Sri Lanka’s Muslims facing leadership vacuum

With the bloody demise of the LTTE the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has reached political crossroads.

Ahlul Bayt News Agency (,  With the bloody demise of the LTTE the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has reached political crossroads.

In fact, even when the LTTE was at its summit of military might and political clout the Muslim community confronted two crucial questions: One, what would be the fate of the community in the unlikely event of a divided Sri Lanka between a Tamil Eelam, which would include one third of the Muslims, and a Sinhala Lanka with the rest two-thirds? And two, what would be the fate of the community's so called 'politics of pragmatism' once the LTTE was wiped out?

The fact that there was no serious public discussion or debate on these questions between 1983, when the LTTE took to its armed struggle, and 2009, when it was militarily eliminated, demonstrates not only a lack of foresight within the Muslim political leadership but also the community's lackadaisical attitude towards national issues little realising that the price of insouciance could be very costly to the community's long term survival and welfare.

Sri Lankan Muslims at a festival prayer

Muslim political leadership in independent Sri Lanka always revolved around personalities and not around programmes or policies. Even the political structures created by some leaders, such as the All Ceylon Moors Association of Razik Fareed, Ceylon Muslim League of M. C. M. Kaleel, the Islamic Socialist Front of Badiuddin Mahmud, the Anti-Marxist Front of M. H. Mohamed, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress of M. H. M. Ashraff, operated chiefly to promote the popularity of the founders and increase the chances, for them and their followers, of winning a particular political contest in the short run rather than to sustain those structures with a plan of action and programmes to benefit the interest of the community and nation in the long run.

This was why when epochal issues like Ceylon citizenship, official-language, socialist-reforms, constitutional changes, and ethnic nationalisms were debated in the national legislature the contribution to those debates from Muslim parliamentarians, with very rare exceptions, lacked intellectual depth and national vision.

There are two main reasons for this shortcoming, one arising from political expediency and the other from religious orthodoxy. Being the third largest ethno-religious group in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, political expediency dictated that it would always be in the best interest of the middle community to side with the winning majority, even if that majority's programmes and policies were to prove, in the long run, detrimental to national unity and economic prosperity.

Muslim politicians followed this dictate to its extreme limits since the 1950s and as one of them said pithily "divided they are (meaning the Sinhalese and the Tamils) we swim and united they are we sink". This myopic and businesslike approach to national politics made many Muslim politicians to remain indifferent at best and unpatriotic at worst when confronted with issues of national and international importance such as citizenship, official language, constitutional reforms, higher education and Islamism.

Islamic orthodoxy, especially its fundamentalist variation, is excessively otherworldly in its outlook. The belief in the transient nature of earthly life and the certainty and fear of the Hereafter creates a feeling of detachment and indifference toward mundane matters unless such matters help the preparation of this life to success in the Hereafter. The psychological impact of this belief at the national political level is for Muslims to accept the fact that Sri Lanka is not a Muslim country and that therefore it does not matter who rules the country as longs as Muslim interests are protected and promoted. Irrespective of the variety of stratagem that different Muslim leaders chose to maintain their leadership the objective always remained parochial and communal.

Since late 1940s Muslim politics in Sri Lanka followed the leadership of three personalities: Sir Razik Fareed (1893-1984), Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud (1904-1997), and M. H. M. Ashraf (1948-2000). Razik Fareed's political strategy, sometimes described as politics of pragmatism, was always to join the winning party, be a part of the government and work for the community. Party ideology, principles and policies hardly mattered to him. Badi's strategy was to commit firmly to the policy and principles of one particular political party and work for the community from within.

Accordingly, he became one of the founder members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and remained in it until his death. He entered the parliament unelected and was appointed as the Minister of Education. It is not unfair to say that his ministry, during his tenure of office, virtually became the employment exchange for Muslims. Ashraf's strategy was to form a separate political party for the Muslims, gain as many seats as possible in a general election and use that strength as bargaining chip to win favours to the community from ruling governments.

Although the Muslim community made significant strides in the field of education, public sector employment, religious and cultural welfare and so forth during the leadership of each of the three personalities, it was more the widening political gulf between the two main communities of the island, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, rather than the particular political strategies of Muslim leaders that was responsible to their community's achievements. None of the leaders had a long term national vision or programme that could win the admiration and support of the other communities in the island.

Being a community caught in the middle in the growing animosity between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, Muslims had certain demographic, linguistic, and religious factors that could have strengthened the role of their leaders, had they wanted, as bridge builders in the communal conflict. Demographically, Muslim settlements are spread over the entire nine provinces of the nation and any proposed division of the country on communal lines would be detrimental to Muslims caught in the division.

Linguistically, although the vast majority of them speak Tamil as their mother tongue, many of them, unlike the members of the other two communities, have conversational fluency in Sinhalese also. Religiously, the concept of brotherhood in Islam and Allah's command in the Quran that humankind was created from a single pair of a male and female and made into different tribes so that they may know and not despise each other lays a solid foundation for Muslim leaders to work for communal tolerance and national unity. Unfortunately, none of these factors were exploited by the Muslim leaders to act as spokespersons for the unity of the nation. What was lacking in them was long term national political vision and commitment to the nation.

Throughout the history of independent Sri Lanka the Muslim community never made any attempt to create a think-tank of intellectuals to advise and guide political leaders. Muslim politicians always sidelined the intellectuals in the community although the number of such intellectuals was not many at any time. Sidelined by the politicians and ignored by the rich and powerful a few of them left the country while the ones who remained in the country rarely spoke out on public issues affecting the community and the nation. The growing environment of political violence since the late 1970s made even that rarity totally non-existent.

After the untimely demise of Ashraf, Muslim political leadership in Sri Lanka has become vacuous and acephalous. There are now more Muslim politicians and ministers than ever in the history of the community but none of them has shown so far the philosophical and intellectual depth and vision necessary to lead a community at the national level.

The way they led the community along a blind alley in the last presidential elections amplifies this deficiency. There is a need for a statesman-like Muslim leadership and the time has come to the Muslim intellectual community to lead this search. In terms of Islamic shariah it is not only their individual religious duty (fard-al-ayn) but also a duty imposed upon their community (fard-al-kifaya) .

There is another election on April 8. Will the community learn from the past and produce better leaders?

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