Muslims: The third factor in Lankan politics

Historically, the communalisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the historic Ramanathan-Azeez debates that were ostensibly about the ethnographic and racial links of Lankan Moors (all Muslims). The Tamil Ramanathan in his thesis presented in 1888 called them Tamil who had converted to Islam. In reply, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, editor of Muslim Guardian (1900) argued that the Moors of Ceylon were of Arab origin and, therefore, racially distinct from the Tamils who claim to have originated from the south of India.
This period was also marked by an emerging religious consciousness among Muslims who began to formulate central and specific symbols of their identity; Muslim personal law, religious education and the Arabic language were the symbols that needed to be “protected”.

Proponents of “racial purity” and superior “Moorish blood” admit to Tamil influences in language due to acculturation and the fact that very few Arabs brought their wives along. But they strongly resented any talk of physical resemblance to south Indian Tamils, emphasising Arab lineage and blood: by referring to Arab roots and ancestry from the Hashemite clan (descendants of Prophet Mohammed).
More than anything else, Muslims reacted to the move of the Tamil leadership to trace their origin back to the Tamils because they saw it as a justification of keeping Muslims out of political representation. Originally there was no separate seat for Muslims as this was satisfied by a Tamil Hindu member. Subsequently, there was an agitation for a restricting of the Legislative Council and, in 1889, when it was restructured, both Muslims and Kandyan Sinhalese benefited.
Besides this Tamil-Muslim antagonism, Muslims were also the target of attack by the early Sinhala-Buddhist revivalists whose anti-Muslim propaganda culminated in the riots of 1915 during which the Indian Moors were the victims. A major reason behind this propaganda was the resentment of sections of the Sinhala elite against the trading interests of the Moors.
Anagarika Dharmapala (founder of the paper, Sinhala Baudhaya in 1906), who was one of the first ideologues to use the term Sinhala-Buddhist in a racial-religious sense, portrayed Muslim traders as unethical exploiters of Sinhala-Buddhists.
Universal franchise and the increasing polarization between the Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil-speaking peoples served to integrate Sri Lankan Muslim identity in a sense. Amidst the movement for a Tamil homeland, Muslims have felt insecure about having no face and voice left even after devolution takes place.
This division between the island’s two major minorities has even culminated in the brutal expulsion of northern Tamil Muslims from Jaffna in 1990. Another 1,00,000 Muslim victims of the war from the east, live as refugees in Sri Lanka still.
Wedged between majoritarian Sinhala and Tamil communalisms, Muslim politics in Sri Lanka has also taken a communal turn. The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) has emerged and represents Muslim communal sentiments, with five Parliamentary seats and the demand for a Muslim majority province in the south of the island.
The SLMC has promised to institute Islamic rule if it comes to power. It has been vociferous in “protecting” Muslim personal law (under which the legal age a Muslim girl can marry is as low as 12 years!). When the amendment of the Penal Code of 1883 was presented in Parliament in September 1995 there was vociferous opposition from the Muslim lobby arguing for exclusion of Muslims from the specific clause related to violence against women within a marriage. Finally the amendment had to be passed in a watered down form.
(Source: Communalisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka – An Historical Perspective; authored by F. Zackariya and N. Shanmugaratnam).



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