The following is an interview with a scholar of Economics and the former President of the Australian Federation of Islam Councils, Professor Ameer Ali, a regular commentator in the Sri Lankan and international media on Muslim issues in his home country, Sri Lanka.
Q: In a previous interview, you said that Sri Lankan Muslims are getting isolated in the name of a misunderstood identity. You were speaking of cultural isolation.
Yet, days before the UNHRC Geneva vote this year, you attended a discussion themed ‘Why the UN Resolution is a Necessity’, organised by rights activists and you spoke against the announced ban of the Burqa/Abaya. When asked by the UN representatives attending the session you spoke in favour of the Burqa. Yet in an interview, you lambasted the adoption of the burqa/abaya insisting that ‘any dress can be an Islamic dress.’ Can you comment why you have changed your stance?
A: My position on Burqa and Niqab is the same. They are alien to the country, promote self-alienation, discourage social integration and belong to a misogynistic culture. But it should be weeded out from society by the community and not banned by the State. If State intervenes in human rights like the right to choose one’s dress and fashion, that could be challenged in a court of law and could be defeated. I blame the Muslim leadership, both political and religious, which failed to read the writings on the wall since 1980s.
Even now the Government must pick those progressive elements within the Muslim community and carry out an educational campaign to get rid of this social nuisance. Through education, this can be achieved. The Sari with the head cover and the shalwar and shawl are as Islamic and modest as required by the scripture. They were accepted by the society for centuries. Why should we now choose something that society does not want to accept? This is mischievous and deliberate provocation by a few fundamentalists and fanatics.
Q: Several European countries have also banned the Niqab and Burqa. Your comments? How is it in Australia where you are based?
A: Australia did not ban, but over the years, the dress has mostly disappeared. Rarely, we see a woman wearing the burqa or niqab. Banning by State can be counterproductive.
Q: You stated at the Walpola Rahula Poya day talk you delivered in May 2018, where you were the guest speaker, that, “If anyone cannot live with a Sinhalese that they cannot live with anyone” and you also said that it is natural for a people to get suspicious of a particular community who have lived among them for a long time in one particular way and then see that community change suddenly. Do you still stand by these views?
A: I maintain my position and underline the statement that the Sinhalese are one of the friendliest people to live with. The hospitality that the Sinhalese extended towards Muslims, the way the Sinhalese rulers facilitated Muslims to become naturalised and the respect they showed towards Islam for over a millennium is a unique chapter in world history.
Q: The fact remains that Sri Lanka is historically a Buddhist country. Muslims in large numbers settled in Sri Lanka due to coming here for trade, then married Sinhala/Tamil women and made Sri Lanka their home. Christianity and Catholicism surfaced after conversion following Portuguese, Dutch and British invasion. Now we have around seven percent of the population who are of this religion. From the time of Sri Lankan kings, Buddhism was protected as the State religion.
There was no conflict with Buddhism and Hinduism practised by Tamils of Sri Lanka and some of the Sri Lankan Kings that promoted Buddhism were of Nayakka/Tamil origin. Yet, today, we see the term Buddhist Supremacism being liberally used by Western educated scholars. You are one of them who use this word often in your analysis. So you are implying that Lankan kings (including the Indian origin kings, such as Senarath and Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe) were Buddhist ‘Supremacists’?
A: The Buddhist monarchs of yore while giving foremost place to Buddhism never wanted to destroy the pluralist make up of the Sri Lankan society. They were the most excellent managers of pluralism and under their management the country prospered. This has been ignored today in the quest to homogenise Sri Lanka’s heterogeneity and in the course of achieving it, to marginalise the minorities and make them second class citizens. This is the difference between today and those benevolent rulers which you mentioned.
Q: A key factor that differentiates then and now is that we did not then have an international community meddling in internal matters and we did not have an INGO sector in the country and we certainly did not have the UN. How do you think these factors influence the current times that we are in?
A: This is true but we cannot change the international situation. We have to navigate through troubled waters and save our country and its people. We have a choice between reconciliation and re-colonisation. I am currently typing a short piece on this cruel choice for publication.
Q: In your last newspaper article on March 29 published in the private media, you have been harshly critical of the arrest of former Governor of the Western Province, Azath Salley, for saying that he would honour only Islamic Sharia law and not Sri Lanka’s laws. As someone who holds in high esteem Sinhala kings who permitted Muslims to settle in this country, do you think this kind of statements (of the kind Salley declared) would have been tolerated by our ancient kings?
A: Here again, it was a total misunderstanding of the concept of Sharia between Sally and the minister. For instance, all the five pillars of Islam such as the confession of faith, prayers, fasting, charity and pilgrimage are part of the Sharia. Can’t a Muslim practise them in Sri Lanka? Why should he or she go to Saudi Arabia? Ancient monarchs allowed Sharia to be followed as long as it did not clash with the state.
Q: Beheading of that young Sri Lankan maid Rizana was done as part of Sharia and that is the general image most have – as harsh laws. Where does this fit into your description above?
A: Of course, I do not deny the horror unleashed by extremists in the name of Sharia. This is why the whole issue about Sharia has to be revisited by Muslims. Let alone the terrorists beheading the innocent, who will tolerate the barbaric punishments meted out in Saudi Arabia in the name of Sharia?
Q: Well, it is being ‘tolerated’ isn’t it and one cannot ask for ‘liberation of fashion in Saudi,’ the official place of Islam?
A: This is true. It also shows the hypocrisy of those asking for freedom for fashion in Sri Lanka when they are not prepared to protest in front of the Saudi Embassy demanding the same freedom for the women in that country.
Q: There were many protests about the burial issue of Muslims on account of Covid-19 deaths which was declared by the Lankan State as a means of protecting water contamination from the spread of a virus the Western world was grappling to understand. In our last discussions and interview, we covered the importance of spirituality as opposed to religion, especially among Abrahamical religions which hold that God is fully aware of all actions of man. In this context, what should spiritually matter is one’s deeds done when alive (which God comprehends) and not what happens to the carcass of the body from which the spirit or soul has gone, isn’t it?
A: I do not want to go into the spirituality issue on this. What I say is that burial is the practice adopted by Muslims all over the world for the past 1400 and more years. That is their human right. Why was that disallowed on the advice of quasi-scientists? If there is solid evidence to show that Covid-19 could spread from buried dead bodies then Muslims would not have opposed. Because there is provision for exceptional circumstances.
Q: Burying dead bodies is not just a Muslim religious and cultural practice but very strongly one of Catholics and Christians too. There is a general view that Muslims are most exclusive in Sri Lanka when compared to Catholics/Christians who are also following Abrahamnical religious culture/traditions. The 7% Catholics/Christians did not make any issue concerning the Covid cremations or take offence. Don›t you think this is a stark comparison?
A: The Christian and even some bhikkhus joined Muslims in protesting against forced cremation.
Q: Yes, but that was as an independent choice. The Catholic Church officially, did not ask the Government to revise its decisions.
A: True, but how important is burial in Catholicism is for the church to answer. Among Muslims, however, unless there is an exceptional reason to break the tradition, burial will be implemented.
Q: In your Walpola Rahula Institute Poya lecture of 2018, you made the observation that Muslims do not know how to live as a minority as their scripture only is about how to live as a majority. Your advice and comments?
Q: At the pre-UNHRC lobbying session attended by Muslims supporting the UN Resolution on Lanka which was officiated by Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, there was a video screened showing Lankan anti Muslim riots but the Easter Sunday attack which killed around 300 persons and maimed over 500 were only cursorily mentioned and there was a noticeable omission of the repeated atrocities by Muslim extremists against Sufi Muslims in Kattankudy, including the Fatwa on their heads by the ACJU. Your comments?
A: The macabre Easter massacre committed by the murderers cannot be excused under any circumstance. I have written enough about how Kattankudy became a mullah merchant complex and have criticised the type of religious development taking place over there. Once again Kattankudy’s political and religious leadership have a lot to answer for this.
Q: Stark changes of the Lankan Muslims took place only about 40 years ago influenced by the Iranian revolution and the oil boom in Arabia. We can see that the ACJU changed visibly and it declared the Sufis of Sri Lanka as heretics and at the same time introduced dress code guidelines for women on its website. It is said that the ACJU is monopolised by one man for years. Why are not Lankan Muslims tackling this internally?
A: In short, Muslim politics and ACJU went to bed and gave birth to the type of orthodoxy that is menacing the community and country today. This is a long story and it is not possible for me to condense it in a few sentences.
It is my conviction that ACJU must be replaced by a Sri Lankan Council of Muslim Intellectuals (SLCOMI). Muslim intellectuals are ulama in Arabic. ACJU and orthodoxy had hijacked that terminology to include only religious men. Islam is not a religion in the Christian sense but a way of life. SLCOMI must be run by a committee whose members should include experts from various disciplines with Ph.D or its equivalent qualification and it should remain apolitical. With an advisory role to the state, it can become quite an influential body in the community with expertise to instigate internal reforms in the community.
Q: So you are admitting that it is this Orthodoxy that has to take responsibility for most of the communal phobia we are having now. If so don’t you think that the UN Special Rapporteur of Religions should have been briefed of this side of the picture at the international event he was asked to officiate by Muslim rights activists justifying the UN Resolution on Sri Lanka?
A: Orthodoxy does not want to open its vistas to accommodate changes. Contextualisation of the text and textualisation of the context is the need of the day and orthodoxy is not prepared to undertake that. This explains the flight of Muslim intellectuals to the West.
Q: In your writings you have harshly critiqued the recommendations of the Easter terror investigation report to monitor madrasas and the recommended scrutiny of Islamic literature being brought into the country. Don’t you think that given the danger of terrorists such as Zahran and seven other youths who followed him that such recommendations are practically needed?
A: Once again like the Sharia, there is total confusion about madrasas with the authorities. From the late 1980s I have been calling for reforms in madrasa education. They have a critical role to play in Muslim society. In fact they played that role in the past, but stagnated after a few years and now they need serious reforms. Banning is not the answer. The Government should initiate reforms and choose the most qualified persons from the community to do that. Mind you that Zahran was a madrasa drop out and reject. He was not one of its products.
Q: Do you honestly think the ACJU that you are so disappointed with will allow ‹most qualified persons› to make such reforms if the Government just left it to their devices?
A: ACJU has to be reformed. This can be done. The growing generation of Muslims would welcome such reforms.If it cannot be reformed let us have an alternative body as I suggested.
Q: Can you give your own recommendations on how to deal with dangerous teachings that may be imparted through some madrasas or any other religious institution of any religion?
A: Train the trainees. I also want the education system of Muslim education, including Muslim schools, to be reformed. The quality of teaching needs improvement and contents of syllabus need revision. Comparative religion must be taught to the children at some stage. Outside schools, interfaith dialogue must become a regular feature in our society. Why can’t a Buddhist religious scholar address a gathering at a mosque and why can’t a Muslim religious scholar address worshippers in a Pansala or church or kovil?
Q: I have mainstream Sri Lankan Muslim friends (not Sufi Muslims) refusing to even enter a Catholic church when I once invited them to listen to the Christmas choir. It was told to me that they considered it an equivalent of a sin. Meanwhile, there were even social media posts circulating declaring wishing someone Happy Deepavali or Happy Christmas was Haram. So you realise what kind of ghettoistic ideology that the nation is up against but what gets prominence in the international sphere is anti Buddhist rhetoric. Do you think this is fair?
A: I have come across such views even in Australia. However, things are changing now. Uniting Church once invited Muslims to break their Ramadhan fast in the church and do the prayers. I think that was reciprocated by a Muslim organisation during Easter. Mosque open day is an annual event in Australia. I was also invited by the Buddhist temple authorities in Perth to address the worshippers.
Q: In your interview with me in 2018, you said that there was ‘no chance’ of any potential of ACJU allowing even simple thing such as the study of comparative religions within the Muslim community. Yet you said that study of other religions and spiritual paths were compulsory for Sri Lanka. What do you think should be done in the current context when the recommendations in the Report on the Easter Terror attaks also seem to be recommending a similar path of familiarising especially children of different spiritual paths?
A: ACJU is the last place that can promote progressive reforms. It needs to be reconstituted with scholars from other disciplines. My previous answer covers this question.
Q: Do you think there have been enough introspection by Lankan Muslims regarding the Easter Sunday terror attacks?
A: I have not visited Sri Lanka since that infamy and I don’t think there had been enough self-introspection.
Q: Most Sri Lankan Muslims claim that it is groups such as BBS which propelled the Easter terror but those attacked were Catholics and Christians and not Buddhists! Others feel that groups such as BBS knew exactly the level of radicalisation of segments of Lankan Muslims and that it is why they were angered to a level that ven. Gnanasara Thera made his controversial Alutgama speech. I am certainly not condoning it but only raising some valid points. Your analysis?
A: People, such as ven. Gnanasara Thera have not had any opportunity to dialogue with scholarly Muslims. They have picked up some casual information about Islam and Muslims from public speakers and have become rabble rousers among Buddhists.
Q: If this is as you say then the same goes for Religion and Politics of the Muslim political parties, isn’t it?
A: One hundred percent.