Sri Lankan Muslim political parties, whether before and after independence, have used religion as a marker only for limited purposes. Firstly, they use Islam to define their membership. Secondly, they use it to protect the religious and cultural identity of the Muslims and their traditional institutions. Thirdly they use religion to carve out a Muslim socio-religious and economic constituency in a country where other socio-religious groups have been organizing themselves to compete for power or to get a share in power.

However, while using Islamic symbolism and the sayings in the Quran and the Hadiths, Lankan Muslim leaders have always been conscious of the need to keep other communities, especially the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, from becoming hostile to the Muslims, a minority constituting just about 8% of the Sri Lankan population. The Muslim identity has never been used to destroy the unity of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka. Pluralism has been the Muslim parties’ creed.

These aspects have been brought out in Andreas Johansson’s 2019 book: “Pragmatic Muslim Politics: The Case of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress” published by the Swedish South Asian Studies Network, Lund University and Springer. The Chapter on MHM Ashraff, the founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the island’s premier Muslim political party, is particularly illustrative.

The Late M.H.M.Ashraff had the distinction of giving Sri Lankan Muslims a distinct and powerful political identity in the challenging post-independence era.  Ashraff was deeply Islamic and was leading an avowedly Islamic party. And yet, he was acutely and constantly aware of the limits placed on Islamic exclusivism given the ethno-religious composition of Sri Lanka. Therefore, he unfailingly moderated his community’s demands and couched them in terms which would not trigger a backlash from the majority community. Indeed,  he had an adversarial relationship with the Tamils, especially the LTTE. But this did not prevent him from speaking up for the use of Tamil language. “Every Sinhala citizen of this country must think that Tamil is also his language, and every Tamil citizen of this country must think that Sinhala is also his language,” he said.

When Ashraff founded the SLMC, Sri Lanka was getting into a climactic political phase dominated by the very divisive Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The Muslims were caught in the crossfire between the Tamil militants and the Sinhala-dominated State. Ashraff felt that the mainstream political parties, both Sinhala and Tamil, cared little for the Muslims, especially in the Northern and Eastern provinces where Muslims were concentrated. The horrendous anti-Tamil riots in 1983 gave a fillip to Tamil militancy, which in turn, put the Muslims in greater danger than ever before.

Ashraff opposed the India-Sri Lanka talks ahead of the 1987 India-Lanka Accord because the Indians had dumped the Muslims among the Tamils as  “Tamil-speaking people” while the Muslims were clamoring for a separate identity.  Ashraff called the Indo-Lankan talks a “betrayal of the Muslim community.” In 1989, he suggested renegotiation of the Indo-Lanka Accord seeking the creation of a Muslim-majority Provincial Council in the East detached from the newly united North-Eastern Province. The proposal was disregarded. Therefore, in 1995, he proposed autonomous Pradeshiya Sabhas in the South East where there was a Muslim concentration.

Though Ashraff opposed the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987 on nationalistic grounds, he criticized Colombo’s decision to send it away. He termed it “hastily” because the moment the IPKF left in 1990, the Tamil militants pounced on the Muslims in the Northern and Eastern provinces, massacring them in the East and driving them away en masse from the North. He called the IPKF’s withdrawal a “threat to democracy.”

Ashraff dubbed the LTTE as “fascist barbaric murderers”, alleging that over 1700 Muslims were killed between 1987 and 1990 by Tamil militants. He suggested that the government arm Muslim refugees from the Northern Province. After the Kattankudy mosque massacre, Ashraff called for a ‘Jehad’, but quickly modified it by saying: “Nevertheless, we follow the Prophet, who taught us that patience is the greatest form of Jihad and we will remain patient.” In one speech Ashraff said that LTTE chief Prabhakaran had sentenced him to death and in another speech on July 23, 1992, Ashraff said he was ready for martyrdom fighting the LTTE.

Ashraff was accused of turning to Libya’s leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, to get weapons for Muslim resistance. He responded to the allegation by questioning why he should not turn elsewhere for help if the government did not provide Muslims with weapons. He complained that he sought the establishment of a Muslim Home Guard but it was not given. However, Johansson points out that a Muslim Home Guard was established and the Tamils were complaining that the Guards were harassing them.

Ashraff wanted more schools for Muslims but demanded gender segregation in schools. He also demanded permission for Muslim girl students to wear the Punjabi dress with a head covering which he said was “decent”. He advocated religion-based morality.  But he was against religious segregation. In 1990, he suggested the establishment of a “National Code of Ethics” in which one of the points was that facilities should be provided in all schools for a comparative study of religions. This would have promoted better understanding of each other’s religion and contributed to peace.

Ashraff cited Islamic texts to make a point, but he would also refer to Buddhism. Pleading for Islamic banking (which does not charge interest) he said: “ A good moral society cannot be established in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist nation, where Lord Buddha himself has prohibited the taking of usury by exploitation.”

In a later speech, he said that having given special place to Buddhism in the constitution, Sri Lanka should follow the path of the Buddha. In another speech he claimed that the Buddha presented the same basic ideas that were found in Islam. “Islamic concept of money and wealth goes hand in hand with the noble teachings of Lord Buddha,” Ashraff said.

Speaking on tourism, Ashraff condemned the Sri Lankan government for promoting casinos and gambling. He spoke about how the Buddha singlehandedly campaigned against gambling and drinking. “ I am a great admirer of Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha had taught good ways of life to humanity. Lord Buddha had stated that human society can be clean. It can be free of corruption if it can keep away from evil, and one of the great evils identified by Lord Buddha, is liquor. Islam prohibits it. We must tell the nation that we cannot any longer continue to preach as guardians of the Buddha Sasana and at the same time depend on these distilleries to generate income for our country.”

Ashraff wanted Quazi courts (Shariah courts) to be given a broader jurisdiction going beyond the present jurisdiction which is restricted to marriage and divorce. He was against abolition of polygamy but wanted laws to control wayward husbands who did not follow Islamic laws on polygamy. He was for adoption, though adoption had been a controversial issue in Islam. But he cited Islam to say that at adoption,  the child must know who his or her natural parents are.

National Unity Alliance

Driven by Sri Lankan nationalism, Ashraff created a new cross-ethnic, cross-religious political party, the National Unity Alliance (NUA) in 1999. The NUA aimed to create a united Sri Lanka by 2012, its motto being: “Mother Lanka wants every citizen – All citizens want one Sri Lanka”

According to Johansson: “In creating this new party, Ashraff showed his ultimate rhetorical devotion to the Sri Lankan nation. Ashraff took part in creating a Sri Lankan identity by pointing to the nation’s pre-history. There were some references to Islam made in the initial phase of the NUA, but the party soon developed into a wholesale secular party.”



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