By Mohamed Harees –
An interesting article appeared in Colombo Telegraph written by Dr Sarath Gamini De Silva with a plea to the Muslims of Sri Lanka to look into the mirror, and ends it thus: My dear Muslim Brethren, Recent changes visible in your appearance, attitudes and behaviour are contributing to the current racial disharmony to a significant extent. As such, a long lasting solution to ensure peaceful coexistence depends to a great extent on your ability to look inwards and make amends.(underlining mine). The learned medical doctor, despite his claim of maintaining ‘a cordial relationship with mutual respect with hundreds .. in the Muslim community for over 50 years’, however fails to read the whole picture, and started pointing blaming fingers without exploring the whole gamut of reasons for Peaceful Co-existence’ to be still elusive in this Dharma Dweepa, thereby missing the woods for the trees.
This does not mean that there are no plausible reasons for the Muslims to look inwards in building an inclusive nation; in fact there are and already an impassionate discourse has started off within the community in recent times, to address and rectify fault-lines if any which have been obstacles in promoting national reconciliation and integration. However, looking inwards and into the mirror is not a task to be undertaken by the Muslims alone as the writer suggests; rather one which should be undertaken by all communities; more so the initiative should be led by the Sinhalese community being the majority community (as the elder brother in the Lakmavage Pavula). The theme of Dr De Silva’s article thus looks unidirectional overlooking the key hurdles, having got into the same ‘Islamophobia’ bandwagon, where the racist lobbies are in.
To start with, before exploring the local scenario, the writer seems to set the background tone by painting a tainted picture of the present day global Muslims as an ‘evil force’ which tries to dominate by subduing others, through oft quoted so-called ISIS’ style Islamic terrorism’ and by refusing to integrate with the mainstream like others. He thereafter by extension attempts to point a blaming finger towards the local Muslims too, for trying to look different and also failing to integrate with the other communities in this country. This is exactly the main crux of the global Islamophobia campaign too, which has become a cottage industry in the Western capitals of the world- which Dr De Silva himself fallen victim to. Nathan Lean,, in his well-researched book ‘Islamophobia Industry’, clearly lifts the veil on the multi-million dollar Islamophobia industry which consists of a nefarious network, of business, political, religious and media organizations and individuals who employ rank bigotry to promote their interests and purposely nurture it and use it as a socio-political strategy. Lean shows how deep the rabbit hole goes and exposes the dirty secrets of those who manipulate public opinion against the Muslims, through an influential Western Media network. John Esposito, another expert researcher on Islamphabia too points out ‘Islam is often portrayed as the cause rather than the context for radicalization, extremism and terrorism’. Besides, it is now well-known that the Iraqi war created the conditions for terror groups like ISIS to emerge. Thus , ISIS to be highlighted as Islamic groups consisting of Islamic soldiers trained in Islamic madrasas is palpably false and misleading and ignores many geo-political realities of the MENA region. In fact, many ME Muslim refugees seeking asylum in the West are victims of Western military adventures in the region and fleeing away from ISIS terrorism. (Dr De Silva should well know that most victims of ISIS Terrorism are Muslims).
The learned doctor also refers to the Bahmian Buddha statues being destroyed by Taliban in recent times, but ignores the historical fact that those same statues were preserved by the Muslims for centuries, until this unfortunate destruction happened, which was condemned by Muslims all over. In fact, Buddhist heritage is still being preserved in many Muslim countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, Moreover for these extremist fringe elements like Taliban or ISIS, nothing is sacred. The suspected ISIS also placed bombs in mosques and places of Muslim religious importance; not even the precincts of Prophet’s mosque in Medina was spared.
Then, he enters into exploration of the local situation and laments,’ Unfortunately none of the so called moderate Muslims amongst us have publicly condemned such violence and other forms of intimidating behaviour in the name of Islam. Their silence is naturally interpreted as collusion by others as well as by the extremists. Compliance with their intention of creating an Islamic state in the entire world is thus accepted by default’. He is merely parroting the rhetoric of the Islamophobic Industry and Media – asking Muslims to assume collective guilt for the crimes committed by the terror elements under the banner of Islam. Although this charge is unjustified to say the least, as Muslims need not apologize every-time a person or a group commits a crime in the name of their religion, as much as Buddhists need not apologize as a group for the widely documented war crimes committed by their co-religionists against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, mainstream Muslim civic organizations and religious bodies have issued many statements of condemnations both at the global and national level in Sri Lanka against any types of ‘religious’ terror used against innocents ( if Dr De Silva cares to dig into the archives). In fact, Muslim voices have been subdued and silenced in mainstream Western and Eastern discourses tainted by Islamophobia and instead, highlighting only extremist points of view by design have been routine. Besides, the absurdity of this charge of asking Muslims to ‘jump up’ whenever some fringe groups sporting Muslim names commit terror acts and assume collective guilt, was laid bare in the aftermath of the recent racist anti-Muslim attacks too, carried out by extremist Sinhala groups supported by political strategists to gain power.
It can be recalled that when Minister Kiriella opined that Sinhalese should apologize for these racist attacks, all hell broke lose. Many leading Buddhist monks and even some politicians and intellectuals exploded and queried quite rightly why the Buddhists should apologize when the groups involved in the attacks, although being clearly identified as Sinhala goons, were acting clearly as tools of a political project of disgruntled politicians and when the attacks were clearly as a result of abject failure of the government and law enforcement authorities to maintain law and order. In short, it was a law and order problem and anyone taking the law into their hands should be dealt with. Some Sinhala writers referring to this call for Sinhala-Buddhist apology, in fact empathized with the Muslims and wrote that they now understand how global Muslims would have felt when they were likewise asked to apologize when some fringe elements were committing crimes in the name of their religion. Many conspiracy theorists have emerged in recent times about the Muslim expansion and plans to bring the growth rate of the Sinhalese race, which is widely circulated by hate groups via the social media and believed by many at the grass-root levels despite being refuted by the experts. It will also make sense for Dr De Silva to explore why this well-orchestrated anti-Muslim hate campaign cropped up in the Post War Sri Lanka and was virtually absent during the War? Don’t these developments point towards a well planned political project to alienate the Muslims after having ‘dealt with’ the Tamils?
Dr De Silva has in fact talked of the positive contribution of Muslims in Sri Lanka in the past and then refers to a negative trend in the attitudes, such as change in attire-styles and mushrooming mosques etc, recently, which aspects , as stated earlier, has been part of the process of reflection within the community. However, to lay the blame on the Muslim community, to the great extent citing these aspects, is to re-stress ‘miss the woods for the trees’. The writer has quoted Wilpattu and like scenarios to bolster his arguments that Muslims are all out to –culturally and socially invade this country – a charge not substantiated by many centuries of history. Please explore how Muslims acted during the challenging times of the 30 years old war. Charges like Wilpattu invasion (whether substantiated or not) and the mainstream media and the hate groups trying to project individual actions of Muslim persons or politicians committing crimes as communal crimes(like the road rage incident in Digana or corruption of Muslim politicians,) are rule of law issues and not a collective Muslim action and should be treated as such. Even Muslim attire whatever our views may be, is a fashion and lifestyles ‘ issue, viewed in the backdrop of recent developments. Many members of Maha Sangha have referred to the ill-dressed women folk frequenting the Panselas and in the public space. How much changes are we experiencing in the change of dress-sense and lifestyles of Sinhala women when compared to their predecessors – Saariya, Osariya and Reddai and Haettai have given way to miniskirts, jeans and trousers? Even among the Muslims, there is a minority group donning the full face cover dresses while majority have adopted Islamic Hijab adhering to fashion styles in those range of dresses. The Muslim men oppressing and imposing the type of dress on their women is a myth propagated by Islamphobia lobbies. Shouldn’t Islamic women have the right to dress as they think it fit like their sisters in other faiths? There is also the right to ‘over-dress’ when there is the right to ‘underdress’!
Then the writer declares that the Sinhalese and other non Muslims appear to have become a threatened majority. Hence the demand for protective action thereby ‘tries to portray racism as justified anti-Muslim backlash. He in contrast fails to capture the fear and insecurity of the Muslims living in Post War Sri Lanka in the country of their birth, and ‘be happy with the anti-Muslim attacks’,as Mahinda Deshpriya says most Sinhalese are, which in my experience is not only untrue, but insulting and’ un-Buddhistic’ as well.
As repeatedly stressed, the obstacles for national reconciliation and peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka are many. Some of them highlighted by scholars and social analysts were: (1) institutionalisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, inability to accept the multi ethnic nature of the nation, political role of the Buddhist monks and the ‘minority mindset of the Sinhalese( read KM De Silva, Nira Wickramasinghe, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Amungama, Dr Tambiah), (2) Inability of the SL political leaders to act as courageous national leaders with foresight, for all communities and continued failure of Post-Independence Govts. to solve the Tamil question. (3) Govt’s failure to address concerns and major grievances of the majority race (4) Corrupt political culture and electoral system like PR (5) lack of fair-handed law enforcement and judicial arms to identify, deal with hate speech & Racist plans, apprehend the culprits and punish them (5) The ethical failure of Tamil nationalism, as writer Qadri Ismail (2000 223-24; 2005) has argued (6) lack of credibility of the Muslim political leadership to represent the interests of the community(7) Muslims’ failure to be Muslims of SL, for example by adopting Arab lifestyles and modes of attire in recent times leading to some fears in the Sinhala community (8) failure of the educational system to promote national reconciliation (8) use and misuse of the social media to spread hate among communities. So, to re-phrase Dr Silva’a plea: Dear Sinhala/Tamil and Muslim brethren! It is time for all of us to look inwards and make amends and change the course of our journey of mutual mistrust and racism , to make Sri Lanka an inclusive nation and reap the benefits of prosperity in a spirit of ‘one Lankan’ness.