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Sri Lanka’s Muslims:The Forgotten Factor.

25 May 2011/ by Daniel Kitts
An E-Mail Interview with A.R.M. Imtiyaz

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict is one of the most polarizing and heated in a world full of ethnic conflicts.

For a sample, check out this episode of The Agenda, aired in 2009 shortly after Sri Lankan forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, a.k.a. The Tamil Tigers), a rebel army that fought for a separate Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka for more than a quarter century:

The two ethnic groups always mentioned when we think of Sri Lanka are the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population and the minority Hindu Tamil population, because they are the two groups most associated with the civil war that raged between 1983 and 2009. But the civil war is not the whole story of Sri Lanka, and not everyone in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese or Tamil.

As Ryerson University Professor Randy Boyagoda recently wrote in the Toronto Star, “the country’s centuries-old pluralities, its cosmopolitan mixtures and integrations of peoples, cultures, faiths, and traditions, which I discovered in researching my new novel and simultaneously in exploring my own family history prior to its 1960s immigration to Canada, have been reduced, often violently, into purist ethnic binaries and revisionary accounts of the country’s peoples and of its past. For how long more must such corrosive pairings serve as Sri Lanka’s story of itself?”

Part of that cosmopolitan mixture in Sri Lanka that Boyagoda writes about includes a small but significant Muslim population. The Sinhalese are almost exclusively Buddhist and most Sri Lankan Tamils are mostly Hindu. Sri Lanka’s Muslims often find themselves struggling to get noticed — at least by outside observers, who are used to thinking of Sri Lanka as that island you see from time to time on the nightly news where Sinhalese and Tamils fight each other.

In an effort to learn a bit more about Sri Lanka’s Muslims, I got in touch with A.R.M. Imtiyaz of Temple University. I e-mailed him a series of questions. A partial transcript of our e-mail conversation is below:

Tell us a little bit about Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

The Muslims in Sri Lanka constitute approximately 8 per cent of the country’s population. They belong to 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 referred to the Arab Muslims and descendants.

The term was applied to identify the 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 the Muslims (62 per cent) live out side of the North and East of Sri Lanka where the Sinhalese live predominantly, 38 per cent of the Muslim population live in the Tamil dominated North and the East.

More than 31 per cent of the country’s Muslims live in the East, making them a distinct opposition group in the Tamil Tigers’ homeland campaign. That was one of the primary reasons why the Tamil Tigers have been stubbornly opposed to Muslim participation in the peace talks. The East, in fact, remains the last Muslim bastion after the 1990s, ever since the Tamil Tigers purged the country’s Northern Province of its Muslim population.

Most Sinhalese greeted the end of the civil war in 2009 with great joy while many Tamils felt great sadness and fear. What was the reaction in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community to the end of the civil war in 2009?

Majority Muslims both masses and elites ardently supported the war against the Tamil Tigers. They claimed that the Tamil nationalist forces, including the Tamil Tigers treated them unfairly and thus they wanted to see the collapse of the Tamil struggle for self-determination. As a matter of fact, the Tamil Tigers expelled the Muslims of the North from the region in October 1990.

The forcible expulsion of the entire Muslim community numbering an estimated 60,000. 300 Eastern Muslims were killed at prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and Muslim wealth confiscated in the Jaffna, Baticolaoa and Amparai districts of the North- Eastern Province. Muslims, particularly the North and East Muslims lost their peace and security due to the ethnic conflict and specially, Muslims claimed that the Tamil Tigers treated. These Muslim claims have some truth, but we needs to ask one major question: Why did the Tamils target the Muslims? Many Muslims scholars and activists simply put all the blame on the Tamil Tigers while conveniently forget their collaborations and active cooperation with the Sinhala political elites since independence.

What has life been like for the Muslims of Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war?

There was a joy and that joy was translated with the colorful victory celebration led by leading Muslim religious leaders. Few mosques in Colombo had very special praying to celebrate the war victory. The end of the war brought some relief for Muslims, particularly for the North and East Muslims. But they are disturbed by the recent developments: they claim that the current regime has been systematically settling the Sinhhalese in the East to disturb the growth of Muslim population. Studies confirm their claim. But it seems that the Muslim political establishment has less interest in seeking an amicable solution to their fears and claims.

What is their relationship like with the majority Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils? (It’s my understanding that most Sri Lankan Muslims are ethnically Tamil, but most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindu.)

The Muslims of Sri Lanka share close linguistic and cultural ties with the Tamils, including the Tamil language; however, Muslims prefer to be recognized by their religious and cultural identity, and claim they have a distinct ethnic group identity. This Muslim position expresses the key differences between the two Tamil-speaking communities. My forthcoming article in the Journal of South Asia [Some Critical Notes on the Non-Tamil Identity of the Muslims of Sri Lanka, and on Tamil–Muslim Relations August 2011] examines nature and contradictions behind the Muslims identity construction based on religion—Islam. They maintain close political ties with the Sinhalese, but they would not embrace the cultural traits of the Sinhalese who are largely Buddhists.

What debates are going on within Sri Lanka’s Muslim community as to how Sri Lanka needs to move forward?

Generally speaking, Muslims want to witness prosperous and undivided Sri Lanka. They want to see their problems catch attention and they will win justice. Progressive sections of Muslims want to see Tamils get justice and freedom while they aspire the same for their own community. Though Muslims supported the war and celebrated victory, certain section of Muslims opposed the majority Muslim position on the war. But they did not and do not have leverage on the community since they are not the mainstream force though they are well educated. Both groups of Muslims [who opposed the war and supported the war] want their community win justice and peace. The both groups also concern about their political leaders.

Muslims want to see solution to the ethnic conflict, but neither Muslim masses nor Muslim political elites have clear idea as to what solution should be a best to reach ethnic reconciliation. All Muslim leaders had one common position: elimination of the Tamil Tigers, but only some of them are aware of the fact that the Tamil Tigers were the by product of the Sinhala discrimination against the Tamils. Sadly, Muslims, particularity the Muslim leaders need to think rationally to seek a solution to the ethnic conflict. They have a greater responsibility to play constructive role to build peace in Sri Lanka.

But unfortunately, Muslim moderate Muslim political leadership is deeply divided. This is not a healthy sign. There are some radical elements among Muslims who want to translate local Muslim grievances into larger transnational Islamic agendas. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism is one of the major trends during and after the war.

State forces actively supported some Muslim elements against the Tamil Tigers. Some Muslim youth were armed and trained to fight against the Tamil Tigers. Some of these Muslims were ideologically pursue larger Islamic goals. On the other hand, some non-moderate religious forces have been working actively to promote strict and fundamental Islamic goals. Desire to uphold Islamic identity such wearing like Muslims [Burkha, Hijab, skullcap], look like Muslims and behave like Muslims are clashing with those who resist.

There is a strong resistance to the practice of Sufism, there is a strong objection to adopt Tamil and Sinhala cultural values, and there is a movement to collectively convince Muslims to adhere to Islamic principals or live in Islamic way. These developments are product of polarization of Sri Lanka polity based on ethnic lines. On the contrary these developments complicate Muslim internal debates. courtesy: TVO -Agenda


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