Lankan Muslims and their Freedom of Choice/Expression

by M.I.M Noordeen
(The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Sri Lanka Guardian)

(April 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In this 21st century where people talk of freedom of choice and freedom of expression, it is the individuals’ choice that who you support. For some unknown reasons, a few Muslims in Colombo support the Pakistanis and it had been going on for many decades without anybody’s objection. Of course, unlike Tamil Nadu that supports the Sri Lankan Tamils, Pakistan is not going to support the Sri Lankan Muslims if they have any problem but in a multi-ethnic/religious democratic country like Sri Lanka, questions such as whom you support should not arise. If an ultra-nationalist/racist comes with such questions, he/she should be ignored. Nation building should not be confused with freedom of choice to cheer a team you personally like. I may be a Sri Lankan Patriot even though I support the West Indies cricket team. If the rulers or their henchmen want to ingrain patriotism into a gentlemen’s game just for the sake of cheap popularity, let us not fall into their trap by degrading
our values and denigrating our brethren.

In a unwanted attempt to white wash the Muslim community (as if they have committed a huge crime by supporting the Pakistanis) Mr Izzeth Hussain is creating a division among the Muslims. Unlike the un-united Tamils of Sri Lanka who are divided into many tribes (Vellalar Tamils, Jaffna Tamils, Batticaloa Tamils, Vanni Tamils, Colombo Tamils and Up-country Tamils) and discriminate each other, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is united in brotherhood. Dividing the Muslims into the Moors, the Coast Moors, the Malays, the Borahs, and the Memens is totally unnecessary. Even though the Borahs and the Memens (Bahi) were from Pakistan, they are a very small group scattered all over Colombo, they should not be even drawn into this argument and the distinction drawn between ‘Moors’ and ‘Coast Moors’ is absolutely unwarranted. To make matters worse, he directly puts the blame on a particular group (Muslims of Dematagoda) by making them vulnerable.

The Sri Lankan Moors (commonly referred to as Muslims) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka comprising 8% of the country's total population. They are in Sri Lanka for nearly a thousand years. The bulk of the ‘Moors’ in Sri Lanka came from South India. The fact is that Islam had come to South India direct from the country of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in the 7th century, while it reached the North only a century later. The earlier converts to Islam in South India were called ‘Sonakar’. The fact is that the Muslims who settled down in the South-Western and North-Eastern Coasts of Sri Lanka as traders were all Tamil speaking Muslims from the Malabar and Coromandal coasts of South India. This has been testified to by Marco Polo and by Barbosa in his account of the Island in 1519. Both these agree that large numbers of ‘Moors’ from the Indian coasts resorted constantly to Sri Lanka. Barbosa speaks of their heads covered with handkerchiefs and of their earrings so heavy that they hang down to their shoulders. A handkerchief was necessary to cover their shaven crowns, while the earrings indicated most emphatically their South Indian origins. The Sri Lankan Moors lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic customs and the South Indian language/culture.

“The settlement at Beruwala, which the Sri Lankan Muslims generally admit to be the first of all their settlements, took place not earlier than the 14th century (after 1344). Ibn Batuta visited the Island in 1344, but makes no mention of Beruwela though it lay directly on his route from Galle to Colombo.

BERUWELA in the South-West coast of Sri Lanka is the counterpart of PERUVELI, a Muslim settlement in the Trincomalee district. There are other similar Muslim settlements in the North-Eastern sea-board, viz. KUCHAVELI, NILAVELI, UPPUVELI, etc. These “velis” occupied by the Muslims were all settlements along the sea coast, while the cultivable lands they occupied they called in Tamil Ur e.g. Eravur, Nindavur, Muthur, Puthur etc.

When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka it was the ‘Moors’ who first organized resistance against them to safeguard the trade of the Moors along the Western sea-board. They encouraged and urged Bhuvanaike Bahu, the King of Kotte, and also Mayadunne and Vijayabahu (the brothers of Bhuvanaike Bahu), in turn, to oppose the Portuguese. During the Portuguese rule the Moors suffered widespread persecution, and many fled to the up-country and the Eastern-Coast. Professor Courtnay in his ‘History of Ceylon’, (pp. 13-14) says that had not the Portuguese come to Sri Lanka the entire Island would have come under the control of the ‘Moors’.

“The affairs of Sri Lanka were at that time in a most critical condition. All the trade in the Island was in the hands of the Moors. The wealth which this had brought them rendered them powerful and gave them a great ascendancy over the native rulers. The arrival of the Portuguese saved the Sinhalese from the Moors becoming the rulers.”

All Moor citizens of Sri Lanka were and are Sri Lanka Moors who had come over from South India and settled down as either traders or skilled workers. Some of the earlier settlers had married among the Arab/Persian families who were obliged to remain in towns like Galle and Matara after the Portuguese occupation of the coastal regions. Others intermarried with the Javanese settlers who were brought later by the Dutch. Their home language, however, continues to be Tamil, as originally the majority of these Moors were South Indian Tamil converts to Islam. There is hardly any difference between ‘Moors’ and ‘Coast Moors’. The ‘Moors’ represent the earlier Muslim settlers in Sri Lanka from South India. The ‘Coast Moors’ consist of those who came later to Sri Lanka from South India for purposes of trade and had intended to return to their homes, but were prevented from free movement by the Portuguese and the Dutch who had taken command of the maritime regions of Sri Lanka. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch treated them harshly because (1) they refused to become converts to Christianity (2) they were their rivals in trade.

On the other hand, the low-country Sinhalese are a heavily mixed people and most of them are recent migrants from South India (after the Portuguese arrived). As Mr Izzeth Hussain said, from the late nineteenth century onwards it was the three low-country castes (Karawa, Durawa and Salagama) most of who came into Sri Lanka after 1505 are the most ultra-SinhalaBuddhist nationalists. Today every low-country Sinhala-Buddhist “Pala” and “De Silva” have turned into ultra-nationalist patriots (defending Sri Lanka) trying to hoodwink the Nationalist government and the gullible masses. On the other hand, even the parliament jesters such as Hon. Mervyn and Hon. Wimal also put up comical dramas from time to time to exhibit their ultra-nationalist patriotism. Today the minorities in Sri Lanka (Muslims, Tamils and even the Sinhala Christians) have become a marketing commodity in Sri Lankan politics; who ever speak against them can win the elections and be in power.

If the Sri Lankan Muslims are considered as outsiders (from India) then everyone else in Sri Lanka other than the Veddas are also outsiders (from India). The Muslims in Sri Lanka also have the same rights as the Sinhalese and the Tamils and they are free to support whom so ever they choose to support. This should not be considered as a big issue.
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