By Haaris Mahmud –
Social media in Sinhala is exploding these few days with vicious posts and cartoons demonising the Muslim community as a whole for expressing views about their displeasure in respect of the cremation of the first Muslim Corona patient who passed away in Negombo. The very basis for their displeasure was conveniently forgotten; which was clouded by a Islamopbobia coating with unreasonable labels attached to them such as unpatriotic and senseless (for having brought religion into what was basically a medical issue and asking for undue rights at a time of national calamity. Two TV stations well known for their anti-Muslim hatred such as Hiru and Derana, added fuel to the fire, thus attempting to marginalise and stigmatize the Muslim community, at a challenging time, which calls for concerted and unified action of all communities.
Not that demonization is something novel or new to the Muslims either in Sri Lanka or globally for that matter. In the Post 09/11 world and Post war Sri Lanka, Muslims have been at the receiving end of a well-orchestrated anti-Muslim hatred campaign fuelled by a powerful Islamophobia industry, which led to racist rhetoric and attacks, malicious campaign in the Media as well as communal violence. In Sri Lanka, impunity for such open racism mainstreamed by both a biased Media and an apathetic establishment, as well as for anti-Muslim attacks, from Aluthgama to Post Easter, has reached crisis proportions. Besides, in Sri Lanka, the racist elements emboldened by the patron saints within a majoritarian and Sinhala supremacist state craft, are virtually being acting as unofficial Police and enjoying “more equal than others” status in this society; making the Muslims feel like second class citizens or ‘guests’ in their country of birth. Alas! With the onset of this recent Corona pandemic, the lid of another Pandora’s box appears to have been opened, letting out another pandemic – the same style of racism with a fresh outlook.
In the Sri Lankan context, Corona is a dreaded virus devastating the entire national fabric, caring nought for differences of region, race , religion or gender. It is great that Sri Lanka has been complimented by the WHO for their comparative success in preventing the spread of this virus. However, people of Sri Lanka are usually community oriented which make it difficult to social distance or self isolate them as easily as such measures were required. Thus there are naturally obstacles in getting them to fall in line with national guidelines in this regard. Then again, the stigma attached to this disease also prevent people from disclosing voluntarily relevant details including their whereabouts or travel; thus the reason for their hesitancy to comply with the requirements of containment or isolation in this regard. Officers like DIG Ajith Rohana as well as the Director of Health were seen to be burning the midnight oil in trying to explain the need to act as responsible citizens,to an audience filled with ignorance, anxiety and fear.
Resultantly, there were many cases of failure to disclose their travels and failure to give up congregational activities both religious and social, more due to ignorance than wilful neglect. More awareness is bearing fruit as people are getting out of their shells and cocoons to fall in with the measures being put in place. However, unfortunately, there was a well- orchestrated attempts by the Hiru/ Derana as well as hate peddlers in the social media notably Facebook, to predominantly target and showcase Muslims in these categories and conveniently avoid pinpointing such acts by others.
The Muslim religious leadership admiringly took pre-emptive measures in this regard, appealing to the community to give the fullest cooperation to the national drive to contain this viral invasion. They instructed Muslims to stop all Mosque-oriented activities and to notably avoid congregational prayers in the mosques including Friday Jumma prayers. The Dept of Muslim affairs gave orders to all Muslim institutions to follow government guidelines to avoid public congregation. Despite, all these measures, there were few instances where some groups of Muslims knowingly or unknowingly ignored them, and conducted congregational activities. When known, such places were sanctioned by way of dismissing their Boards of Trustees for example. There were also instances of some Muslims not disclosing their travel (arrivals from foreign countries and within the country) as well as failure to self-isolate as required, which were certainly deplorable. The Muslim man who died out of this Corona virus reportedly was guilty of travelling around and non-disclosure as well in this regard.( although his family disputed this in a public statement).
But, was this only a Muslim problem? No! they were many similar instances, where those of other nationalities too engaged in activities or actions which were contrary to national guidelines. There were many Sinhalese who came from Italy, there were many other Sinhalese who came after their pilgrimage from India who skipped quarantine procedures. There was a Tamil pastor who infected his congregation in Jaffna. Weren’t there innumerable cases where people did not disclose their previous travels? Wasn’t there a Sinhalese man from Italy who publicly challenged public health authorities? Despite all types of preventive measures, there are always idiots or stupid people in all communities; Muslims inclusive, who act contrary to the guidelines.
A cursory view of the mass media also revealed how the crowds were allowed to congregate in many parts of Sri Lanka – opposite Sathosa, supermarkets and shops in search of foods- salmon and dhal packages inclusive. FTZ workers were also allowed to flock to the BOI entrance in greater numbers. In many areas, people during curfew were forced to come out in huge numbers too in search of their daily provisions as many areas were left out in distribution. Thus, the issue of people congregating in numbers was a common problem, which the authorities had to tackle.
During this crisis situation, the good hearted Sri Lankans showed their magnanimity and charitable nature by coming out to help each other. Muslims too joined in with almost all mosques around the country distributing provisions and dry rations to all deserving families in their areas without differences of race or religion. Many Muslim businesses too, like others, donated immense sums of money for the Corona eradication initiative. Some mosques donated medical accessories and Katukelle Mosque offered their school premises to be used as a quarantine centre. This was merely to show that Muslims did not fall back; instead they joined with others hand in hand to counter the invisible enemy.
Despite this reality and despite the fact the majority of the Muslim community were falling in line with the national guidelines, as reiterated by their religious leadership, it is regrettable and deplorable that violations were projected as a Muslim problem, calling them as unpatriotic and insensitive to national priorities. Muslims were publicly demonised. One social media post even suggested that Muslims are using the Corona virus to kill the majority community, the way Sahraan did last year. Stupid post! but as Goebbels theory suggests, such lies and canards frequently uttered will be believed by an unsuspecting public as true! As stated earlier, Hiru and Derana were spreading anti Muslim venom through their news admixed with fake, half baked aimed at provoking the average Sinhala population to act against the Muslims. They conveyed totally incorrect information about the congregational prayers at the Red Mosque too. Todate, that misinformation stands uncorrected! Even the Army Commander in a Derana TV interview, referred to some areas not heeding instructions about precautions as ‘Muslim areas’, which he later apologized for.
Let us now address the issues revolving round the stand of the Muslim community with regard to the cremation of Muslims who fall victim to this Corona monster. The 2nd Corona to die as a result of this virus was a 64 year old Muslim patient in Negombo (originally from Jaffna). The patient had earlier shown a chest-related illness after which he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Then he was rushed to the Negombo Hospital where he died a few hours later. The social media was full of details of the movements of this patient which contained truths, half-truths and untruths as well as per version from the patient’s family. His family says, they were informed of the death and the preparation were being made for his burial. However ,they only knew about the cremation of the patient’s body way later after the event; although Derana news said that the family did not attend .
The background to this cremation will throw light into the reason why the Muslim community expressed dismay and surprise about this method of disposal and there were widespread discontent about the diabolical manner in which the authorities acted . Unfortunately, these concerns were later turned by anti-Muslim hate peddlers into a deplorable racist saga both in the social and mass media, thereby painting a distorted picture about the Muslims , in the minds of the Sinhala public.
To Muslims and Jews, body should be buried and not cremated. This option was written into the the World Health Organisation (WHO) formulated guidelines titled ‘Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19. These guidelines allowed for BURIAL OR CREMATION. Even a study of the past shows that when it came to the combat against Ebola or Marbug virus, WHO permitted burial of the dead bodies infected with the said virus. There is no scientific evidence of spread of disease after the body has been sealed in a body bag from respiratory or gastrointestinal fluids and therefore there is no difference in cremation or burial with regard to spreading of the virus. Countries like United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, Israel, Malaysia, Iran and Italy too had permitted to bury the dead bodies of those infected with COVID-19.
Although the SL health authorities earlier specified only cremation as the means of disposal of ‘Corona’ bodies, later on representations made, amended their guidelines to include burial as well apart from cremation, in line with the WHO guidelines.In accordance with this amendment, the Ministry of Health even imported the necessary bags too for this purpose of burial. It was in this context, that the Mosque Federation and the ACJU arranged for the burials of any Muslim victims bodies’ to be done to be Maligawatte or Kuppiyawatte Cemetery, based on the specifications given in the said guidelines. However, our inquiries reveal that the regional MOHs have not been properly informed about the option of burial as well. However, when the first Muslim Covid 19 patient died, the regional authorities in Negombo took the decision to cremate the body, despite the fact the provision was there to bury the body
Addinng salt to the injury, after this cremation, the Public Health authorities citing no plausible reasons for the change, amended the guidelines to dispose the bodies only by cremation. If the decision was taken based on based on scientific and medical concerns, then the Muslim community would have no qualms about the decision. But, sadly, it appears to be a decision taken on other considerations such as racism, bad publicity or playing to majoritarian gallery, blatantly disregarding express WHO standard guidelines followed by over 180 countries which allows both options. This unwarranted deviation may sadly even discourage some from revealing their actual symptoms, which may be disastrous.
Therefore, it is not the question of Muslims not falling in line with public health guidelines. The questions are why and how the guidelines were amended only to allow cremation at the last minute, when there are no scientific basis for such amendment as WHO guidelines clearly shows. Any sensible person will realise that this decision was taken on other considerations. The people and those in the social media have been made to believe that Muslims are inflexible ; in actual fact, the option for burials granted under WHO guidelines previously adopted by the Sri Lankan health authorities were mysteriously changed by vested interests to pre-empt such option. Some may say ‘One nation; one law’. In this case, the guidelines gave two options at first; but the religious and cultural rights of a section of the society was denied by blatantly taking away one such option without any scientific basis. Allowing individuals or influencers to deviate or bypass established procedures is an extremely high risk approach given the circumstances related to COVID-19.
Shouldn’t Sri Lanka complimented by WHO for their successful Anti-Corona campaign should follow also follow WHO guidelines too in this respect? This is the reason for the Muslim community to express their concerns which was misinterpreted as lopsided and unwarranted. It will be the constructive engagement which will continue to yield positive results for the whole society, balancing both religious rights of people and the scientific and medical considerations.
As the outbreaks continue to spread, so do panic, new rumours and unwanted tension across communities. As the world is fighting a pandemic, maybe we should also prepare for combating a corona-racism pandemic so we can all fight the virus in solidarity.