An Interview with Dr.ARM Imthiyaz by Melani Manel Perera
“The ruling regime can solve the problems that afflict Muslims in north-eastern Sri Lanka, but is doing nothing,” said A. R. M. Itmtiyaz, associated professor in the Department of Political Science in Temple University, Philadelphia, United States,
as he spoke about protests by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the country’s largest Muslim party, against the exclusion of the Muslim community from interethnic talks.
Last week, SLMC President Basheer Segu Dawood even called on the international community to induce the Sri Lankan government to give his party a specific role in the peace process.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Prof Itmtiyaz explains what role the Muslim community plays in the island nation’s interethnic conflict. He looks at the SLMC’s errors and explains why its request to the international community is unhelpful. He also discusses the growing Islamisation of the country’s Muslims, a trend that has been ignored by moderate and liberal Muslims so far.
Professor, what do you think of Muslim leaders’ dissatisfaction in Sri Lanka?
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is the by-product of ethnocentric policies of successive Sri Lankan governments, dominated by the Sinhala-Buddhists. The conflict, which later transformed itself into a brutal war against the Tamils and the Tamil Tigers [known as the LTTE], who were the babies of the ethnic conflict disproportionally, affected Muslims as well. Muslims were expelled by the LTTE from the Northern region in 1990. Three hundred Eastern Muslims were killed at prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and Muslim wealth was confiscated in the Jaffna, Batticaloa and Amparai districts in the North-Eastern Province. Muslims, particularly in the North and the East, lost their peace and security due to the ethnic conflict. Muslims claimed that the Tamil Tigers treated inhumanely.
Apart from the Eastern Muslim elites’ desire to enjoy power, the marginalization of northern and eastern Muslims was the main reason that progressively contributed to the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the mid of 80s.
The SLMC’s rational was politically correct, because marginalized groups often seek a political voice, and in democratic setting, they often appeal to moderates to seek justice. There was a demand from both elites and masses among the Northern Eastern Muslims for political accommodation if and when there was attempt to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. Their demands were often ignored by the major Tamil and Sinhalese parties in the conflict. The LTTE, which successfully challenged state terrorism, did not want to see Muslims at the negotiation table. Even after the military collapse of the LTTE, Tamil moderates do not seem to move away from the LTTE position. On the other hand, the government of Sri Lanka, which got all the support from the Muslim elites against the LTTE and the Tamil nation, did not consider the Muslims as equal partners in a peace settlement. Muslim elites and politicians who had and have great record in supporting the government of Sri Lanka for political and economic reasons did not mobilize their key demand for a separate seat for Muslims.
Do you agree with the president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress?
In fact, the demand for a separate seat is reasonable. However, the Muslim political establishment, which had aggressively supported the war against the LTTE that killed more than 40,000 innocent Tamils, can win their demands from the government. The latter should address the concerns of the Muslim masses. Now the SLMC is part and parcel of the regime. They are accountable to whatever the regime does, and should be able to settle the major problems that affect the North and Muslims. Such a political outcome may only be possible if the SLMC has some political courage and is sincere in working for the interests of Muslim masses. My point is that the SLMC should focus on the issues that affect Muslims and seek solutions rather than asking global actors to help win Muslim representation at the negotiation table.
How are Sri Lanka and its Muslim Community today?
Muslims in Sri Lanka constitute approximately 8 per cent of the country’s population. They speak mainly Tamil, but their claims are distinct from those of the Tamils despite the fact that they speak the same language and embrace some cultural elements associated with the Tamil nation. They are from three different ethno-social backgrounds: the Sri Lanka Moors, the Indian Moors and the Malays. The others include the Memons, the Bohras, etc. The term Moors used by the Portuguese in the 16th century refers to the Arab Muslims and their descendants. The term was applied to identify their religion and had no role in identifying their origin. They were scattered along the coastal areas but some of them moved into the interior, perhaps to avoid persecution by the Portuguese and the Dutch who once ruled the Maritime Provinces. Though the majority of Muslims (62 per cent) live in predominantly Sinhalese areas, outside the North and East of Sri Lanka, the other 38 per cent live in the Tamil-dominated North-East.
There is a long standing opinion that Muslims are rich and are vibrant. But reality suggests however that most Muslims of Sri Lanka, regardless of their geographical location, are economically weak and have to struggle to earn a decent life. Muslim schools lack qualified teachers and scientific management. Actually, they are one of the most marginalized and poor ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.
The community is now experiencing a process of psychological Islamisation as more and more a strict adherence to Islam and the Muslim dress code prevail, isolating those who do not agree with Islamisation. This also comes with attacks against Sufis. This trend is very noticeable not only among the Muslims of the North and East, but also among the Muslims of the South and West, including Colombo, where Muslims have always been relatively liberal in their religious outlook.
Islamic radicalization is in an early stage and has its origin in political and social factors. Those who are in power or associated with the Sinhala political class, particularly Muslim political elites and politicians need to understand the reality on the ground, and adopt political moves to find solutions.
Such measures can help weaken Islamic fundamentalists and rescue Muslims from joining global jihadists who have become aware of marginalized Muslims in the subcontinent. In reality, Muslim elites, politicians and scholars are in denial when it comes to Islamisation and the recent growth of Islamists. Some of those who deny the reality are actually aware of the reality, but prefer to discuss it within the community and avoid outside attention.
Communities often want to hide their problems and choose instead to paint a nice picture of themselves. This is not only common to Sri Lanka Muslims; it can be seen among the non-Muslims in Sri Lanka and beyond. The point is that denial is dangerous, because when you deny the problem, finding a real solution will be difficult, from elites to the masses.