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 Tuesday, October 14, 2008 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


In Print
Publications of CU-Boulder Faculty
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The cover of McGilvray's book

“In Print” is Inside CU’s new feature highlighting the published works of our faculty. “In Print” features current fictional and nonfictional published works, including books, journal and magazine articles, authored by current faculty and researchers.

If you would like to have your work highlighted, please email Inside CU with the title, publication date, name of the written work and a description of the topic, as well as your title, contact information and a short biography. Jpeg photographs of book jackets and/or authors, as well as website links to more information about the publication, are encouraged.

Selected works will be chosen to feature in an article, and all submissions will be acknowledged.


Professor of Anthropology Dennis McGilvray’s current book, Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka (Duke 2008), is an ethnographic and historical analysis of the island's Tamil-speaking Hindu and Muslim communities in the midst of the Sri Lankan civil war with the LTTE Tamil Tigers.

In addition to his position as chair of the Department of Anthropology, McGilvray played a major role in the establishment and growth of CU-Boulder’s Center for Asian Studies (CAS). He is presently co-principal investigator with Professor Laurel Rodd (Asian Languages and Civilizations) on a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education Title VI program that has enabled CAS to establish CU-Boulder ’s first Title VI National Resource Center in Asian Studies, accompanied by the university’s first Title VI FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) Fellowships for graduate students who need training in Asian languages and cultures to pursue their doctoral research.

This is a little-known subject area to those who are not directly impacted by the conflict, and it seems especially remote to Americans and Europeans. Can you point out some lesser known elements that do or could have a wide range effect?

Sri Lanka is an island nation located along the vital Indian Ocean shipping lanes that connect Europe and the Persian Gulf with Singapore, Japan, Korea, and China. For that reason, Sri Lanka has strategic importance to the United States and the West, as well as to the stability of the South Asian region including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is also an Asian country with a long tradition of democratic government, and the solution to Sri Lanka’s internal ethnic tensions will be a critical test of the viability of democratic institutions in that part of the world. Because of the 25-year ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, large numbers of Tamil Sri Lankans have become political refugees and immigrants to the U.S. and Canada. The Sri Lankan Tamil rebel group, the LTTE, is generally credited with first perfecting the technique of suicide bombing. Their unprecedented use of child soldiers and female combatants on the front lines has redefined the rules of war.

What are some of the greater impacts on the people involved in the conflict, culturally, spiritually and economically? What do you foresee as an outcome?

The conflict has had a devastating effect on Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil Hindu minority, as well as on its smaller Tamil-speaking Muslim minority. Economic development of the northern and eastern regions of the island, where both of these minorities are concentrated, has been paralyzed for more than two decades. The educated Tamil middle class in particular has sent its children abroad rather than grooming them for careers in Sri Lanka. Spiritually, the conflict has undermined the non-violent principles of the Theravada Buddhist majority ethnic community, the Sinhalese, producing polarized national politics and a highly xenophobic Buddhist monkhood. The immense tourism potential of Sri Lanka will always remain underdeveloped until the conflict is solved.

Do you approach this as a classroom topic, and how does your personal experiences of researching and writing your books influence discussion?

I teach a large freshman-level course (ANTH 1100 Exploring a Non-Western Culture: The Tamils) that enrolls 100+ students. Most students are astonished to learn that there are 70 million Tamils in the world, including a large Tamil diaspora in London, New York, and (especially) Toronto. The course begins with a focus on family and gender roles, the Tamil caste system and an exploration of popular Tamil Hinduism and Islam in South India and Sri Lanka. The final unit of the course turns to contemporary Tamil popular culture (film and music) and to the Tamil ethnic insurgency in Sri Lanka. Students are encouraged to visit websites of the Tamil guerrilla movement, the LTTE, as well as official websites of the Sri Lankan government and independent NGOs. In lectures and recitation sections my students are encouraged to debate the deeper causes of the Sri Lankan Tamil rebellion and to consider the alternatives for a viable peaceful solution.

Please talk about your recent Innovative Seed Grant-funded fieldwork exploring the politics of Sufi Muslim mysticism in Sri Lanka and South India.

My interest in Sri Lankan Muslim Sufism began in the 1970s, when I first documented a traditional form of popular Sufi performance (zikr) by traveling Muslim holy men called “Bawas.” Since then, I have witnessed the growth of other forms of Sufi devotional practices among Muslim laymen and the question this eventually posed for my research was: how can the growth of popular Sufi mysticism in Sri Lanka be reconciled with the global, pan-Islamic spread of Muslim fundamentalism? My current fieldwork with the CU Seed Grant project is intended to explore the contemporary village-level cultural and political environment for popular Sufism, in order to better appreciate the diversity and complexity of actual Muslim beliefs and practices “on the ground” rather than to assume that a single simplified pan-Islamic worldview exists everywhere in the Muslim world.

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