The End of the Road


Sri Lanka’s Muslims are at an unprecedented and ominous crossroads. The community there is faced with an existential threat at the hands of an increasingly militant Buddhist minority, while the nation’s Muslim parliamentarians appear to be more powerless and mute than at any time since 1947. This impotence is startling because the current parliament holds the largest number of Muslim cabinet ministers and deputies (four in each category, respectively) in history, although the number of Muslim representatives in the legislature, eighteen in total, is slightly fewer than in 1989 or 1994. In the face of increasing violence against Muslim businesses, mosques, madrassas, and lives, allegedly by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)–a fascist outfit of the militant Buddhist political organization, Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is, like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a coalition partner in the Rajapaksa Government–the abject silence and weakness of these parliamentarians is difficult to comprehend.

How and why has Muslim politics descended to this level of ineptitude? And to what extent has the Muslim community of Sri Lanka enabled this impotent political leadership? When a few individuals from the most wealthy and prestigious Muslim families in Colombo entered politics in British Ceylon at the end of the nineteenth century, they were marked by rare leadership qualities like: honesty, integrity, courage, and dedication to service. They maintained these qualities even when confronted with an adversarial legislative, executive and judicial environment. They were, in short, bona fide statesmen. The four Muslim nominees to the then Legislative Council appointed between 1889 and 1912, M.C. Abdul Rahman, A.M. Sheriff, W.M. Abdul Rahman, and N.H.M. Abdu Cader, belonged to this esteemed elite (Cader M.L.A, 1999, pp.1 & 148). Dedicated politicians of this ilk, motivated by a kind of noblesse oblige and nurtured in the Muslim aristocracy, continued to serve the Muslim community even after independence. Names of leaders like Razik Fareed, T.B. Jaya, and Badiuddin Mahmud are still popularly remembered with great love and respect.
Although wealth and family background by themselves may count little toward successful leadership, in the past they provided a firmer substrate for the development of other necessary traits, such as: honesty, integrity, courage, and commitment, characteristics that were essential for politicians and social activists to serve effectively and maintain public legitimacy. Tragically, too many of the current crop of Sri Lankan Muslim leaders seems to suffer from a serious deficit in these areas. This does not mean that even if the community were to replace them with better quality substitutes the outcome would be vastly different. The political trajectory that the Muslim elite has chosen to lead the community may have reached a dead end.

Muslim Leadership in the Past

After the 1915 racial riots in which the Muslim community suffered huge losses at the hands of an orchestrated Sinhalese mob, Muslim leaders realized that unless they aligned themselves politically with the Sinhalese elite, the prospect of prosperity and peace for Muslims in Sri Lanka would be seriously jeopardized. This realization, which marked the beginning of the so called ‘politics of pragmatism’, established a set architecture for Muslim politics on the island. When the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy was introduced shortly after independence, it metamorphosed into a solid electoral strategy. Under this strategy, Muslims avoided establishing political parties of their own (until 1990); instead, they opted to join the two major national parties of that time, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). A few of them even joined smaller parties –like the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), and the Federal Party (FP)–to contest general elections. However, the notable phenomenon of their party allegiance was that it was not driven by any political ideology but by electoral opportunism. In whichever party the Muslim political aspirants joined, contested, and won elections, a majority of them eventually joined the party that captured power. It was only by being a member of the ruling party, the Muslim leadership was convinced, that they could gain any private benefit for themselves and/or public benefit for their electorates. Of course there were exceptions to this rule, like for example, A.C.S. Hameed and M.C.M. Kaleel of UNP and Badiuddin Mahmud of SLFP who never switched their party allegiance throughout their political career (Ali, 1986).
Another factor that strongly favoured this opportunistic behavior was the growing ethnic rivalry between the Sinhalese and Tamils. The perpetual conflict allowed the Muslims, the third largest ethnic community, a golden occasion to play politics with the division. While Muslim parliamentarians joined the ruling parties and coalitions in the interest of advantageous politics, the ruling parties also welcomed the Muslims into their fold in order to showcase to the world that their policies and programs were non-discriminatory towards minorities. Thus, the Sinhalese-Muslim unwritten political alliance that evolved after independence was a marriage of convenience which, after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, appears to have outlived its usefulness.
Between the 1950s and 1980s the Muslim community was able to exploit this political marriage to extract substantial benefits from various governments, especially in the fields of education and culture (Ali A, 1986). However, their influence on policy was never dominant. Some of the socialist programs such as the Paddy Lands Bill and the nationalization of estates and wholesale businesses implemented by the SLFP-Leftist coalition in the 1970s disproportionately victimized the Muslim community. Furthermore, President Jayawardena decided in 1984, in strict defiance of Muslim popular opinion, to allow Israel to open a consulate in Colombo. In both instances, Muslim representatives in the Parliament could not voice their opposition for fear of being accused of ingratitude. In fact, Jayawardena openly challenged his Muslim parliamentary colleagues to quit the government if they did not like his foreign policy (Cader M.L.A. 1999 p.175). It was an embarrassing episode of humiliation for the Muslim leaders.
Eventually, despite the mixed successes, the Muslim electorate began to lose faith in their putative representatives. Being a community composed largely of petty traders and small farmers, with a firm religious commitment to the glory of a universal Muslim umma (religious community), the economic cost and political humiliation of the marriage of convenience was taking its toll. On top of this dissatisfaction came the 1978 Republican Constitution of Jayawardena, which introduced the principle of proportional representation with the deliberate intention of weakening the electoral strength of Muslim voters, a crucial factor until then in deciding the winners in a number of closely contested electoral constituencies. It was a shrewd move by President Jayawardena to kill an electoral system that until then favored the Muslim minority whose voting population was strategically placed. Under this new design, Muslim contestants to parliament would first need to get their names placed on top of the party list to be nominated as a candidate to contest elections. Given the ethnic dominance of the national parties this was obviously a difficult target to achieve.
Yet, as the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic rift developed into open civil war after 1983, Muslim support for Sinhalese governments became even more crucial. It was in this altered political climate of declining electoral power on the one hand and rising strategic importance in a looming civil war on the other that a group of young Muslim activists, especially from the Eastern Province where Muslims account for one-third of the provincial population, embraced the idea of establishing an independent Muslim political party in order to turn the tide. In their view the strategy of aligning with the government in power had passed its usefulness, and all that it yielded to the community was not ‘rights enshrined in the constitution’ but ‘privileges’ which could be withdrawn at any time. These activists therefore wanted a change in political strategy. The idea of an independent Muslim political party named, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was mooted in 1981 and was declared in 1986 as a registered political party under the leadership of M.H.M. Ashraff (Ali A, 1997), who was killed later in a helicopter crash in 2000.

Pragmatic Politics

Did the formation of a Muslim political party lead to any meaningful change in the destiny of the Muslim community? The country’s tenth General Elections of 1994 tested the electoral strength of SLMC. By that time even the LTTE had adopted an anti-Muslim stance; its overnight eviction of Muslims from the northern districts of Sri Lanka in 1990, coupled with a series of massacres of Muslims it carried out in the Eastern Province the following year, bolstered the appeal of SLMC to Muslim voters. However, of the 21 Muslims who represented in the 1994 parliament only 7 came from SLMC, and of the rest, 10 and 4 emerged from the UNP and SLFP respectively. Yet, because of the narrow victory of the Peoples’ Alliance (PA) of Chandrika Kumaratunga, which secured only 105 of the 225 seats while the UNP managed to capture 94, SLMC’s seven member support became crucial to form a government by either of the parties. In that bargain Ahraff and his SLMC decided to join PA and was rewarded with a ministry for himself and two deputy ministries and the deputy speakership for another three of his party colleagues.

The formation of SLMC did not change anything in substance within the ethnic political paradigm. The ‘pragmatic’ strategy of joining the ruling party was institutionalized by the SLMC. Before its formation, Muslim political aspirants individually assessed the odds of winning an election under different party tickets and made their choice independently. If no party promised victory they contested as independents and after victory joined the ruling party. What SLMC did was to repeat the same exercise en bloc. In every successive election after 1994 it did the same. The rationale was that profits from collective bargaining would be greater than from bargaining individually. Ironically, and as a supreme product of this bargaining strategy, all Muslim members in the current parliament, without exception, joined the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Rajapaksa. This route chosen by the Muslim elite to capture political power, with its narrow ethnic vision, has come to a crashing end. The LTTE’s defeat at the hands of the Sinhalese army after almost a quarter of a century of military confrontation has exposed the political weakness of Muslims in Parliament.

Sinhalese Triumphalism and Buddhisization

With a decisive military victory over the LTTE and with the subsequent determination on the part of the Rajapakse regime to marginalize the Tamil political parties, military triumphalism has resuscitated a long cherished mythology that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Buddhist Sinhalese, and that the other ethnic and religious minorities could live in the country only at the behest of the Buddhist majority. The Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or the National Heritage Party, which is a coalition partner in the Rajapaksa government, and JHU’s foster child Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) (or Buddhist Power Force), are the leading advocates of this distorted ideology. With an energized ‘political abuse of history’ and archaeology, the Buddhist militants of BBS are relentlessly seeking to destroy the existence of many non-Buddhist historical and cultural edifices.
From the 1950s onwards, the Tamil origins of sectors of Sri Lankan history and civilization have been deliberately distorted by ultra-nationalist Buddhist academics like S. Paranavitana, who has been accused of doctoring archaeological evidence and Pali legends to manufacture so called ‘truths’. (Sebastian, 2012: pp. 92-96) This tradition of distortion and denial is now being spearheaded by the JHU and BBS monks with respect to the Muslim history in the island. From the destruction of a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura by “over 100 Sinhala Buddhist monks” in 2011 (Tamil Guardian: 15 Sep. 2011) to the recent attempt to destroy the centuries old sufi shrine of Daftar Jailani situated in the Ratnapura District (Bastians D, 2013), there is ample evidence documenting this mission of revisionist demolition. As one Sinhalese human rights activist wrote, Buddhisization of “multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural, multilingual Sri Lanka … is not an opinion to be debated, but a fact to be faced” (Senewiratne, 2012: p.7). What is clear is that the JHU and BBS with acquiescence of the Rajapaksa regime have hijacked Buddhist nationalism, and are driving it along an extremist and violent path.
What appears even more depressing is the unpreparedness of even the UNP political alternative to confront this militancy. Members of the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie, motivated by short term economic gain, are also lending support to Buddhist extremism. In this climate of violence and animus towards Muslims, enabled by triumphalist euphoria, the Muslim leadership’s alliance with a government that is in essence a silent partner to anti-Muslim propaganda, seems of little use. Is there a way out of this predicament for the Muslim community in Sri Lanka? Before looking at this issue certain facts should be placed in their proper historical context.

A Harmonious Society

Any student of Sri Lanka’s history and Buddhist culture will realize that this phenomenon of extremism and hatred towards minorities is not a part of the island’s pre-colonial history. Under colonialism during its Portuguese and Dutch phases, it was the colonizers who discriminated against the minorities and not the Buddhist majority. Pre-colonial Buddhist Sri Lanka was an exemplar of inter-religious and inter-ethnic harmony in the Asian region. (Dewaraja L, 1994) It was the intrusion of commercial capitalism and a new wave of Christian evangelism under British that was instrumental in destroying inter-communal harmony on the island. While state patronage of Christianity under British colonialism deprived Buddhism of its historical supremacy in Sri Lanka, the plantation-based capitalist economy created social and economic inequities to which rural Buddhists became the unintended victims. The Buddhist revivalist movement of the third quarter of the 19th century was in essence a struggle to win back this lost supremacy and economic fairness by getting rid of foreign rulers. In that struggle the Muslim community for, religious and economic reasons, became a sacrificial lamb in 1915.
The 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim racial riots (Ali A, 1981) was a minority phenomenon confined to Colombo and a few urban centres, and the majority Buddhists were simply silent observers to this ethno-religious convulsion. After independence, however, apart from the political machinations of narrow minded elites who never missed an opportunity to exploit ethnic issues to achieve political power, the Buddhist masses always accepted the Muslims as equal partners in a harmonious society. The cordiality that prevailed between the Sinhalese and Muslims until after the 1970s was unique to Sri Lanka. There are no hard statistics to prove this point because of paucity of solid sociological research in this field. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence; if only one could have lived in a Buddhist-Muslim mixed village before the 1980s to observe how close the Buddhist-Muslim inter-personal and inter-familial relationship was. What happened since then? Before answering this question two other developments that impact upon Sinhalese-Muslim relations need elaboration.

Open Economy and Imported Islamic Orthodoxy

The 1980s in Sri Lanka marked a turning point in the country’s economic trajectory. From an economic model driven largely by state control, the Jayawardena regime pushed the nation into the vortex of neo-liberal economics, hoping thereby to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore. The new, open economy coincided with the emergence of several rentier-state economies in the Middle East flooded with petrodollars. These two independent developments had the unforseen consequence of adversely affecting Sinhalese-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka. While the open economy, with freedom for private enterprise and competition, rejuvenated the commercial instincts of Sri Lankan Muslims– who had been historically cast, somewhat reductively, as a business community—they also facilitated the growth of an extended class of Sinhalese petty-bourgeoisie who were willing to use political and public pressure to ensure that the government in power took actions to promote their class interest. In this competition between the two groups, which intensified after the 1980s, political organizations like the Jathika Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) intervened to support the Sinhalese bourgeoisie elements (Jayawardena K, 1986). It was the JVP, which originated as a Marxist organization, which made a chauvinist turn against Muslims in the 1980s and campaigned for a total boycott of Muslim businesses. What was started by JVP is now being pursued more aggressively by JHU and BBS. A vicious campaign to urge the Sinhalese not only to boycott Muslim businesses, but also to not sell any real estate to Muslims, has been taken up by the JHU. Furthermore, mob attacks engineered by BBS on two of the most successful Muslim businesses, No Limit and Fashionbug, in January and March 2013 respectively, were the latest episodes in this ongoing campaign.
The rise of the rentier states and petrodollar economies in the Middle East, with ostentatious plans for economic modernization, created a voracious demand for human resources which the ambitious Middle Eastern states sought to import. Third World economies saddled with vast reservoirs of unemployed and underemployed labour saw in the Middle Eastern projects a golden opportunity to export their surplus labour. To Muslims outside Arabia, the Gulf countries, and the Middle East became an employment magnet. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Sri Lanka, many of whom quit their private and public sector jobs, migrated to the land of the Arab haute-bourgeoisie. The foreign remittances from these expatriates helped to raise the economic welfare of expatriates’ families and became a boon to the cash-strapped Sri Lankan treasury. However, the very presence of these workers on short and medium term contracts in Saudi Arabia had unintended consequences. These Muslim workers came directly under the influence of a very conservative and purist Islamic orthodoxy that is native to Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabi brand of Islam, which is the bedrock of Saudi ‘religious nationalism’, is the most inflexible and self-proclaimed purist religious model that the Saudi establishment is endeavoring to spread throughout the world in order to ‘homogenize’ an otherwise heterogeneous world of Islam (Al-Rasheed M, 2013).
In Sri Lanka, among the outward manifestations of Saudi religious influence are the changing attire of Muslims, both male and female, and the growth of elaborate and technologically equipped religious structures such as mosques and madrassas. These two and not the inner commitment of Muslims to their Islamic faith have become the bones of contention in the current and volatile relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims. A third, the activities of Tabligh Jamaat, a missionary movement dedicated more to Islamize nominal Muslims than to win new converts, though not directly related to the Wahhabi phenomenon, also has a lot in common with that ideology. To the militant Buddhists supported by the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie, the post-1970 cultural and religious changes in the Muslim community, combined with Muslim economic competition, appear a threat to their ideologically constructed Sri Lankan Buddhist identity. Having succeeded in vanquishing the Tamil threat militarily, they are now engaged in confronting an imagined Muslim threat. The Rajapaksa regime, which is overseeing this new development, has become for all intents and purposes a silent partner. By associating with this regime and by maintaining an unholy silence in the parliament against JHU and BBS activities Muslim parliamentarians have betrayed the trust placed upon them by their Muslim constituents.

As pointed out earlier, the BBS militants, like their predecessors in 1915, are a vocal political minority. The vast majority of Buddhists, who have dissociated themselves from the BBS, still find it difficult
to channel their grievances through organic and dignified institutions, because as pointed out earlier, the BBS militants, like their predecessors in 1915, are a vocal political minority. The vast majority of Buddhists, who have dissociated themselves from the BBS, still find it difficult to channel their grievances through organic and dignified institutions, because the current regime undermines the voice of any qualified dissent in the democratic process. By militarizing the civilian and diplomatic sectors, by politicizing the judiciary, by censoring the private media, by arresting and killing journalists, and by employing paramilitary forces to subdue political opponents, the government of Sri Lanka has resorted to a rule of fear in the country. It was fear that ruled Egypt under Mubarak, Libya under Ghadhafi, Yemen under Saleh, and Tunisia under Abidin; but what happened to that fear and the men who employed it?

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka desperately needs a change of political strategy if they are to live as citizens, equal in status to all their compatriots. That strategy has to be devised by an enlightened leadership working in collaboration with the silenced majority. To do that the community has to change its attitude towards domestic politics, as a first step. The idea that Muslims can extract more and more privileges from the majority at the expense of the Tamils has lost its validity after 2009. Ethnic and religious based issues that overwhelmingly dominated the past have to be given up and switched to agitation for citizenship rights that are common to all Sri Lankans. When the SLMC under its founding leader Ashraff began its political campaign in 1990 to secure the ‘fundamental rights of Muslims’ one wondered what those unique rights were. There are no special rights to any community in a multilingual, multi-religious, and multiethnic democratic polity except the rights that are common to all its citizens. In a nationally competitive race for progress and development if a particular group or community had lagged behind for some reason or reasons beyond that group’s or community’s control then some affirmative action could be legitimized but only temporarily. Apart from that democracy demands equality of treatment to all citizens within the nation. Under the present regime even members of the Sinhalese community whether they are Buddhists or Christians are not receiving that equal treatment. The Muslims have to join hands with this silenced majority irrespective of who is leading it. Muslims must remember that they are Muslims of and not in Sri Lanka.

It was the Sinhalese community in the past that produced a number of enlightened political leaders who looked beyond narrow ethnic and religious confines and viewed the whole nation of Sri Lanka as a single family. Even when the language issue cropped up in the 1950s, which set to divide the Tamils and Sinhalese, it was the Sinhalese leaders like N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and other members of the LSSP who warned the nation that the choice before it was between ‘one language and two nations and two languages and one nation’. Unfortunately, the Tamils did not lend their support to those leaders but went instead behind their own leaders of the FP and Tamil Congress. What followed after that is all history now. The Muslims cannot afford to repeat that mistake. They have reached the end of a political road and need to change direction.