By Sharmila Seyyid –
I am a woman who never at any time upheld the Islamic fundamentalist ideas nor had ever worn the ‘hijab’ or the ‘burka’. In any of the places I was I had not volunteered in appearance, dress code or anything whatsoever to be identified as a “Muslim woman”, unless such an identity was a coincidence. My understanding of religion is far more different, that it is a spiritualistic inward journey into yourself, the very core, the subconscious mind. I am unable to get free myself of the impacts of the shock that I am being looked upon as a terrorist suspect, in spite of all my detachments from religious identity.
From 2002 onwards I had associated myself with several social welfare activities and project. The facets of my career, in keeping with changing circumstances, had changed from time to time, as a journalist, writer and activist. I had established Mantra Life in 2015 as a self-generating multi-welfare-organization. There are friends with me in this journey of non-profit organization. Other than myself and another colleague, all the others are non-Muslims. Transcending racial and religious differences, we had rendered services, successfully through several welfare projects. This includes empowerment of women, child development, psychological counseling, rescuing of the affected, and providing them assistance, professional guidance, organic farming and many others. Although I am a Muslim, none of the projects were focused on the Muslim community. The organization was started and registered in Ethul Kotte, a pre-dominant Sinhala area and the majority Sinhalese was the beneficiaries of the projects. Continuously operating in one single location for three long years and executing several welfare activities, the Mantra Life had gained distinct recognition. We were also engaged in social reconciliation projects. Inviting leaders of different religions and faith we held discourses with the people. All projects of the Mantra Life were focused on promoting mutual understanding, brotherhood and goodwill among those representing different communities, cultures and religions.
The question of exorbitant monthly rent for the building that Mantra Life occupied, made its continued operations a problem. The Mantra Life was not dependent on any Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It operated as a self-generating organization and was engaged only in projects generating its own funds. We generated most of the funds from food preparation and Yoga classes. Mostly women were involved in all these activities. The Mantra Life that was operating on the new and rather “un-familiar to Sri Lanka” concept of social business had established net-work connections with other organizations guided by similar concepts. This was one reason for the success of the Mantra Life. Many social business organizations had accepted the social business network, popularly known as “Good Market” and the Mantra Life too accepted it and offered many opportunities.
The outcome of the Easter serious of bomb explosions has made every individual in suspicious, worthless and fear. Without exceptions stones have fallen in the dreams of Mantra Life. We are uprooting forcefully from the new location of Mantra Life, Wadduwa.
A situation, where the minority Muslims is looked upon as terrorist suspects, has now come about or has been deliberately brought about. The forces of power want such a state to persist. The media too are contributing their share to it. The magnanimous actions of the Christian and Buddhist religious leaders give some hopes, appearing as a silver lining in the dark cloud. But no words of solace or reconciliatory measures would offset the loss of innocent lives in the bomb blasts. Their dear and near ones are in untold distress. There is no remedial panacea. The mental agony, disgrace and heart pain due to the realization that it was committed by “Muslims” hurts me, as also the others. I do not agree on debates that the attacks were staged by the “ISIS terrorists who can’t be Muslims”. What is right is “it was committed by brainwashed Muslim youth who joined the ISIS terrorist movement“. All debates and discussions should be based on the nexus of that logical standpoint. Debates on whether or not they were brainwashed, how and the involvement of international politics in the background are matters that also have to be based on this standpoint.
Forces of power want the country unstable and the future of individuals in uncertainty and fear. Their goal is political mileage from such a state. Past history of the country bears abundant testimony to it. The country is in the grip of communalism and religious fanaticism which are outcome of decisions of individuals for several reasons. I am writing this under traumatic situations where my pride as a citizen of this country, hopes and sense of security have become questionable.
During my visit to the 130-year-old “Church of the Holy Spirit”, a Catholic Church in Wadduwa, I directly confronted that accusation. I have been a resident of Colombo or several years and my first and last encounter with the Wadduwa Chatholic Church happened on one single day. I visited and entered the Church on 06.05.2019 with due reverence and respect same as any other devotees who entered Churches or Temples.
My relations with Wadduwa town, next to Panadura on the Galle Road, began in January this year. The contact was through the Mantra Life organization for which I am working. I set foot on that town with a clear, unblemished and innocent mind and with a specific good-intentioned, clear objective. Prior to that, I had no dealings or contacts in that town.
In or about December 2018, we started our search for a premise on a moderate rent for the Mantra Life started and we finally decided to buy our own land on the basis hire purchased basis. In that effort we found the right property in Wadduwa. In other words the property found us. The owner of that property contacted us , told his property was in Wadduwa and we could use it for the Mantra Life. He had come to know of the Mantra Life projects through the “Athpavura” TV program and was found it interesting. Since it was a suitable location for the Mantra Life we wanted to buy it. But due to financial straits, we decided to take it on a 15 year lease and, consequently, we reached an understanding with its owner on acquiring its ownership at a gradual phase. We were engaged in preparing the legal documents relating to the agreement and the deed. The landlord is a Sinhala majoritarian and he born and bred in Wadduwa. He has better understanding of minorities in Srilanka and he didn’t have any second thought of ensuring an agreement with us even most of us are belongs to minority.
During this period, a family was occupying the property on rent. Transgressing their two year rent agreement, they had unlawfully continued to live in that property for seven years. The circumstances confronting the owner’s inability to evict them due to his overseas residence, with his family, was understood and I visited the family on a number of occasions and held friendly discussions with them on the issue. I came to know that they were in the process of constructing a new house. They requested for permission to live in that house until they completed their new house and we agreed to it. The period of that permission exceeded more than a month and the man failed to vacate the house. He had all facilities to move away any moment because he was born and bred in Wadduwa and his mother’s house was in the same street. His intentions seemed ambiguous and we had to engage in minor arguments. Incidentally it was on the day that he finally vacated the house that the Easter Sunday bomb explosions rocked the country and the situation completely changed for the worse.
We were only in a position to keep that house which was procured for Mantra Life closed. On the ninth day after the serious of bomb explosions, I went to the property with a construction worker to carry out renovations to the house. The earlier mentioned tenant who had vacated the house hurriedly came to the house and informed me that the Grama Niladhari had wanted me to meet him. The Grama Niladhari also wanted to know about the my proposed operations in that site, he said. It was not a day to meet the Grama Niladhari and I did not meet him on that day.
The following day a police officer by the name Priyantha called me from the Wadduwa police station and inquired details of the property. He asked me to come to police station with the relevant documents. At the same time the owner of the land also called from abroad. He said that the priest of the Wadduwa Church had called him and wanted to know details of the party now in possession of the property . He texted the phone number of the Church Priest with the request to get in touch with him. I immediately contacted the Priest. He asked me to come and meet him in the Church and gave the time and date – 8 am on 06.05.2019.
I was under the impression that this may be due to routine security checking that have been taking place in virtually all places but the shock of my life awaited me there. He had summoned me there to warn me to quit the land after coming to know from the previous tenant that I was a Muslim woman.
The church priest began with the words that “the people here do not have good opinion of you and they are scared”.
I replied “the people here do not know me or our organization and, furthermore, we have not officially come into occupation of the place. We have only bought it. How is it possible for the people to form any opinion?”
The Church Priest immediately remarked “You are a Muslim”. It was shocking and appeared grossly ‘unjustifiable’ in the background of the fact that I had been captivated by the acts of Archbishop His Highness Cardinal Malcom Ranjith’s calling for peace and harmony and ,consequently, in his speech in Batticaloa in the aftermath of the bomb explosion that “ he had forgiven the terrorists and their families”. In the light of his discourses, amidst pain of heart, preaching communal amity and brotherhood , the behavior that I encountered seemed unjust. I was held there as a culprit although I never deserved such an accusation. In spite of the just and peaceful reasons that I explained to the Priest, he was rigid in his stand. What he repeatedly said was “ You are Muslim. You will start centers with various names and we see in the news what finally happen. You are concealing weapons in Mosques. We do not need either your services or your activities. We will take care of the social development programs for our people. If you want to do anything, you go and do them for the Muslim community. Give psychological counseling to those who want to jump with explosives tied to them. Try to mend their ways. If you by pass what I say and come here again, we will stage people’s struggles together with Buddhist monks .” He was firm in his position.
In the police station they never threatened me in that manner. They only stressed that it was not safe to come there and the people will not allow it.
I do not comprehend as to whom they are referring to as “people’. None among the people there know me. All these decisions have been taken in according with the desire of certain individuals.
In 2012 , I was forced to flee the country, with my infant child, under threats to my life from Muslim fundamentalists. In 2014, after the publication of the novel “Ummath”, there was once again threat to my life. In spite of all these and my inability to go to my native place for nine long years, I returned to the country. This decision was prompted by nothing other than my love for this country and trust. In order to keep away from the eyes of protectors of Islamic cultures, I quit Dehiwala, the area of Muslims’ large concentration, where I had lived and socialized for 16 long years and went to live in Sri Jayawardenepura area. It was because I had so much trust and goodwill towards the Sinhala people and I still have.
The Muslim community looks upon me as an anti-Muslim. The Sinhalese community is trying to brand me as an Islamic radical. The question that surfaces endlessly is whether it is possible at all to live in dignity and security in this country and it is an eternal torture of the mind and unending trauma.
I can even come to terms with the crumbled dream of a property on its own for the Mantra Life. But I am unable to put up with the manner I was told how I should function and for whom and the particular place where the message was rigidly conveyed to me. This keeps threatening me as a monstrous issue. The soul of this country has been blood stained at different stages by different forces. Now this has been staged by certain ISIS terrorists. I consider it a bounden duty of every citizen of this country to cleanse this stain in order to hand it over to our future generation as a country free of conflicts and contradictions.
There is no basis, whatsoever, for the people of Wadduwa to reject me. Religious institutions have themselves taken a decision on behalf of the people to reject me. Those religious institutions have failed to comprehend the gravity of the rejection which will transform into hatred that will systematically erode the very roots of peace.
I understand the sentiments, anger, fears and pain of the people of the majority of Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhalese Catholics. But how does it say that a violence action can’t be a solution for another violent action. How do we make sure that the medicine to heal our wounds is united? As one who was guided by lofty principles to stand opposed to religious and communal fanaticism and have been contributing to it through my writing and activities now feel helpless, abandoned, secluded and insecure when these very two fanatic forces directly attack me. Everything surrounding me seems to sound warnings and I am concluding this with no knowledge what to do next.