The Muslim Issue

3 Mar

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It is an internationally accepted charter that citizens of any country ‘belong’ to that country; even if they happen to be first-generation citizens of that country. In Sri Lanka however, citizens who are several generations old in the country are facing simmering tensions that are nothing new, yet troubling in its gathering intensity.

“Thambiya, go back home to where you came from.”

More than a few hurt / bewildered Muslims have heard this phrase in recent times. The question is, where did they come from? Most have been settled here for so many generations that they don’t even know which part of the Middle East / Asia their ancestors came from. They can only speculate. Having intrinsically blended into the Sri Lankan culture and landscape for generations, they identify themselves with pride as Sri Lankans. They were born in Sri Lanka and are Sri Lankan citizens. So just where is it that they belong?

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“When they tell me to go back to where I belong, I don’t know what they mean. Do they think I belong in a Muslim country like Arabia or Pakistan? Those countries would never accept me. I am not a Pakistani or Arab. I am a Sri Lankan just like my father and grandfather before me,” says Sameer (24), a management trainee.

For many young Muslims who were born during the war, the country was less than the ideal paradise it could have been, because of the rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils – but at least, they themselves were mostly spared. No community was happy about the war but the Muslim community apparently had  their apprehensions even then.

“I always wondered, if and when the hostility against the Tamils ceased, would it then turn to us,” says Nazla (19), a psychology student. She is quick to clarify, “I went to a Sinhalese school and had many Sinhalese friends. I still do and still remain committed to a Sri Lankan identity. It’s just that, we are often told, ‘You are a minority, keep to your place.’ What is that place? Do we not have equal rights?

“When they keep saying Sinhala Buddhist country, it automatically makes us outsiders. This is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country but when that is not accepted, we automatically get sidelined and so do our perceived rights.”

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The famous Raja of the Dalada Maligawa, gifted by a Muslim trader, who was honoured for it by having the story encrypted in the 1000 rupee note

Her Sinhala friend Malini (21), concurs with her. Asked what she thought about the current situation of tension against the Muslims, she says, “It’s a war waiting to happen. Actually it’s a war that started a long time ago but got side-tracked due to the Tamils. It’s gotten back again on track now.”

According to her, the tension could be traced to the fear-psychosis of her people ingrained in them, due to the fact that Sri Lanka is a small country with a long history of being invaded / taken over. They are afraid of colonization / subversion in any form she says. “Even my own father was saying recently, the Muslims seem to be everywhere and in everything. The repeated negative images out there of Muslims as intolerant extremists prone to violence do not help. Many people have learnt to distrust / dislike the Muslims, based on these portrayals.”

Yet the Muslims of Sri Lanka do not have a reputation of being violent extremists.  How then, did they become the bogeyman to nationalist masses? Kasun (23), software engineer has his own views: “Post war, there is no economic boom for the common man as promised. People are finally waking up to smell the roses. Those not having the promised smell but a lot of thorns, they need to be distracted fast. Through traditional as well as new media, we see the following being broadcast repeatedly:

‘Muslim businesses are prospering at the cost of Sinhala industries.’

‘The reason for high prices is all due to that Halal food certificate.’

‘Some Muslims support Pakistan during cricket matches. They are against us.’

‘They are working together and buying up all the land belonging to the Sinhalese.’

‘The government has hidden the census data because there’s been a Muslim population boom.’

With this kind of paranoia being broadcast mainstream, the angry masses now have a scapegoat. Dinner table conversations invariably touch on topics of halal certification and Muslims these days. This to me is just the powers-that-be cunningly using the Jews (traditionally mistrusted) to take the blame for everything.”

Amali (33), lawyer has a different view.  “Minorities anywhere generally tend to be driven to prove themselves in a way that the majority are not. This while making them successful, also draws the attention of jealous elements in the majority community which is what the turmoil in this country has always been about. Tamils tend to excel academically. After the prolonged war, that has largely been taken away from them. In the meantime, the Muslims, always good businessmen have suddenly become big players industry-wide in Sri Lanka. So it looks like they are going to be shaken up too.”

The question however is whether the current trend is something that is being blown out of proportion or something to be worried about. Across the spectrum, many young people, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims say that they do not want another war and that they hope that this current tension can be contained.

Says Nuwan (27), Marketing Executive, “In any multi-ethnic democracy, you get racist elements voicing their radical, extremist opinions; but usually, these views are shared by an insignificant minority. It’s when this minority becomes a majority that things start to get out of hand.” He adds that he doesn’t think the current tension is anywhere near that level yet but urges the authorities to act before it becomes bigger. “Those in power and in a position to educate the masses have to step forward to do their part. I don’t think anybody, even the racists want another war, but this kind of racial abuse needs to be checked, before it gets out of hand. Which thankfully, it hasn’t – yet!”

Adilah (23) an undergraduate studying abroad, says she has never encountered racism personally. Thus  the current scenario back in her country is something both new and troubling to her, which she says she is following with ‘obsessive curiosity’ via social media, newspapers and the accounts of people back home. To quote her views: “There are two possibilities concerning the events that have taken place. The first is that this could be vitriol and noise spewed by an isolated group of extremists and is now a mountain-molehill situation. The second is that this could snowball into something bigger and take on larger proportions of hate, racism and violence. I’m not qualified enough to assess the situation but I fervently hope it’s the former. I do hope that the concerned parties reach a reasonable solution rationally and that the dissemination of information to the public is done in a coherent, responsible manner. I’ve grown up reading accounts of the Indian partition, the holocaust and our own riots and know that fear and hate can prove to be a lethal combination. As a Muslim, I’d be afraid for the safety of my family back at home if tensions were to escalate.”

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Shifani (23), a fellow Sri Lankan colleague of hers adds, “I couldn’t believe it at first, because I’d always prided myself over the fact that Muslims who were ostracized in other countries post-9/11 enjoyed a lot of religious and cultural freedom in Sri Lanka. I am still in shock; it is a blurry distant reality to me, narrated to me by third-parties. I know the animosity between different communities in Sri Lanka is nothing new but this is the first time it has affected me personally – friends of mine tell me their friends are updating ‘racist’ statuses on Facebook and are going to secret ‘meetings’ that feature discussions about how ‘Muslims are taking over Sri Lanka and must be stopped’.

“I don’t know enough yet about how badly or how fast this movement is spreading, and a part of me is just blocking it out, it’s too depressing to even fathom. But I do know that if it is allowed to grow, it could very well turn into some eerie sequel to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora who have had to flee their homes. I think strong, firm government intervention is needed – to nip this in the bud right now, and not take it as some idle threat. I’d also like to believe that most Sri Lankans are not racists, and that most of them will not stand for this – every Sinhalese friend of mine has expressed their revulsion towards this movement.”

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Neither her worry nor her optimism are without foundation. Those on social networking sites would be used to this by now; posts both for and against the Muslim issue. The question is, who are the majority? For a while it looked like the negativity (at least online), was overwhelming, but now several pages / sites have been formed to confront that negativity heads-on. Many young people from the different communities but especially the Sinhala Buddhist Community are uniting to make it clear that their voices can’t be hijacked. There is hope yet in the new generation. They were born into / lived through one ethnic strife. They absolutely do not want another.

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