Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community – Dr Ameer Ali

By A Special Correspondent – Asian Tribune –

In an interview with Ranga Jayasuriya appearing in Ceylon Today, Dr. Ameer Ali, a prominent Islamic scholar and a former adviser on Muslim Affairs to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s Government, and an academic at the Faculty of Management and Governance of Murdoch University, has said that Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community.
Dr. Ameer Ali,

Dr Ali said the crucial issue for the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is to decide whether they want to be Muslims of Sri Lanka or Muslims in Sri Lanka.

He said since the 1970s, there has been the development of orthodox Islam, something new to this country and this orthodox brand of Islam was the result of the economic opportunities created in the Middle East. Many issues had come up due to the new brand of imported Islam. Things that had been accepted for so long have now been questioned.

Muslims who went there for job opportunities came back with a different mindset, influenced by the religious perception of the Saudis and other neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, this resulted in Muslims in this country isolating themselves from the mainstream society, in terms of their dress, their values, and their practices.

He cited several examples of self-inflicted alienation which was widening the gap between Muslims and other communities, primarily the Sinhala Buddhist community. Stressing that the vast majority of Buddhists were not fanatics and a vast majority of Sinhalese were not racists, he said a minority, who is very vocal and is trying to grab attention should not be allowed to take the country in the wrong direction.

As far as the Muslims were concerned, he said that this self-alienation amongst them was a new development and it was time for them to engage in self-introspection, sit back and take stock, and decide where they have gone wrong.

Responding to a question on how Muslims were alienating themselves from the mainstream, Dr Ali said he can pinpoint several developments.

Firstly, although there were separate Buddhist schools, Tamil schools, and Muslim Schools, the Muslim schools were operating on a different calendar. He said he had not seen any country other than Sri Lanka where they closed schools during the fasting month. This differentiation was driving a wedge between the Muslim community and others, and ironically, it was in fact disadvantaging Muslims.

This move was a privilege the Muslims gained in 1950, because Sir Razik Fareed, who was a leader, an activist, but not an educationist, asked for this concession, and the then government consented. At that time, the Muslims thought that it was a good thing that they could fast without other obligations. But, in the current race for economic opportunities, when the Muslim schools are closed, other schools are operating. When others are closed, Muslim schools are operating said Dr Ali.

Understandably enough, the government was arranging things like refresher courses and training courses when the majority of the teachers are on holiday, but when the majority of schools are closed, Muslim schools were operating. The Muslim community was losing due to this arrangement. It was time for the Muslim community to decide whether they should continue with this arrangement.

Secondly, Muslims were saying they have a long history and they have contributed a lot. That is history. All communities have done the same. The Tamils, and Sinhalese and Christians want to see it happening now. How are the Muslims behaving? Are they intermingling with others, asked Dr Ali.

Take one example he said; the Kandy Perehara. Of course, although it originated as a religious event, it had become more than that now; it was now a national festival. It is an occasion that attracts millions of tourists and television viewers. While there were Havadies by the Hindus, Merlm by the Hindus, he asked where his Muslim brothers were? How were they contributing to a national event?

Thirdly, he asked, on Independence Day, why Muslims could not hoist the national flag in front of our mosques and schools and other institutions. He contended that these simple things can send a positive message to the wider community.

In response to a question on whether there was a recent effort by some segments of Muslims to highlight their differences with other communities and not so much to do with historical similarities, Dr Ali said “I have one observation. When I went to the Eastern Province, in Kattankudy, they have planted date palms to decorate the roadside. My question was, what is the connection between date palms and Kattankudy or date palms and Sri Lanka?. Why do you spend millions of rupees to make it look like Arabia? I could see that already half of the trees had died. I told the Muslims to go to Tissamaharama and see what has been planted there: Tamarind trees, which are shady and bearing fruit. Are we living in this country or are we living in Arabia?” he asked.

Dr Ali then spoke about cattle slaughter. He stated that it is not the halal issue. Halal was a trillion dollar industry in the world. He urged anyone with any humaneness to see the way the cows were being slaughtered. He said he had seen the way cows were dragged into the slaughterhouse. He asked how anyone could tolerate such a practice. A call for a ban on cattle slaughter had to be seen in this context and Muslims should sit back and take stock on this issue.

He cited another very glaring example of differentiation. This was the black dress that is covering the whole female body, except the eyes, which is alien to Sri Lanka. This attire has nothing to do with Islam, whereas it was misconstruing Islam.

It is confrontational and Muslims were voluntarily alienating themselves. He went on to say that Muslims were suffering from an image problem, which they needed to address.

He said there was no need for Muslims to make a statement by getting their women to dress like this or practice other extreme measures which were not real Islamic practices, and were confrontational like the Burka. While Muslim women in the 70s wore sarees, it was the misreading of Islamic scriptures that had led to the current situation. Muslims in Sri Lanka needed more enlightened leadership to overcome these confrontational attitudes.

When asked whether the banning of the Burka would be appropriate action, his view was that the confrontational problem could not be solved by banning it. His said banning would make matters worse as people would react much worse and it would provide additional fuel to extremists. Extremism he said should be countered through education, which should be done by Muslims themselves.

Responding to a question on recent anti-Muslim propaganda and the general, rather liberal interpretation that a peaceful Muslim minority has come under the threat of hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, Dr. Ali expressed his opinion that some of these events were due to a revival of religion all over the world and its consequences. He said Buddhist revival was not a unique phenomenon, as there was the rise of the Christian right in the Bible belt of America, which wields a strong influence on the American legislature, the revival of Islam in the Middle East and the rise of Hinduism in India.

In his opinion, religion was coming back after one hundred years of rationalism, during which we thought religion had been forced backstage. We believed that everybody would be happy in a materialistic society. And subsequently, there was the rise of Marxism, which had been dominant in some parts of the world in the past 75 years.

But, since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, religion had made a comeback as a strong force in some of those countries, for instance, in Poland. And even under communism, sects such as the Falun Gong in China were increasingly active below the radar. Therefore, this is a worldwide trend. The emptiness in the people’s minds has been filled by religion. In the same line of events, he witnessed a revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Such revivals sometimes provided avenues for less moderate people belonging to all religions to become more vociferous, than others who were moderate-minded.

In responding to a question on whether Wahhabis and the rising Islamic militant rhetoric in the East has had an impact in places like Kattankudy where allegedly, large scale overseas funding from Middle Eastern countries was fuelling a foreign brand of Islamic revival, Dr Ali said there were no statistics on the funds that come from Saudi Arabia. He said he did not think they are institutionally funding Wahhabism, however, a lot of private funds were coming in.

He said there were 58 mosques in Kattankudy and that he had been to one of the Mosques to pray and there had not been even 20 people in it. The whole Mosque had been nearly empty. He questioned the need to build more mosques when the existing mosques were empty. His view was that those who returned from the Middle East as preachers wanted to build mosques and introduce a brand of Islam which was not consistent with the ancient and traditional Islamic practices in Sri Lanka.

He agreed that the brand of Islam that is imported from Saudi Arabia was intolerant in its teachings and it was increasingly becoming intolerant of others. In the history of Islam, it had been very tolerant. In Moghul India, the palace of Akbar was full of non-Muslims. This new brand is a misrepresentation of Islam and its scriptures.

He, however, did not see a conflict between moderate Islam and its ultra-conservative brand in Sri Lanka but agreed that there was a clash between liberal Islam and orthodox conservative Islam in other countries.

In the world arena, he stated that there were three poles of contention. There were the Saudis with their intolerant Islam; the Turks with a very tolerant outlook of Islam, and there were the Iranians with their Shia Islam. There was a confrontation among these three forces for the hegemony of Islam.

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