Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Expulsion of Jaffna Muslims: The Logic of Cultural Genocide

by A.R.M. Imtiyaz  

An important part of standing in another's shoes is 'feeling their pain.' One does not necessarily have to accept this pain intellectually, but one must recognize that it exists and motivates people to act in a particular way. Some Tamils may not be able to accept that the Muslims have a good reason to feel so aggrieved, but it is important to recognize that they do before one can effectively engage with them.

We also must remember that what is "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," and this may be a very useful concept for describing what has taken place to the Tamil community in spades at the hands of a variety of parties -- Editor

Theoretical approach  

A sense of insecurity emerges among the members of a group when they feel that they are deliberately and systematically beleaguered by the dominant group of the society. The group that is methodically  targeted by the dominant group due to its ideas, beliefs, lifestyle, and/or identity tends to mobilize against the oppressors in all available ways, theoretically both in non-violence in the early period by the moderate democratic leadership and violently by radical groups, if it thinks the former strategies fail to deliver.

This' punch line' theory on mobilization (Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk, 1993, Ethnic Conflict in World Politics, 1994) facilitates the understanding of the process of group mobilization either against the state or dominant group or both. Nevertheless, the success of mobilization against the oppressors generally depends on the motivation and interests of local and international actors as well as the strategies mobilized groups employ in the entire mobilization process.      

'Cultural genocide,' the term I employed in the Sangam website [1] to describe the LTTE’s inhuman actions and attitudes toward the NorthEastern Sri Lanka Muslims, is academically legitimate and conceptually contextual.  The term cultural genocide is fairly new to conflict studies. This term serves to depict the planned and forceful expulsion of an ethnic or religious group by the state or dominant group. Cultural genocide can be applied not only to criticize mere culturally-related attacks (burning or damaging opposing faith institutions such as Mosques, Temples, and Churches), but is also employed to describe the planned ethnic or religious cleansing by the state or dominant ethnic group. In brief, the term can be safely used when a particular community or ethnic nation regardless of its size feels its symbols, thoughts, religion, culture, homeland and life style have become clear targets of the state or dominant group for its own ends. In point of fact, cultural genocide takes place when a vulnerable community relentlessly feels it has been systematically targeted with a calculated political purpose by either the state or dominant group for their own gain. 

The feeling of community essentially serves to engage the term and can be applied when even a tiny group – say a group of 200 from a 10,000 member community – is expelled forcefully by the dominant group or state.  

In the context of political science, the term serves to emphasize forceful expulsion or ethnic cleaning. This may be a 'loaded weapo'n for Tamil nationalists of Sachi’s caliber, but I believe the term contains the correct weight to explain the plight of the thousands of NorthEast Muslims who were either forcefully expelled by the Tamil Tigers for battlefield convenience as Sachi describes [2], or still feel themselves the daily targets of the LTTE’s cruelty.  

In view of that, it is academically and morally correct to put the forceful expulsion of thousands of Northern Muslims in 1990 and the massacre of over 300 Muslims, more than 120 of them in one ghastly incident at prayer time inside the Katankudy Mosque in Batticaloa district in 1991, as well as the continuous violence in the East from Akkrapathu to Eravur to Muttur against the Muslims since the end of the Presidential poll in November 2005 within the ambit of the term of cultural genocide. In sum, theoretically, I believe the term is correctly used to describe the LTTE’s injustice toward the NorthEastern Muslims.     


My observations would be incomplete if it failed to address another concern of Sachi. Sachi asks “…how about the reverse side of the coin, when Muslims either overtly/covertly perpetrated such cultural genocide in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia during the past centuries or some Muslims aided/abetted the atrocities against Tamil Hindus and Christians in Eelam since 1983 by destroying temples, churches, schools and libraries? Was Islam an indigenous religion to the Indian subcontinent? Is not cultural genocide the major factor in Islam gaining its foot-hold in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia? Why not extend the time frame for ‘hideous cultural genocides’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the past millenium? [3]  

Whether Islam is an indigenous religion to the Indian subcontinent, it is not my job to drop lines on this topic since I am not a student of religion, nor filled with religious hatred against a particular religious group.  For me, it is not important to argue about the right religion or “indigenousity” of a religion. Above and beyond everything else, the key message of religion is submission and loyalty to God, and the significant similarities of all religions are the human qualities of love, compassion and equality. No more and no less, this is how I read religion.   One has to be wary of the political use of religion.  Oppressed people would seek their identity even in religion when they think religion can lend a hand to institutionalize their mobilization.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims in the subcontinent, as well as elsewhere in the world, utilize their respective religions for the mobilization and a particular community is deeply affiliated with the spirit of religions, at least in theory. Further, one has to bear in mind that the Muslims' role in the Indian subcontinent both positive and negative. I acknowledge their reactionary involvement in the nation-building process in the Indian subcontinent, while recognize their positive and progressive contribution in the Indian subcontinent. And I believe some Muslims mayhem against the non-Muslims in the subcontinent evidently deserves the use of the term 'cultural genocide.' I would definitely employ the same term to illustrate the dominant group (regardless of their ethnic or religious background) or state’s oppression or violence against vulnerable communities or nations. More, it is not my purpose here to elaborate the Muslims' contribution in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia or the growth of non-Muslims' hatred toward the Muslims. One must remember not to justify or relate recent events in the light of historical memories which were triggered by that period of influences.     

With respect to Sachi’s other accusation against some Muslim involvement in the “atrocities against the Tamil Hindus and Christians in Eelam since 1983 by destroying Temples, Churches, schools and libraries,” honestly, I do not have any legitimate record to support Sachi’s claim of Muslim involvement in these crimes against humanity. There was limited Muslim participation in the war against the Tamils, but no reliable information from independent sources speak of  Muslim involvement against the Tamil Hindus and Christians in the NorthEast since 1983 by destroying Temples, Churches, schools and libraries.

The point is that some evidence reveal a Muslim role in the anti-Tamil violence with the aid of Sri Lanka security forces against the Tamils in the east since 1983. What is also true is an equal degree of violence has been demonstrated by the ethnic Tamils against the Muslims during the same period in the region.  

Beyond the enmity  

What is now important is the need for unyielding work of progressive elements of the Tamil and Muslim communities to immediately arrest the bitter enmity found between these two ethnic groups or nations in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka.

This would, I believe, lead to a meaningful ethnic reconciliation between the two newly-trusting communities to successfully challenge the heinous motives of the Sinhla elites and politicians who wait to gain from the acrimonious antagonism.

But, the more we deny that both sides have reason to be ashamed of themselves, the more this Tamil-Muslim unity will be at risk, and the more both the state and Sinhala elites will benefit from the troubled water. Then again, from my point of view, the very first step should come from the Tamil nationalists and the LTTE, the chief Tamil ethno-political movement. Since the Muslims were the clear losers of the Tamil mobilization and the victims of the LTTE’s injustices, in other words, cultural genocide, the Tamil forces and activists such as Sachi need to plug in to help restore Muslim trust in Tamils and their struggle.  

No more energy should be expended to defend the LTTE anti-Muslim activities, nor should Tamil activists such as Sachi attempt rationalize the LTTE’s violence against the NorthEast Muslims because of Arabs or Muslims’ unconstructive role in the Indian subcontinent against the non-Muslims, particularly the Hindus. In fact, such an explanation for the LTTE’s cruel activities would not only dishearten progressive sections of the Muslims who enthusiastically stand for Tamil-Muslim unity, but also would lead the Muslim masses to mobilize against the Tamils in their capacity or to back a reactionary ethnic political leadership for the defense.

The bottom line is that group mobilization generally occurs when a group increasingly feels they are always at the receiving end at the hands of the dominant group or state. Mobilization can be managed or contained if the oppressive forces prove a willingness to engage politically with mobilized groups.  

Both Tamil activists and the LTTE need to bear in mind that the probability of winning the liberation struggle will be very slim if the Tamil forces continue to fill the Muslim hearts with fear.  This would persuade the Muslims to be resolute fans of state strategies which aim to break the strength of Tamil struggle.   

Thus, the LTTE and Tamils activists such as Sachi need to demonstrate their human face to Muslims, rather than continuing their disparaging policies and actions or giving rosy picture to the LTTE cultural genocide against the Muslims. The sooner we act wisely, the more chances are out there to build a healthy future. The opposite would be true if Tamil forces refuse to engage with the Muslims.                   
[1] [2] (