Today in New Delhi, India
Sep 23, 2018-Sunday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Islamic fundamentalism grips Sri Lankan town

Kattankudy is the nerve centre of Islamic fundamentalism, writes PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 23, 2007 13:21 IST

Kattankudy, four km south of the Eastern Sri Lankan town of Batticaloa, is unique. It is the only all-Muslim town in the island.

Non-Muslims cannot (and will not) reside, buy property or run businesses there.

With 65 mosques, this heavily built up and cramped town of 50,000 people spread over just 1 sq km, boasts of having the largest number of mosques per square kilometre outside the Muslim world.

A prosperous market town, it stands out in the war-ravaged Batticaloa district - a source of inspiration for other Muslims, and an object of envy for the impoverished Tamils, who are the majority community in the district.

But above all, Kattankudy is the nerve centre of Islamic fundamentalism, an ideology which is being spread among Muslims not just by intense social pressure, but by gun-wielding radical youths with a background of Wahabi religious education from the universities of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.

The first thing one would notice on entering Kattankudy is that, in contrast to other towns in Eastern Sri Lanka, there are hardly any women on the streets.

This is in sharp contrast to Batticaloa, just 10 minutes away, where young girls are not only out in large numbers but go about in bicycles, or zip around in small scooters.

The few women on the roads of Kattankudy are either Tamils from outside who have come to shop or Muslims covered from head to foot.

Some even cover their hands and feet with black gloves, socks and shoes. In some cases, the hijab (head covering) has small holes to allow the lady to see.

But the more common form is a two-piece head and face cover, with a separate scarf covering the nose, mouth and neck but not the eyes, and tied at the back of the head.

The hijabs and Abayas (the full body garment) of grown up women are always in black.

Girl students have to cover themselves from head to foot from Grade 6 (age 12) onwards. To enable them to see, there are tiny holes in their hijabs.

Only old women are allowed to come out in the traditional Sri Lankan Muslim attire, which is the sari with the pallu pulled over the head.

According to KMM Kaleel of the Federation of Mosques and Muslim Associations radical change in the dress code came in the past five years.

SLM Nashwal, former Assistant Secretary of the local Jamiat Ulema, said that as per the Quran, a woman could expose only her face and hands.

And on this, there was almost total agreement, with even Moulvi Abdul Rauff, a Sufi leader who had incurred the wrath of the Saudi-backed Jamiat Ulema, echoing it.

As one saw, the predominant dress code was actually much more radical than the Quranic prescription. It is Talibani.

Its spread can be largely attributed to the persuasive power of Saudi backed and funded Wahabi organisations like the Tabligh and Tawheed Jamaats.

"Generally, males dictate what the women in their household should wear. But many women have taken to the Abaya and Hijab willingly," said Aneesa Firthous, a former nurse who heads the Islamic Womens' Association.

As for herself, she said she did not wear the sari because it was a "Tamil dress and not Muslim."

The nonchalant denial of 50 per cent of the Eastern Muslims' culture was amazing, since, ethnically, the Muslims are either a mixture of Arab merchants and local Tamils or are converts from the local Tamils.

Denial of the local heritage could lead to a dysfunctional relationship with the social and political environment and cause conflicts.

There are no cinema theatres in Kattankudy. It has never had one. There were VCD and DVD shops selling Tamil cinema fare but these were burnt down, Kaleel said.

People do see TV at home. But many like Aneesa and pre-school teacher Fowmiya do not see cinema-based programmes and tele-dramas.

"We like to watch videos of good Iranian films," Fowmiya said.

First Published: Apr 23, 2007 11:30 IST