The Sunday Leader

Can ‘Shura’ Save Sri Lanka’s Muslims?

By Abdul H. Azeez

Differences have. at times, torn apart the community such as the 2009 clashes in Beruwala

With the perceived failure of its leadership to appropriately address its problems, there is an increasing vacuum for a movement that truly incorporates the Muslim community from the grassroots-up into collective decision making, the recently established Interim Shura Council is attempting to do just that.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community suffers from both internal and external issues. Externally; recent troubles with the BBS and other similar groups have witnessed Islamophobia in its worst global manifestations taking root in Sri Lankan society.

Internally the community has long grappled with rifts along fault lines of geographical differences, norms of religious practice and ideology. Although rather insignificant in nature (the various factions agree on a broad level on the basic principles of the religion but tend to squabble on minor aspects of practice), these differences have over the years developed into major conflicts that have at times torn it apart (the 2009 clashes between two mosques in Beruwala for instance, which saw two dead). In recent years the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has attempted to restore a semblance of balance by striving to form an umbrella body that incorporates all of the various factions, with marginal success.

Leadership losing respect

The perceived political impotency of the vast majority of Muslim politicians, themselves as a group ferociously prone to petty squabbling, have led to mass scale disgust. There is a strong sense that Muslim politicians have long since abandoned pursuing the goals of their people, opting to enrich themselves and pursue their own agendas instead.

The lack of cohesion and unity within Sri Lankan Muslims, largely perceived as a monolithic group by the outside observer, was exposed like a raw nerve as it came under attack from hardline Sinhala Buddhist racist elements. The first major attack, on a mosque in Dambulla in North Central Sri Lanka in April 2012, was quickly followed up by a broad based hate campaign against Halal certified foods, Islamic legal support frameworks and the Hijab.

At that point the ulama (Islamic scholars) played a key role in managing the tension. Its patience and fortitude in the face of rising racism have been continuously bolstered and reinforced by preaching and messages of peace. Their exhortations for Muslims to continuously look at their own faults and errors in order to find the root causes of their troubles have turned what could have been a mood of collective belligerence that could have escalated into unwelcome reactions, into one of patience and reflection.

However, there is feeling that the ulama themselves have a share of blame in the problems afflicting the people. Many feel that the halal issue for example was an unwanted intrusion into the lives of ordinary Muslims. The Halal certification emerged as a result of demand from businesses rather than end consumers and was managed and implemented by the ACJU, the islandwide umbrella body of ulama. The case of recently executed housemaid Rizana Nafeek left the impression that local scholars did not do enough to examine the integrity of the case against her, buckling down to pressure from Saudi Arabia instead. These incidents coupled with the inability of key members of the ACJU to appropriately defend their position of endorsing the collapsed Ceylinco investment vehicle CPSI makes a case for the establishment of an accountability framework to ensure that a two way relationship between the people at large and the religiousleadership is maintained.

There is also sentiment that the current set of ulama, generally lacking ‘secular’ or worldly education in their strictly theological backgrounds, could use a support framework comprising of people from different areas of expertise to enable them to better serve the community.

The civil alternative

This dual failure of the political and religious apparatus of Sri Lankan Muslims has created a strong vacuum for the emergence of a civil solution to Muslim issues. Enter the Shura Council. ‘Shura’ is an Arabic term that means ‘consensus’, an idea believed to be of paramount importance in any collective action in Islam. Practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) and his companions, obtaining consensus is put forward in the qur’an itself and is meant to function as a mechanism to ensure that rulers and the ruled are accountable to each other.

Modern Islamic political discourse often points to the idea of ‘Shura’ to highlight the essential compatibility of the original idea of an Islamic government with the idea of democracy.

This fledgling Interim Shura Council in Sri Lanka, now in an interim stage, was first convened in early May, but the idea for it appears to have originated right after the Dambulla attack. It aims to work towards establishing a National Shura Council with the goal of reaching into the grassroots in order to involve them in decision making, and to achieve a broad consensus among the various factions.The movement has the full approval of the ACJU (indeed key members of the scholarly organization have encouragingly been at the forefront of endorsing it), and that of the various other powerful bodies in the community such as the tableeqjamat, tawheedjamat and tareeka organizations (that comprise of sufistic orders in the country) whose differences have caused much of the division within it.

The council, led by professionals and social activists, aims to set up sub councils at the district, town and village levels at local mosques. However the process isn’t easy. Many decisions yet remain to be made. The degree of political involvement is one. Skeptics think that too much involvement will quickly result in the ‘politicization’ of the body; preferring to instead maintain a one way relationship with politicians, hoping that the latter would have no choice but to listen to them once the Shura Council becomes the large, national, community pressure group it intends to.

The council is currently in the process of obtaining feedback from various communities in the country as well as Muslim professional bodies and other organizations, aware that without full consensus the idea will not work. Matters such as what criteria individual members of each town Shura council should possess, etc. are still to be decided. There is general agreement that members must be upstanding Muslim citizens, be pious and concerned for its problems. But such a system can all too soon fall prey to opportunism, as evidenced by the sad state of many of the Trustee Boards of Muslim mosques in the country, whose members grapple and play politics simply for the social status associated with being on the board, serving their communities becoming a secondary concern.

Risks on the horizon

Its emergence into the spotlight will also no doubt open it upto criticism from Sri Lanka’s hard right which until recently engaged in a virulent public campaign against quadi courts (small outfits that deal with Muslim family affairs) in the country, planting fears of the wide scale imposition of ‘sharia law’ among the public. The local Islamophobia machine will not stay quiet at the emergence of a large scale body aiming to bring together the whole of the Muslim community without trying to paint it black.

But the biggest need of the hour will be figuring out not how to save the Shura council from outsiders, but how to save it from itself. The integrity of the council is of paramount importance if it is to function with any credibility and that will mean coming up with an organizational system that has checks and balances to prevent corruption. This is usually nearly impossible without moral people. And as an organization built around a fundamentally religious purpose one would expect that this would not be a problem.

But the truth is that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is currently at a heightened state of awareness. It has just woken up from a decades long stupor and taken note of some of the major damage it has inflicted upon itself. It is worried and eager to set things right, and for now its disparate factions have come together in order to achieve a purpose more noble than mutual bickering. For consensus to happen, the parties convening must want it to happen. And for now at least, its recent troubles have galvanized it into placing the objective of unity above and beyond the petty differences that used to dominate its various factions. ‘The fear of God’ so to speak has been instilled within it via tribulation and trial.

Whereas previously a whole bloc would rather have walked out of the room than compromise even a little, there is sacrifice, setting aside of ego and the recognition of unity as a strong need of the hour. Indeed this is highly in line with Islamic teaching, which deplores fractionalization and internal disagreements, but given that an external enemy had to emerge to make it happen, one wonders if the natural complacency of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will eventually cause it to slip back into the dreamlike state it was in before the Bodu Bala Sena saw fit to wake it up.

8 Comments for “Can ‘Shura’ Save Sri Lanka’s Muslims?”

  1. Guruge

    muslims dont allow Buddhism in their countries. they destroy Nalanda Buddhist university.

    • amara

      Brother don’t worry about the past events,just concentrate practising buddhism,strengthen buddhism,strengthen yourself ,why engage in idle talks..?

  2. Raymond Punchisingho

    Why is it that every time Islam is mentioned, it has political connotations and aspirations? It just so happens that in all countries where Muslims predominate discrimination exists, in its most virulent forms. In a secular society politics and religion should be separate. Attempting to mix the two, leads to the worst examples of hatred, selfishness, genocide, hypocrisy and disrespect to ones fellow beings. The fundamental culprit is the flawed and self-righteous claim of being God’s chosen people, which almost all religious cultures are guilty of.

  3. Bisthan Batcha

    The question is being asked in various fora as to whether the Muslims in Sri Lanka, who were subjected to mental trauma and physical harassment in the recent past by the actions of certain racist Groups, have now deemed it to be ‘safe’ once again for Sri Lankan Muslims. Have the Muslims slipped into a state of complacency ? Do they believe that it was just a passing storm which has now lost it’s sting ?

    When the anti-Muslim diatribe of the Bodhu Bala Sena reached it’s zenith, coupled with the apparent apathy on the part of the State, many Muslims were of the opinion that there were just two reasonable courses of action that the members of the Community could take.

    Option 1 : To maintain a low profile and keep one’s head down until the whole thing blows over
    Option 2 : To directly counter the threats and allegations made against the Muslims

    The key problem with Option 1 is the complete lack of control over the unfolding events. The Muslims had no idea about the nature, content or duration of the vicious attacks they were subjected to or whether such attacks will ever end or whether the attacks will become a part of the social fabric of this Country in the future. An alarming signal in this regard, which many may have missed due to it’s ‘low noise’, was that many Buddhists who expressed outrage at the behaviour of the BBS nevertheless ended their criticism by saying “…. But there is an element of truth in what the BBS are saying, no ?” (Kiyana ekey aththakuth thiyanawa, ne ?)

    The main failing of Option 2, which may have escaped even it’s protagonists, is that in attempting to counter the allegations of the BBS, many Commentators were becoming emotional and actually launching tirades against the BBS – which after all is an Organization of Buddhist Clergy. When a group of Religious Leaders is under attack, it is almost a reflex action on the part of the Laity to defend the group – whether or not they agree with the words and deeds of the members of that religious group. In fact it was reported in one Web article that the BBS felt that “the halaal issue had strengthened the Buddhist community”. Let us not forget that when the ACJU was at the receiving end of various unsubstantiated allegations regarding the halaal issue, most Muslims (including the anti-ACJU groups) found themselves defending the actions of the ACJU. Therefore there is a strong possibility of the anti-Muslim feeling becoming more hardened and more widespread if Option 2 is adopted.

    Does this then mean that there is no course of action that the Sri Lankan Muslims could take to overcome the threat to their physical and mental well-being posed by such racist groups as the Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya ?

    Actually there is a third option which, unfortunately, has not received the attention that it deserves. This involves the strategy of Identifying and Neutralizing the Concerns and Apprehensions that the Buddhist Community may have regarding the Beliefs and Practices of Muslims in Sri Lanka. The most important feature of this Strategy is that it is Proactive (Acting before a situation becomes a source of confrontation or crisis) in nature and therefore very much under the control of the Muslims – unlike Option 2 which is of a Reactive (Solving matters as they arise) type.

    However, the most regrettable feature of this entire episode is the utter failure on the part of the Sri Lankan Muslims to focus strongly and sharply on what unites them as a Community and not to dwell on their differences. This failure has had many cascading effects – the major disappointment being the non-emergence of any kind of ‘Group’ to provide leadership and direction to the Muslims in these times of trials and tribulations. We are told that there is an attempt to form a Consultative Committee. We are told of various informal multi-ethnic Groups that are working ‘quietly’ behind the scenes to resolve the growing ill-feelings between the two Communities.

    When other concerned Muslims hear and read of such developments they are left with a sense of not wanting to upset the apple-cart by initiating some form of action or dialogue of their own. The absence of proper Leadership at this crucial juncture in the history of the Sri Lankan Muslims is the single most important reason for the perceived Inaction and Disinterest on the part of Muslims at this point in time.

    My Muslim Brothers and Sisters would do well to take a leaf off the book of the BBS when it comes to goal-setting, planning and implementing strategies for the benefit of their Community. The BBS identified their Target Group, they identified a Single Issue and they successfully sold the benefits of their Idea to large segments of the Buddhist Community. We too need such a Leadership, but consisting not of Politicians or of the Ulemas, but of respected Members of Muslim Civil Society who are capable of winning the trust of the Ummah because of their standing in the Community. We need a Leadership that can persuade the Ummah to look not just at the ‘dots’, but rather at the Big Picture obtaining by connecting the dots.

    Are the Muslims of Sri Lanka able to put aside their differences and to focus on the urgent need to introduce measures to ensure the physical and mental well-being of the members of their Community in the years ahead ? Are the Muslims able to empathize with their Buddhist Brothers and Sisters to the extent that they of their own volition change patterns of their behavior which cause concern and apprehension to the Majority Community ? Or do the Muslims feel that they alone are entitled to the right of being angry and offended ?

  4. gamarala

    We dont have to go by what happens in predominantly muslim countries. If we beleive in democracy,then muslims should be allowed their lifestyle as long as it does not affect other religions.
    It is shameful that monks behave like hooligans.

  5. udiya

    lot of people love to talk what happening against muslims in sri lanka. but no body try explain why it is happening against muslims in sri lanka. example nobody dare to speak the difficulties faced by sinhala buddhists living in muslim majority areas suck as east sri lanka. sinhalees are threatened monks have been thrown out. temples have been distroyed in east sri lanka. so dont expect buddhist will be silent for the rest of there lives. why buddists eat halal food?. its there fundermental right stop it. and gives the right to religious freedom in sri lanka.

  6. Ranjith

    muslims should not thing their religion is perfect and others are fool. why are they converting others to thier religion? they never allow muslim women to marry other religion men. But they marrige other faith women after converting to their religion. what is the speciality of islam? what is happening in muslim countries today? everyday killing others and creating problem all over the world.

  7. Nazeem

    If anybody don’t want to eat halaal, then don’t eat. It’s simple as that. Nobody is forcing you to have halaal or any meat. Don’t talk stupid brother. I’M A SRILANKAN. and I have every right to live a Srilankan.

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