Identity, Choices and Crisis

A Study of Muslim Political Leadership in Sri Lanka

by ARM Imtiyaz,  Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(1) 47 –63, 2012


This study attempts to understand the choices made by Muslim political leaders in general, and after independence in particular. Muslim leadership has been broadly classified into two categories based on their respective agendas. This paper looks critically at the choices made by Muslim leaders, as well as somestate concessions that could have contributed to growing Islamic fundamentalism. It finally suggests some measures to the current problems of (North and East) Muslims: socio-economic concessions and local power-sharing.
This study attempted to expose the social and political realities of the leaders of Sri Lanka Muslims who associate both with the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Though the Muslim leadership is primarily divided between the south and the north-east, both groups froze their differences when they sought a separate Muslim identity, disavowing P Ramanthan’s thesis mentioned earlier in this paper. Yet the Muslim elites are resolutely loyal to the cause of an undivided Sri Lanka. Both the Colombo-based political leaders and the SLMC do not favor a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. They are well aware of the consequences of current political instability and violence both on the affairs of trade and their community. Under the circumstances, they support peace efforts to seek a political solution under an undivided Sri Lanka. However, Muslim political leaders do not share a common voice on the model of devolution that would be acceptable.
Nevertheless, the SLMC, while extending its loyalty to an undivided Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, 1988) recognizes the grievances of the Tamils vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan polity. Thus it supports regional autonomy for the Tamils, provided that Muslims are allowed to administer the regions where they are dominant in the north-east (Colombo Page, 2011) in order to prevent what they call Tamil hegemony in the region.  With the euphoria that followed the defeat of the LTTE, the need to put forward a political solution to solve the vexed problems of the Tamils has receded to the back stage.
Growing Islamic fundamentalism, which was and is the by-product of the several socio-political reasons in the pockets of areas where Muslim presence is noticeable, needs to be monitored and contained for a better future.
In March 2012, the UN’s Human Rights (UNHRC)Council backed an American led initiative which specifically calls on Sri Lankan authorities to implement the recommendations contained in the report written by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which President Mahinda Rajapaksa set up to investigate the final stages of the civil war (Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka, Sangam, March 22, 2012). The resolution also called on Sri Lanka’s government “to account for the massive toll of civilian fatalities from the end of its long and brutal civil war in 2009 (Sri Lanka and the UN, Economist, March 23,2012).” Despite the fact that the government of Sri Lanka employed aggressive campaign to win member states to oppose the resolution, the council’s 47 members voted, by 24 to 15, Eight of the member-countries abstained. Among the 15 who voted in favour of the government of Sri Lanka, six of them were Muslim majority countries. They are, Indonesia, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka thanked the Muslim majority countries for voting in Sri Lanka’s favor at the UN summit for human rights (Sri Lanka thanks Kingdom for UN vote, Arabnews, March 23, 2012).
Muslim political parties, including the SLMC and religious groups such as Sri Lanka Jama’ath-e-Islami and an Islamist group, which has strong backing of Colombo-based Muslim politicians attached to ruling political alliance, led by President Rajapakshe, enthusiastically opposed the Western countries initiated and backed the resolution on Sri Lanka (Demonstration against the Jews Youtube, March 15, 2012) at the UNHRC. These religious groups and Muslim politicians, who constructed ethnic identity for Moors based on Islamic faith, perceived the resolution as conspiracy of the west “to impose their interests and politics in Sri Lanka, and thus called Muslims of Sri Lanka to support the regime (author’s interview, March 24, 2012)” which scored a relatively comprehensive win in war against the Tamil Tigers, in which the United Nation panel “found credible allegations of serious violations committed by the Government,including killing of civilians through widespread shelling and the denial of humanitarian assistance (The Report of the secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka,March 2011).”
It seems that the current Congress Party-led Indian government is seriously concern about the growth of Islamic Muslim religious organizations which advocate anti-West and anti-India slogans and their recent active participation against the West back resolution, but India supported resolution on Sri Lanka. According to the local sources (Author’s interview with participants of the demonstration on March 19 and 21, 2012), the Colombo based Islamic organization, which is ardently guided by local Muslim politicians has been very active in persuading Muslim students who pursue their studies in local religious schools “to take stand against American imperialism through ideological debates and armed conflicts.” India believes that this organization played a key role in getting US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to vote in favor of Sri Lanka when the resolution was taken up for a vote and that they had also prevailed upon Malaysia to abstain from voting as a result,” India is now keeping a close watch on the activities of the organization. (India keeps a close watch on actions of Wahibi organization, Lanka Newsweb, March 29, 2012).” 
Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka also can be read as a by-product of state’s cultural and socio-economic concessions in the 70s and 80s to the Muslim elites to win Muslim support. Establishment of schools for Muslim women, appointing teachers to teach Islam without researching the background of schools of thought could be cited as few key reasons for the growing appetite for Islamic fundamentalism, which advances a more exclusive form of world view and Islam.
Needless to say, the state’s cultural concessions delighted Muslims, but some cultural concessions offered in the past could have provided a solid platform for the recent growth of Islamic exclusivism. It is politically wrong to veil the trend. And denial from the Muslim political establishment about the existence of (Islamic fundamentalist) trends may reduce the Muslim democratic voices as mere voices that are only aspiring to power.
There are several political ways to win over the trust of minorities in plural societies. One among them is to offer concessions to minorities. Such concessions might not jeopardize social stability and the very nature of pluralist character when concessions are purely socio-economic rather than religio-cultural concessions. Muslim political establishment needs to understand the reality and the basic expectations of Muslims. Solutions to the problems of the Muslims, particularly the special politico-socio problems of the north and east, require special attentions and solutions. Muslim politicians (both the south and north-east based) are now with the ruling party and they are actively supporting the regime. Hence it is high time for them to seek solutions for socio-economic problems of the Muslims of Sri Lanka with state cooperation and help. Special efforts need to be grounded to recruit qualified teachers to fill the vacancy on what is known as Muslim schools, redesign the syllabus for Islam and Arabic subjects with the thoughts of modernity, adopt special programs to encourage Muslims to seek education and remove the current socio-economic obstacles for Muslims to gain both traditional and non-traditional education. Besides, there should be mechanisms to monitor the activities of Islamic organizations.
The state and ruling party need not play Islamic religious cards to keep Muslims happy. The ruling party and Sinhalese politicians need to address both socio-economic problems, as pointed out earlier, and special problems of Muslims such as the land problems of eastern Muslims and resettlements of the displaced northern Muslims (Imtiyaz, 2009; Imtiyaz and Iqbal, 2011). Also Muslim fears with respect to devolution to the Tamil nation need to be addressed by a proper political power sharing mechanism. In other words, the state as well as the Muslim political establishment needs to embrace aggressive measures by directly address-ing the major underlying causes that contribute to the origin and growth of such a trend in the island of Sri Lanka.
Muslim political leaders in Sri Lanka are no exception to Downs’ theory that political leaders make choices or ‘formulate policies in order to win elections’ (Downs, 1957: 28). President Rajapakse, who was reelected for the second term with the help of the majority of the Sinhalese votes (60%) in January 2010, too, is no exception to this rule (The Economist, 2010). However,such policies and choices often trigger both good and bad outcomes. There were positive results due to the choice of Muslim leaders’ to cooperate with the Sinhalese elite, though successive governments had their own agendas behind providing such benefits. On the negative side is the fact that the expansion of Muslim ‘cooperation’ with the Sinhalese ruling elite became the basic for ‘the intolerance of the Muslims in the ranks of the Tamils of the North and East’ (Personal correspondence with Mr PK Balachandran, Sri Lankan correspondent to the Hindustan Times). This eventually resulted in pogroms such as killings of Muslims in the Tamil-dominated north-east, the expulsion of Muslims from the North in 1990 and Tamil violence against the Muslims in general (Imtiyaz, 2009). On the contrary, Muslim politicians believe that their choices are ‘logically’ right,and the Muslims have been reaping the fruits of their choices.
The author would like to thank Mr MCM Iqbal for research assistance and his helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.


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