ANTAGONISM AMONG MUSLIMS IN SRI LANKA
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
Sufism or the Sufi Muslim Ideology
Traditionally, Sufism or the Sufi Muslim ideology had been the predominant Islamic spiritual tradition observed throughout Southern Asia, including Sri Lanka. Sufism is considered to be the mystical, ascetic branch of Islam which emphasizes personal experience with Allah. Sufis can be members of either the Sunni or Shi’a divisions of Islam who share most of the basic principles of Islam. These two divisions stemmed from ancient political strife among Muslims. Sunni Muslims being in the majority, amount to about 88% of the global Muslim population.
Threats to the Dominance of Sufism
Sri Lanka has a long history of Sufism dating back several centuries, although some modern elements have been imported in recent years. During the past five decades the dominance of Sufism has been undermined by the increased presence of other Islam sects. Among them is Tabligh Jamaat, which has been active since the 1950s and has developed a mass following in the last two decades. Initially it avoided explicit political activity and concentrated on encouraging Muslims to engage more actively in religious rituals. It particularly focused on encouraging performance of daily prayers and religious rituals, and also promoted rigid dress codes for its members. It promoted and encouraged a more conservative view of Islam.
Tabligh Jamaat was initially a religious movement founded in India in 1926 as a response to the deteriorating values and negligence of fundamental aspects of Islam which was becoming a threat to Muslims. Subsequently it became a transnational movement with followers in many countries. This ultraorthodox Islamic sect preaches that Muslims should replicate the life of Muhammad and tells them it is their duty to travel across the country converting non-believers to the Islamic faith. It has become common practice for Tabligh members to make regular journeys around the country to propagate the virtues of Islam. Young members are particularly encouraged to do so. This is said to be giving the younger generation of Muslims a chance to mix with other ethnic groups. Although Tabligh was of appeal to different classes of Muslims, its rather simplistic approach to religious belief and antipathy towards political and social action made it less popular among the educated, middle-class Muslims.
Jamaat-i-Islamiya (JI) became active in Sri Lanka since the 1950s, and gained many adherents during the past fifteen to twenty years. The JI was founded in Pakistan in 1941, starting as an Islamic political party with the objective of establishing an Islamic state, governed by Sharia law. The JI opposes Ideologies such as capitalism, socialism and secularism, and practices such as bank interest and liberalist social mores. In its operations in Sri Lanka, the more intellectual approach of Jamaat-i-Islamiya (JI) generated greater appeal among the more educated middle class Muslims. It largely concentrated on religious orthodoxy and did not openly advocate radical political ideas.
Emerging Trends of Ultraorthodox Islam
According to reports, in Sri Lanka, since the late 1980s there has been a strong growth in ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam that have provoked conflicts with Muslims who traditionally profess Sufism. There are several emerging trends, with issues of identity and Muslim separatism also coinciding with the influx of some religious ideas from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere. These new trends appear to presage more difficult developments in the future.
Arrival and Expansion of Wahhabism
Wahhabism as opposed to Sufism, is an ultra conservative branch of Sunni Islam which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. It is a movement that started in the 18th century, in Saudi Arabia, among fundamentalist Islam believers who were promoting a return to the earliest fundamental Islamic teachings of the Quran and Hadith or religious law and moral guidance enunciated by Prophet Mohamed.
After 1973, with the Arab oil embargo resulting in the enrichment of Saudi Arabia, the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, dominant in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, began to have impact on Muslims living in other countries. Soon, it began encroaching Sri Lanka and having impact on adherents of the traditional form of Sufi Islam prevalent in Sri Lanka. Wahhabis began establishing itself in Sri Lanka despise the Sufis. They started operating through a movement called Thawheed funded by Saudi Arabian sources. They were instrumental in the establishment of numerous madrasas in Sri Lanka where young Muslims are being subject to various forms of indoctrination and brainwashing in Wahhabism including the jihad approach and Sharia law. During the last few decades, many Sri Lankan Muslims found employment in Saudi Arabia. Also, many young Sri Lankan Muslims were awarded scholarships by Saudi Arabia to study Wahhabism in Saudi universities. Upon their return to Sri Lanka they undertook in an organized manner the propagation of the ideology of Wahhabism. They were instrumental in the establishment of numerous madrasas where young Muslims were subject to various forms of brainwashing in Wahhabism including the jihad approach.
In Arabic, the word jihad translates to mean "struggle". Persons engaged in jihad are called mujahideen. Jihad is an important religious duty for Muslims. There are two meanings of jihad: an inner spiritual struggle and an outer physical struggle. The "greater jihad" is the inner struggle by a believer to fulfill his religious duties. The ‘halal’-haram- practices are related to this type of struggle. This is a non-violent struggle. The other meaning of Jihad is the physical struggle against the enemies of Islam. This physical struggle can take a violent form or a non-violent form. The proponents of the violent form translate jihad as "holy war".
Indoctrination of Younger Generation
Zachary Abuza, in his book titled Militant Islam in Southeast Asia (Crusible of Terror), highlights the role of Madrasas or exclusively Islamic schools established by Muslim extremists in indoctrinating the younger generation. The author comments that "In their pursuit of the creation of Islamic states, many Southeast Asian jihadis established Islamic schools to indoctrinate, propagate, and recruit. The leaders of many militant groups in Southeast Asia, returned from training in Mid Eastern countries and established madrasas as the base of their operations and recruitment." These radical Islamic madrasas, with unrestricted material support from foreign Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have begun to recruit and brainwash many Muslim children and youth in Islamic Jihadist movement and Islamic fundamentalism.
Trend of Intolerance and Extreme Forms of Violence
Newspapers have reported a significant influx of Wahhabi preachers and activists from Saudi Arabia and South India during the past three decades in particular. The Saudi Embassy in Sri Lanka, has admitted that certain wealthy Saudi persons are helping various Muslim religious groups in Sri Lanka to put up mosques. The Wahhabi jihad trends have revealed their ambition to control South Asian Islam communities even by means of using violent methods. The traditionalists such as the Sufis of Sri Lanka, appear to be resisting this Saudi initiated Wahhabi- jihad aggression, hostility and violence.
It is evident that the traditional practices of Islam of the island's Sufi Muslim community, are under threat by the Wahhabi group. Sufis are under attack not by adherents of other religions but by their own Muslims brothers. Worship of saints practiced by the Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka is frowned upon by the Wahhabi group. Owing to increasing threats, many Sufi Muslims appear to be distancing themselves from their traditional practices such as mosque feasts and the worship of saints. Wahhabi groups are violently opposed to these traditional practices. They are in actual fact promoting the theology endorsed by senior scholars in Saudi Arabia. They claim that the religious practices of Sufi Muslims are impure, tinged with superstition and mystical rituals and they are determined to make Śrī Lanka's Muslim community conform to more orthodox strictures and they are will use violence if necessary to achieve their ends.
The Sufis in the meanwhile has begun a campaign against the Wahhabis appealing to Sri Lanka authorities for an impartial inquiry into Wahhabi activities in the country, to disarm the Wahhabis and to enable the reconstruction of its headquarters in Kattankudy which was destroyed by the Wahhabis and the Sufis affected and displaced to be compensated by the Wahhabis so that they can rebuild their ruined homes and businesses.
Thareekathul Mufliheen Organization of Sufi Muslims
In late 1980s, the Sufi Muslims formed an organization known as All Ceylon Thareekathul Mufliheen organization defining itself as “a peace loving and non-violent Religious Society, where members are expected to be patient and tolerant even in times of grave injustice and calamity brought about by the Wahhabis. This organization was founded by Sheihul Mufliheen M.S.M. Abdullah, known as “Rah,” in the southeastern Sri Lanka village of Maruthamunai. It was registered as a cultural society with the civil authorities in 1989. The headquarters of Thareekathul Mufliheen is now located in the small eastern coast village of Kattankudy.
This organization maintained that each human being is free to choose a path of faith and that there should not be any compulsion to embrace the views of the organization. This was published in a book in Tamil, in 1980, by the founder of this organization titled Imanin Unmaiyai Nee Arivaya, or Do You Know the Truth of Iman? – iman referring to Islamic belief. This led to serious problems. A book was translated into English as The Court of Reason, and was published in 2010. The country’s official Council of Islamic Scholars, the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama, purportedly without reading the book or holding a hearing to examine it, published a fatwa or religious opinion on September 10, 1989, declaring Abdullah (Rah) and his followers as murtadd or apostates, who renounced Islam, in the judgment of the clerics.
Abdullah (Rah) the founder of Thareekathul Mufliheen organzation filed a defamation suit against the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama in 1990 in Colombo which led the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama (ACJU) revoked the fatwa in 1996, and settle the complaint. Besides the fatva, the AUJU also took action to deny the Thareekathul Mufliheen to register marriages and the burial of the dead in conformity with Islamic practice. However, through legal action these rights were restored.
Thareekathul Mufliheen organzation of the Sufis opened a Meditation Centre at Kattankudy in 1996. Wahhabi extremists struck the building setting fire to it. Abdullah (Rah) and the members of the order were targets of shooting and grenade attacks, and other physical aggression, as well as threats.
In 2004, many Wahhabis organized under the title “Jihad” again set the Meditation Centre ablaze, destroying its library, along with homes and businesses owned by Sufis. Financial loss to the injured parties was considerable, and one Sufi was shot and killed while another was wounded by gunfire.
In 2005, a protest was filed by the organization, with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRC) in 2005. The HRC found in favor of the Sufis, stating that their constitutional right to adhere to the belief of their will and choice had been violated. The Meditation Centre and headquarters were rebuilt in 2006.
Sheihul Mufliheen M.S.M. Abdullah (Rah) the founder of the Thareekathul Mufliheen organzation died in December 2006. Wahhabi preachers and the armed “Jihad” incited the local clerics and politicians (Jamiathul Ulama Kattankudy, the Muslim Federation of Mosques, and the Urban Council of Kattankudy) to oppose his burial according to Islamic rites, in the Meditation Centre, as he was a supposed “apostate.” According to the Wahhabis and their accomplices, “apostates” could not be buried in Kattankudy.
The Jihadis, armed with lethal weapons, rioted after the death of Abdullah (Rah), causing widespread social disruption in Kattankudy resulting in a general work stoppage, shutting down of schools, government and private offices, banks and businesses. Some banks and shops were looted and burned in the process. The official clerics of All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama, Jamiathul Ulama Kattankudy, the Muslim Federation of Mosques, other Islamic organizations, and the Kattankudy Urban Council initiated a judicial argument on December 11, 2006. They denounced Abdullah (Rah) as defying Muslim norms and traditions and charged that Thareekathul Mufliheen organization had failed to seek permission from the authorities for the burial. The petition by the official clerics and Wahhabis was dismissed in 2007. The Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission declared in 2007 that it could not “interfere in the disputes between various sects of a religion” and recommended the conflict be referred to the Council of Ulemas – All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama, or to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
In December 2006, in a separate controversy, the Urban Council in Kattankudy had ordered the dismantling of the minaret at the Meditation Centre, as an “unauthorized structure. Although the Police tried to prevent the commencement of the demolition, Wahhabi extremists interfered with the police resulting in shootings and the death of three rioters. A police post and police vehicle were assaulted. However, subsequently members of the Urban Council joined a Wahhabi mob and invaded the Meditation Centre and knocked down the minaret, removing the body of Abdullah (Rah), either burning or reburying it in a location yet unknown. The houses of 117 Sufis were leveled by fire. Many were threatened and fled the district.
Since then, however, abuses against the Sufis of Kattankudy have continued, with the Wahhabi Thawheed faction in the forefront of violence. Official ulema and the village authorities attempted unsuccessfully to prevent celebration of a Sufi festival in 2008. That year, a Sri Lanka Supreme Court order, providing that 200 members of Thareekathul Mufliheen be allowed to return to their homes in Kattankudy and practice their beliefs in freedom, was obstructed by armed Jihad members. In response to the campaign against it, Thareekathul Mufliheen has appealed to the Sri Lanka authorities for an impartial inquiry into Wahhabi activities in the country; to disarm the Wahhabis; to provide for reconstruction of the headquarters of Thareekathul Mufliheen in Kattankudy; to enforce the revocation of the fatwa issued by the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulama against Abdullah (Rah) and his disciples, as ordered by the Colombo District Court, and to compensate the displaced Sufis, facilitating restoration of their lost heritage, ruined homes, and businesses. The Sufis of Kattankudy seek “peaceful resettlement with honor.”
There is clear evidence of increasing tension and extreme forms of violence between traditional and more fundamentalist Islamic groups in Muslim communities across Sri Lanka. During the latter period of the war with Tamil LTTE terrorists, Muslim Home Guards were recruited by the Sri Lankan government to fight the terrorists. In the East some of these Home Guards deserted with their weapons and joined the Wahhabis rebels to fulfill its demand for “Jihad” against traditional Sufi Muslims.
The Beruwala Violence
The most cruel and crude nature of violence was well evident in the 2009 attack and devastation of the Beruwala Rahuman Masjid Mosque during its annual Buhari feast, which has been a practice in this mosque for over 130 years. A fundamentalist group of Muslim extremists armed with knives, swords and axes stormed the mosque, yelling that all those participating in the feast were infidels who had deviated from the path of Islam. The attackers set fire to the mosque and caused millions of rupees of damage.Two men were brutally hacked to death in the violence. They damaged cars, motor cycles and bicycles, and a special Police team had to be deployed in control the situation. A curfew was imposed in the area and some of the perpetrators were arrested but some had escaped.
In 2009 the Wahhabis vandalized and destroyed a 150-year old shrine located in Ukuwela near Matale. This was associated with violent clashes between Muslim groups. According to Muslim community leaders and groups this violence contradicts the fundamental teachings of Islam.
Saudi Arabian funding for fundamentalist groups
Sri Lankan Muslims, especially young males found easy employment in Saudi Arabia during the past few decades. Some were awarded scholarships by Saudi universities. Those who completed their studies returned to Sri Lanka and started to propagate the ideology of Wahhabism. In pursuit of their mission to expand their sphere of influence among Sufi Mulsims and others, these Wahhabis resorted to violence and intimidation culminating in death and destruction.
Most Muslim problems in the country at present appear to stem from foreign, particularly Saudi Arabian funding for fundamentalist groups. Also, the young Muslims who have been exposed to Saudi Islamic religious norms and who are being indoctrinated in madrasas and universities in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and reading Wahhabi texts which are opposed to traditional practices such as those of Sufi Muslims. What is wrong with this trend is the approach adopted by these extremist groups to propagate and promote their ideology, thinking and practices among the traditional Sufi Muslims of Sri Lanka.
Their approach is unacceptable because it is causing disharmony and violence within the Muslim community. They should be aware of the fact that they are living in a non-Muslim country where Sinhala Buddhists form the mainstream dominant community. The approach to change by the extremist Muslim groups are not compatible with the social values of the country.
Harmonious Community Relationships threatened
The traditional Sufi Islam practiced by Muslims in Sri Lanka for centuries, and related lifestyle of Muslims facilitated harmonious relationships with other religions and communities in the country. Maintaining such relationships was necessary for most Muslims who were businessmen dealing with a market consisting mostly of non-Muslims. Owing to their living among Buddhists most Muslims were inevitably influenced by, and learnt to respect the social values of Sinhala Buddhists marked by tolerance and non-violence in particular.
It is unlikely that the more fundamentalist Muslim groups and related extremist attitudes and practices that appear to be emerging will help Sri Lankan Muslims to coexist successfully with the island's other religions, as before. In fact the Wahhabis do not seem to be able to coexist peacefully with their own Muslim brothers.
As a nation with a historic cultural tradition that extends to over 2200 years, where freedom, compassion, tolerance and accommodation of people of all faiths and ethnicities have been the founding principles, it is necessary that we as a nation take necessary steps to protect and preserve these noble and wholesome cultural traditions. We cannot allow them to be undermined under any circumstances. It is necessary that all communities living in this country develop respect towards the social values and norms of other communities inhabiting this land and not pursue policies and activities that would jeopardize the quality of life and stability of our nation.
Today there is increased interest in general, in the country, for the consolidation of national unity. Under the circumstances, divisive tendencies of any nature should not be encouraged or tolerated. 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. It is important that we try to prevent polarization tendencies in communities living in Sri Lanka and all communities are duty bound to see that this happens for the benefit of everyone that calls Sri Lanka their motherland.
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane