MUSLIM HISTORY AND INVOLVEMENT IN SRI LANKA
The history of Muslims in Sri Lanka starts with a small groups of Muslim traders arriving from South India for purposes of trade in the late 14th century or some 700 years ago. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Muslims were permanent inhabitants of Sri Lanka at that time. Being tradesmen, they came got what they wanted and left. It should be stated emphatically, that there were no Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka for 1000 years as erroneously claimed by some quarters. The Muslims of South India were descendents of Arab traders.
Settling down in Sri Lanka of some Muslim merchants from South India took place during the late 14th to early 16th century period. This was a politically unstable period in Sri Lanka owing to invasions and atrocities of Tamil speaking South Indian Dravidians and later by the ruthless Portuguese. It was the period when the capital city of the traditional Sinhala kingdom – Polonnaruwa, had to be abandoned owing to insecurity and the capital relocated in different places such as Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Dambadeniya, Ganpola, Kotte and Mahanuwara. This period popularly known as the period of the “drift to the South west” was largely a time of political unrest. Muslim presence and influence was rising in South India during this time. It was at this time, especially during the 14th to 16th century period, that Muslim merchants started to arrive in Sri Lanka. It happened both before and after the arrival of the Portuguese. Those who settled along the western coast married Sinhala women. Coming from South India and being exposed to the Tamil language, some of these Muslims married Tamil speaking women in Sri Lanka. All of these women were converted to Islam.
Persecution of Muslims by the Dutch
Muslim merchants were given a hard time by the Portuguese whose primary interest in Sri Lanka, was also trade and commerce. During the Dutch period of occupation of our coastal areas the Muslims were ruthlessly persecuted by the Dutch throughout the 17th century. The Muslims had to run to the Kande-Uda-Rata or the Sinhala Kandyan kingdom for safety among the Sinhala people. King Senerat and King Rajasinghe II took the initiative of settling large numbers of Muslims in predominantly Sinhala areas among the Sinhala people in the hill country and in the Batticaloa area, to work as paddy farmers. Many were integrated into the Sinhala society. In fact, some of our kings gave Muslims duties in the king’s administration.
Hospitality of the Sinhala Buddhists
There are several historic records such as those of Robert Knox which report how the Muslims were received favourably in the Sinhala Kingdom and how the Sinhala people gifted land to Muslims. Most Muslims adopted Sinhala ways and mannerisms. In Galagedara there are yet two villages occupied only by Muslims, surrounded by Sinhala villages, where the lands were donated to them by the Sinhala king. Present Katupalliya and Meera Makkam Masjid in Mahanuwara were built on land gifted by the king. The architecture of the Katupalliya is Sinhala Udarata. Ridi Vihare in Kurunegala gave part of its land for a Muslim Masjid.
In 1930, Muslim boys of Rambukkhana had their education in Buddhist monasteries. Many studied Sinhala and indigenous medicine. Facilities were provided for the Muslim boys to recite their prayers and attend Quoranic classes, while living in Buddhist temples. Muslims made voluntary contributions towards the vihara and they participated in the Esala Perahera. Drummers voluntarily stopped their music when they passed Muslim mosques. This was the extent of cordiality and accommodation accorded to Muslims by the Sinhala Buddhist people in those challenging times with Dutch atrocities.
Dr. Lorna Devarajah in her in-depth research on Muslim history in Sri Lanka says “Having adapted to the local conditions in various ways and also contributing largely to the island’s economic prosperity, the Muslim community of Sri Lanka, unlike the Hindu Tamils of the Northern Province, has saved itself from any major clash with the indigenous Sinhalese population. They have also been able to receive a fair share in the country’s politics and administration by virtue of their hard work and also of being an important minority whose support has been vital to all the political groups in the country. Although it may be said that the Muslim community was not politically dominant at any stage, yet, it is certainly true that they maneuvered their political activity without much noise, unlike the Tamils”.
Post Independence Opportunities
Muslims continued to benefit from various forms of privileges available to them after Sri Lanka attained political independence in 1948. Muslims were given many opportunities to improve their commercial businesses and socio-economic conditions and quality of life. Sinhala political leadership accorded Ministerial and high professional opportunities for Muslims. The Muslim community benefited much by having Muslim Ministers running the Education Ministry for many years. The education of Muslims received priority attention during this time. Several well- equipped exclusively Muslim schools were established in predominantly Muslim areas during this time. Muslim children and youth had preferential treatment in the area of education and admission to universities. It is a well known fact that, Muslims were accorded preferential treatment in employment when a Muslim minister was in charge of the Ports Authority and also in Foreign Affairs. Port employment is known to be lucrative both then and now.
For whatever reasons – political or other, the several extra privileges, benefits and opportunities made available to the Muslim community by the Sinhala political leaders, resulted in a rapid improvement in living conditions of the Muslim community. In fact, at present, these privileges coupled with the initiative of the Muslims themselves, have made their life far better than that of the large majority of the Sinhala people.
Today, Muslims more or less dominate the import-export trade, shipping business, and commercial enterprises such as hardware, timber, clothing, computer hardware and software, telecommunication equipment, automobile and related spare parts sales, meat and poultry industry and sales, foreign employment agencies and related service industry, international school business, among several others.
Muslims have the benefit of having ad preferential treatment in employment in the oil-rich Middle Eastern Muslim countries and thereby have gained substantially, as compared to our Sinhala housemaids and most other employees who continue to be grossly exploited by the Middle Eastern Muslim employers.
The Muslims as a small minority settler community enjoy undue privileges that are not enjoyed by the large majority of Sinhala people who form the dominant and indigenous community of the nation. With all the benefits and preferential privileges, unemployment of Muslims is far lower as compared to the Sinhala.
Muslims are well known to be running successful businesses in predominantly Sinhala majority areas with the Sinhala people as their customers. They are involved in wealth generating employment connected with tourism and travel. The household income of Muslims far exceeds those of ordinary Sinhala people. The per capita income of the Muslim community is far higher than that of the Sinhala majority community.
Investments that are of Common Benefit
It is a well evident fact that Muslim leaders and most Muslim professionals are focused on furthering the interests of their Muslim community rather than society as a whole. It is time that Muslims invested more on hospitals, schools and other national social welfare activities and contributed tangibly for infrastructure development activities that benefit everyone and not necessarily the Muslim community.
It is time that Muslim establishments refrain from exclusively hiring Muslims, especially for responsible positions in their establishments. There have been many instances of Muslim encroachment of places that are of Buddhist historic value, and the destruction of Buddhist monuments and items of archeological value in the Eastern Province in particular. This definitely has to stop. If Muslims are involved in the illicit drug trade as often reported in the media, this is national crime and has to stop.
Being an Active Part of the Nation
Muslims should consider it their duty to participate more actively in national events such as the National day festivities and other important national events and international events as Sri Lankans and cheer Sri Lanka and rejoice in their international attainments in all fields including cricket and sports in general. The indigenous cultural norms and values upon which this nation is founded should be well understood and respected by all citizens of this country, irrespective of their religious or other affiliations.
Although forming a mere 7% of the total population of the country, Muslims are accorded religious holidays as public holidays in our country. They are represented in the national flag of Sri Lanka with a green belt. Most importantly, there are no restrictions in Sri Lanka for the construction of mosques in predominantly Sinhala areas. It is a well known fact that Muslim countries do not permit even the display of a Buddha image, let along building Vihares.
In activities connected with Muslim mosques, especially in early morning prayers using load speakers, the Muslims should pay more attention to the comforts and conveniences of the non-Muslim neighbors.
Gratitude for the Opportunities Afforded
A good part of buildings and land in most urban areas in the country, especially in predominantly Sinhala areas are owned today by Muslims. No comparable minority in any major country in the world have been given such preposterous benefits, which are not rights but ridiculously high privileges enjoyed by the Muslims and Tamil settler minorities in our motherland. Since the privileges of one person can only be had at the expense of the rights of another, this shows that, in fact, it is the indigenous Sinhalas, who account for more than 70% of the population, who are discriminated against in Sri Lanka.
After securing so much from the country, and from the majority Sinhala community who had all along provided them with hospitality and generosity, it is disappointing to see many Muslim leaders and Muslim people of today, especially those living in the Eastern province having the audacity and ingratitude to claim autonomy for the lands that they are occupying in predominantly Muslim areas. Do they realize that some of these lands were given to them by Sinhala kings and governments led by Sinhala leaders.
Inciting Violence Against Buddhists
It was not long ago that Islamic fundamentalists and armed Muslim extremists were inciting violence against legitimate Buddhist activities in the East - Pottuvil region. Muslims were forcibly encroaching upon land that rightfully belongs to Buddhist temples on the southeast coast. They were demolishing some archeological sites of Buddhist significance in the East. Also, the Sri Lanka Muslims Congress and several Islamic groups of our country had the audacity to oppose the construction of Buddha’s statues on the island’s southeast coast.
In recent years there have been many incidents that involved disagreements between the Muslim community members and the Sinhala people. There had been protests by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists urging the Government to crack down on Islamic groups that are opposing the construction of Buddha’s statues in some towns and villages on the island’s southeast coast. Hundreds of Buddhist monks and their lay supporters demonstrated against “anti Buddhist activities of Muslim extremists”.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and several civil society groups have opposed the construction of Buddha’s statues on the southeast coastal areas which were predominantly Buddhist areas in the recent past and which have Buddhist historic monuments and important archeological remains which are part of the cultural wealth of the nation.
The protestors claimed in a memorandum submitted to the Buddha Sasana Ministry that Islamic fundamentalists and armed Muslim extremists were inciting violence against legitimate Buddhist activities in the Pottuvil region. According to the Memorandum, the Muslims are forcibly taking land that rightfully belongs to Buddhist temples on the southeast coast.
As far as the present government is concerned, there appear to be increased interest in consolidation of national unity. Under the circumstances, divisive tendencies of any nature should not be encouraged or tolerated for that matter. With our massive success in containing Tamil terrorism and our determined efforts to bring the various communities together as One Nation, it is important that divisive tendencies in our society be eliminated. This is especially necessary in the light of a national resurgence that is clearly noticeable in the country at the present time and increased interest in fully restoring democratic principles of social organization. It is important that we try to prevent polarization of our communities by all means available and all communities are duty bound to see that this takes place for the benefit of everyone that calls this their motherland.
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane