Integration, the Islamic way…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Ahead of the National Day celebrations on 4 February, the appeal of various Islamic organisations and civil society outfits, calling upon the faithful to join the festivities need to be applauded as a possible first step towards integration into the mainstream polity and society. The process was not seen as a requirement of any kind before Easter Sunday serial blasts of 2019. But not anymore.

In a way, the Muslim outfits have defied tradition by which the community was almost barred from celebrating any symbol other than that pertaining to Allah. Thus, community elders would insist that their children in school would not salute the national flag, or bow before any human, including political leaders that are otherwise worshipped by the rest in a multi-ethnic community. This is worse in many multi-ethnic societies when compared to Sri Lanka, but the persistence of the same had alienated Muslims when the rest, especially when there were other reasons for alienation.

In a way, Islamists across the world wanted such alienation, based on religion, to keep the flock together. A Muslim who would not bow to any flag, would not accept any other unifying force, like the political idea of a nation-state and symbolisms like a national flag or other insignia, are left only with their religious identity, to call their own.

Uniting multi-linguistic groups in multiple societies across the world  in the name of Islamic ‘ummah’, then becomes an easy task. Devoid of any other identity to call their own in any larger sense of the term, individual Muslims also end up looking up to the global ummah for identity, succour and strength – moral and emotional strength up to a point, but political and physical, after a point.

Unanticipated or what

This has also been the plight of Muslims in the country. Until the Easter Sunday happened, their divided political leadership was confident that their youth would not go astray. Their explanation: that theirs was basically a trading community that had learnt to live with everyone else and every other, in multi-ethnic settings like in Sri Lanka. There was little or no chance of their youth going astray in such a setting in which the family and immediate village community were the dominant factors and forces in the life of the individual.

In such an entrenched mindset, the community and political leaders forgot to see across the seas, as new generation of Muslim youth from the country began getting gainful employment in the Gulf-Arab nations since the oil-centric prosperity in that region. If the Tami Diaspora from the country exploited the opportunity to ‘educate’ and influence counterparts from across Asia and elsewhere, the Muslim youth allowed themselves to be exploited by the Wahhabi influence out there.

It may have been unanticipated, but they also refused to see their reflection on the ground, nearer home. Whether they were blind to the fact or wantonly looked the other way is immaterial, but the fact is that full body cover for their women and increased Arabisation of Islam in Sri Lanka, even otherwise, was visible for them all to see, at times even in their own. It is anybody’s guess why they did not try and stop what was blatantly alien to the religion in the Sri Lankan setting, all along.

Islamic antiquity

Islam in Sri Lanka may not be as old as Hinduism and Buddhism, which are relatively younger compared to the faith of the indigenous Veddah community. But it definitely is as old as it is in the region of its origin, namely, West Asia, lately identified as Middle-East, which it is (only) for Europeans and Americans. In a way, the internal contradiction for the contemporary generation of Muslims in South Asia as a whole should start there.

Long before Islam was born, Arab traders were doing business with Sri Lanka and South India, especially Kerala and Tamil Nadu, among other ports across Asia. When Islam was born elsewhere, these traders promptly brought the religion to South Indian shores. It was a peaceful transition, and even the conversion of the locals was through centuries-old evolutionary past.

There is no instance of Islam forcing its way into communities in Sri Lanka,  and South India, unlike when Portuguese brought Christianity to these parts in the early parts of the `16th century, and got the Kotte King, too, converted voluntarily, and most of the rest by force and violence. This was unlike how early Christianity came to the present-day South Indian State of Kerala. It is said, St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, brought the religion to north Kerala within decades of Crucifixion. The community is since called Syrian Christians, within which clan there are multiple internal issues of every kind.

But Islam did not come to north India, for instance, that way. If it is still seen as a violent religion in those parts, it owes to the repeated raids by Islamic ‘rulers’ from across the Khyber Pass. Their main aim was loot and pillage, but they did not stop with that. They conferred religious sanctity on their irreligious acts of the kind through forced conversion.

Looking back, that was also how the Prophet had reportedly spread the religion. In his own days, when lending military assistance to one of the warring groups in the neighbourhood, the Prophet is said to have put forth post-war ‘conversion’ in to the new religion as pre-condition. The later-day Crusades with the Christianised Europe was also over expanding religion, and not necessarily political influence and territory.

Our own times have witnessed the gullible among the faithful in communities such as in contemporary Sri Lanka getting hooked on to Wahhabism and its efforts at misinterpreting the Islamic phrase, ‘jihad’ or ‘holy war’. The original meaning is to fight the devils within the self and purify it.

The popular meaning, accepted by the neo-converts within the religion, is all about fighting non-Muslims. It is also a similar misunderstanding by other religionists, both in Sri Lanka and outside, that has led to the continuing alienation, at times bordering on ghettoisation of Muslims in such communities and countries, where ‘secular forces’ supposedly reside, all across the West.

Islamic woes

All this does not mean that Muslims do not have any problems coming from the rest of the community. Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the country date back to over a century. Much of it quietened at least on the outside, until the LTTE massacred Muslims in the East and threw out them in their tens of thousands from the North, all in a single year, 1990.

The Sri Lankan State has done little since for the rehabilitation of those displaced Muslims. For their young ones, from comfortable middle class to abject poverty, all overnight, was incomprehensible when it happened, and unacceptable since. It began there, but did not end there.

The State, this time, was seen as an accomplice before and after the fact, to borrow a criminal law term, when the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) began targeting Muslims in the post-war era. Clearly, it was aimed at ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Muslims after the Sinhala-Buddhist majority/majoritarian sections had come to believe that they were already done with the Upcountry Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamil communities.

If the Muslims believed in such a construct, they were pointedly on the dot. If it were to happen, then the Christians of the country would have to be the next target. This is so, despite the Church siding with the Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners, especially in the days, weeks and months after the Easter blasts – but possibly not any more.

At least, Colombo Archbishop. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, does not sound as much euphoric about the ruling Rajapaksas when they are in power, compared to when they were out of it. Yet, his insistence on the western form of Christianised ‘transitional justice’, as applied to ‘accountability issues’ in Geneva, is not going to be helpful for the community over the middle and long terms – and possibly, over the short-term, too.

At the end of the day, ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘integration’ too are a two-way street. When the Islamic community leaders have taken two steps forward, the Buddhist mainstream, and also the Sri Lankan State, have to take at least one. It should not be threatening posture, either of the LTTE kind or the post-war behaviour of the Buddhist hardliners in the country.

The solution, without argument, lies in the hands of the Buddhist prelates. It is their hour of making or unmaking Sri Lanka, as the nation used to be, and not according to what a handful of usurpers to the title of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’, now wants it to be. If the prelates and the nation now fail the cause of all-ethnic integration, then, over the medium and long terms, it will be their own failure, and for all time to come!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: