Jonathan Spencer, Peeling the Onion of Conflict: Muslims (and Catholics and Buddhists and Others) in the Sri Lankan Civil War


Jonathan Spencer, lecturer (male)
  • Jonathan Spencer lecture entitled "Peeling the Onion of Conflict: Muslims (and Catholics and Buddhists and Others) in the Sri Lankan Civil War"
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It is a pleasure to have today Jonathan Spencer who has come to us from the University of Edinburgh, Professor of Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Edinburgh, to speak to us with a lecture entitled "Peeling the Onion of Conflict: Muslims and Catholics and Buddhists and others in the Sri Lankan Civil War". Let me just say a couple of words about Jonathan, first beginning with where I had the pleasure of meeting him. It was in Johannesburg in November of last year where we attended a conference on the Global South, thinking about the Global South in transnational dimensions
and in fact that's the connection with the centre at Tufts because Professor Jalal and I have been interested in creating a series this semester, this year in fact, looking at South Asia in its transnational dimensions, in its various regional specificities and I thought that there was so much so many interesting contributions, insights that professor Spencer had in Johannesburg and of course his work is well known. He has published early on in his career on the theme of cities and villages and nationalism and the anthropology of nationalism and more recently he's moved to the study of the anthropology of the state,
thinking about the political violence, about political non-violence, as well as very interestingly a series of recent articles on the role of the anthropologist in the contemporary political situation, the role of the anthropologist in his relation to the state, specifically given the way politics emerged internationally since 2001. So without any further ado let me turn it over to Jonathan for this lecture and thanks again for coming.
Excellent, okay, well thank you very much Kris for the generous introduction and thank you for the generous invitation as well, the conferencing question was actually utopia and dystopia in the Global South and it's nice to be in a utopian corner of the world for a change after, you know, the dystopian everyday life of the Scottish winter. What I am going to do today is give you a kind of edited version of a longer piece that comes out of a collaborative project that I'm working on and I'll explain a little bit about that.
So it's unusually for an anthropologist, and that you can see, you know, beads of perspiration on my forehead, you'll begin to realize why, usually for an anthropologist, it's a collaborative project where the research is being done by a whole group of people of whom I am only one. I've name checked on the introduction my colleague Professor Shahul Hasbullah from the geography department at Peradeniya University in Sri Lanka and also Bart Klem, who is a PhD student of the University of Zurich, because they did quite a lot of the fieldwork that I'm going to talk about. And the paper itself is a kind of - it's being written by the three of us.
The two of them prepared a draft and I've been working on the framing and it's part of a longer book project and I will explain all of that too. So what I am going to do is I'm going to start off by trying to rattle through some PowerPoint slides to just locate this in terms of the work we've been doing and to provide some basic contextual information about the situation in the part of Sri Lankan I'm going to talk about and then I will move into reading mode to give you the kind of nitty gritty of the paper and I hope - I've spent, I was really happy last week. I'd went over and kind of created this wonderful text and then I looked at it and it was approximately twice as long as you could fit into a slot like this so I've spent the last 24 hours in my friend's house in Cambridge desperately cutting words printing off and looking at it, cutting more words and printing it off.
So let's just start off actually in Eastern Sri Lanka, a place called Kattankudy, which one or two people in the audience may know, most of you won't. The Muslim Meditation Centre of a Sufi Sheikh called Payilvan has a history that's as short as it is dramatic. It was only built in 2002, on the southern edge of Kattankudy, a Muslim enclave on Sri Lankan's east coast. Yet it already represents a scar on the face of Muslim harmony and unity in Sri Lanka. Up until recently, visitors reaching the beach site would find the minaret lying flat on its back, which you can see in that picture there, the rubble and metal bars awkwardly sticking out of the foundation bare silent testimony to the events of 16th December 2006, when a crowd of people came to attack the shrine and tear down its tower.
They brought heavy duty equipment and a video camera - so this was not an entirely spontaneous attack. And you can buy videos of them pulling down the minaret in Kattankudy should you want one. The footage of the destruction doesn't show as you might expect in this place where war had formally restarted months earlier. It doesn't show Tamil rebels or Sinhalese army soldiers attacking their Muslim neighbours. This isn't an obviously ethnic flash point. The events of December 2006 feature a Muslim crowd attacking a Muslim centre in a small densely populated Muslim enclave surrounded by army check points in Tamil dominated settlements. And the incident itself is very unusual but it was not completely exceptional.
It was the culmination of a sequence of hostilities directed against the followers of this man, Payilvan. On the same December day, Payilvan's body - Payilvan had died shortly before hand - had been taken out of his saintly tomb and burned, a deeply desecrating act for Muslims, and in the years before this, Kattankudy's other prominent new Sufi leader, a man called Rauf Moulavi, was formally excommunicated by the ulama for transgressing the boundaries of Islamic thought. The followers of both Sufi's suffered intimidation, grenade attacks, and forced displacement from their Muslim townsmen spearheaded by a relatively new arrival in the town which was a lose cluster of Islamic reform movements, locally under the umbrella term Tawheed Jamaat.
I became engaged with the story as part of a research project on the role of religious organizations in the conflict in eastern Sri Lanka, an area scarred by 30 years of civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE as I will refer to them from now on. But with incidents like this, it was naive to assume that there was only one conflict at work in this part of Sri Lanka. So our original research program, which was about religion and conflict and we just assumed that meant the civil war - our problem was not one in which religion, a relatively inert cluster of institutions and practices, responded to problems generated by the conflict, that is the civil war. The multiple religious traditions of eastern Sri Lanka were themselves the site of many kinds and layers of conflict and our eventual analysis would need to come to terms with the existence of the conflict in the plural.
So this talk uses this example of conflict among Muslims in Kattankudy as a point of departure and an extended comparison of Kattankudy with another Muslim centre, the town of Akkaraipattu some 60 kilometres to the south, brings out the complexity of relations within just one of the religious traditions we are dealing with in this area. The conflicts so evident in Kattankudy are muted to the point of invisibility in Akkaraipattu. How is this possible? The answer seems to lie in quite local histories of education, employment, and religious institutionalization, and that's the heart of the paper that I will be presenting this afternoon.
It's one part of the argument but the comparison between the two towns does rather more than this because it opens up a broader discussion, which it what the bigger piece that this has been taken out of develops, about the value of analyzing the eastern part of Sri Lankan as a single religious field, a field in which Buddhists and Hindus and Catholics and Muslims are all living within one social universe and I will come back to the implications of that in a second. So let me just give you some context in that case. I said that this was a - aha, what's going on here - this is a part of a collaborative research project which was called "Conflict, Community and Faith."
The terms were to some extent determined not by us but by the program in which we were working. It was a part of a big and actually I thought rather brilliant research program run by the British economic and social research council on nongovernmental public action which is mainly - it's very interdisciplinary - it's mainly people out of development studies but ther were all sorts of other people were coming in and it was mainly kind of looking at NGO's but the nongovernmental public action was deliberately used as the title to move beyond kind of more conventional thinking about NGO's and to be thinking about other kinds of nongovernmental politics, to use the title of a recent edited book,
and there's also a program with a very strong commitment to North-South dialogue and a very strong commitment to North-South collaboration and a very strong commitment to collaboration across academic non-academic boundaries and this all seated those of us involved in the project absolutely fine. And it was great because it encouraged us to try and work with quite a wide group people.
The team - I've listed all the names of the people, there were six of us - we finished the field work in late 2008, the ground kind of finally ran out in late 2009. We are supposed to be writing a monograph out of this but with six authors which is just a little bit difficult to pull off and so what you're getting tonight is, despite the three years that have passed, only one of the first chapters that we have actually put together with all the different people involved in it
and the book is coming from - it's going to be called, "Checkpoint, Temple, Church," you can get it on Amazon already and there is only this small detail which we haven't quite written it yet, to hold you back but you can get your orders in certainly. January 2013, they say, they must know. It must be true. Okay, if you just bear that in mind, if you bear the fact that we were ending in 2008, this is quite important. I've given you just a chronology of the key events around the time in which we were doing the project. Basically the project started and we came up with the idea for the project in 2005-2006 and put in for funding then at a period when a ceasefire brokered by the Norwegian government was still officially in place although it was already beginning to disintegrate quite badly, not least in the area in which we were planning to work.
One reason for the disintegration where we were, was that the LTTE one of the two - it was a very kind of bipolar agreement, the Norwegian one - which is one of many problems with it but the LTTE, one of the parties to it, had split in 2004 and the eastern leadership had crossed over onto the government side and so suddenly instead of having a fight between the LTTE and the government and then a ceasefire, you now suddenly had a fight between the two different factions of the LTTE which destabilized all sorts of things. And in my opinion also in the long term was probably the single biggest factor in the government victory which finally came in 2009 as many of you will know. That although this is celebrated not least by the government themselves as a masterpiece of brutal but effective counter insurgency, to a very great extent it was a war that the LTTE lost.
And they started losing it when they lost control of the east of the country which they had controlled for quite a long time before. So almost as soon as the funding came in and it had been actually a month before we got the letter saying we'd got the grant, war broke out again. And it broke out in the east. It broke out quite close to where we were planning to work so we had to work around this resumption of hostilities. But we were still in the pencil sharpening phase of the project. The LTTE had more or less completely moved themselves out of this part of the country. They retreated in 2007 and so we were doing the fieldwork and this rather important transitional period, it wasn't at all clear where the war was going. I think none of us expected the kind of defeat that finally did occur in 2009 until these last few months.
Everyone thought - the LTTE had been such a resilient organization that they would just kind of keep going on forever and ever. The images here by the way are actually from the north rather than from the east but they're quite good war images. They were from Jaffna. And this is one of a lot of aesthetically challenging war memorials that the government have put up, very large ones, on the road to Jaffna and these are Singhalese tourists going up to the kind of - going up to Jaffna to see Jaffna and paying their respects at one of these many war memorials that you pass on the way. The ruined houses, the Muslim houses from Jaffna, still left over and still ruined from when the LTTE expelled the Muslims from Jaffna in 1990 and I'll come to that in just a second.
So we were working in the east. This is taken from a map actually of the state of affairs just before we started. The state of affairs at the time of the 2004 tsunami in terms of different areas of control. So the yellow areas are unambiguously controlled by the government of Sri Lanka. The grey areas are on the map called grey areas and the black areas were the areas of LTTE control. The places I am going to talk about today are just south of Batticaloa - Kattankudy - just south of Batticaloa and Akkaraipattu here. So Kattankudy is just a very big area of LTTE control very close to it but it itself was not controlled by the LTTE. And Akkaraipattu is in this shady area where neither the government nor the LTTE had clear unambiguous control all the time.
The east of the country is a really, really interesting part because of its multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature. The population is divided pretty much equally between three ethnic categories: Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala. A Muslim is an ethnic category in Sri Lanka for reasons that my friend Vijay if he were here - he is an eminent historian of 19th century Sri Lanka explained and John Rodgers can also explain, he's another eminent historian of 19th century Sri Lanka - and I can explain it too if anybody wants to ask it later. But it's very different from say Muslims in Tamil Nadu on the other side of the Palk Straight who are quite happy to be treated as Tamil Muslims. The concept of a Tamil Muslim is not kind of a coherent one from the point of view of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka.
It's divided religiously between Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. As I'll come on to explain, there are all these emergent divisions within the Muslim population but there are other kinds of divisions too - most of the Christians are Roman Catholics, some Methodists, some Anglicans, but now of course there are whole bunch of new Pentecostal churches that have moved in, causing disturbance to all the other religious communities. None of these groups are particularly stable as it were and it's an area which had parts of the area where clearly controlled by the LTTE for a period of 15 or 20 years - from about 1990 these black areas were firmly under LTTE control until 2007 when the LTTE basically left and the government moved in.
Let's just go on down. The rational - there are three aspects of the rational of the project - one was to look at the role of the religious organizations in the conflict. We started off imagining we'd look at religious type NGO's like World Vision or Islamic Relief but in fact we quickly found that the really interesting stuff was happening around things like mosques and mosque federations or the Catholic Church itself or Buddhist monks so that was and the role of religious - the role plays both ways, it's the role that these institutions and their adherents and their leaders played in terms of responding to the conflict. So some for example have very prominent roles as mediators and we've got some really, really interesting material about the ways in which, say the Catholic priests and the leaders of the mosque federations could step in at moments of danger where it looked like things were going to just blow up into a local kind of conflict of one sort or another.
So it's a very powerful role as mediators but also obviously the same people can have very powerful roles in terms of fermenting conflict. So you know as I say it cuts both ways. It's a collaborative ethnography, I mean that's the label we've decided to give it. So there's a whole bunch of us working in different places and talking to each other and knitting the bits together. And it's also collaborative in that we were bringing in junior researchers from the universities in the area - there are two universities in this area. And there was this commitment from the start to conceive of it as - I put it here as treating the east as a single religious field. I mean this is a kind of heuristic.
We are well aware that the Catholics and the Muslims and the Hindus and the Buddhists have rather well established organizational structures, rather long deep histories of their own, quite distinctive trajectories, and yet at the same time, it's worth just thinking about ways in which you can see common responses to the conflict or ways in which things that happened within one religious community then produce mirror effects of one sort or another - dialogical effects, as Neelam Mahadev, who's writing about similar sort of material elsewhere in Sri Lanka, has called it - but where they kind of interact. And the point about this is twofold: it's to get away from the sort of standard balkanisation of the problem, so you'll get monographs on Buddhism and conflict in Sri Lanka, as if Buddhists live in a hermetically sealed world of their own.
And yet the whole problem is that they don't. So it's to get away from that and to get away from the sort of religious equivalent of what in the field of nationalism studies has been called methodological nationalism, that is to say treating the divisions between communities that define themselves as national communities as self-evident by just making that your focus of study, you know, treating a nation as a sociological entity when the really interesting questions are how do people get the impression that they belong to just one thing rather than anything else. And so we're just trying to keep that open. The image by the way is a very powerful one for people who have been to the region. It's actually the wall of a mosque in Kattankudy which was the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the war - and there were many terrible atrocities.
The killing of over 100 men and boys by the LTTE prayer in August 1990, I'll come back to that too in a minute. Nearly done with the preamble. So there are a couple of caveats. I can do a kind of interactive bit: what's wrong with this picture? Two caveats. One is about the collaboration. So the main field work I'm talking about was done by Bart Klem - he's not in the picture, maybe that's what's wrong with it - and Shahul Hasbullah who is in the picture but it took me a long time to find him, yeah, there he is at the front. This is a picture from a kind of workshop we have at the end the fieldwork in Sri Lanka with people from the research team and people we had worked with from the area. So there are people from the local universities. There's people from the local government.
There's members of the Kattankudy federation of mosques in there somewhere. There are some Catholic priests from the east there. There is a really great meeting but one of the striking things was there were only two women and that I think comes from the way in which the whole project was framed from the start.
The concept of public action. We, by the nature of the kind of work we were doing, we were looking very much at, for example people taking public leadership roles like the mediation work I mentioned or the mosque federations which I will come back to in a minute, and that's an extremely male dominated part of life and it's a male dominated part of religious life.
There's all sorts of other stuff going on below the radar - to use the phrase that my friend Timmo Gaasbeek, who's written about similar stuff a little further north of here, puts it - so a lot of stuff that goes on below the radar where people are building ties across communities, doing very, very small scale stuff, and this is the place where you will find very often women are the most dominant group. But they were - they are areas which you cannot get at with the kind of hit and run ethnography that we were doing. We were covering a big area and we were like going to see the leaders first as it were, so it was an unusually top down approach for an anthropological project and that's one of its very obvious limitations.
The other one comes in terms of the kinds of religion and the areas of religion that we know about. I've got here, I said public religion versus say demotic religion. One of the very interesting things about the war is the emergence of, for example, new kinds of Hindu shrines where people could go to take the suffering of the war. Again these were shrines very often dominated by women and Patricia Lawrence from the University of Colorado did some very extraordinary research on this in the early 1990's. But this is stuff that you only find out about by sticking in one place and getting to know people very, very well. If you go to talk to the Catholic hierarchy for example they are reluctant to direct you in that attention.
If you go to talk to the people who see themselves as the local Muslim leaders, they were reluctant to point you towards areas of popular Muslim religiosity where communities mingle. So our project is relatively light on that and we've had to build on other researches in the area like Patricia Lawrence and Dennis McGilvray and Mark Whitaker in order to get a sense of the bits that we missed out from our study. So those are the kind of caveats. Now I think that might be the end of the beginning. You never know. No not quite. Okay. Oh yeah, no. Just about. Go back to reading now. There we are. Halfway in and I've done the beginning. This is not going to work is it? Okay, start with a bit of context.
Sri Lanka's east coast comprises a long string of rural town-like settlements which are alternately Muslim and Tamil dominated. The left hand map shows the main areas of Muslim population concentration in Sri Lanka. Muslims are about 8% of the total population of the island, one or two million people. And this is the area where we were working. And the two places we are looking at are Kattankudy here and Akkaraipattu there. And this strip here is a kind of - it's very extraordinary - it alternates Tamil, Muslim, Tamil, Muslim, Tamil, Muslim. There are churches, there are mosques, there are Hindu temples all the way up this coast road and it's more or less continuously populated.
There are occasional breaks but it's more or less continuously rather densely populated and then behind the coast road, there's either lagoon or paddy fields - big areas of paddy fields, occasional strips of lagoon life here, and beyond the lagoon and the paddy fields are the Sinhalese people, many of whom were moved into the area on government resettlement schemes from the 1950's onwards. So that's the kind of ethnic landscape that we're dealing with. But we're on this very, very densely populated coastal strip. Muslims and Tamils have a long history of interconnection, cultural similarity, they have a common language, they are all Tamil speakers, and a great deal of economic interdependence. From the 1930's onwards, democratic politics mobilized people around increasingly exclusive ethnic identities and corresponding political, territorial, and historical claims.
Sinhalese populism and resulting government policies, including Sinhalese dominated settlement policies, fuelled minority anxieties and reinforced Tamil nationalism and in due time armed them. In the early days of separatist militancy, some of the Muslim youth joined some of the Tamil militias but this brief moment of cross ethnic solidarity started to unravel almost as soon as it started. This was around '83-84, which is when the armed groups first started appearing in the east. By '85, open hostilities had broken out in places between some of these Tamil armed groups and the local Muslim population. Hostilities which were greatly encouraged by a lethal Colombo Government, in a fairly straight forward example of divide and rule politics.
In 1990 the LTTE, which by then was the dominant anti-government force, drove the Muslim population of the north into exile. In late 1990, they overnight told the 60,000-70,000 Muslims of Jaffna and some other towns in the north to leave at 24 hours' notice. They were allowed to take 500 rupees with them and told to leave all their possessions behind. And they are only now beginning to trickle back to those places, 20 years later. They drove the Muslim population of the north into exile and launched a series of attacks on the Muslims in the east, the most famous of which is the murder of over 100 men and boys at prayers in Kattankudy on August the 3rd, 1990, and they have left the wall of the mosque in Kattankudy absolutely as it was that day for quite deliberate and obvious reasons. So that it would never be forgotten.
The Muslim community thus found itself cornered between two aggressively ethno-nationalist projects - one Sinhalese and one Tamil. Among all Sri Lankan communities, the conflict has raised an acute awareness of ethnic boundaries and identities, bolstered by a persistent sense of anxiety. It's this process that explains why the Muslims of Sri Lanka have hardened the sense of themselves as a distinct ethnic community in the years of conflict.
It's also had at least two very important consequences in terms of community organization and political strategies. Up to the 1970's Muslims have been predominately represented through the two Sinhalese dominated national parties: the UMP and the SLFP.
But with the rise - so they just basically played a role within national politics, they didn't stand outside with their own kind of representation - but with the rise of Tamil militancy, a new Muslim party - the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, SLMC - was formed in the early 1980's, under the leadership of a charismatic lawyer from the east called M.H.M. Ashraff. The party thrived under Ashraff's leadership, becoming an important coalition partner in the governments of the late 1990's. Ashraff himself, who is a very interesting and very gifted political figure, died in mysterious circumstances in 2000 in a helicopter crash and his legacy has disintegrated into a much more fragmented landscape dominated by individual Muslim leaders whose appeal rarely transcends their own territorial constituency.
So the dominant politician in Kattankudy is a man called Hizbullah and the dominant politician in Akkaraipattu is a man called Athaullah and they're both big figures, they're both minor government ministers, they're both dispensers of patronage - their image is everywhere if you go to either of these towns. And they are very good examples of what has happened to Muslim politics because they belong to kind of splinters and fragments and they move between parties. And the SLMC itself is barely functions as a collectively anymore. Now the SLMC nevertheless has always operated as a party basically committed to mobilizing the Muslims as a single collective block and looking after the interests of the community and the give and take of Sri Lanka's patronage politics.
It's about a straight forward kind of pork barrel version of identity politics. It's only weakly presented itself as committed to an Islamist program. Muslim politicians have been on the whole reluctant to align themselves too publically with occurrence of reform and debate flowing through their own community with occasional usually rather opportunistic exceptions. And this is important for the stuff I'll talk about in a minute. Now the foundation of the SLMC was one response to the perception of a growing threat to Muslim life in the east. Another was the formation across the region of new mosque federations.
Now in a recent wonderful monograph on Tamils and Muslims in the east, the anthropologist Dennis McGilvray reports that the boards of mosque trustees which had once played an important role in local dispute resolution had fallen into almost complete disrepair and irrelevance by the time of his own original fieldwork in the late 60's and early 70's, mostly as a result of their eclipse by local politicians and local party politics. But in the early 1980's, as the war started to effect the east, new federations were formed across the region bringing together representatives from the different mosques and from other Muslim organizations. And we have a lot to say about these mosque federations because they are really very, very interesting indeed. Elsewhere in the book, and I haven't got so much about them in this particular paper, there's a couple of particularly important points: one is that the mosque federations are concerned with the internal purity of the Muslim community, without aligning - if they can help it - with any one particular group or tendency.
And that the other is that they've attempted to maintain something of an arm's length between themselves and the dirty world of local politics. So if you get back to that moment in the early 80's when the community felt under threat from the emergence of the civil war and the emergence of Tamil militias in particular and you get the creation of a political party and the creation of the mosque federations very much as aspects of a single process. Over a period of 20 years through the course of the war, the political side of that has fragmented into a world of strong man dirty politics and the mosque federations have gone off in their own, rather different trajectory, emphasizing a kind of civic unity as much as possible by trying to keep separate from that world of politics. It's a very, very interesting dynamic that's worked out here.
Now to get back to Kattankudy and what's happened there. In its most basic form, the controversy concerns issues of Islamic interpretation. The leaders of the Yusufi groups there, there's a man called Parwan and there's another man, Rauf Maulavi, represent new versions of the Sufi tradition that's found across South Asia and other parts of the world. It's not the first time that Sufism has been a source of controversy. It's well documented that it was partly in response to what was seen as the folkloristic practices of Sufism that the wave of reform movements emerged in South Asia, particularly India and what was to become in Pakistan, during the late colonial era in an attempt to purify Islam and Islamise Muslims. One of these groups is Tablighi Jamaat which is a major player in this region.
It was only after Sri Lanka's independence, however, that these movements, Tablighi and Tawheed Jamaat, established themselves in Sri Lanka. And their spread to the east really became significant in late 1970's and early 1980's. Both the revival movements - that's the Tablighi and the Tawheed -propagate Muslim purity but there are important differences between them. Tablighi was founded by the Indian-Islamic scholar Muhammad Ilyas in the 1920's to call on Muslims to bring their everyday life in line with Islam. The credo of the movement can be summarized in his aphorism: 'oh Muslims, become Muslims.' Tablighi's aim to purify Islam from the undesirable customs that have blended with Islam during the centuries of its expansion.
The Tablighis in the east of Sri Lanka, at least, take a cagily tolerant attitude towards local Sufism, treating it as potentially a rather advanced form of Islamic worship but not really encouraging their own members to get too involved with it. Tawheed, on the other hand, is a much older movement which really has its origins in Saudi Arabia in a slightly earlier period but it's gained most of its momentum in recent decades. The Arabic word Tawheed stands for the uniqueness and unity of God and this principal stands at the core of their doctrine. And like Tablighis who emphasizes everyday practice and eschew theological debate, Tawheed has a more ambitious agenda. While Tablighis explicitly refuse to engage with politics which is one of the most interesting things about them. Tawheed's doctrinal position, while not straightforwardly political in themselves, leaves a great deal less space for separating politics from religion.
Kattankudy itself was not in the forefront of Tawheed's initial spread across Sri Lanka but it started to gain significance there in the 1980's and its support base grew sharply in the decade that followed and dedicated mosques and madrasas, in turn divided between different splinter groups of Tawheed, are bound all over Kattankudy now. Using television, radio, books, pamphlets, discussion groups, and demonstrations alongside religious practice, adherence propagators return to the fundaments of Islam and call on others to distance themselves from impure infidel practices like saint worship and mysticism. Now the controversies around Sufism in Kattankudy preceded arrival of Tawheed - Rauf Maulavi, a native from the town first became the subject of controversy in 1976 following a public speech. His philosophy that God can be found in everything - borderline pantheistic - gave rise to the interpretation, at least by his enemies, that he was saying that everything is potentially God.
Subsequent speeches and pamphlets fed the tension and he was eventually charged with heresy and excommunicated by the al - I can't do this - the Ul-Salam Jamiat Ulema in 1979. The date matters because it makes clear that antagonism over Islamic interpretations predates the civil war and many of the socioeconomic developments that we'll discuss below. So Rauf Maulavi's case reminds us that the conflict within the community to some extent has its own dynamics and origin, however much it was affected by what was going on around it. Now the other leader Parwan was a part of those dynamics as well but he is a much more recent arrival in Kattankudy itself. He suffered a similar experience to Rauf in his own hometown, which is Maratmana, which I can barely manage to speak without my tongue getting stuck in the roof of my mouth. He was - the local ulema excommunicated him there in 1989.
His alleged sin was to argue that spiritual growth could be achieved through meditation, without complying with other basic Islamic duties, that's the five pillars of Islam, and in particular his enemies claimed that he had argued that one didn't need to prayer - didn't need prayer in order to achieve proper Islamic religious awareness - whether he said that or not is a very contentious matter which has been through every possible court you could imagine in Sri Lanka over the last 30 years. Despite the ruling against him, his presence and following in Kattankudy increased and an impressive new meditation centre was constructed. So in Kattankudy here, which is a really major centre of Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka, Sufis, Tablighis, Tawheeds, thus all flourished more or less in parallel through the 80's and 90's. Tablighi Jamaat had long been sceptical about Rauf Maulavi and Parwan but the arrival of Tawheed Jamaat in the late 80's brought a new more militant phase to the resistance.
The movement was organized against Rauf Maulavi and the subsequent disturbance resulted in the displacement of about 2000 of his followers to a neighbouring Tamil settlement in late 2004. In the same month the grenade was thrown into his mosque. While a few days earlier, Parwan's newly built mosque was also attacked. Now after this, the controversy around one of these people, Rauf Maulavi, cooled in large part due to the intervention of the local M.P., this man Hisbullah. The ulema withdrew his excommunication. Maulavi returned to the town. His followers built a great big mosque right in the centre of the town - they were still building it when we were there. But the underlying issues and tension continued to simmer. Meanwhile Parwan's situation came to a head with his death in Colombo.
He was in an exile in Colombo. He had already been driven out of Kattankudy on the 6th of December 2006. His followers, who are actually quite wealthy, many of them, were able to hire a helicopter and helicopter him across the island back to Kattankudy for burial that day. And having buried him, they wanted to create a tomb where people could come and visit the tomb as one did with other Sufi sheikhs elsewhere in the area. Tawheed followers protested and resisted. Parwan was buried as planned but tension continued until the district court ruled against the placement of the body on the 14th of December. Violence increased in shops owned by his followers as well as government property were damaged. And this was a prelude to the earlier scene. His body was dug up and set on fire and a small crowd marched to his centre to tear down the minaret. And in this case, about 300 families of his supporters fled the town. Tensions between Sufis and Tawheed remain quite high in Kattankudy.
No violent incidents have been reported recently but some of you may have seen this extraordinary story on the BBC website last year about a young woman who was detained by a crowd for watching pornography at an internet centre. It made it onto the BBC and that investigation revealed was actually, she was the daughter of a prominent follower of Rauf Maulavi. The crowd were these young guys from these Tawheed movements. And it was the playing out the same story this time in a different register but it actually made global media which is something of a first for Kattankudy but probably not a last. The Parwan group have rebuilt their meditation centre though they didn't put the minaret back so it's back in one piece now and each group continues to claim they represent the true Islam.
Now, it's significant that all this violence within the community escalated in Kattankudy which is not exactly an average Muslim settlement. The place is famous for a particular combination of things: a very high number of mosques and madrasas, a high population density, and for its self-consciousness as a Muslim enclave in the heart of the Tamil stronghold in the east. And also of course, it's a place where the Tamil insurgents perpetrated one of the worst acts of violence against the Muslims in the war - the massacre at the mosque. So we're going to start with the political geography of Kattankudy in terms of understanding what was going on in this situation. It represents a kind of exemplary instance of a Muslim enclave. It's situated between natural boundaries: it's got the sea on the eastern side, here, and it's got the lagoon on the west.
So it's quite a narrow strip of land and it's got Tamil settlements to the north and Tamil settlements to the south. It's got - it's long had linkages to Batticaloa. It's only a matter of 4 or 5 miles away from the centre of Batticaloa which is a predominantly Tamil town and it's also always long had linkages to the agricultural land to the west across the lagoon and also linkages, trade linkages and so on, with the Tamil settlements further south. Everyday trade, mutual attendance and religious and cultural functions, and even occasional intermarriage are commonly cited as evidence of a harmonious past of ethnic coexistence. With the violence of the 80's and the 90's, Kattankudy's population retracted into its enclave. The hardening of ethnic folk lines influenced the settlement patterns - it became more difficult to access or purchase land in the Tamil dominated surroundings.
Internal demographic growth was further boosted by in-migration from neighbouring areas. Muslims living in small satellite pockets moved to Kattankudy, usually during one of the many waves of violence. You got a kind of coalescence of ethnic centres down the - so from having a very higgledy-piggledy settlement pattern between the communities, you've got a tendency to get bigger centres on grounds of security. Muslim farmland in surrounding areas was also gradually abandoned because of the LTTE presence so the pattern of ethnic un-mixing occurred across the region but its effect was very dramatic in Kattankudy where you have something like 50,000 Muslims living in a mere six and a half square kilometres - it's the most densely populated spot on the entire island of Sri Lanka, itself a relatively densely populated island. Three decades of war thus transformed Kattankudy into a densely populated Muslim enclave under siege, almost.
This perception is firmly entrenched in local discourse and a preoccupation with the towns uniquely Muslim identity, its boundaries, and the persistence threat from its Tamil surroundings pervaded all our interviews and discussions in the town. Clearly being Muslim matters more than it did than before the war, which accounts for the salience of Muslim identity and a strong urge to mark out the land. This, we were constantly told, is Kattankudy, a Muslim place. It's got Islamic entry gates on the main road going into the town in both directions and something like, we were told, 42 mosques within this 6 1/2 square kilometres. So ironically the anxiety to stand united only seems to deepen the divisions.
The strong desire, sorry - the strong desire to demarcate the boundaries of Muslim-ness and to preserve the purity of the stuff enclosed by them adds charge to the question of how Muslim-ness is defined. Sufis resort to the history of local belonging. In a reflection of the moves of Tamil and Sinhalese nationalism, the long historic presence of Sufi shrines - this is one in Ampara Akkaraipattu (48:23) - sorry, of Sufi shrines and traditions bolsters Muslims claims on the land that a concurrent politically engendered minority rides. So Sufi thought in eastern Sri Lanka - and we see this in both Akkaraipattu and Kattankudy - emphasizes links to the locality and links to local cultural practices as a kind of claim of belonging and entitlement for the community. Reformist movements like Tablighi and Tawheed, on the other hand, propagate Islamization by shedding what they see as folkloristic pollution, that is, precisely these local practices.
Both groups see their primary mission as purifying Islamic practice - that is both Tablighi and Tawheed. So things like saint worship or Hindu-style meditation are treated as transgressive. The anxiety instilled by Kattankudy's political geography is aggravated by what's perceived to be the weakness of former political leadership. Muslim politicians have by and large been pragmatists who needed to retain flexible loyalties and ideologies in order to secure patronage for their constituencies. Keeping together their bloc votes is the core of their strategy. Uncompromising religious stabbing points and strife within the constituency thus pose a threat. Vote banks tend to hinder on alliance with the old elites of the rural towns who often have very strong Sufi allegiances. Muslim politicians thus have difficulties grappling with strong or inflexible demands from their electoral base, be it ethno-nationalism which impedes their ability to do deals with the government or exclusivist Islamism because it divides their own voters.
Their pragmatism in turn feeds a sense of frustration amongst parts of the electorate, the younger generation in particular. Hizbullah, the dominant politician from Kattankudy, is a representative of the old Sufi elite and has made remarkable turns and crossovers in pursuit of lucrative government porfolios with different successive national administrations and he has used those portfolios to deliver returns to his constituency. The violence against Sufis is also an expression of anger against his political leadership which has seemed to be unresponsive, biased towards the old middle classes, and contaminated by materialism and the dirty games of politics.
So story so far: the interim Muslim contestation in Kattankudy has its own religious origins and dynamics but it was transformed and reinforced by ethnic politics and war and when the political leadership proved unable or unwilling to act, Islamic reform groups acted themselves on the perceived need to preserve boundaries and purify Muslim practice. This resulted in violence against Sufis who were seen to accommodate impure Hindu or Tamil influence. However, when we travel the short distance from Kattankudy to Akkaraipattu the story changes. Although Akkaraipattu lacks the enclave-like nature of Kattankudy - it's larger, the population density is lower, and it also lacks an event as iconic as the 1990 massacre - the difference is merely one of degree. Akkaraipattu is also part of a slightly more dispersed enclave that encompasses a few other villages to the north and west.
The border between Muslims and - it's a town divided between Tamil Hindus to the south and Muslims to the north and that little purple line is a rough border between them. It's far from being a haven of peace - there have been attacks on mosques and attacks on Hindu temples. There have been bombing and shootings over the long years of war. And Kattankudy obviously has no monopoly on militant Muslim ideas and efforts towards Islamization. The dynamic of Muslim anxiety, the preoccupation with identity and ethnic boundaries, and differences between Sufis and reformers are also all present there. But both Sufism and Tablighi Jamaat are thriving in Akkaraipattu. Tablighi Jamaat in particular is very well established there. But there are also a number of Sufi shrines with saint tombs in and around the town.
This is a recently rebuilt one. Different Sufi groups practice their chanting and prayer ceremonies on an everyday basis and there are all kinds of new Sufi leaders emerging in the town as well. Dennis McGilvray has been writing about this very interestingly very recently. So religious practice is far from static in Akkaraipattu but the movements for revival and reform have not so far produced overt antagonism of the sort we see to the north. Tablighis and Sufis haven't attacked each other and Tawheed, so dominant in Kattankudy, comprises only a small group with a low profile mosques. Tablighis in Akkaraipattu do not encourage saint worship but they steer clear of confrontation with Sufism and retain some respect for Sufi mysticism. During interviews with them, they wouldn't tire of emphasizing that their teachings were pure and simple while evading the theological questions and stressing their cordial relations to the Sufi community.
They'd go to lengths to explain why they distanced themselves from politics and would even play down major Muslim grievances like the 1990 expulsion from Jaffna as the will of Allah. Rather than retaliating against the perpetrators, in this case the LTTE, or working towards a peaceful political framework, a better world could only come about, they argued, by practicing simple everyday activities in an Islamic way.
So the case of Akkaraipattu shows that the war heightened the need to demarcate and preserve boundaries and identities, just as we saw in Kattankudy, but didn't produce violent strife within the community. The ethnic problem is not the only show in town and it doesn't inevitably lead to clashes among Muslims.
It doesn't explain a key difference: the rise of Tawheed in one place and its near absence in another. Now I am going to very quickly skim through the last bit in the interests of your patience and to allow some time for questions. But basically a number of differences between the two places that explain this rather different pattern of religious conflict - very overt religious conflict in one and less overt in the other. One very simply is that Akkaraipattu is an agricultural town: these are sort of wonderful paddy lands in Ampara which are predominately agricultural. Secondly, the pattern of education: in Kattankudy there are 30 or 40 madrasas and the Tawheed followers tend to be educated in madrasas rather than government schools. In Akkaraipattu, by contrast, there is a strong cultural engagement in government schools and particularly in engagement with aspirations to professional employment.
So it has two national level schools, which is the highest level, one Hindu and one Muslim in the town and people are very keen to list all the people from the town who have gone on to become engineers or doctors or lawyers or things like that. The people in Tawheed, in contrast, there's a heavy skewing towards people who've been involved in migrant labour, not surprisingly, in particular migrant labour to the Middle East. Kattankudy is not an agricultural town. It's a trading town. It's had a long tradition of young men going off and travelling, whether it's to Colombo or whether it's kind of taking trucks around the country, shifting goods about, or in the essence of the 1980's, going off and working in the Middle East as they come into contact with groups like Tawheed in the first place. So the contrast between the two economic bases, the contrast between the very different kind of educational patterns, and then the resulting class profiles of the two movements - the old Sufi groups tend to be aligned with the elite families in the area.
The new Sufi groups are very often aligned with - also with elite families -but very often with new money. But Tablighi - Tawheed tends to be somewhat lower class, lower educated, very male, very masculine but Tablighi comes somewhere in between. It's the kind of aspirant government employee with a little bit of paddy land who wants their kids to get on and better themselves in the world; it's this sort of middle, middle, middle group that they seem to speak to and there is far more of this group in Akkaraipattu than there is in Kattankudy. So that was four pages very quickly. I will quickly come to the end then. To recapitulate, we find a contrast between an agro-town, which is what Akkaraipattu is, which retained its traditional matrilineal plan organization and a more urbanized trading hub where all forms of kinship and marriage had been wiped out by reform groups just as much as all kinds of Sufi practice had been wiped out by reform groups.
The contrast matches the socioeconomic profiles of Tablighi and Tawheed respectively. Tawheed establishes itself in the trading town with the tradition of madrasas education where people have always moved around more, including recently to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East. Akkaraipattu, on the other hand, has a community that revolves around agriculture and educational profession and where traditional social organization remains largely intact. This provides for a fertile home for a piety movement like Tablighi Jamaat but much less so for a more radical and demanding movement like Tawheed. The antagonism and violence towards Sufism that we found in Kattankudy can thus, in part, be attributed to the forces of trade and quite intense urbanization and class formation, as well as to its front line position in the ethnic contestation. So entry Muslim confrontation and violence is not just a product of the ethnic conflict or a mere side effect of globalization.
It's the outcome of a highly localized interaction of these and other processes. We can distinguish three developments in eastern Sri Lanka. Firstly, religious dynamism: new Sufis, new reform movements have sprung up and differences between them lead to tension and controversy. This isn't in itself new but there's been an intensification and fragmentation in recent decades. Secondly, the conflict between the separatist LTTE and the government which resulted in a hardening of ethnic fault lines and the emergence of ethnic enclaves. Identity issues became a central concern, not least for Muslims, who found themselves trapped between Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist groups. Thirdly, a cluster of socioeconomic changes: improved educational opportunities and trade entered the region, the liberalization of the Sri Lankan economy in the late 70's and the early 80's reinforced these developments and cleared the way for labour migration into the Middle East.
Now these three developments each have their own causes and dynamics. There are, however, also many connections between them: the armed conflict hardened boundaries and put the spotlight on identity issues, which in turn added weight to contesting religious claims on Muslim-ness. The war also disabled some parts of the local economy, most notably, agriculture in Kattankudy which gave extra impetus to the tendency to seek employment abroad. Labour migration, in turn, resulted in import of new religious orientations. So there is a very complex web of interactions at work here and rather than connecting them in this sort of grand theoretical way, our empirical material calls for a contingent and localized approach. The way these global, national, and regional factors interact with each other is highly context-dependent. The two towns we've discussed are in many ways remarkably similar.
To a large extent, they have the same grand ingredients but the way they mix them and the results they produce are quite different. Now in the book chapter from which I've extracted this talk, at this point, the argument spirals off into a series of comparisons with developments within and between the other religious communities in this area and I am very happy to talk about these for another hour if you want but something suggests this might be quite a good moment to stop for a little bit of reflection and a little bit of discussion. Thank you.
Thank you Jonathan if I could take the privilege of asking the first question. I wondered, you know, at the beginning of your talk you mentioned the concern that we have for methodological nationalism and in our attempts to get around that we are always, in some ways, constrained by our methods themselves and, you know, the question of the historian to the anthropologist often has to do with methodological ethnocentricism, perhaps, or the way in which - is there a way in which the notion of the ethnicity is being assumed from the start. You mentioned at the beginning that this is, you know, this is a category that exists; it is a phenomenon. Now does that limit the way that one thinks of what's happening in these two villages, I wonder.
And in specific, I wonder about, you know, at the end of your talk you were mentioning the way in which perhaps the out migration of people from the village with the Tawheed and their going to the Arab world leads to the, perhaps, the importation of certain kinds of ideas of Islam. But I mean even that model is very problematic because, you know, when one takes what happens in Bangladesh versus what happens in some parts of Pakistan, it's not clear that the relationship to the Arab world leads to a particular kind of radicalization versus another. So you know how are we, if you like, where are the closures conceptually in terms of what is considered to be religion, how religion travels, but also what is ethnicity and where are its boundaries?
I have got the simple, entirely predictable answer that had I given you the full chapter you would have got far more of the nuance of this. The fact that something like that story of migration, counter-migration, and the movement of religious ideas yeah - is absolutely not sufficient in itself to explain what has happened in one place rather another and indeed the contrast between the places are not absolute; it's not like you don't have any trace of this in one or you don't have any kind of migration in that one either. But it's one of a number things that have done it. I think the history of education is another one and I think one of the things, if we were to - one of the things about the bigger picture here, the justification for trying to do this very, very big picture is to throw up the kinds of questions that we've got to now.
I don't think this is like the last word on why one place rather than another. One of the striking factors is-things that we've discovered-is that you actually have this kind of contrast replayed between different pairs of Muslim towns and other parts of the east as well where one becomes much more kind of committed to these Wahabi type of reform movements and another one almost explicitly defines itself as not the kind of place where we do that sort of thing. So one would again need to have a look at other pairs of towns to begin to get a sense of this pattern. So one level what's interesting about is not so much that we can give it, you know, we can nail it here and now with a little bit of socioeconomic information. What's interesting is the very fact that you keep getting these kinds of contrasts, so as it were defying the urge to generalize, the urge to premature generalization.
So there is some justification in terms again of the methodological nationalism thing, a justification purely in terms of pluralising our sense of what's happening within what is usually presented as a very singular and to some extent monolithic religious and ethnic community. So there's a case for it there. But the other thing is that I think what it does - well for me and I haven't gone back to the other two to say this, although we've had conversations before about it - to me I think it raises questions about like really getting much firmer about the socioeconomic contrast; let's get some really hard stuff here about the local economies and employment patterns and also really proved about education, the history of education, and yeah, more particularly, getting historical about it, to see how these places have come to be as they are.
Now this part of Sri Lanka is a kind of, I'm afraid to say, a more almost completely - it's without conventional academic Western type history. There's almost nothing of - there's one or two studies of very particular things by Dennis McGilvray, Mark Whitaker who are both anthropologists but generally there is very, very little historical writing about, you know, local elite formation, about the colonial period, about the history of education. And I've just come, you know, I just come away from this with a set of questions like that, so what you come - you start with some striking things, you get a bunch of questions, you get some preliminary answers to those questions from juxtaposing places, these two different places, but then one hopes that that will then provoke other people to go back to them and ask, you know, kind of more detailed questions about them.
Or to take just, you know, to take another example about the sort of pluralizing, one that I find - because it's very close to my intellectual heart - the thing about the curious trajectory of the Muslim politicians, that, you know, not many of the mosque federations and the parties started at the same time. They were mostly started by basically the same people and one lot goes off and becomes very recognizable, that deeply un-Islamic kind of strong man politician, very, very pragmatic, very tough, and the other lot kind of governs completely different trajectory. They kind of move away from each other and create this almost like two modes of public action out of a single formation. That's a really very, very interesting dynamic and again one would want - Bart [Klem], you know, in fact he's just finishing his PHD and he's got some terrific stuff about Muslim politics in it,
so he's been getting further into understanding that particular dynamic than we were able to on this particular project - but that's part of the story and then the other thing, you go back to the ethnic bit, where I wanted what was presented as a conclusion here to go is to then start looking at the ways in which, for example, the mosque federations have been, if you like, copied by Buddhist organizations in and around the town of Ampara as part of a confrontation with the Muslims about the ownership of a particular religious site so they've tried to create federations of Buddhists temples which have been not - for those of you who know Buddhist temples - not surprisingly not very successful but they've tried to do it in direct kind of imitation of what the Muslims have been doing. So it's a kind of straight forward influence from one community to another but other things that have been going on - a lot of the stuff that happens within the Muslim community is very distinctive.
I mean you don't have the equivalent of the Muslim reform groups. You do have Hindu reformers and you do have Buddhist reformers but they don't really operate in quite the same way. They don't mobilize the same. They don't mobilize the young men for example in the way that they do. But then young Tamil men were mobilized by the LTTE in rather brutal ways so it's perhaps not surprising that they weren't ever shifted into some other kind of register in their modes of mobilization. So it's a, you know, as I said to begin with, it's complicated and the task is to try to, as ever, to try to really make that level of complexity very, very central to the understanding without just making it messy and confusing.
Thanks for a good talk and kind of to follow up on the question just asked, you had mentioned, okay, so you've talked about these sort of pious - you talked about reformist and then you talked about Sufi practices in these various places and you talked about the Tablighi movement as some pietistic reform movement that sort of stood off from confrontation and then you also in the picture where you said, "What's wrong with this picture," you mentioned there are only these two women and we weren't really able to interact or engage with the kind of work that women often, you know, are more active in, so I am just wondering, from all of that, I am just wondering is there this gap or did you simply not have time to talk about it in your talk today?
Were you able to look at all at, for instance, you know, Islamic schools for young children, for instance, teaching out of a religious tradition in which, you know, so it's not so much Islamic ethnicity as it is just like the scholarship that is followed in that town or in that region that is taught to people. Any words you could say on that?
Well the similar answer in that we didn't go down to that level. I mean we started, you know, we started with this notion of public action. That's what we were sent to find and we found plenty of that, and that in a way was quite absorbing. But we found, yeah, all this other stuff - almost, if you like, almost too much other stuff and then therefore to some extent depend on other people's help while other people got to say about it, to some extent doing some of the kind of basic work of the kind you described, of course we have to be very, very selective about what we do.
So looking at the particular kinds of education, yeah, that's absolutely what the next step would be for somebody going back and wanting to kind of get further into this. And we are not alone in the work. I mean Dennis McGilvray has worked in this area for 40 years and is, I am very pleased to say, much more engaged with field work in the area now than he has been for a long time. So he is filling in some of these gaps but it is kind of quite a big thing to do. There are other things that are just seriously under represented. I mean, one of the things that is not in this talk but for the bigger project is a real issue is that we found very little evidence of kind of equivalent sorts of leadership emerging amongst Tamil Hindus and, you know, you think, 'Oh my god, we just missed it.
We've just not talked to people." But we have talked to people and we have asked again and again about this issue and it turns out that there are some very simple explanations for this, which is one is that the big traditional temples, which are very, very big institutions, don't create authority figures - the priest is a servant, the priest is not a kind of authoritative figure. If there is an authority figure it is probably the chief trustee. So it doesn't - they are not kind of prefigured to, in the way that say the Jesuits are or some of the Muslim basic kind of structural organization is to create certain kinds of leadership. So that's one explanation.
Second explanation, which perhaps trumps it rather, is that any one that presented themselves as a leader within the Tamil community got shot either by the government or the LTTE. It's just simply not tolerated. So there's a kind of rather crude over determination here but the new work that I'm doing is actually looking at how the Tamil Hindu temples stayed out of the conflict because that's one of the extraordinary things about them. There, they became places that you could go to the step out of the conflict all together rather than places that you went into. And because they were stepping out of the conflict, there weren't things that we covered at all in this research which was done over, you know, a relatively short period, a period of two years with short bursts of fieldwork from half a dozen people. But it's one of the things that I want to go back to look at.
To see how they manage to use these huge religious institutions as a way of kind of stepping sideways out of what was going on around them. While the same institutions, the Hindu temples, in the diaspora were being used straightforwardly as a part of the conflict by the LTTE. So the LTTE didn't deal with the temples and just left the temples alone in Sri Lanka, by and large. It's a gross generalization but it's still true. And in the diaspora, it ran the temples. So you have this very peculiar interaction. So again this is another example of these sort of very, very local and somewhat contingent things that develop as the kind of political forces come to play on the, as it were, the cultural material and the traditions and the things that people are doing in the particular places. And it is possible, just to go back to the original question, it is possible that the history of somewhere like Kattankudy is just down to the, you know, the first few madrasas that were founded, where they came from and where the teachers came from, and then building a kind of critical mass there.
It may be that the migration story is a - you know it's a common story and therefore I'm always suspicious of it because it's a bit too glib and simple - it may simply be down to who was there founding the madrasas and getting that going and just as in Akkaraipattu the fact that there was this tradition of investment in education and there was an elite that built around professional education and coming back, of which Asraf was a good example. He came from just north of Akkaraipattu and he was a trained lawyer and he was very fluent in Sinhalese and English as well as Tamil. He was very, very kind of a bane guy to come from this very backward part of the country and this has something to do with the traditions of education in the area, that he was able to come out of that, so yeah. So I am just saying that it's a complicated answer to every question but, you know, I think it is.
Thank you. Very interesting topic, thank you. I am curious about what is happening with reconciliation in this region. Are these Muslim communities kind of so internally focused with their own divisions that they are not really engaging with Sinhalese-Tamil reconciliation efforts or are there even efforts happening? I'm curious about their ability - if there is a possibility for these Muslim communities to actually sort of be a go between or to be some sort of mediator in the conflict or if there are other religious groups, Catholics you mentioned before, that are able to do that, I'd love to know more about that. And I am also curious about what other kinds of interfaith or interreligious efforts there have been historically in the region, particularly in terms of post-tsunami recovery and now looking post-conflict but kind of all along, have been there any positive examples of folks trying to get along?
Yes, that's the other five chapters of the book. Yeah, there are lots that could be said about this. Although I think the situation at the moment is kind of a little depressing on this on this front and I'll explain why in a second. During the period of the Norwegian ceasefire from 2002 onwards, there was an industry of building ethnic harmony, that is to say, there's lots of funding flowing in from foreign donors in particular through national and international NGO's with all sorts of official projects, getting Tamil and Muslim kids to play soccer together, that kind of thing. There's a lot of that going on. There was also formal structures. There was a Muslim peace secretariat, for example, which offices all the way up the east coast and which was involved in dialogue with other communities.
There were also before that, through that, and still afterwards, there are formal interfaith groups. Certainly in Batticaloa, there's a long standing interfaith group somewhat dominated by the Catholics, at least that was my sense, but with participation from Buddhists monks and Hindu representatives and Muslim representatives. One of the things that the Kattankudy mosque federation said to us while we were talking to them was that they have the problem that the other communities aren't as well organized, so they're not very good at creating these kinds of figures, these official mediators as it were. So you've got all that. That's very much above the radar activity of the sort that I mentioned beforehand. And what makes that somewhat more muted at the moment was that the peace industry around the Norwegian ceasefire went - became the target of tons and tons of very hostile official propaganda around the end of the war.
So anybody who - actually even the use of the word peace became almost a boon. You're allowed to say harmony now but you can't say peace. And lots of NGO's frantically rewrote all their program statements to take the P-word out and put in H-words and things like that because, you know, I mean it sounds silly but people were getting killed. Horrible things were happening to people around this. And so the official industry has, as it were, gone away but there are all sorts of things going on. Some friends of mine - well my friend Professor Hasbullah is a leading actor in this. Friends of mine in the Muslim community are actively trying to build a dialogue with, well, Tamil civil society because they are not dealing with Tamil politicians and stuff but trying to, well one of the biggest things for them, is to get - allow Muslims to return to the places they left in 1990 in Jaffna.
My trip to Jaffna in January was coincided with the launch of a big statement by a whole bunch of Tamil, prominent Tamil intellectuals, as it were apologizing for what had happened and saying, you know, Tamil people have to come to terms with what was done to the Muslims. If we are going to get anywhere in terms of building an alternative kind of politics we have got to start with this particular thing. And that statement came out as it were the week that I had travelled up to Jaffna and so I was sitting in on meetings between people in Jaffna and these Muslim activists who were looking for dialogue. It wasn't particularly easy. It wasn't like things were going to sort out.
Much of this is happening outside the formal political area. Tamil politics is in a terrible mess since the end of the war, which is not particularly surprising, but it's not as if the politics of the Sinhalese majority are anything to write home about either, dominate as they are by a very powerful and not entirely attractive family who dominated the government. So the whole political area is kind of very, very problematic for lots of people and my sense, and it's very impressionistic, is that people are trying to explore things that can happen outside the kind of glare of formal politics, and I think some of the work we did, I hope, can feed into that by making people aware of the ways in which, for example, you know, Buddhist monks or Catholic priests or whatever were doing similar things throughout the war which they were.
Just to finish on this one bit because there is tons that can be said about it. One of the most striking things were these stories we had of mediation. So for example in Akkaraipattu, just the year before we got there for the research, Friday press somebody rolled a hand grenade into the mosque and I think, it was five people who were killed in the mosque. And one of my very first interviews, not actually in Akkaraipattu itself but it just outside, was with somebody who was there that day whose a prominent Tablighi who's very active in the local mosque federation and he explained to me how they got on the loudspeakers of the mosques and told everybody not to react. This was obviously intended to generate a reaction which in turn would escalate so they were broadcasting from the mosque telling people to just stay in their houses and to stay calm.
They put people out on to the roads leading into the Tamil parts of town to stop the young man going out and just like burning houses, beating people, and stuff like that, to keep it under the - that's what they want us to do, they were saying, and so we're just going to keep the lid on it. Now this was extraordinarily interesting. This sort of stuff was not very much reported but of course the irony is that the people who are often the best at doing that kind of thing are also the people most concerned with preserving the boundaries of the community in other contexts. So it's the kind of mediation that's based in a presumption of strongly bounded communities with particular leaders who can then come together and do things.
There's other kinds of stuff that happed, below the radar stuff, which - I have had a PhD student Rebecca Walker who was working in Batticaloa with women's groups who were doing much, much smaller scale things across religious and community boundaries but didn't have the capacity to directly intervene in those like big powder keg moments that the other people were doing. So yeah there's a lot to say here and there's a lot of different kinds of dynamic at work and, as I said at the beginning, that particular peace to war to peace transition that we were in the middle of made a big difference to what the people could do at any one particular moment and the kind of language they could use to do it.
My name is Hirani. I am a local resident. I have got two questions. One is the establishment of Islam in the Sri Lankan island. My understanding is that Islam was established in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th century and it was an outcome of the traders from the Fatimid Empire of Egypt. They were very strong navy and they were having trade relationship as far as Indonesia so this being a stationary point harbour led that establishment of Islam in there and as such most of the Sri Lankan Muslims go back to Shafi'i Islam rather than compared to Islam in Pakistan and Bangladesh which is Hanafi, not very much difference it's just a school of thought.
So my question basically, first question, is that do you see the remnants of some kind of relationship as I've explained Islam going back to Egypt rather than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? The second question is that in the 98's, late 90's, early 2000, the conflict basically became a proxy war between India and Pakistan with this harmony and peace, of course, Pakistan was being funded by Saudi Arabia and so on and so forth and LTTE was funded by India and so on and so forth. As a matter of fact in 2009 there was a big celebration in Pakistan, a victory not in Sri Lanka but in Pakistan. What is the kind of effect as far as on these groups which you have mentioned is there?
Right, okay, the first question I am not the best person to answer. My friend Dennis McGilvray who has had the advantage of 38 more years than me working in these areas. It's very difficult because what you find - I mean certainly what I've found - is there are lots of local stories of like saints for example coming from different places. So around Batticaloa, there's stories of Pakhtuns coming through - not even Egyptians - there is definite evidence of Hadhramaut families settling in the area and that's kind of quite well documented coming from what is now Yemen. Yeah and there's lots and lots of other little stories like that so it's really very, very difficult to kind of sift through them
and then there's next to nothing in the way of, for example, archaeological research on all of this which would actually make quite a big difference because there's things like the presence of the coinage for example can tell you quite a lot about what kinds of trade links have been there. And archaeology in Sri Lanka, as I'm sure you know, has been entirely dominated by issues of recovering evidence of Buddhist presence and nobody else's presence and one of the things that the Muslim communities in the east are doing now is investing in their own archaeology to kind of respond to that. On the India-Pakistan part of it, it's - yeah, I guess, again it's complicated - I am not sure that I personally buy into that conundrum.
It's certainly - the government of Sri Lanka did depend quite heavily at times in the latter stages of the war on arms and training and support from Pakistan but it was one of a number of people, a number of states that helped it keep going and the LTTE in its early days depended very heavily on training and support in South India but after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi that was pretty much completely cut off and although regional politicians in South India would align themselves and still do intermittently with the LTTE, the Delhi government was just as pleased to get rid of the LTTE as anybody else was. But one of the peculiar things about - I mean the geopolitics of the last ages which has been much commented on is the way in which the government in particular got help and support from China, which is now a major investor in the area. It's not Pakistan. It's not India. It's China.
And what was Delhi doing, you know, who was paying attention in Delhi when China go all the contracts to do stuff. And Delhi's response to this now is to become a major development partner itself. So Delhi is now rebuilding the railway up to Jaffna. It's got a big housing project in the Jaffna peninsula, trying to be as visible as possible as a source of aid, presumably in a pretty explicit attempt to balance the Chinese aid which is happening in the south of the country. So this little picture here suggests yet another alignment which was the government aligning itself with Ahmadinejad in Iran briefly and also rather extraordinary at the end of the war, managing to bring all these forces together to support the U.N. human rights council which threw out a European attempt to chide the government for its human rights record in the war and instead congratulated them on their victory.
And now that particular alliance has fallen apart in the last week as the same council has now asked the government to do something about the human rights record. With India lurching this time onto the side of Europe and the United States but China and Russia continuing to oppose it. So Sri Lanka and the bigger geopolitics is many-polar now, I think, and rather weirdly, I mean I don't know but to me it seems very weird, for such a small country, they have managed to play off these very, very big powers in a quite clever way so that they can manage to get the Indians not just simply being cross with them for doing things with the Chinese but actually piling in trying to recover their influence so, you know, this is like a win-win from the government's point of view but it's very peculiar to an outside observer like me to try and understand . . .
... thousands of years ago and you know it has been always independent from the Indian influence and they want to remain so anyway.
Hi my name is James Schmidt. I am a PhD student in the History Department here at Tufts. I had a quick question specifically regarding slide number 12 the one where you have had the map of the town. And you mentioned that sort of that dashed purple line being a sort of marking-off in that map, you know, where are, you know, the Muslim localities in the town versus the Tamil localities in the town and I was noticing in the key of the map it says an administrative border and I was wondering what that exactly consisted of and in what way the state - and when I say the state, I mean it could be the government in Colombo or it could be the LTTE, whoever has been in force at the given time -
in what way the state is either encouraging the activation of these boundaries or perhaps at least validating them after they've been made in physical reality.
Smart, smart observation. It's not the State - well, you know, I've mentioned the government divide and rule policies in the 80's - but I think this particular thing, I can't recover the particular history here but I do know the general pattern in the area where there is a lot of this. The drawing of boundaries around ethnic enclaves and the adjustment of those boundaries and creation of would-be ethnically homogenous enclaves - which is not just the state is interested in this, local politicians are very keen on this too. It simplifies matters enormously if you're mobilizing your support on ethnic lines, to have like these, you know, clearly defined things, that you've got your school for the Tamils and you've got your schools for the Hindus.
Muslim politicians have been very active in doing this. They have been very, very keen on it and indeed when, you know - their nightmare was the single merged north and east of the island in a separate LTTE controlled state, the State of Tamil-Eelam which would be run from Jaffna. But one of the alternatives to this was drawn up by the SLMC leadership at what some point or another which was about creating a non-contiguous Muslim province in the east. So you would have like these little like circles and these would be the Muslim bits and they'd be administered as one thing and then the bits in between would be administered as another thing. And it's not, you know, I mean that was the bigger political version of it. But the smaller version exists.
So in the town of Kalmunai, if we go back up just a couple more, I will show you where Kalmunai is, just a little bit further up, no because it's not there. Kalmunai has a Muslim hospital in it and a Tamil hospital. This is completely mad, you know, and indeed the person who pointed this out to me was a local Muslim leader in his speech at Southeastern University which is the Muslim University. There's a Muslim University and a Hindu University because the Eastern University is just outside Batticaloa and, you know, in the period between 1990 and 95, when there were all these terrible massacres against Muslims and some counter massacres against Tamils, the Muslim staff and eventually the Muslim students at Eastern University left. They just said we can't keep coming here because it's too dangerous to get here.
And Ashraff campaigned to set up a separate university just here at a place called Oluvil which is Southeastern University. So you now have a small university, very small, just about keeping going, just about surviving, in Oluvil, and a slightly bigger but still not entirely healthy one up here at Batticaloa and actually one of the precursors to our project, the relationships that we had and the reason for doing the project in a way, was my friend Hasbullah and Jude De Silva, the two Sri Lankan partners - Jude is Sinhalese and Hasbullah is Muslim - had worked very, very hard to create a consortium of universities linking Eastern University, Southeastern University, and Peradeniya, the big old university in the centre where they both worked, and this was a very deliberate attempt to de-ethnicize the universities, to start with, you know, start with their own place of employment, you know, my place of engagement to start there and see if we can actually work against those trends.
So when the call for funding came out, we had this consortium in place linking the universities social science consortium - we had these really good relationships and we were looking for some tangible project to work. So we ran the project as a way of giving life to this de-ethnicizing thing with the universities. But we are definitely sort of swimming against the current because the political current goes all towards the putting people into these like ethnic, administratively, educationally, and all other ways, putting them back into the ethnic silos. So it is really a quite serious and problematic situation and that line you saw in the map, the administrative boundary, is a reflection of the ways in which government machinery has been systematically used to further ethnicize everything in what was previously this extraordinary kind of mixed area and it's depressing. Alas.
When I've been listening to your excellent talk, I have been thinking a little about P.K. Dutta's work on riots in Calcutta and I don't know how accepted his fascinating argument is but in terms of how riots he would say involve the inversion of everyday life but paradoxically there is a lot of the everyday life in the riot and there's a lot of the riot in everyday life that follows afterwards. So in some ways he is saying that the way that Muslims and Hindus interact with each other, after a 1926 riot, was very much informed by that singularity even though in the years after 1926 there is a way in which that event was forgotten - no one talks about the 1926 riot, only 1946 riot, and yet there's a way that I think ethnicity was constructed through 1926. So that leads me to wonder about, you know, in the towns in which holy space, sacred space, is, you know, woven into violence or violence is woven into holy space, what does that do to the experience of the sacred in these region.
So, you know, the people who continue to go to the meditation centre, I'm fascinated to know what their, what they experience in everyday life or how the experience of that event, the digging up of the peer and burning him, which you know how does that, what are the after effects?
That's very, I mean - well, what, you know, we can go back to this slide. I mean this is one example. This is like formal memorization of that kind of violation. This is the list of names of people killed by the LTTE in the mosque and there it is. You know, everybody comes into the mosque. When you go to Kattankudy, as it were, officially which everyone does at least sometime in their life, the first time, that's the first place you get taken.
You get taken to the mosque, you get shown the bullet holes in the walls, you get shown that. I mean everyone I've known whose done this kind of thing has had the same experience. So that's one thing, that's the kind of formal memorialisation of it. At the same time and this is very impressionistic because I mean, you know, I've just been to Jaffna actually for first time in my life but also more particularly for the first since the war. You do have a sense that there is a lot of forgetting going on. You don't how forgotten things are going to be but there is a certain amount of necessary, you know, there's a famous quote from Renant about a nation is united about what it's forgotten and one of the things that the French nation forgets is the massacre of the St. Bartholomew's Day.
You know, you have to take that off the agenda in order to have people together. There is some forgetting going on I think but whether these wounds are always there or are going to be there ready to be reactivated, how far going the forgetting might be. I know, it is very, very extraordinary how quickly as it were, the waters flow again over the scene of the eruption where stuff has happened. And it's very difficult for a casual observance to see the long term effects of that. There are big discussions and arguments going on - I mean it's very, very contentious issue in Sri Lanka at the moment - the, you know, because the official line, not all surprisingly, is we need to move on, that if you dwell on what's happened at the end of the war, if you dwell on 30-40,000 people who were killed by government shell fire which seems to be what did happen in the last month of the war as far as I can tell though I don't know.
If you dwell on that, then you're just sowing the seeds for the future problems but then they were the people who told them to send in the shells in the first place, they would say that wouldn't they but I don't know that the kind of very 20th century modernist Western version of the only way to do this is to kind of go into collective therapy and kind of get it all out in public. I'm not at all show that necessary is the way that the things will move forward and you've got as, you know, as the examples that you chose show, you've actually got so many different things. If everybody is busy forgetting the war, what happens to, yeah, these poor Sufi people who've had a hard time. They're not forgetting, if you go talk to them. When we went to interview the leaders of the organization who were in this little office in Colombo, they presented - it was a fieldwork we were doing - they presented me with a stack of documents that high numbered one to forty six
and went through each one, each court case, each atrocity against them and just handed it over to me and said, you take that away and write about it, thank you very much. So they weren't forgetting, they were lawyers actually these guys and they were taking a rather lawyerly approach to the issue. They were making sure that this whole thing was documented and that as many people as possible had access to those documents. So there were a lot of different things going on. The women's groups that I mentioned that my student was working with, this was during the time of disappearances and killings, a lot of what they did was just trying to allow people to remember the people who had died because if somebody was killed by the LTTE, it was so dangerous to even acknowledge that you were aware of that because you were making yourself another potential victim or if they were killed by the army it was so dangerous.
So people couldn't even acknowledge the death of their children or something like that. And one of the things that they were doing was creating little spaces for remembrance so that people could at least come to terms with the immediate loss of the members of their own family and that in itself was, you know, quite a powerful thing to do in a landscape where people weren't allowed to go to funerals because to do was to be a traitor to the cause, whichever side you were on. So, there were many different ways in which people have approached this and as I say, the situation, it's not clear, you know, what the medium or the long term, what's going to happen. It's not going to be like there is one answer and one thing is going to come out of it.
And it's, you know, I mean the literature on civil wars is full of generations of hurt, you know, this stuff doesn't just go away just like that. So it's kind of a mess. But I think that, you know, everybody in the world wants a South African truth and reconciliation - you know, they're not going to get something like that in the current political context in Sri Lanka and there must be other ways to be thinking about addressing the needs of particular groups of people and so on. But at the moment, I mean things have shifted. At the end of the war, the government said there were no civilian casualties at all. So yet the other day they said there were seven thousand.
So the number's going up, that's the Minister of Defence. So things are moving a little bit, you know, like it's not the kind of flat denial that there was at the end of the war but there's still a lot of denying going on.
Thank you so much Jonathan for a very rich, a very fascinating discussion and lecture and I suppose if there are any questions you might just steal Professor Spencer after this talk. Thank you very much.
Thank you.