A new outbreak of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka’s restive east is hindering tsunami relief efforts, a group of nearly 100 aid agencies said June 3. Shootings and grenade attacks have become commonplace in the east in recent months, blamed largely on feuding between the Tamil Tiger guerillas and a breakaway faction which refuses to accept a 2002 ceasefire. “We, the humanitarian community of Sri Lanka, have noted…the steady escalation of violence in the east,” the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies said in a statement, backed by 98 agencies including Save the Children, Caritas and CARE. “It is detrimental to the speed and effectiveness of the relief operation, hinders access to affected communities and hampers reconstruction efforts.”
Monitors say around 40 people were killed in the fighting between February and April. Violent protests in the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, where relations are strained between Hindu Tamils, Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims, have also raised worries about the safety of relief agency staff. (Qatar Gulf Times, June 4)
The Sri Lanka government has entered into a controversial deal with the Tamil Tigers allowing them to oversee distribution of tsunami aid in areas they control. But Sri Lanka’s Muslim community says it feels left out of the deal. T. Hassen Ali, secretary general of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), said many Muslims feel President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government did not give due consideration to their concerns in the setting up of the joint mechanism with the guerillas, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He said the LTTE should not be given total control of the aid in Muslim-majority areas of the multi-ethnic Eastern Province. (Gulf Times, May 25)
Muslims were included in the 2002 peace deal between the Hindu separatist LTTE and the Buddhist-dominated government. Under the deal, the Tigers agreed that 100,000 Muslims they had forced out of rebel areas in 1990 could return home. (BBC, April 13, 2002)
Muslim distrust of the Tigers appears warranted. But an account of the conflict’s roots on the Islamist website Khilafa.com engages in some disturbing revisionism. Arguing that Sri Lanka’s Muslims have allowed themselves to become victims by failing to unify strongly around an “ideological” program of Islam, the anonymous author takes issue with the popular use of the word “Moor” to designate Muslims in the island nation:
The Portuguese…looked at the Muslims in the neighbouring Spain with fear and jealousy called them morons (very stupid people). Therefore when they colonised Sri Lanka they called the Muslims there morons as well. That is how the Muslims in Sri Lanka came to be known as morons and later Moors. The term Moors is a derivation of the derogatory term morons.
The author should have consulted his dictionary. The entry for “moron” in Websters Collegiate notes it is of Indo-European origin, related to Greek moros (stupid) and Sanskrit mura (foolish). “Moor”, in turn, is from the Latin Maurus, an inhabitant of the Roman province of Mauritania (which covered most of the contemporary Maghreb). Now, this is not in Websters, but a recent post on LibyAmazigh.org, website of the Libyan Berbers, indicates that the Latin Maurus and contemporary words Moor (moro in Spanish; mouro in Portugese), Morocco, Mauritania and Marrakech all derive from the ancient Tamazgha (Berber) Mur n Ukkech, Country of God. Hence, “Moor” is not of Indo-European origin but Afro-Asiatic, and bears no cognate relation to “moron”.
The conflation of Moors (Berbers) and Muslims in the Iberian mind resulted in Muslims being designated “Moors” (Mouros or Moros) as far east as the Philippines. Khilafa.com is correct that this, at least, originated as a misnomer and a legacy of Portugese or Spanish colonialism. But the Muslims of Sri Lanka and the Philippines appear to have embraced the Moorish identity. It is apparently opposed by fundamentalists who wish to assert a purely religious (as opposed to ethnic) identity. A brief history of the Muslims of Sri Lanka and a discussion of the origins of what were known in colonial times as the “Ceylon Moors” can be found on the global geneaology website RootsWeb.com.