common marketing term, he had to possess a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), something that gives him a competitive edge over the other Candidates.

Consciously or sub-consciously, many Candidates began to play the ethnic card and/or the religious card as they directed their efforts and limited (cognitive and financial) resources at the group that constitute over 70% of Voters – the Sinhala Buddhists – in their desperate bid to possess this much-sought after USP. At the end of the day, the cost of marketing themselves to Sinhala Buddhist voters was considerably less than marketing themselves to a target group of multi-ethnic Voters.

Quite naturally, the range of options available to Muslim Voters was thereby reduced considerably by this phenomenon. Into this emerging void, stepped in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 1986, in the misplaced belief that it could capture these floating Muslim Votes. The fact that the progress of the SLMC during it’s formative years and the growing conservatism among the Muslim Community, especially in the Eastern Province – the heartland of the SLMC, were somewhat parallel led many to perceive a causal relationship between the two phenomena. Quite naturally, the years that followed witnessed the birth of many more ‘copy-cat’ Muslim Political Parties.

The performance of these Muslim Political Parties since 1989 is summarized below.

1989 General Elections

SLMC won a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in 13 districts.

SLMC garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province. This suggests that even at that time, 1 in 2 Muslim Adults in the EP did not favour a Muslim Political Party.

1994 General Elections

SLMC continued to garner a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province.

2004 General Elections

SLMC won about 66% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes in the Eastern Province. Does this indicate an increase in popularity or reflect the sympathy votes after Mr Ashraff’s tragic demise in 2000 ?

2012 Eastern Provincial Council Elections

Only an estimated 37% of Muslim Voters cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around 2 in every 3 Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC favored a National Political Party (UNP/SLFP) or did not cast their votes at a National Election.

2014 Western Provincial Council Elections

All the Muslim Parties that contested, collectively accounted  for only an estimated 17% of Muslim votes. Five years previously, in 2009, the corresponding level of support was 18%. The number of Muslim Voters had increased by nearly 6%, but the SLMC were able to increase their Voter base by a mere 127 votes in 2014. This suggests that even at the height of anti-Muslim agitations, 5 out of every 6 Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim Political Party.

2014 Uva Provincial Council Elections

The final nail in the coffin was the performance of these Muslim Parties at the Uva Provincial Council Elections in 2014 for which all the Muslim Parties had decided to join forces and contest under one umbrella Party for maximum results. At the end of the day, out of an estimated 40,000 Muslim Voters , only 5045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim Parties. This meant that about 7 out of every 8 Muslim Voters in this region had rejected the Muslim Parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.

What is clearly evident in the above voting patterns of Muslims is the rejection of Muslim Political Parties and a burgeoning shift towards truly National Political Parties. This is only to be expected. During the period 2012 – 2014, the anti-Muslim groups had effectively destroyed a Basic Need of the Muslim Community – the Need for Physical Safety (A Second-level Need according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory). This need was felt by Muslims from all parts of the Island. It was not confined only to Muslims residing in a specific area or region. It was a truly ‘national’ need and one that could only be provided most effectively by a true National Political Party. Hence the significant shift in preference for such Parties.

The voting pattern also highlights the following features :

The claim that Muslims vote along communal lines is a canard perpetuated by self-serving politicians.

The claim that Muslim Political Parties ‘represent’ the Muslim Community is a fallacy of the highest order.

The claim that the Muslim Community will benefit from amendments to the Electoral System along communal lines is a total misconception on the part of it’s advocates. Such amendments will only benefit the Muslim Political Parties.

The perpetuation of these fallacies will only serve to widen and deepen the cracks that have appeared in Sinhalese – Muslim relations during 2012 – 2014.

As in the pre-1978 era, the Muslims have begun to demonstrate their willingness to cast their votes for Candidates who in their opinion will look after the interests of the Muslim Community – specifically, the non-violation of the basic need of Muslims for Physical Safety. The ethnicity and religion of such candidates are of secondary importance to a Minority Group which constitutes less than 10% of the total population. It is time for the National Parties to once again, as in the pre-1978 period, ensure that there are in their ranks men and women of standing who can, regardless of their race or religion, win the confidence of the Muslim Community.  The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution will go a long way towards meeting this need. The responsibility now devolves on the National Political Parties to ensure that  their policies and strategies encompass all Sri Lankans in theory and practice.

The Muslims must learn from the experiences of the Tamil Community resulting from the words and actions of their ambitious Political Leaders. It is estimated that, had the terrible events spanning 30 years of our recent history NOT occurred, in 2012 the SL Tamils would have accounted for a little over 16% of the total population. One has to only compare this with the corresponding 2012 Census figure of 11.2% to realize the extent and scope of the  ‘Tragedy of the SL Tamils’. Is it the desire of the Muslim Community to travel along a similar path ? A journey which may result in quantitative and qualitative losses to the shape and size of their Community ?

It therefore behoves the SL Muslims to demonstrate without any ambiguity their support for the restoration of the maximum possible number of seats under the First-Pass-The-Post system in any future Electoral Reform. We should not be misled or blinded by the actions of various self-styled ‘Muslim Civil Society’ groups and organizations purportedly acting on behalf of our Community with regard to such reforms . Many of these groups have been hijacked by the Muslim Political Parties who see the proposed Electoral Reforms as a vehicle to ensure  their maximum representation in future Parliaments. Have we already forgotten the post-Aluthgama behavior of these Muslim Political Parties ? As George Santayana the Philosopher once observed “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Will Electoral Reforms benefit the Muslim Community or the Muslim Political Parties ?

A striking feature of the First-Pass-The-Post (FPTP) system of electing Members of Parliament, that existed until the introduction of the new Constitution in 1978, was the election of Muslim MP’s from predominantly Non-Muslim Electorates and the ready support extended to Non-Muslim Candidates by Muslim Voters in all electorates. Muslims voted for Candidates, irrespective of race or religion,  who won their confidence of being able to safeguard and protect the interests of their Community inside and outside the Legislature. Muslims voted with their heads in the belief that ‘What is good for the Country, is good for me’.

Then came the Proportional Representation (PR) system which compelled many would-be MP’s to adopt a partial attitude towards the Majority Community in their desperate bid to attract and hold Preference votes. The National Parties abdicated their responsibilities to the Muslim Community leaving the Muslims with the feeling that their interests would be best looked after by Muslim Candidates. Into this breach stepped the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which was formed in September 1981 and formally inaugurated as a political party in November 1986. This was a defining moment in Buddhist – Muslim relations. Circumstances were pushing the Muslim Community towards supporting candidates from Muslim Political Parties which subsequently mushroomed. This was definitely not an inherent, dormant need of Muslims in Sri Lanka.

In it’s initial appearance at a General Election in 1989, the SLMC, which was then the only Muslim Political Party, contested for the first and last time in 13 electoral districts under it’s own brand name. It won the support of just a little over 32% of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in these 13 districts. In it’s heartland, comprising the three districts of the Eastern Province, it garnered a little under 50% of the estimated number of Muslim Votes. Five years later, at the 1994 General Elections, the popularity of the SLMC in the Eastern Province remained more-or-less the same. However, 10 years on, the SLMC reached the zenith of it’s popularity in the Eastern Province by attracting the support of around two-thirds of the estimated number of Muslim Voters in that region at the 2004 General Elections. The decline set in thereafter. The results of the Provincial Council elections conducted in the Eastern Province in 2012 revealed that only an estimated 37% of Muslim Voters had cast their votes in favour of the SLMC. This would mean that at this point in time around 2 in every 3 Muslim Voters in the heartland of the SLMC would either favor a non-Muslim Political Party or would not cast their votes at a National Election.

An examination of the combined performance of the Muslim Parties (not just the SLMC) in 2014 – at the height of the anti-Muslim agitations when the Muslim Community felt most vulnerable – throws into focus the perceptions of Muslims regarding these Muslim Political Parties. At the Western Provincial Council Elections in 2009 and in 2014, the estimated share of Muslim Votes garnered by all Muslim Parties decreased from 18% to 17%. This suggests that even at a time of great personal danger, 5 out of every 6 Muslim Adults in the Western Province did not deem it fit to vote for a Muslim Political Party. The final nail in the coffin was the performance of these Muslim Parties at the Uva Provincial Council Elections in 2014 for which all the Muslim Parties had decided to join forces and contest under one umbrella Party for maximum results. At the end of the day, out of an estimated 40,000 Muslim Voters , only 5045 voted for this grand coalition of Muslim Parties. This meant that about 7 out of every 8 Muslim Voter in this region had rejected the Muslim Parties at a time when the activities of the anti-Muslim groups were at a peak.

Under these circumstances, how correct is it for these Muslim Political Parties to claim that they ‘represent’ the interests of the Muslim Community?

Why are they adding their voice to the demand that the interests of the various ‘Minority Groups’ (which includes the Muslim Community) be safe-guarded in the proposed Electoral Reforms, when the vast majority of Muslims do not perceive these Muslim Political Parties as their ‘political guardians’ ?  

In doing so, are the Muslim Political Parties only attempting to ensure that they will be guaranteed of a specified number of seats in any future Parliament without expending too much political energy ?

With declining numbers of Muslims voting for such Muslim Parties, will this result in low-grade politicians being elected to Parliament on the Muslim ticket ?

The above analysis of voting patterns also gives lie to the popular belief that Muslims vote only for Muslim Candidates at National Elections. Ask any member of the Majority Community and he or she will promptly declare that this is true. Such thinking only serves to justify their decision to vote for candidates from their own Community. The perpetuation of this fallacy has benefited all Political Parties. The Muslim Political Parties have used it and are continuing to use it to boost their own flagging image nationally and internationally. The National Political Parties, specifically the UNP and the SLFP, are happy to accept this position so that their candidates are at liberty to bring the full force of their limited resources to bear on the non-Muslim voting Public – which is so essential to maximize their Preference votes.

The net result of all these phenomena is that the schism between the members of the Majority Community and the members of the Muslim Community continues to deepen and widen, sharpening further the ‘Us vs Them’ syndrome.

The Muslims have and will always vote for  candidates who, in their opinion, will look after the interests of the Muslim Community – specifically, the non-violation of the basic need of Muslims for Physical Safety. The ethnicity and religion of such candidates do not matter to a Minority Group which constitutes less than 10% of the total population. It is time for the National Parties to once again, as in the pre-1978 period, ensure that there are in their ranks, men and women of standing who can regardless of their race or religion, win the confidence of the Muslim Community.

Have the voting patterns of the Muslim Community to date indicated a felt need among the Sri Lankan Muslims for Electoral Reforms ?

Cracks in the Wall

A point made in passing in the previous Post deserves elaboration if only to emphasize it’s critical importance at the present moment in time.

After the advent of the new Government on the 8th of January 2015, the SL Muslims have begun to once again feel safe from the threats of verbal assaults and risks to life and limb posed by the anti-Muslims groups. But what many members of the Muslim Community may not have realized is that the hairline cracks that appeared gradually in Buddhist – Muslim relations during the past 3 – 4 decades have widened considerably in the period 2012 – 2014 when these anti-Muslim groups were at the peak of their agitations. Although the situation appears ‘peaceful’ at the moment, it is an extremely fragile, highly volatile ‘peace’. For instance, events unfolding at the Wilpattu Sanctuary have once again placed the Muslims in the spotlight of public anger, demonstrating clearly that the SL Muslims have a long way to go before they can all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’.

Cracks that appear on a brick wall can be papered over quite easily. The application of a sealer and a thick coat of wall paint and voila ! – no cracks. But cracks in human relationships, based as they are on emotions, are not so easily papered over. A handshake may enable relationships to continue, but the negative emotions – anger, fear, apprehension, etc, will continue to fester beneath the surface unless and until they are specifically addressed and neutralized.

Wall1    Wall2    Wall3

Year1Year2       Year3

The Muslims are a minority in Sri Lanka. It is therefore critical that the Muslim Community take the initiative to commence the process that would ensure that their members and their future generations can continue to live with self-respect and dignity in our Motherland without fear of physical harm or mental trauma by virtue of being followers of Islam. The time to act is now. The members of Muslim Civil Society  must take the lead in this matter rather than waiting for the Majority Community or our Politicians or Theologians do start doing something in this regard. It is in our interest to do so. It is only by doing so that we can not only demonstrate that the Muslim Community has a genuine and sincere desire to contribute towards the building of ethnic harmony and national re-conciliation in Sri Lanka but also lay claim to being equal Stake-holders of the process.

To delay the process of providing the necessary leadership or to avoid doing so will only create a vacuum which will be filled by pseudo-leaders whose motives may not be in the interest of the Ummah at large. Even today (30th May 2015) there is a blog post drawing the attention of the Public to the growing use of Tamil social media by Muslims to make acrimonious and vitriolic comments about the treatment meted out to the Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhists in Myanmar. The intention of such individuals is clearly to deepen and harden the antagonism that some SL Muslims may have towards the Majority Community in Sri Lanka, thereby making the task of rapprochement even more difficult. The author of the above-mentioned post writes “As a Sri Lankan Muslim I am ashamed and disgusted at the way lies and rumours are being spread through Facebook posts by members of my community. Photos from the Tibetan earthquake in 2010, as well as from the massive fuel tank explosion in the Congo in 2010 that killed hundreds are being passed around as photos of “Muslims killed by Buddhists” along with emotional appeals”. Such acts by supposedly Muslim social media activists are reminiscent of similar tactics adopted by supposedly Buddhist social media activists during the period 2012 – 2014 in support of the anti-Muslim groups, which continues to this day.

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.