Dr. Ameer Ali, a prominent Islamic scholar and a former adviser of Muslim Affairs of Australian Prime Minister, John Howard’s Government, said Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community. He is an academic at the Faculty of Management and Governance of Murdoch University. He spoke to Ranga Jayasuriya on the issues confronting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
Q: What is your take on the recent anti-Muslim propaganda? The general, rather liberal interpretation is that a peaceful Muslim minority has come under the threat of hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. But, isn’t that a bit too simplistic?
A: There is the revival of religion all over the world. There is the rise of the Christian right in the Bible belt of America, which wields a strong influence on the American legislature. There is the revival of Islam in the Middle East. Hinduism is on the rise in India. We also see the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Therefore, this is not a unique phenomenon. Religion is 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 has 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 are 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, I see the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Q: However, the revival has led to confrontation between Buddhism and other religions as we see at present.
A: We had more than one millennium of harmony among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, until 1915. People accepted each other’s culture. Islam is part of that cultural mosaic. Even when the Muslims were chased out by the Portuguese, they were accepted by the Kandyan Kingdom. Of course, there was disturbance in 1915, caused by divisions cultivated by colonialism. But, those differences were resolved soon, and a number of Muslims were among the vocal campaigners for independence from Great Britain, and Muslims were part of Sinhalese- dominated governments since independence.
However, since the 1970s, there has been the development of orthodox Islam, which is something new to this country. And this orthodox brand of Islam is the result of the economic opportunities created in the Middle East. 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.
Q: Not only self alienation, this prompts confrontation between communities and their values, don’t you think?
A: Many issues have come up due to the new brand of imported Islam. Things that had been accepted for so long have now been questioned. The Muslim community in this country has to decide whether they want to be Muslims of Sri Lanka or Muslims in Sri Lanka. I feel that they are isolating themselves. This self alienation is new. It is time for Muslims to engage in self introspection. The vast majority of Buddhists are not fanatics. I was born in this country, lived in this country and most of my friends are Sinhalese. The vast majority of Sinhalese are not racists. Of course, there is a minority, who is very vocal and is trying to grab attention. But, the majority Sinhalese will very soon realize that these groups are taking the country in the wrong direction. As far as the Muslims concerned, they have to sit back and take stock, and decide where they have gone wrong.
Q: Where have they gone wrong?
A: I can pin-point several developments. There are separate Buddhist schools, Tamil schools and Muslim Schools – fair enough. But, Muslim schools are operating on a different calendar. I cannot see any country other than Sri Lanka where they close schools during the fasting month. This is 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.
Understandably enough, the government will arrange 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 are operating. The Muslim community is losing due to this arrangement. It is time for the Muslim community to decide whether they should continue with this arrangement.
The Muslims say they have a long history and they have contributed a lot. That is history. The Tamils, and Sinhalese and Christians want to see it happening. How are the Muslims behaving? Are they intermingling with others?
Take one example; the Kandy Perehara. Of course, it originated as a religious event, but now it is more than that; it is a national festival. It is an occasion that attracts millions of tourists and television viewers. There are Havadies by the Hindus, Merlm by the Hindus. Where are our Muslim brothers? What are they doing?
Also, on Independence Day, why cannot we hoist the national flag in front of our mosques and schools and other institutions? These simple things can send a positive message to the wider community.
Q:However, there is a recent effort by some segments of Muslims to highlight their differences with other communities. Not so much to do with historical similarities. Have you observed that?
A: 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, as to 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?
Take cattle slaugher. It is not the halal issue. halal is a trillion dollar industry in the world. See the way the cows are being slaughtered. I have seen the way cows are dragged into the slaughter house. How can people tolerate such a practice? These are things we have to sit back and take stock on.
Take another example: 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 is misconstruing Islam. It is confrontational. I can see Muslims are voluntarily alienating themselves.
Q: You referred to self alienation by the Muslims. Did it begin with the arrival of the austere brand of Islam, Wahhabism, from the Middle East?
A: This is only one brand of Islam. Those are people who believe what the Saudis are doing is the purest form of Islam. But take Indonesia, where the majority of Muslims follow a different brand of Islam.
Q: Wahhabism and the rising Islamic militant rhetoric in the East, in places in Kattankudy are allegedly financed by Middle Eastern funding. Have you seen any evidence in this regard?
A: There are no statistics on the funds that come from Saudi Arabia. I don’t think they are institutionally funding wahhabism. But a lot of private funds are coming in. There are 58 mosques in Kattankudy. I went to one of the mosques to pray and there were not even 20 people. The whole mosque was empty. Why do you need to build more mosques when even the existing mosques are empty? What happens is that those who returned from the Middle East as preachers, want to build mosques. A fair amount of land is occupied by mosques. I don’t think there is radicalization. But, there is influence exerted by the funders, the Saudis, which is natural.
Q: But the brand of Islam that is imported from Saudi Arabia is intolerant in its teachings.
A: Exactly. It is increasingly becoming intolerant of others. In the history of Islam, it has 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.
Q: Do you see a conflict between the moderate Islam and its ultra conservative brand?
A: I have not seen that in Sri Lanka, but there is a clash between liberal Islam and orthodox conservative Islam in other countries.
In the world arena, there are three poles of contention. There are Saudis with their intolerant Islam; there are Turks with a very tolerant outlook of Islam, and there are Iranians with their Shia Islam. There is a confrontation among these three forces for the hegemony of Islam.
Q: You are asking the Muslim community to take stock and address concerns. What are the key issues, in your mind that needs to be addressed?
A: The Muslims are suffering from an image problem, which they need to address. No one in this country says don’t practice Islam. But, the current image of Islam is confrontational. This dress (burka) is confronting. Muslim Women in the 70s wore saris. It is the misreading of Islamic scriptures that has led to the current situation. We are just isolating ourselves. That can easily be done by providing leadership.
Q: Do you think banning the burka would be an appropriate action? France did that and the BBS in Sri Lanka is demanding for a ban on the burka.
A: You cannot solve the problem by banning it. We had the same problem in Australia. The government wanted to ban. I told them: “Look, it is counterproductive. People would react much worse. Extremism should be countered through education, which should be done by Muslims themselves. I have not heard any mosque in Sri Lanka or anywhere in the world opposing the burka.
(CEYLON TODAY: 23 July 2013)