The per­se­cu­tion of Sri Lankan Mus­lims

Is­lam is the third largest re­li­gion in Sri Lanka and cer­tainly deserves a bet­ter deal than what it is get­ting.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Huza­ima Bukhari & Dr. Ikra­mul Haq

The Mus­lims in Sri Lanka look for­ward to a bet­ter deal.

For cen­turies, Sri Lanka has been viewed with re­spect for its mul­tire­li­gious sites al­low­ing peo­ple to en­joy the freedom to wor­ship. The coun­try’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal record tes­ti­fies how re­li­gious places such as Katargama, Madhu shrine and Sri Pada ex­isted side by side and were revered by Bud­dhists, Hin­dus, Mus­lims and Chris­tians. This spirit of tol­er­ance re­ceived se­ri­ous set­backs in re­cent months with shock­ing news of at­tacks on Mus­lims and mosques. Like Myan­mar, Sri Lanka has also started wit­ness­ing a grow­ing ha­tred to­wards Mus­lims. The Econ­o­mist, in a re­cent re­port said: “An­other coun­try where Bud­dhism is be­com­ing con­flated with a grow­ing eth­nic and na­tion­al­ist iden­tity is Sri Lanka. There the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or­gan­i­sa­tion – that stands for “Bud­dhist force” and is made up of mem­bers of the coun­try’s eth­nic Sin­halese ma­jor­ity – preaches a doc­trine of in­tol­er­ance against a mi­nor­ity Is­lamic pop­u­la­tion (in this case, about 10 per cent of the coun­try), whose birth rate, they also claim, is alarm­ingly high. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, a BBS leader, ar­gues that “This is a Sin­hala Bud­dhist coun­try. We have a Sin­hala Bud­dhist cul­ture. This is not Saudi Ara­bia. But you must ac­cept the cul­ture and be­have in a man­ner that doesn’t harm it.” The BBS, Econ­o­mist says, “has been cam­paign­ing against Is­lam on spe­cific is­sues, such as ha­lal la­belling on food. More gen­er­ally, it is ac­cused of in­cit­ing mobs to at­tack mosques and Mus­lim-owned shops. The BBS de­fends the per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingyas in Myan­mar, claim­ing that Bud­dhists are act­ing out of self-preser­va­tion. As in Myan­mar, plenty of politi­cians are ready to pro­mote the agenda of groups like the BBS by ex­ploit­ing the ig­no­rance, prej­u­dices and fears of the Bud­dhist pop­u­la­tion.” It is un­for­tu­nate that the ris­ing tide of ha­tred be­tween two of the most wide­spread re­li­gions – Is­lam and Bud­dhism – in Asia is rekin­dling big­otry in coun­tries hav­ing a proven track record of tol­er­ant multi-re­li­gious cul­tures. In In­dia, Pak­istan and In­done­sia, thou­sands of Mus­lims marched in sup­port of their brethren in Myan­mar and Sri Lanka. Thus, the Mus­lim ver­sus Bud­dhist is­sue is no longer con­fined to Myan­mar and Sri Lanka. It is pos­ing global ram­i­fi­ca­tions for peace and democ­racy. 1.4 mil­lion Mus­lims live in Sri Lanka rep­re­sent­ing 7.5 % of the is­lands´19 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. Is­lam is the na­tion’s third largest re­li­gion af­ter Bud­dhism (over 13 mil­lion faith­ful, 69% of the pop­u­la­tion) and Hin­duism (circa 9 mil­lion). The Mus­lim com­mu­nity is di­vided into three main eth­nic groups: the Sri Lankan Moors, the In­dian Mus­lims and the Malays, each with its own his­tory and tra­di­tions. The at­ti­tude among the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in Sri Lanka is to use the term “Mus­lim” as an eth­nic group, specif­i­cally when re­fer­ring to Sri Lankan Moors. Amid this dis­turb­ing sce­nario there are still voices of san­ity. In the wake of un­pro­voked at­tack on the Masjid Deenul Is­lam in Sri Lanka on Au­gust 10, 2013 by an ex­trem­ist mob in­jur­ing 12 peo­ple, over two hun­dred con­cerned cit­i­zens [The Guardian, Au­gust 15, 2013] signed a protest note say­ing: “While recog­nis­ing and pro­mot­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed rights of free speech, re­li­gious wor­ship, and assem­bly, we urge all com­mu­ni­ties to re­spect the re­li­gious be­liefs – and the as­so­ci­ated rights – of their fel­low cit­i­zens, and to not be in­flu­enced by state-con­doned Bud­dhist ex­trem­ists groups.” Th­ese cit­i­zens ex­pressed dis­may over what they called “the vis­i­ble ap­a­thy dis­played by the govern­ment and the Ma­hanayake Theros of the Tri-Nikayas, at a time when the rights to re­li­gious wor­ship and assem­bly of its cit­i­zens are be­ing threat­ened by ex­trem­ism” and added “we wish to high­light ap­par­ent state com­plic­ity and the level of im­punity re­peat­edly granted by the state to ex­trem­ist ele­ments in the coun­try.” Th­ese cit­i­zens wel­comed and en­dorsed the open let­ter of protest by Mus­lim mem­bers of the govern­ment ad­dressed to the Pres­i­dent of Sri Lanka, and shared their view that “the luke­warm and in­ef­fec­tive mea­sures taken by the law en­force­ment agen­cies on pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions, when Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties and their mosques were de­lib­er­ately at­tacked, seem to have em­bold­ened some ex­trem­ist groups who are

de­ter­mined to cre­ate chaos in the coun­try that is still in search of national rec­on­cil­i­a­tion af­ter a pro­longed war.” Raashid Raza in his ar­ti­cle, Lankan Mus­lims and their im­age prob­lem, pub­lished in Cey­lon To­day on July 24, 2013, ob­served that in the last few years “in­deed the plight of Sri Lankan Mus­lims has be­come some­what dire; new rad­i­cal Sin­halese groups like the BBS and the Sin­hala Ravaya (SR) have hi­jacked Bud­dhism and are both com­mit­ting and ad­vo­cat­ing crimes against the Mus­lim com­mu­nity.” A Rameez, cur­rently a PhD scholar at National Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore and lec­turer in So­ci­ol­ogy at South Eastern Univer­sity of Sri Lanka, in his ar­ti­cle, ‘The per­se­cu­tion of the Mus­lims in Sri Lanka’, pub­lished in The Guardian, July 28, 2013, quoted Hu­naiz Farook, Mem­ber Par­lia­ment, claim­ing that “the Lib­er­a­tion of Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) force­fully ex­pelled the Mus­lims from the North­ern prov­ince at gun­point, and abruptly put an end to the call for prayers (Athan), thereby clos­ing the mosques in the prov­ince.” Rameez wrote that this speech was a gen­uine re­flec­tion of the emo­tions and grief in the minds of any Mus­lim in the coun­try, “against the back­drop of them con­tin­u­ously be­ing tar­geted by the ethno-re­li­gious fas­cist Bud­dhist forces like BBS and SR, ob­vi­ously stirred by the govern­ment.” Rameez says “it is high time for the govern­ment to take some mea­sures im­me­di­ately to con­tain th­ese ethno-re­li­gious fas­cist move­ments mush­room­ing in the post-war sce­nario, and to restore the re­li­gious rights of the Mus­lims his­tor­i­cally en­joyed by them through­out the coun­try. It is also im­por­tant for the Mus­lim MPs and min­is­ters to show gen­uine com­mit­ment re­gard­ing the is­sues plagu­ing the com­mu­nity at large, adopt­ing a view that looks be­yond the next elec­tion. They should also raise this is­sue in par­lia­ment and cab­i­nets. This is­sue should also be drawn, with the in­ter­ven­tion of the Mus­lim politi­cians, to the at­ten­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially the Mus­lim coun­tries that sup­port Sri Lanka fi­nan­cially and diplo­mat­i­cally in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums like Geneva. The con­tin­u­ous per­se­cu­tion of Mus­lims in the coun­try is a se­ri­ous is­sue that must be dealt with im­me­di­ately by those in power, lest it lead to an­other national catas­tro­phe.” It may be re­mem­bered that in 2009, the present govern­ment suc­cess­fully de­feated the LTTE mil­i­tar­ily, and in his­toric vic­tory speech made by the Pres­i­dent on May 19, 2009 he averred, “We have re­moved the word mi­nori­ties from our vo­cab­u­lary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Sin­halese, Mus­lims, Burghers, Malays and any other mi­nori­ties. There are only two kinds of peo­ple in this coun­try now. One is the peo­ple that love this coun­try. The other com­prises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the coun­try are now a lesser group.” The hope ex­pressed by the Pres­i­dent proved short lived as ev­i­denced by un­pro­voked at­tacks on Mus­lim mi­nor­ity. Dr. Ruwan­tissa Abeyratne, in his ar­ti­cle, ‘Re­li­gious big­otry, ha­tred & and hu­man rights’, pub­lished in The Guardian (Sri Lanka), Au­gust 14, 2013, aptly con­cluded: “The pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights is the most sig­nif­i­cant and im­por­tant task for a mod­ern State, par­tic­u­larly since multi eth­nic States are the norm in to­day’s world. The tra­di­tional na­tion State in which a dis­tinct national group rules over a ter­ri­to­rial unit is fast re­ced­ing in his­tory. Glob­al­i­sa­tion and in­creased mi­gra­tion across bor­ders is grad­u­ally putting an end to the con­cept of the na­tion State, al­though re­sis­tance to re­al­ity can still be ob­served in in­stances where ma­jor­ity or dom­i­nant cul­tures im­pose their iden­tity and in­ter­ests on groups with whom they share a ter­ri­tory. In such cases, mi­nori­ties fre­quently in­ten­sify their ef­forts to pre­serve and pro­tect their iden­tity, in or­der to avoid marginal­i­sa­tion. Po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween the op­po­site forces of as­sim­i­la­tion on the one hand and pro­tec­tion of mi­nor­ity iden­tity on the other in­evitably causes in­creased in­tol­er­ance cul­mi­nat­ing in armed eth­nic con­flict. In such a sce­nario, the first duty of gov­er­nance is to en­sure that the rights of a mi­nor­ity so­ci­ety are pro­tected.” Hu­man­ity at large fer­vently hopes that Sri Lankan govern­ment will come out of the syn­drome that mi­nori­ties should be sub­dued and marginal­ized fol­low­ing de­feat of the LTTE. It is a proven fact that the more the mi­nori­ties are marginalised, the more re­bel­lious and frus­trated they would be­come. Presently, onus is on the govern­ment to dis­pel any such im­pres­sion and deal with an iron hand provoca­tive acts of cer­tain ex­trem­ist groups to the detri­ment of mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties en­sur­ing cul­tural di­ver­sity, equal­ity, tol­er­ance, and their fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights.

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