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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 22   01-15 April 2013

Professor A. R. Momin

Demonisation and Persecution of Sri Lanka’s Muslims

The tropical island of Sri Lanka, situated on the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent, has been an important centre of Buddhist religion and culture since ancient times. European colonial powers began penetrating into the island at the beginning of the 16th century. The Portuguese built a fort in the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control in the coastal areas. There was an intense competition and rivalry among the European colonial powers for the control of territories and resources in the region. Following the Dutch-Portuguese War in 1656, in which the Dutch emerged victorious, Colombo came under Dutch control. Great Britain seized the coastal areas of the island in 1796, and by 1815 nearly all of Sri Lanka had come under British control. The country gained independence in 1948.

Sri Lanka’s population of more than 20 million is ethnically diverse, consisting of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (74 per cent), Tamils (12.6 per cent), who are largely concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the country, Muslims (9.7 per cent) and Christians (8 per cent). The Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka for centuries. During the colonial period, thousands of Tamils were brought to work on tea and coffee plantations. Islam was brought to the island by Arab traders. Sri Lanka’s culture has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Hinduism.

The relations between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority have been vitiated by a long-standing mistrust and animosity, which go back to the colonial period. The Sinhalese resented the preferential treatment meted out to Tamils by the colonial administration. The simmering tension between the two communities was heightened shortly after independence when the Sinhala-dominated government sought to assert the dominance of the majority population. S. W. R. D. Bandranaike, who became Sri Lanka’s prime minister in 1956, introduced the controversial Sinhala Only Act, which recognized Sinhalese as the sole official language. This caused immense resentment and anger among the Tamils. The exclusionary policies of the Sri Lankan government fuelled ethnic cleavages and conflicts and marginalized the Tamils. Over the past several decades, Sinhalese and Tamils have lived as parallel societies with two distinct and contested national imaginaries.

The deep-seated sense of exclusion, alienation and frustration, compounded by scarce opportunities and a high rate of unemployment, stoked the fires of separatism and militancy. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist and militant Tamil group, emerged in the 1970s. The leadership of the LTTE was largely drawn from alienated and frustrated Tamil youth, who were motivated by an alternative, militant Tamil ethnonationalism.

Following a spate of violent clashes between LTTE and government forces, a civil war broke out in 1983, which was marked by violent assaults and reprisals and suicide bombings. A ceasefire was agreed in 2002, but regular attacks and counter-attacks and suicide bombings continued unabated. The violence, which lasted for nearly 26 years, killed more than 100,000 people, including Tamil militants and Sinhalese. A UN report published in 2011 pointed out that both sides in the conflict—Tamil militants and Sri Lankan security forces—committed crimes against civilians. In the last stages of the civil war, as many as 40,000 people, mostly Tamils, were killed and nearly 300,000 people were displaced. Some 150,000 Tamils fled the country and took refuge in other countries. The conflict came to an end in 2009 when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil militants. Following the LTTE’s defeat, Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil political group in Sri Lanka, gave up the demand for a separate Tamil state and has instead pressed for a federal polity with greater autonomy and representation for Tamils.

Following independence, Sri Lanka’s national identity has been defined in terms of Sinhalese ethnicity, Buddhism and the political and cultural dominance of the majority population. This ethnocentric, exclusionary national identity has been contested and repudiated by the Tamil minority in the context of its exclusion and marginalization and within the framework of competitive struggle for access to political power.

Muslims in Sri Lanka

Arab traders began arriving in Sri Lanka in the 8th century. Many of them married local women. By the 15th century, Arab traders dominated much of the trade in the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka. The Portuguese invasion of Sri Lanka in 1505 had devastating consequences for the country, especially for Muslims. Their madrasas were curtailed and eventually closed down. They were isolated from other Muslim communities in South Asia and bore the brunt of discrimination and persecution.

According to the 2012 census, Muslims in Sri Lanka comprise 9.7 per cent of the population. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka is divided into three major groups: Sri Lankan Muslims (who were called Moors by the Portuguese colonisers), Muslims of Indian origin, including Tamil Muslims, and Muslims of Malay ancestry. Sri Lankan Muslims make up about 92 per cent of the Muslim population in the country. The Malay Muslims, who number about 50,000, were brought to Sri Lanka by the Dutch and British colonial rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Muslims of Indian origin arrived in the country in the 19th and the early part of the 20th century. There are approximately 5,000 mosques in Sri Lanka.

During the civil war, Sri Lankan Muslims kept away from the conflict. The Tamil separatists looked upon Muslims as being loyal to the Sri Lankan state. In 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) drove more than 95,000 Muslims out of the northern part of Sri Lanka, which was a stronghold of Tamil militants.

The end of the civil war and the victory of the Sri Lankan security forces have engendered a pervasive mood of triumphalism and euphoria among the Sinhalese majority. Muslims and Christians are now looked upon as the Other, to be despised and demonised. Groups of hardline Buddhists, which are growing in numbers and influence and are aided and abetted by the authorities, are now inciting religious hatred, particularly against Muslims. A radical Buddhist group, the Buddhist Strength Force (Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS), have used derogatory language against Muslims, describing them as enemies of the Sinhalese nation and urging the majority population not to rent houses to them. Ultranationalist Buddhist groups allege that Muslims are trying to convert the local Buddhists to their faith, constructing too many mosques and are having too many children. However, demographic evidence belies such distorted claims.

Over the past one year, Sri Lanka’s hardline Buddhists, including monks, have launched a vicious campaign of vilification against Muslims. In January, a mob of Buddhist monks stormed a law college, shouting slogans against Muslims and alleging that the college had favoured Muslims in the exams. A few weeks later, a group of monks attacked a Muslim-owned slaughter house in Colombo, alleging that calves were being slaughtered, which is illegal in the country. In April 2012, a group of monks attacked a mosque during Friday prayers in the town of Dambulla. Since then a number of mosques have been attacked or vandalized. There have also been assaults on churches and Christian priests. The Buddhist Strength Force (BBS) has called for the abolition of the Muslim halal system. Thousands of Buddhist men and women attended a rally organized by the BBS in March this year. Youth activists wore T-shirts denouncing the halal method of slaughtering animals. Muslims in Sri Lanka have responded to such provocations with restraint and patience. Dayan Jayatilleka, a retired Sri Lankan diplomat, calls the BBS an “ethno-religious fascist movement from the dark underside of Sinhala society.”

The hardline Buddhist monks are being shielded and even encouraged by the ruing establishment. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and brother of Sri Lanka’s president, Mahindra Rajapaksa, recently said, “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race”.

Harnessing Kyrgyzstan’s Rich Resources

Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked Muslim country in Central Asia, gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country’s economy suffered a grievous setback in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before independence, nearly 98 per cent of exports went to different regions of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly rural country with an ethnically mixed population. The largest ethnic group is Kyrgyz, who constitute 69 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.2 million, followed by Uzbeks (14.5 per cent) and ethnic Russians (9% per cent). There are small minorities of Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Ukrainians. More than 86 per cent of the population follow Islam.

Kygyzstan today is the second poorest country in Central Asia, after Tajikistan, and one of the poorest nations in the Muslim world. More than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Since independence, the social and political scenario has been dominated by political instability, ethnic conflicts (largely between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks), massive corruption in the corridors of power, economic stagnation and lack of economic opportunities. Kygyzstan ranks 154th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index. Remittances sent by Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia represent about 40 per cent of the country’s GDP. The legacy of the Soviet era continues to cast a long and sinister shadow over the country.

Kyrgyzstan has significant deposits of metals and minerals, including coal, gold, uranium, antimony and rare earth metals. Since 1997 about 270 tonnes of gold have been extracted from mines in the Tian Shan mountains, near the Chinese border. The Kumtor gold mine accounts for nearly 12 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and half of its exports. A Canadian company, Centerra Gold, has been operating the Kumtor mine since 2009. In January 2013, a national commission found that the company’s operations had involved malpractices, including exceedingly low tax rates, corruption and environmental degradation. The company was slapped with a fine of $550 million, and in February 2013 the Kyrgyz parliament voted to cancel the agreement with Centerra Gold. Some Kyrgyz politicians are now calling for the nationalization of gold mines.

Political Instability in Kuwait

Kuwait, a sovereign Arab nation situated in the northeast of the Arabian peninsula, gained independence from Britain in 1961. It has the world’s fifth largest oil reserves and petroleum products account for nearly 95 per cent of export revenues. With a GDP of $167.9 billion and a per capita income of $81,800, Kuwait is the fifth richest country in the world. More than 68 per cent of Kuwait’s population of 3.5 million are expatriates.

The ruling Al-Sabah family has dominated Kuwait’s politics and economy since independence. The ruling dynasty and the opposition have often been at loggerheads over the issues of democracy, political reforms and civil liberties. Faced with mounting domestic and international pressure, Emir Jaber al-Sabah agreed to hold elections to the National Assembly in 1992. Opposition groups made substantial gains in the elections, but the Emir dissolved the assembly in 1999. From 1999 to 2011, the Emir dissolved parliament five times. The Arab Spring galvanized the opposition in Kuwait. In the summer of 2011, youth groups demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, a nephew of the Emir. In November 2012, more than 50,000 protesters took out a rally and called for the resignation of the prime minister. The Emir reluctantly sacked the prime minister and appointed his deputy, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, as the new prime minster.

In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the Islamic opposition parties won a majority of seats. However, after a few months the Constitutional Court declared the elections null and void and reinstated the previous assembly, which was dominated by pro-government members. This triggered a massive wave of protests across the country, following which the Emir dissolved the assembly and announced fresh elections. In October 2012, the opposition mobilized a massive rally, in which more than 100,000 people participated and challenged the Emir’s authority.

Fresh elections were held in December 2012. On the eve of the elections, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Kuwait City and called for a boycott of the elections over recent amendments in voting rules. Opposition MPs alleged that the amendments were designed to manipulate results in favour of pro-government candidates. The elections were held without the participation of the opposition and, expectedly, all the 50 seats were won by pro-government candidates.

The opposition, which is determined to carry on its pro-democracy campaign, says that the new parliament is devoid of political legitimacy. It demands the drafting of an altogether new constitution, the scrapping of the amendments to the electoral law, an elected government and, more importantly, an end to the dominance of executive power by the Al-Sabah family.

Yemen’s Tortuous Transition to Democracy

In March 2011, inspired by the wave of popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters across Yemen took to the streets, demanding sweeping political and economic changes and the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The police opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, killing more than 50 people and injuring scores of others. The protests and demonstrations lasted for more than a year. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, President Saleh agreed to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi took office in 2012 and formed a national unity government. He also promised to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014.

Yemen is the poorest and least developed country in the Arab region. It has very limited oil reserves, which are expected to be depleted by 2017. There are large reserves of natural gas in the country. The unemployment rate exceeds 35 per cent. Yemen is faced with multiple problems and challenges, including rampant corruption, political instability, terrorism, secessionist movements, ethnic conflicts, poverty and malnutrition. Some regions in the country are under the control of armed militant groups, some of which are affiliated to Al Qaeda. In the southern part of Yemen, the Southern Movement demands an independent South Yemeni state.

Yemen is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. In 2012 the United Nations World Food Programme said that one million Yemeni children are faced with severe malnutrition.

Pope Francis Calls for Reconciliation with Muslims

The relations between Islam and the Catholic Church have been far from cordial for the past several decades. After nearly two millennia, the Second Vatican Council decreed that Judaism was religiously acceptable as a preparatio for Christianity. Unfortunately, neither the Catholic Church nor the Protestant and Orthodox churches have ever recognised Islam as the embodiment of a genuine religious experience. Relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world have deteriorated over the past few years following a lecture given by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, 2006, in which he quoted a derogatory statement, without contradicting it, of the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. The offensive passage quoted by the pontiff is part of a dialogue between the Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian Muslim on the subject of Christianity and Islam. The dialogue took place, at the initiative of the emperor, against the backdrop of the siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Emperor Bayezid I between 1394and 1402.

The Byzantine emperor asked the educated Muslim: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and then you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. Pope Benedict then added, “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” The Pope’s remarks created a huge uproar across the Islamic world. Islamic organisations and Muslim leaders denounced the pope’s statement and accused him of slandering Islam and the prophet and attempting to rekindle the fires of the crusades. Morocco withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican, calling the pope’s comments offensive. The New York Times wrote in an editorial on September 17, 2006 that Pope Benedict must issue a “deep and persuasive apology for the quotes in his speech”. “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly”, the paper said. Rev Daniel A. Madigan, Rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said, “You clearly take a risk using an example like that. Certainly the Pope closes the door to an idea which was very dear to Pope John Paul II—the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God”. Fr Julian Saldanha, a theology professor at a seminary in Mumbai, felt that the Pope should have shown greater sensitivity. He said that the Pope reproduced a quotation which is derogatory of the Prophet Muhammad, without refuting it or showing that he disagreed with it. Faced with worldwide protests from Muslims, Pope Benedict tendered a reluctant apology for his remarks.

Long before he was elected as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as he was known before assuming the papacy) was known for his extreme doctrinal conservatism and intolerance of dissent. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who was very supportive of inter-faith dialogue and who was the first pope to ever step in a mosque (in Syria in 2001), Pope Benedict did not think much of inter-faith dialogue. One of the first signs of Pope Benedict’s departure from the conciliatory approach of Pope John Paul II was the removal from office, at his instance, of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was then head of a Vatican department that promoted dialogue with other faiths.

Pope Benedict decided to step down on February 28, 2013, an unprecedented step in the annals of the Catholic Church over the past six centuries. From the beginning, Pope Benedict’s papacy has been surrounded by controversies. His remarks betrayed an unfortunate lack of sensitivity and disrespect towards other faiths. He antagonized Muslims, Jews and Protestant churches. He cannot be absolved of complicity in the cover-up of a massive scandal involving the abuse of thousands of children by pedophile clergy across large parts of Europe, North America and Latin America. The Guardian reported that one of the reasons for Pope Benedict’s resignation was a secret 300-page dossier, commissioned by the Pope himself, which revealed the existence of a shadowy ‘network of gay senior prelates in the Vatican.’ The public image and reputation of the Catholic Church was grievously undermined during Pope Benedict’s papacy.

Pope Francis, who has succeeded Pope Benedict as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, is trying to make amends for his predecessor’s mistakes. On March 22, he called on the Roman Catholic Church to intensify dialogue with Islam. “It is important to intensify dialogue among various religions and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam,’ he said in an address to foreign ambassadors at the Vatican. One hopes that Pope Francis will revive the legacy of Pope John Paul II, who made sincere efforts to build bridges with Islam and other faiths.

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