Soon after defeating LTTE terrorism in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that there are no minority or majority communities in Sri Lanka today. There are only patriots and traitors, he insisted. Muslim ministers and political leaders supporting his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government have also said that there is no need for communal political parties and wanted the Muslims to join national political parties.
Under these circumstances, it has become pertinent to have a closer look at the plight of Muslims, particularly in Colombo, for being patriots and loyal members of the National political parties in Sri Lanka.
We, Muslims are proud of the fact that we are citizens of Sri Lanka, our motherland, where our ancestors, the Arabs originated the Sri Lanka Muslim race, more than 2,500 years ago. As people professing the religion of Islam, we have been here for more than 1,430 years.
Muslims have always been loyal to the country and were in the forefront of the struggle — resisting foreign invaders, winning back the lost freedom and consolidating the freedom won. Muslims have fought together with the Sinhalese when the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka. Every resistance movement of the Sinhalese had Muslims in its ranks. This led to the persecution of Muslims under colonial rule. Muslims did not become traitors to receive honors or land. For nearly three centuries, between the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 and the departure of the Dutch in 1795, Muslims in the Maritime Provinces underwent untold hardships at the hands of the invaders for being patriots.
In the last 50 or 60 years, during which Sri Lanka mounted a constitutional struggle, one would not come across even one solitary Muslim voice against the aspirations of the majority Sinhalese people. Muslim representatives did not go before Royal Commissions, nor have they gone before the international community with accusations and sought to blacken the image of the majority community — the Sinhalese people.
Our Arab ancestors were a peaceful and law abiding people with strong religious conviction. They came to Sri Lanka as traders whose arrival was not accompanied by any military subjugation. Therefore, there was no bitterness or animosity between the natives and the Muslims.
Colombo had a large Muslim population when the Portuguese landed in 1505. They called the Muslims “Moors”, a name derived from the Greek “Mauros” which denoted the Muslim inhabitants of Mauritania inNorth Africa, who overran Spain and Portugal in the 8th century. Although it was at one time customary in Europe to refer to Muslims from whatever country they came, this name and in local usage the expression “Ceylon Moors” has since acquired an ethnic connotation.
Colombo’s population, according to the 2001 census is as follows: Sinhalese 270,932 (42%); Tamils199,429 (31%); Muslims 163,167 (25%), and others 13,572 (2%) bringing the total to 647,100. Tamil-speaking peoples — Tamils and Muslims — are 56% and more than two-third (67.3%) of the population of Colombo Divisional Secretariat Division. But the Divisional Secretary and the language of administration have always been Sinhalese. Government employees in Colombo Municipal Council, Colombo Divisional Secretary’s Division, Police Stations, Hospitals, Maternity Homes and all the Government Departments in Colombo Municipal area are not according to ethnic ratio.
After independence in 1948, various changes have been effected in the economic structure of the country.State monopolies in the wholesale establishment and retail sales outlets have seriously affected employment opportunities for Colombo’s Muslims.
Habitat for Humanity, Sri Lanka (HFHSL), has reported that the Government lacks a national policy and firm commitment to provide adequate housing for lower income families in Colombo. There are 18,619 Muslim housing units (2007 figures) in Colombo Central, out of which more than 50% are old and unauthorized shanties in predominantly Muslim areas. 10,000 new housing units costing US$100 million is the immediate need for the solution of housing problems of lower income Muslim families in Colombo.
Most Muslim Schools in Colombo started before 1970. Muslim political leaders have considered improving existing schools rather than opening new ones. There are 19 Muslim schools in Colombo City with nearly 20,000 students and 730 teachers; another 10,000 Muslim students are studying in non-Muslim schools.
85% of students in Muslim schools are from poor families; of this at least 25% are below the poverty line. Shortage of infrastructure facilities and qualified and trained teachers are the main reasons for their poor examination results. Colombo Muslim schools are put together with government patronized highly developed schools like Ananda, Nalanda, Royal, Visaka and Devi Balika. The cut off marks for university admission is the same for all the schools in Colombo District. This system has seriously affected university entrance opportunity for Colombo’s Muslim students.
According to the Police Narcotic Bureau, Muslim youth in Colombo are very active in drug trafficking. Lack of employment opportunities, inadequate housing and shortage of proper educational infrastructure facilities in Muslim schools are the root causes for the Colombo Muslim youth becoming drug traffickers and members of underworld gangs.
Dr. M. C. M. Kaleel and Mr. A. C. S. Hameed were the Chairmen of the United National Party (UNP) and Dr. Badiudin Mahmud was the founder Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) that is the largest component of the UPFA. The Muslim representatives in the UNP and SLFP were party to the Citizenship Act of 1948, Language Act of 1956, Finance Act of 1963. Also they were party to the removal of Section 29 and the Senate in the Soulbury Constitution and the removal of the Westminister System of Parliament and introducing the Proportional Representation Election System which have made the Muslims of Sri Lanka into a community of political and social slaves.
From what had happened to the minorities in Sri Lanka, Muslims find it difficult to accept the view that the UNP and SLFP are truly national parties. They are Sinhala parties to look after the interests of the Sinhalese only. When one bears in mind the policies that have been pursued by successive governments, by one or the other of these parties, on citizenship, language, education, employment and land alienation, Muslims find it difficult, in fact, impossible to accept their position as National Parties.
Political power by virtue of numbers has always been in the hands of the majority Sinhalese community. This had led to serious discrimination of the minorities, Tamils and Muslims, by successive governments of the so-called National political parties — UNP, and SLFP, since independence. It is the failure of the Sinhalese majority to recognize and respond to the legitimate rights and needs of the minorities that has led to dissatisfaction, terrorism and demand for separation.
A true Muslim cannot be a loyal member of such a political party whose policies run counter to the interests of his community or religion. When something is done to the detriment of the Muslim community, Muslim members in national political parties dare not open their mouths in defence of their community in the appropriate forum for fear of losing out in the party hierarchy. However, their membership in the party and holding office under it, are held out to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka and to the outside world as confirmation of the high esteem Muslims are accorded in Sri Lanka and the political generosity of the ruling party.
We the “Sri Lankan Muslims” have our own ethnic, religious, cultural and political identity. As people who have been subjected to dual oppressions of majority hegemony and separatist terrorism in the social, economic and political spheres, our intensified political activities through powerful Muslim political organizations have assumed great importance in the present context. Nowadays, the political tendency is to view matters in the light of Sinhala interests, Tamil interests and Muslim interests. Under these circumstances, it is the responsibility of the politically conscious members of the Muslim civil society to carry the burden of consolidating the political strength of Muslims by organizing awareness programs in predominantly Muslim areas.
In the light of lessons learned from the past and with the goal of a dignified and peaceful coexistence on the basis of equality with other communities, this is the most opportune time for us to raise our voices and wage our struggle to win our legitimate rights. In this regard, it has become an absolute necessity to establish a unified political command and an enlightened leadership with a view to articulate the political future of Muslims.
M. I. M. Mohideen is editor of The Island newspaper, Colombo with whose courtesy this article is reproduced.