By As-Sauthul Mazlum –
“We need never be ashamed of our tears.” ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
As the Muslims pass the half way mark of the blessed month of Ramazan through the rough patches of a pandemic, the Covid cremation possibility has been creating heartaches among them. The anguish of being cremated, in the likely event of a death due to that deadly virus, in contravention of the funeral rites prescribed by their faith! To the Muslims, it is not an unpatriotic or an irresponsible act to request a burial of a Covid body. It is not even insisting on a right at a time of national peril; rather it is asking for facility as clearly allowed,as per scientific evidence and WHO guidelines.
In this article, I will attempt to convey this fire of anguish and the tears embroiled within Muslim hearts in Sri Lanka, when millions of their Muslim brethren in over 180 countries are enjoying this religious right, along with Jewish and Christian fraternities. Last night, my aged mother who is in her 70s and a heart ailment patient, was heard to have fits of emotional bursts mixed with anger, close to weeping in her room. I was really concerned about my beloved mother. When I inquired, she conveyed her fears of a possible cremation if she passes away, irrespective of whether it is a Covid death or not. Our attempts to console her were of no avail. She kept on repeating her wishes to be buried if she dies and praying to the Almighty to grant her wishes. I am not blaming her; not do I consider her concerns as absurd as they are genuine. We all shared her concerns too; not in that emotional way she showed hers.
She has by then heard of the cremation of a Muslim woman after a false test which made her a Covid patient. In the case of the he Muslim woman who was cremated on a false Covid test, it was alleged that her son was asked by the public health authorities to sign the papers forcibly. Even in the case of the first Negombo victim, the public health officials ignored the law prevailing at that time allowing both burial and cremation options and did not even inform the near kith and kin until the body was taken for cremation. Are we living under a dictatorial regime with scant respect for law and legitimate concerns?
My beloved mother felt traumatized and felt pulverized in spirit, living at a time in history where a Muslim cannot even have a dignified death ;let alone living as a Muslim due to the intransigence of a government which depends on hate politics around for survival. Her tale of woe was that they were living in harmony with the majority Sinhalese in her village in Kalutara until the early 2009. She began cursing the rulers and those hate peddlers who denied her the opportunity to live in peace with her neighbours – Silvas, Fernandos, Wickramasinghes and Sivas. Her concerns reflects the millions of Muslims hearts in Sri Lanka and the world around. Her fury showed that if she wants to cremate any body, it is cremating the hate politics and all those who stand up for such lowly polices. She was furious with the status quo!
True! It was after the war ended, that the ‘dirty’ politicians used anti Muslim hate for their own nefarious ends. Even today, Sinhalese and Muslims live side by side in harmony in villages and habitations in the South. But racist politics on both sides are increasingly making it difficult. Today, there is a racist government with a conniving public health bureaucracy and rogue media which makes living as a Muslim difficult in this once Paradise Isle. The so called Muslim parties are also frauds with no concerns for communal interests’, working for their own personal agendas. After the Easter bombing, the Muslim community is being demonised as never before, making the entire community which stood up for national integrity for over thousand years suspect as a terrorist prone lot; guilty by association for the evil acts of a fringe vile barbaric group. No one is worried about the clear political dimensions surrounding this conspiracy or plot – as reflected in the clear negligence seen in ignoring the prior warnings and the use of the resulting anti-Muslim venom to come to power. Be it as it may, Muslims as well as Tamils too, have become victims of dirty politics.
Muslims have no issue with cremation of Covid deaths, IF there is no other alternative in the light of scientific evidence of the risks associated with burials. But the facts belie such a situation. Enough scientific evidence has been placed before the decision makers of this country. It is therefore nothing to do with such evidence. It is the underlying racist attitudes of a government which was voted to power on narrow Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. What the approach of the Director of Health Dr Jasinghe (who is supposed to be a VP of WHO and still violating WHO guidelines), indicates subtly was that it was the dictates of his political bosses who wants the legitimate concerns of a sections of the people of Sri Lanka shoved aside for petty political gains. The eye of this regime is on the next election. The cat jumped out of their bag when their Dr Channa Perera in a BBC interview revealed the true intentions. He stated that they believe that the Covid infected bodies may be used as biological weapons. What idiocy! Some reason to deny the right of Muslims for a decent burial! Isn’t it like the proverbial rogue who climbed the Kitul tree when caught saying that he climbed the tree to cut grass for his cattle!
In Islam, human dignity is a right given by God to all humans—who are referred to in the Qur’ān as God’s vicegerents on earth. Islam grants certain rights to humans before they are even born and others after their death. Whether dead or alive, the human body—created by God in the perfect shape—must be given dignity and respect. This importance of the human body is illustrated, for instance, in the Qur’ān 5:31. There, it is narrated that when Cain was unsure of how to deal with the body of his brother Abel—whom he had murdered—God sent a message in the form of a raven. God used the raven to dig into the ground to bury another raven, thus indirectly showing Cain how to bury his brother’s body.
Respect for dead bodies manifests itself in diverse ways in different cultures around the world.In Islamic law and Muslim cultures, burying the dead in the ground is the correct way to respect dead bodies. Cremation is prohibited under Islamic law because, unlike in some cultures, it is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body.
In the case of Covid deaths, Muslims have been receptive to scientific advice to deal with the bodies carefully, They gave up two important obligations relating to funeral rites- the washing and shrouding the body. They are only asking for the right to bury their dead- as allowed by scientific experts. The myth relating to risks of burials has already been debunked by WHO.
There are few FR Petitions to be filed in court soon challenging this arbitrary decision of the government. It was comforting to see some senior non-Muslim lawyers agreeing to appear free of charge due to the just nature of this case which impinges of fundamental rights of the people to practice their faith and culture. The people are eagerly awaiting for a just decision from the only salvation available – The Judiciary, having experienced the partiality of the two out of three branches of the government- the executive and legislative.
It is the duty of the government to act as one for all the people and not only for those who voted them to power. Minority rights are based on the recognition that minorities are in a vulnerable situation in comparison to other groups in society, namely the majority population, and aim to protect members of a minority group from discrimination, assimilation, prosecution, hostility or violence, as a consequence of their status. It should be highlighted that minority rights do not constitute privileges, but act to ensure equal respect for members of different communities. These rights serve to accommodate vulnerable groups and to bring all members of society to a minimum level of equality in the exercise of their human and fundamental rights.
Minorities require special measures to ensure that they benefit from the same rights as the rest of the population. Hence, minority rights serve to bring all members of society to a balanced enjoyment of their human rights. In other words, their aim is to ensure that persons belonging to a national minority enjoy effective equality with those persons belonging to the majority. In this context, the promotion of equal opportunities at all levels for people belonging to a national minority is particularly important, since it empowers communities and promotes the exercise of individual freedoms.
Central to the rights of minorities are the promotion and protection of their identity. Promoting and protecting their identity prevents forced assimilation and the loss of cultures, religions and languages—the basis of the richness of the world and therefore part of its heritage. Non-assimilation requires diversity and plural identities to be not only tolerated but protected and respected. Minority rights are about ensuring respect for distinctive identities while ensuring that any differential treatment towards groups or persons belonging to such groups does not mask discriminatory practices and policies. Therefore, positive action is required to respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, and acknowledge that minorities enrich society through this diversity.
The protection of minority rights is an exercise of tolerance and intercultural dialogue. By encouraging mutual respect and understanding, the different groups that comprise a society should be able to engage and cooperate with one another, while preserving their own identity. The basic elements required for the realisation of this goal are to promote knowledge of minorities’ culture, history, language and religion in an intercultural perspective. In other words, the protection of minority rights can promote an inclusive, peaceful and cohesive society, with respect for diversity.
However, the Sri Lankan government appears to be deaf and blind to the representations made by the UN and the medical profession. These stubborn attitudes are suicidal. Burial rights is one of the rights enjoyed by the Muslims and Christians. It is therefore important that this right is respected by the government in the absence of any scientific evidence to the contrary. It is foolhardy to deny this right to them on the basis of absurd pretences like the possibility of being used as biological weapons.
The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” should echo in our hearts and minds. This is an issue which could have been avoided by the government without making this a Muslim issue. It is not, as any injustice to one will eventually lead to injustices to others as well. After all, diversity of all sorts is the intractable reality of human existence. How we live with difference is the critical issue.