Muslims and their insular mindset

Ask even an educated Sri Lankan Muslim woman in a black Abaya about Wahabism or Salafism. Most probably she would know nothing.

Following reports that some 36 Sri Lankans had travelled to Syria out of whom some had joined the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); Fears had been expressed that many more Sri Lankans might team up with the terror group, that had vowed to bring several countries under its rule which they call Khilafath.

However, with the way some journalists and certain anti-Muslim groups in Sri Lanka had tried to blow up the issue, it seems that under the guise of expressing fear, they are in fact, jubilant in finding an issue that can be used as a wedge between the Muslims and other communities, especially the majority Sinhalese in the country. 

They would be happier than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISIS if another batch from Sri Lanka left the shores to join the Khilafath struggle, the ruthlessness of which is in fact a slur on Islam. 

There seem to be genuine concerns as well, such as last week’s “open letter” to the Sri Lankan Muslims written by Dr. Ranga Kalansuriya and published in the .

The intermittent and isolated clashes between various Sri Lankan Muslim groups over religious issues and the Muslim women’s garments such as the Abaya (A robe-like dress), Burqa (Face veil) and Niqab (Face veil without covering the eyes) that have been spread during the past three decades are the main concerns and signs of possible break out of “Islamic terrorism” in Sri Lanka for many, who had expressed fear genuinely as well as imaginatively.

For instance, an article carried in a website recently had stated that “Islamic Fundamentalism” had crept into a leading Muslim Girls’ School in Colombo and that it was evident with many girls in the school wearing the face veil. 

However, the writer had lost sight of the facts that more than ninety five percent of the students in that school were without face veil, indicating that the face veil has got nothing to do with the school’s dress code, though it is not banned there.

There are many non-Muslim teachers and employees in that school. One of the present grade coordinators is a non-Muslim. 

Almost the entire security team is non-Muslim. All minor employees are non-Muslims. Students are trained by the teachers to sing the National Anthem, interestingly in Sinhala; not even in Tamil. 

The school interacts with other non-Muslim schools, by way of inter-school competitions including sports. A section of the students follow the local curriculum including Sinhala Literature, which is intertwined with Buddhism. 

The parents’ concern is not about any fundamentalism; but about the standards of the education in the school. Even the Advanced Level students of the school have not heard of the terms Fundamentalism, Wahabism or Salafism. Hence, it is unfair to create a fear psychosis about such a school.

Identifying the Abaya, Niqab or the Burqa or the beard with violent political extremism of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda or their recent avatar ISIS represents nothing but ignorance of the history of those garments and Muslim traditions. 

They have been in use for centuries in Arab countries, without the influence of any fundamentalism or extremism. They had been used as a sign of the wearers’ faith in spite of the fact that many of their day to day practices might be against Islamic teachings.

There is unanimity among the Muslims on the issue of women covering their heads. But the covering of the whole face or the face except for eyes has always been a controversy among Muslims.

Some argue that it is compulsory, while some cite a Hadith or a statement of Prophet Muhammed, advising women to cover the whole body except the face and the hand beyond the wrist.

Nevertheless, it might be justifiable to find a nexus between the religious extremism and the Abaya or the face veil or the beard, only if the women wearing those garments or the men sporting beards at least zealously follow the religious tenets. 
However, that is not the case. 

For instance, Islam prohibits women going out alone unless necessity compels. 

But they do, sometimes with face cover. Then what are the religious fundamentals they have followed for them to be called fundamentalists?

In Sri Lanka, the Abaya, with or without the face veil runs counter to the Islamic teachings in most cases. 

Islam spells out four requirements in women’s dress; It should cover the specified parts of the body; It should not be tight enough to show the shape of the body; It should neither be transparent nor be pompous. 

But contrary to the second requirement mentioned above, now many women, especially girls wear “slim fit” Abayas as well. Some garments are so expensive, that even a poor family can be fed for a week or two with the money spent on them. Where are the fundamentals? What is the religious extreme they have gone to?

Some women in Sri Lanka seem to wear Abaya with or without face veil genuinely believing that it is a religious requirement. 

However, some of them too sometimes do not care about the “slim fitness” of the garment. 

Others just wear it as a fashion. That is the biggest category in Sri Lanka and it mainly prefers the slim fit dress. Since the Abaya has now become the main dress code for Muslim women for functions, some women wear it for fear of being a topic for the other women. That is it; There is no fundamentalism in it. 

Ask even an educated Sri Lankan Muslim woman in a black Abaya about Wahabism or Salafism. Most probably she would know nothing.

However, the religious extremism among some Sri Lankan Muslims is a fact which is evident by the intermittent factional clashes, especially in the East. It is nothing other than the upshot of the intolerance witnessed even among intellectuals in other fields in the country. 

But unlike in Middle Eastern countries religious extremism in Sri Lanka is not something that overlapped the extreme Muslim political agendas, as there is no extreme Muslim politics in Sri Lanka. 

The Muslim politics here is nothing but sheer opportunism as in the case with politics of other political parties in the country. 

However, had the apparent political patronage for the anti-Muslim campaign during the last regime continued for another four or five years, the Muslim religious extremists in the country would sometimes have been pushed to think politically.

An interesting point is that even the Muslim religious extremists in this country do not like to be identified with the extremist groups in the Middle East such as the ISIS, leaving the space for any Muslim to scathingly attack the Middle Eastern extremism in public. Hence, the possibility of seeing a trend of Sri Lankan Muslims joining the ISIS is extremely remote.

Still we should not be blind to the fact that a few fanatics had left the country to fight for the ISIS and we have to find the cause or causes to nip them in the bud. There are no reports of any Sri Lankan Muslim joining the predecessors of the fanatic outfits, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, irrespective of the fact that Abaya, Niqab, Burqa and beard were witnessed in the country even during the heydays of 
those outfits.

The main cause is not the Abaya or the beard however,  the insularity of the many Muslims sometimes could be blamed as one reason. Actions to integrate the Sri Lankan Muslims with the larger society in the fields such as education, culture, politics, and sports etcetera might help find 
a remedy.

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