By Izeth Hussain –
Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads – 21; Other issues (continued)
I must insist on the importance of the fact that in Islamic animal sacrifice none of the meat is meant to go waste. This follows from the fact that Islam places a high value on reverence for life, including non-human life, which is why hunting for pleasure is forbidden – something that perhaps had to be expected in a religion that arose in a desert environment where non-human life was very scarce. Consequently even the wealthiest Muslims, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have a deep aversion to throwing away food, which is equivalent to throwing away life. That is evidently why – as I have been informed by a reader – the Saudi Government processes the huge amount of excess meat left after the Bairam festival and exports it to other countries, free of charge for distribution to the poor.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Islamic animal sacrifice that can be regarded as morally reprehensible according to the highest standards of the most advanced civilisations in the world. The late much revered monk, the Ven. Soma Thera, wrote in the Sunday Times – if my memory serves correctly – that though killing is forbidden in Buddhism it could be allowed in some cases, for instance those who practice animal sacrifice. He was an erudite monk, but he was not erudite on Islam. However, there certainly are malpractices in the cattle trade that have been crying out for correction for decades. The argument that the use of the stun-gun is a humane way of killing cattle, while the Islamic way of slitting the throat is inhuman and barbaric, is I think an expression of Western Islamophobia which has come to be parroted by Sri Lankans. A foreigner tells me that in ancient Greece and Rome where the condemned to death were allowed to choose the method of execution, they – like Socrates – invariably chose to slit their wrists. There is not a single instance of anyone choosing to be dispatched into the next world with a brutal bang on the head. Anyway, I am told that there is now a method of making cattle insensitive to pain and then slitting the throat, which would be fully consistent with Islamic requirements. If so, it is up to the Government to impose that method by law.
Likewise it is up to the Government to take corrective measures against well-known malpractices, such as the inhuman crowding of cattle into trucks for transportation and their being starved for days before slaughter. Such malpractices were never an integral part of the cattle trade – the British colonial power would never have tolerated them – until after 1977. A friend from Akurana, a center of the cattle trade, tells me that such malpractices became more or less the norm only after the late Minister A.C.S. Hameed used to intervene to prevent the police taking punitive action. The continuity of the malpractices can be seen as part of the general breakdown of law and order. However, what is important for the purposes of this article is that such malpractices are quite definitely unIslamic, as can be shown from Islamic texts. The point I want to emphasize is that those responsible for the malpractices constitute an infinitesimal fraction of our Muslim population, not the generality of the Muslims. Therefore our Buddhists should blame the Government, not the Muslims, for failing to take effective action to stop those unIslamic malpractices.
It will help in sorting out the irritant of cattle slaughter in Sinhalese-Muslim relations if there is recognition on the Sinhalese side that there has been blatant hypocrisy about it. Buddhism forbids killing but it gives no sacrosanct place to cattle, so that it becomes difficult to understand why the agitation has been only against cattle slaughter and not the slaughter of marine life and chickens. A fish taken out of water dies in agony in a process comparable to that of humans being drowned, but we have always had a Ministry of Fisheries. Broiler chickens are subjected to horrible confinement right through their lives, but there has been no agitation to stop their consumption. Pigs are first brutally clubbed and killed after red-hot pokers are introduced into them. But there has been no agitation to stop the killing of pigs through a horrifying process of torture. Two questions arise: Has the agitation been confined to cattle slaughter because the cattle trade has been a virtual monopoly of the Muslims? The second question: Is there not hypocrisy and racism behind that agitation?
I am prepared to respect Buddhist sentiments about killing, particularly on the part of Buddhists who are vegetarians. But there should be recognition of the fact that love of animals can go together with inhumanity towards human beings. The best known case was that of Himmler who was responsible for the organization and running of the death camps to exterminate the Jews. He used to sometimes take time off from his official duties to watch the killings take place. And yet, right through his life he had a passionate love of animals the sincerity of which was never doubted by any one. I must add that he was well-versed in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.
It is known in fact that many of the Nazi leaders, inhuman though they were to the point of being subhuman, were passionately fond of dogs. In one of Bunuel’s films the Ambassador in Paris of a Latin American dictatorship is told that a former Nazi had been apprehended in his capital city. He remarks, “I can assure you that he is a perfect gentleman”, and a female voice is heard asking – in a delightful satirical thrust – “Is he fond of children, dogs, and Mozart?” Some of the Nazi leaders may have had a humane side. So, while respecting genuine Buddhist sentiments we have nevertheless to ask what there might be behind supposed humane concerns over cattle slaughter. In any case, what has to be done to remove that irritant is quite straightforward. The Government should take steps to compel humane methods of slaughter, and to end the malpractices that have grown in the cattle trade. If the Buddhists want to stop cattle slaughter altogether, it is something that they should take up with the Government. It should not be allowed to prejudice Sinhalese-Muslim relations.
In my last article I wrote that I would make a few observations on two issues which could have more serious consequences than most of the others. Apart from cattle slaughter, the other is the perception that the Muslims are inordinately wealthy. This perception was particularly rampant some decades ago when under the command economy no one seemed to be able to make big money except gem merchants, most of whom were Muslims. Obviously that had to be a misperception after the market economy got going in post-1977 Sri Lanka, and very probably it was always a misperception. I recall that when in the first half of the ‘nineties I prepared a paper on the SL Muslims for publication by the Western Australian University, I had recourse to a Marga Institute study which established with copious statistics that none of our ethnic groups was better off economically than any of the others. I have found that it is no longer possible to establish from official statistics the relative economic position of our ethnic groups. However, the notion of inordinate Muslim wealth continues, as shown for instance by the charge made during the Ven. Wirathu’s visit that Sri Lanka’s commerce is under Muslim control.
We need not attach much importance to what are obvious misperceptions. But one fact has a possible incendiary potential for the future. When swabasha was introduced decades ago Sinhalese and Tamil children were taught in their languages while the Muslims could opt for English, and that for obvious reasons conferred significant advantages on the Muslims. That did not seem to matter during the ‘fifties and’ sixties when the Muslims were still educationally backward and remained basically a trading community outside the Eastern Province where they were predominantly agricultural. But now they are competing with the Sinhalese and the Tamils in every field, and their competence in English is seen to confer on them a decisive and also an unfair advantage. This advantage is not due to any devilry on the part of the Muslims but is the consequence of the short-sightedness of Sinhalese politicians in imposing Swabasha. The fact remains that it is objectively an advantage and there could arise a case for removing that advantage through what is called positive discrimination or affirmative action. The case will however have to depend on reliable statistics showing that the Muslims have an over-all advantage, and not just in this or that field. It should not be a serious problem, but I am uneasy because of an indubitable fact: we Sri Lankans have shown a genius – immensely impressive by international standards – for mucking and wrecking our ethnic relations.