My family like many Sri Lankan families is cricket mad. I am the exception. When Sri Lanka played Pakistan a few days ago, my family lived and breathed cricket and it seemed like the end of the world when Sri Lanka lost. Imagine my surprise when I read the editorial of a daily newspaper that revealed that most Muslims of Sri Lanka celebrated the Pakistani win! But then again was I that surprised?
We, Muslims look like any other Sri Lankans. We speak one of the two national languages and often both. Perhaps our feast day food is different, but no different than lumprai or yellow rice. On ordinary days we eat rice and curry like anybody else. For many years we dressed the same as other Sri Lankans but now I admit that many Muslim women wear the hijab. Other than that, no-one can say who is Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian. So how are we different? How are we not Sri Lankan?
For as long as I have known we Muslims have been spun a fairy tale that is perpetuated in schools, on cultural occasions, and under the guise of religious lessons. We have been told that we are a people who have come from afar. From Arab lands that sent traders to lands far, far away. We were told that these Arabs were our ancestors. We were not told that the Arab men married Lankan women, that their descendents settled here with no ties at all with their fathers’ country and now many generations and centuries later, we, genetically at least, should be quite assimilated with our birth country – Sri Lanka. Therefore you have scores of Muslim sons and daughters of Sri Lanka who look elsewhere to belong. The Muslim faith being strong and emphasized as the only one that gives them an identity results in Sri Lankan Muslims identifying with anyone else who is Muslim before anyone else who is Sri Lankan.
The reality check happens when they visit or live in these so called ‘other’ homelands and they are treated as Sri Lankans. No better or worse because of their religion but certainly better or worse because of their citizenship.
And yet ask any Muslim village boy if he wants to be like Sanath Jayasuriya and he will say Afridi. So perhaps after all, I am not surprised that the Sri Lankan Muslim viewers celebrated Pakistan’s win.
The editorial asked how we could change this perspective. I have a suggestion. With immediate effect remove the ethnic segregation that is perpetuated and perpetrated by having communal schools. As long as Muslim children live in a Muslim village, go to school that is a Muslim Maha Vidyalaya, trade and work amongst Muslims, only know other Muslims etc., in short live in a Muslim ghetto, it will be easy for them to believe that they are not from here and it is purely an accident of birth or karma (which they do not believe in) that put them on this island.
As long as every Muslim child knows that this is a Sinhala Buddhist country where they will not have all the rights and privileges of other Sinhala Buddhist citizens, where they cannot aspire to be President of the country, let alone the Prime Minister, where they will always be asked for their ethnicity in any government form they have to fill, they will believe they are from elsewhere.
As long as the Sri Lankan government perpetuates through school curriculums that teach only Sinhala Buddhist history as Sri Lankan history, do not teach comparative religions as a matter of course to all children, and constantly brainwash their citizens that this is a country of Sinhala Buddhists for Sinhala Buddhists, are you surprised that the Muslims of Sri Lanka celebrate when Muslim Pakistan wins a cricket match against Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka?