In eastern Sri Lanka, place names, genealogical lineages and community, uur, kudy and community, tend to be connected. Uur literally means a place of living of a community and gives a sense of belonging to a place of living. Uur is also related to matrilineal traditional practices, locally called kudy (McGilvray 2008; Ruwanpura 2006). Kattankudy was an uur, a village, which consisted of a group of kudies (matrilineal genealogy of extended family). In the 1950s, according to our informants, eight matrilineal kudies were identified, all of rural background and matrilineal root. The kudy culture supports enclave geographies as no outsider who is not absorbed into the kudy system through marriage can live in the uur. Through this process, enclaves have emerged, which we find in Muslim and Tamil areas, e.g. in Attaipallam, Veeramunai or Karait(h)ivu. It is through kudy that inclusion into uur can be gained. Social networks, though they may extend spatially beyond the enclave container, are therefore politically re-aligned within the uur, the place that is the home, which needs to be purified from unwanted elements. Through the territorialisation of its enclave prisonhood, Kattankudy became not only the ‘mother’ settlement of adjacent Muslim satellite settlements, but a space of survival, of refuge, a sacred space of protection and belonging. The pressure from within (population density) and from outside (violent conflict) triggered antinomies of community – a paradoxical dialectics of unity and fragmentation.
Antinomies of community 1: purifying politics
On 13 January 2008, the Federation of Mosques and Islamic Institutions of Kattankudy wrote an appeal letter to the President of Sri Lanka4 about a violent incident that took place in a mosque located in one of the Muslim satellite settlements where Tamil militants had fired on and injured Muslim worshipers (on 12 January 2008). In this letter, the Federation wrote about itself as ‘representing the Muslim population of Kattankudy and its adjoining villages’ and directly addressed the President and other related authorities. The Federation on this occasion takes over the role that local MPs should normally play – of representing the local population. The Federation's letter can be read as an attempt to forge direct connections with political power holders at the centre (with the potential leverage to change things, something local MPs apparently cannot do), through networks other than the usual patronage (party) politics and ‘official’ political channels. It is an attempt to fill a political vacuum. It is also an innovative political mechanism, which seeks to overcome the divisive heart and the dirty party politics of politics-as-usual. It is an attempt to overcome antinomies of community by purifying politics.
Indeed, the inter-ethnic tension and war situation had effectively produced a political vacuum in Kattankudy because the local political challenges of the enclave could not be addressed by the ‘usual’ political mechanisms. Courts, police and local government bodies were largely defunct: for example, the Pradeshasaba elections were not held during the intense conflict period from the late 1970s until 2004 and the Kattankudy Pradeshasaba was administered by a Special Commissioner (a civil servant, not an elected politician). Parallel to this bureaucratic failure came the demise of the political mechanisms of electoral politics and MP patronage, linked to the rise and fall of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) as leading political party for the eastern Muslims. Its charismatic leader M.H.M. Ashraff had been able to channel government resources for development to Muslim areas in the east (O'Sullivan 1999; Lewer and Ismail 2011; Klem 2011; McGilvray 2011). After his sudden death in a helicopter crash in 2000, the SLMC fragmented into several factional parties around local political figures and the political leverage power of Muslims disintegrated.
The stakes for Muslim politicians in Kattankudy paralleled these broader developments of the SLMC, but also took some local dynamics. The ups and downs of Kattankudy's political stakes is linked to the name of an individual politician: M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, who was elected as MP in 1989, appointed government minister in 1994 and who was very successful in directing government funding to the city, manifested in numerous public buildings erected during his term as minister. Hizbullah's power and influence ended when he was not re-elected in the 2000 elections. Hizbullah had already been an ‘absentee’ MP living in Colombo, because he could not return to Kattankudy for security reasons. Hizbullah had the reputation of being an outspoken advocate of Muslim interests and critic of the LTTE, which made him a potential LTTE target. The enclave geography of Kattankudy made his presence and his travel back and forth from Colombo to Kattankudy highly insecure.5 When the attack on the Kattankudy mosques happened in 1990, Hizbullah even had to be flown in by helicopter to attend the funeral of the victims of the massacre. As a result of this situation, Hizbullah was able to direct funding to Kattankudy, but he was unable to be present in his fiefdom himself. Local political matters could therefore not be resolved through the influence and patronage of the local MP. This created a vacuum in Kattankudy's space of politics.
This vacuum was – at least partly – filled by the local Federation of Mosques and Islamic Institutions (or ‘Mosque Federation’). The Federation was registered in 1987, when Tamil–Muslim relations deteriorated and when the activities of Tamil militants undermined public order and security. The Mosque Federation was founded and first hosted at the Meththaipalli mosque, which was recognised as the congregation place for Friday prayers (before the numbers of Friday congregations proliferated) and as a ‘sacred place’. Meththaipalli mosque had traditionally been a place where community issues were discussed. The increasing deterioration of public order in the mid-1980s created the feeling that these meetings should be formalised. The Federation's organisational strength increased over the years of war and conflict. The Federation was able to negotiate with LTTE and had talked to military personnel at times of crisis. Step-by-step, its role had further extended to dealing with broader issues such as land and political rights of Muslims.
Jonathan Spencer (2012), after visiting the Mosque Federation in 2008, suggested that there seemed to have evolved a division of labour between Muslim politicians (MPs, Ministers etc.) and the Federation. The (party) politicians had to look after Muslim interests in the realm of national politics (and the distribution of patronage resources) – albeit with shrinking leverage after the demise of Hizbullah as MP. Meanwhile, the Federation ruled over local religious matters, coordinated social welfare and negotiated local agreements with the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan security forces to safeguard their security, to regain access to their occupied lands and to ensure the unity of the community in matters that dealt with its security and strength as enclave amidst Tamil militant rule and a highly militarised landscape. This seems to comply with the self-representation of the Federation's leading figures who suggested that the Mosque Federation fulfilled two functions: to unify the community and to provide a forum for collective decisions. Both functions emphasise the unity, the commonalities of Muslims in Kattankudy. But the 2008 letter indicates that the Federation also went beyond ‘the local’ and represented ‘the community’ at the national level, a claim normally attributed to the channels of party politics and MP patronage.
To be able to accomplish its role as a voice of the whole community, the mundane practices of politics-as-usual – the mostly divisive politics of political parties – had to be kept outside of the Federation. Thereby the Federation did not only fill a political vacuum, but it also provided an innovative political mechanism based on the staging of what Hansen (2001b, 35, 38; Spencer 2007, 142) calls ‘anti-politics’– a moral critique of political leaders and the field of patronage politics within which they operate. This anti-political register was based on a tradition of community service through which the Federation gradually associated almost any civil society organisation, from sports club to cultural groups. During the times of our main fieldwork (2007 onwards), the Mosque Federation represented over 48 mosques from Kattankudy and satellite settlements and more than 110 other organisations. The Federation held weekly meetings (on Saturday) where all associated organisations could send representatives; decisions were mostly taken unanimously, based on consensus.
The accumulation of widely acknowledged services in welfare and as mediator of security gave the Federation its credit as a ‘community voice’, allowing it to act as a political mechanism of collective decisionmaking in an anti-politics register: it is in this sense that the Federation practised an innovative political mechanism that emphasised unity, tolerance and inclusion and distanced itself from the exclusionary and divisive mechanisms of electoral politics, which were functioning along block votes, party affiliations and patronage networks. The Federation became the prime source of social welfare and appointed a number of sub-committees to deal with distribution of welfare benefits to the poor and needy, to organise pilgrimage to Mecca, resolve marriage and other disputes. The Federation developed its own funding system and subsequently became a wealthy organisation by taking on the responsibility of collecting and distributing Zakat, or alms-giving. The Federation also established regulations to govern the community and intervened in social, religious and cultural matters, e.g. dress codes, codes of proper conduct. Although those regulations were not necessarily welcomed by all, the decisions were generally accepted because the Federation had gained legitimacy through its role as a spokesperson for the community, in particular vis-à-vis the LTTE and the security forces.
The paradoxical achievement of the Federation was to provide a political forum by keeping politicians out, by purifying its political space from the damaging influence of party politics. But this does not mean that this political space was devoid of politicians: they were present in the forum, but not as politicians. In other words, the politicians were kept out, as Jonathan Spencer paraphrased the Federation's officials after a visit to the Federation (Spencer 2012), but only as politicians, not as individuals, e.g. as representatives of a civil society organisation. And still, the relation between Mosque Federation and political figures has always been deeply implicated. Already a key founding figure of the Federation, the then Town Council Chairman and Chief Trustee of the Mosque, Mr A. Ahamed Lebbe, was one of the initiators of the SLMC, the Muslim political party (although M.H.M. Ashraff from Kalmunai became the party leader later on). Similarly, Federation leaders, though they kept party politics out of the Federation's forum, have not necessarily abstained from taking sides publicly in election politics. For example, the current President of the Federation, Mr U.L.M. Subair, was listed on the supporter's platform for Hizbullah's candidacy for the 2010 Parliamentary Election. However, this was not seen as an involvement of the Federation into party politics, as the President signed up in his capacity as a (respected) individual, not as Federation chairman. Again, this can be seen as a mechanism to keep the Federation's space purified from the disturbing elements of party competition – as an anti-politics register.
The Federation therefore did not only fill the political vacuum that bureaucratic failure and the demise of the electoral politics brought about, but it created an anti-politics register that sought to purify politics from its divisive elements. The purification worked in two registers: an anti-political one to separate the Federation's business from that of the politicians, and a register of inclusion and tolerance to provide a space of community, through which antinomies of community (that the divisive practices of electoral politics nurtures) were overcome. But, in fact, the paradox of this purification was that tolerance and inclusion were not complete – there was a boundary that could not been transgressed: the limits of proper Islam. This limit to toleration was marked by a violent attack against a Sufi sect whose supporters were not considered as Muslims and thus not welcome, not included in the community.
Antinomies of community 2: purifying Islam
In 2006, Kattankudy experienced an outburst of sectarian violence against a Muslim (Sufi) sect. Crowds of angry protestors destroyed a local meditation centre, leading to killing and displacement of the followers of this sect. The leader of the sect, Abdullah Payilvan, originally from Maruthamunai, a Muslim settlement south of Kattankudy, advocated a philosophy that in order to achieve high spiritual levels, the five pillars of Islam were not necessary; spirituality could also be achieved by meditation. Payilvan had received a fatwa of excommunication by the local Muslim clerics. The situation escalated when followers of ‘Payilvanism’ established a meditation centre in the vicinity of Kattankudy enclave. The location of the meditation centre took advantage of Sri Lanka's ethnicised administrative geographies: It would have been impossible to erect such a centre within the confines of Kattankudy town. The followers therefore acquired land in the vicinity of Kattankudy in a neighbouring (Tamil) settlement called Araipattai, a place that came under Tamil jurisdiction (Manmunaipattu D.S. division). Locating the centre outside of Kattankudy's territoriality enabled this splinter group to practise its faith. When, after the death of Payilvan on 6 December 2006, followers decided to bury his body at the meditation centre near Kattankudy, sectarian violence peaked. Initially, Payilvan's followers, protected by police, managed to transport his body from Colombo to Kattankudy and to bury him within the compounds of their meditation centre. However, soon after, the ‘rising passions of puritanical Islam’ (Ali 2009, 188) resulted in a wave of destruction and violence against Payilvan's followers. The mosque on the meditation ground was destroyed, and a fatwa of apostasy announced against all Payilvan followers. The incident was unprecedented, resulting in 2 deaths, the burning of 200 houses and businesses and a large number of Payilvan followers having to flee and being unable to return (see also McGilvray 2011).
This sectarian violence marks the fractures and vicissitudes behind the veil of community and unity that the Mosque Federation upheld in its (anti-) political forum. According to our informants, the Federation did not actively forge the attack, but neither did it intervene to prevent or stop it, which indicates a silent consent with the more forceful exclusion of these ‘heretics’. Obviously, Payilvan's sect had crossed a boundary of what could be tolerated as ‘Muslimness’. This attack was not the only sectarian dispute within Kattankudy's Muslim community. Sectarian disputes and tension had intensified since the 1970s, when Moulavi Abdul Rauf, a Muslim theologian, taught a Sufi interpretation of Islam that allowed the practice of respecting and worshipping Muslim saints and preached an image of God where Allah could be seen as embodied in Nature. On 31 March 1979, the highest ranking body of Muslim theologians in Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ullama (ACJU), excommunicated Moulavi Abdul Rauf from Islam. Although politically excluded from the Federation and banned through excommunication, both Payilvan and Moulavi Abdul Rauf still have a significant number of followers in Kattankudy (McGilvray 2011).
The outburst demarcated the boundary between two antagonistic conceptions of Islam: the first is traditional Sufism, which blends Islamic beliefs with practices of saint worshipping and Tamil Hindu culture. Sufism recognises the five pillars of Islam (i.e. shahada, salat, sawm, zakat and hajj) and combines these with a number of religious practices and rituals, some of which were adopted from Tamil Hindu culture. The second conception has often been labelled as Islamic revivalism and reformism, although this broad movement has been fragmented into a number of different faith schools. It is commonly conceded that Kattankudy's Islamic space has significantly shifted towards the second camp. Ameer Ali (2009, 188), for example, observed (and feared) an ‘Arabization’ of Kattankudy visible in the increasing public presence of hijab and thobe replacing the traditional sari-veil and sarong.
The co-existence and competition between different Islamic faith schools is a phenomenon common to most Muslim places in Sri Lanka and South Asia more broadly (Ali 2009; Balachandran 2007; Klem 2011; McGilvray 2011; Nuhman 2007; Osella and Osella 2007; Robinson 2007), but Kattankudy has been known for its ‘Islamic conservatism’ (Ali 2009, 183f.). Until the end of the 1970s, the maraikkayars (trustees) of the two largest mosques, Meerapalli and Meththaipalli, controlled the religious affairs in Kattankudy. In this period, eight kudies had dominated the four wards in ‘Old Kattankudy’, with each kudy having its own mosque. The Friday congregation used to be held in Meththaipalli for all kudies, as this was considered important to keep the community together. While a large number of the ulema had studied at the Baqihat-al-Salihat college in Tamil Nadu, the faithful practised a syncretised mixture of the Shafi school of thought and Sufism (Ali 2009, 187). This practice of Islam came increasingly under pressure from various Islamic reformist and revivalist movements. The number of mosques, madrasas and Arab colleges multiplied. The Tabligh Jamaat, a missionary movement from India, has gained momentum since the early 1950s. From the early 1990s onwards, migrant workers who went to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, brought thoughts and practices of Tawhid Jamaat (often labelled as ‘Wahhabism’) to Kattankudy. These ‘Wahhabis’, who call themselves muwahhidun (unifiers) advocate the unification of the worship of Allah. In particular, they reject Sufism and all its practices and rituals as undermining the purity of Islam. Both Tabligh and Tawhid aim at purifying or ‘(re-)Islamising’ Islam – cutting out all ‘un-Islamic’ elements that had been adopted in local Sufi practices, such as saint worshipping. While Tabligh emphasises internal purification of the individual, Tawhid's project aims at purifying the community of believers of Islam.
The shifting balance of religious affiliation mirrors a re-alignment of political influence and economic power within Kattankudy and its Mosque Federation (which also indicates that though it claims to be all encompassing, it has increasingly been dominated by Tawhid elements). Two parallel religious, social, economic and political networks evolved and the struggle for ‘souls’ was paralleled by a struggle for economic and political dominance in the enclave (and the Mosque Federation). Mosques have proliferated especially in ‘New Kattankudy’, where most of the in-migrants have settled (closer to the coast). Kattankudy now counts more than 30 small and big mosques for daily prayers, Friday congregation is now held in eight mosques spread over the enclave's territory. The religious affiliation of these mosques has shifted from a strong dominance of Tariqa (traditional and Sufism) to Tawhid and Tabligh dominance (Table 1). Sufism and Tariqa still find strong support among the ‘old rich’– the traditional kudy families of Old Kattankudy who had gained their strength through the clan structure of the kudy system, while their wealth was based on land property and traditional businesses. Tabligh, with its focus on individual purification has also gained supporters among this old elite. A class of ‘new rich’ families evolved from the 1980s onwards, based on remittances income from Middle-East employment and the establishment of new industries. These families, through their transnational linkages to the Middle East, were more akin to adhere to the Tawhid school of thought. Also, the flourishing sector of madrasas offered employment opportunities for the new elite and reinforced the strength of the Tawhid movement within ‘New Kattankudy’.
Table 1. Changing religious affiliation of mosques in Kattankudy
|Stages||Tariqa (mixed of traditional and Sufism)||Tawhid||Moderate|| |
|Before reform (before 1970s)||90%||0%||10%||100%|
|During transitional period (1970s and 80s)||50%||1% (first built in 1998)||49% (Tabligh influence)||100%|
|Recent period (from 2000 until present)||9%||43% (Tawhid dominated)||48% (Tabligh influence)||100%|
It is at this point that friction entered into the politics of community, although it served the celebration of community at the same time. This seems to be the paradox of Kattankudy's enclave politics: the religious fragmentation into different faith schools and practices threatened to weaken the internal coherence of Kattankudy as a (political) community. The fragile enclave geography of Kattankudy inspired a politics of purification and cohabitation: while pluralism within different Islamic schools of thought was developing, a search for unity within also required radical action against an internal enemy, the Sufi Other, who threatened the purity of Islam. The shifting balance of different faith schools also trickled into the Federation's power structures: Tawhid supporters nowadays tend to be more influential than supporters of either Sufism or Tabligh, although the other two faith schools have not been excluded. Even the supporters of Moulavi Rauf take part in the Federation's meetings, as after a conciliatory agreement they have again been considered to be ‘within’ Islam, though in need of purification (from the point of view of Tawhid), although the same treatment has not been offered yet to Payilvanists.
And yet, the fractures and contradictions in Kattankudy's Islamic space could be re-shaped to a collective imagination by purifying its religious ‘soul’ from elements that violated Islam proper. The established elements of the Federation feared increasing radicalisation of young Muslims in Kattankudy and tried to direct those emotions of frustration, anger and fear towards the internal enemy. Widespread fears in the community about an intifada, a radicalisation of youth towards militant activism as a mirror to Tamil militantism (Ali 2004), could thereby be channelled, be confined and controlled within the body of the Kattankudy enclave. Purifying Kattankudy from Payilvan's elements allowed the celebration, the practising of unity within fragmentation. While Kattankudy was confined to its territorial prisonhood, its religious landscape became more transnational with multiple connections to different Islamic faith traditions. The boundary against the external enemy, the Tamils, as threat to Kattankudy's territory, has not meant that Kattankudy enclave remained sealed off, an isolated container. But at the same time, increasing internal factionalism fostered the need to address those who endangered cohesion and purity within, e.g. dissenting faith schools, in order to create an imagination of coherence, unity and community amidst those internal contradictions.