When is a religious identity also an ethnic identity, and how is that connection influenced by a history of colonization and conflicts? Omar Sohail ’15 has been exploring this question and others as he examines the Muslim concept of identity in Sri Lanka.
“When you talk to someone here in the US, the first thing they identify with might be geographical,” Sohail explained. “When I talked to people in Sri Lanka, they identified as Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim.” These ethnic distinctions crystallized into their current form when British colonists began conducting censuses in Sri Lanka in the 19th-century, but conflict between the three groups in Sri Lanka has been going on for more than a millennium.
A recent 28-year civil war that ended in 2009 has only been followed by more violence, and the three ethnic groups remain religiously, linguistically, and geographically divided in complex ways. The Sinhalese majority speaks Sinhala and lives primarily in the south, west, and central parts of the country, while most Muslims and Tamils speak Tamil. Clustered in the northeast, the Tamils are primarily Hindu while the Sinhalese are Buddhist, although there are some Tamil and Sinhalese Christians. The Muslims are widespread, with some concentrations in the east.
Sohail gained firsthand experience in these ethnic intricacies during a semester abroad last spring, when he lived and took classes in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy through Bowdoin’s ISLE program. Founded by religion and Asian studies professor John Holt and administered by Sree Padma Holt, the ISLE program includes intensive Sinhalese language classes, field lectures and more. At the end of the semester, each student completes a four-week field research project.
Building upon coursework in his Religion major at Bowdoin and his own Muslim upbringing, Sohail lived on the eastern part of Sri Lanka and conducted interviews with Muslims, who make up approximately 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. These conversations were initially focused on Buddhist extremism and violence against Muslims in the country. But Sohail found that his interviewees were also concerned with increasing tensions within the Sri Lankan Muslim community.
Tracing their origins to both the Middle East and South India, the Muslims of Sri Lankan have for centuries intertwined Islam with ritual elements from other South Asian religious traditions. But conflicts have arisen in recent years because of globalization: venturing to the Middle East for employment, some Sri Lankan Muslims have returned home with a newfound commitment to an ultraconservative form of Islam common in Saudi Arabia, and have denounced other Sri Lankan forms as ”un-Islamic,” provoking deadly riots.
Sohail noticed that when he talked to Muslims about their ancestors’ origins, some of them spoke of the Middle East but shied away from any origins or ties in South India. He also found that, when he told them he was Muslim, they were excited and claimed a connection to him, considering him a part of the global Islamic community, or ummah.
Through his research, Sohail aims to clarify the various sources of identity – familial, communal, national, and international – for a Sri Lankan Muslim and the ways in which these identities are manipulated through context and time. He also wants to shed light on how Muslims create and negotiate meaning through rituals, religious space, and sound.
Supported this summer by an Edward E. Langbein Summer Fellowship, Sohail has been taking advantage not only of Bowdoin’s resources but his own transcripts from field work and the books he was able to find in Sri Lanka. He is working under the guidance of professor John Holt (who recently won a Guggenheim for his own work in Sri Lanka and Burma) and hopes to turn this research into an honors project.
Photographs courtesy of Omar Sohail ’15