22 October, 2020

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Fear And The Predicament Facing Muslims

By Ahilan Kadirgamar

Ahilan Kadirgamar

A Muslim lecturer friend some time ago described a troubling moment. The incident took place when he pulled into the parking lot of a supermarket with his wife few weeks ago. As they got out of the car, a group of men standing by first stared at his wife, who was wearing a headscarf, and then looked intently at him. In a split second, his day was disturbed; he reflected on this moment for quite some time. Was this a harmless gaze or did it reflect a change in attitude towards Muslims? My friend described his own reaction to that momentary stare as one that brought on fear. What did he fear? And why?

The Muslim community is in a state of fear in Sri Lanka. That is what many Muslim intellectuals, activists and community leaders have been saying in recent months at various forums. Do they fear the fringe groups mobilising Sinhala Buddhist nationalism against the Muslim community? Or is it the reception of anti-Muslim rhetoric by broader sections of the Sinhala community? Or is this fear rooted in the support given to such extreme forces by the ruling regime? Or is it fear of the Sri Lankan state itself, responsible for the security of its Muslim citizenry? Indeed, fear is characteristic of modern state and society. But the form that fear takes differs at different historical moments and in different societies and communities.

A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “The Political Economy of Anti-Muslim Attacks”. There, I discussed the broad reception of the anti-Muslim hate campaign within the Sinhala community and its relationship to the economic changes taking place in Sri Lanka. I concluded by mentioning the need to rethink concepts such as the state, religion and politics, as well as the importance of reflecting on questions of fear and insecurity facing communities and their implications for relations between communities. In response to my article, at a conference, a Marxist feminist critiqued what she felt was a reductive analysis of social disaffection on my part. She argued that such political economic analysis of social disaffection also makes claims about people’s affection towards both the economy and the state. She went on to argue, that classes are not just formed, but also formulated through narratives which are predicated on the nation and produced in part by the state. Acknowledging her critique and building on it, I find questions about fear to be inextricably linked to analysis of the state. In this article, I will engage the politics of fear in the Muslim community and articulate the need to build bridges between communities through dialogue and dissent.

Fear and the State

Recent months have seen increasing attacks against the Muslim community; whether on Mosques, Muslim-owned establishments or individuals. While the attack on the Fashion Bug store, the boycott of No Limit stores and the raids on Muslim slaughterhouses have been highlighted in the press, numerous other incidents experienced daily by Muslims go unreported. These incidents, whether a stare on the street, a passing comment, a shove, or a tug at the headscarf, are just as dangerous as the attacks by chauvinist mobs, for the reason that they reflect a pervasiveness within society. Indeed, the proliferation of such incidents has engendered a climate of fear within the Muslim community. I would argue that this fear is related to the state; both the inaction of the state in the context of the attacks as well as the working of state power in relation to the Muslim citizenry.

Now, it has been argued by some political philosophers that fear is a central condition of modern social existence. From this perspective, fear is the rationale for the modern state as an entity with tremendous power. That is, people live in constant fear of their neighbours, neighbouring communities and countries. In other words, fear of your neighbour attacking you to take your things or the fear of an invading army plundering your community, legitimised the emergence of the modern state and the idea of sovereignty. They go on to argue that we need the modern state to guarantee our security both from external enemies such as foreign states as well as from our neighbours who may try to steal our property. Here, it is important to keep in mind that property is also a modern concept, which emerged along with the modern state. The point I want to make is not that fear is a natural condition, rather, the emergence of modern concepts such as the state, sovereignty and property in the 14th to the 17th Century depended on the articulation of fear.

Thus whether fear is justified or not, fear is central to the relationship of citizens to a state. At certain moments in history fear becomes more visible and instrumental. This is as true in the United States as it is in Sri Lanka. For example, in the United States, after the Sept 11th attacks in 2001, fear facilitated the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act.  In the context of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, fear made way for the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which continues to this day. Similarly, public fear becomes the justification for other forms of surveillance like phone tapping and check points. Such laws and surveillance are first used to repress one particular community, but in time it can be used to crush all dissent. The arrest of Muslim politician Azath Salley few months ago under the PTA was an attack on Muslim politics and a warning against dissent.

Under attack, the Muslim community finds itself powerless in the face of powerful Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist actors. The solution, some would argue, would be for the state, which wields the greatest power, to intervene. Indeed, one definition of the state is that it is an entity with a monopoly on legitimate violence. So, why is it that the Muslim community does not feel reassured by the state? Is it because they believe state power is also turned against them? Indeed, the impunity of the attacks on mosques and Muslim establishments, as the police watched on, points to such a worrying political environment. Furthermore, anti-Muslim rhetoric is seeping into statements of officials and zealous policing on the street. It is in the face of repressive state power working against them, that the Muslims – diverse by region, class and bilingual ability – find a shadow of fear over the entire community.

Paradox of Fear and Power

History tells us about the paradoxical relationship between fear and power. In order to overcome fear, there is a need for power to ensure security. But that very power in turn can create more fear. In the early stages of Tamil militancy, large sections of the Tamil community supported militancy in the face of abusive state power. However, with time, the LTTE’s usurpation of power through the decimation of all other actors within the Tamil community, led to the Tamil people fearing the LTTE. The lesson here is that states and those entities aspiring towards state power depend on instilling fear.

Some commentators claim, Sinhala fears and insecurities led to the reception of the recent anti-Muslim hate campaign. I would argue that such insecurities are constructed by nationalist assertions of power and linked to the workings of the state. Indeed, it is nationalist ideology and the workings of the state that can construct a common insecurity for the diverse Sinhala population. Thus the task of analysis is not to reify and placate such insecurities, but rather to unpack the workings of the state in confluence with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Returning to the fears of the Muslim community, the possibility of the state ensuring their security and abating fear has been denied by the moves and rhetoric of the ruling regime and high-ranking officials of state institutions. Furthermore, the abuse of state power is further increasing the fears of Muslims. The predicament facing the Muslims is that, the assertion of the Muslim community’s power alone may only meet with further repression, and calls for strategies that circumvent a direct confrontation with state power.

Isolation and Building Bridges

The fear eclipsing the Muslim community is also related to a sense of isolation. Even during the decades of the civil war in the North and East, there were bridges between the Tamil and Sinhala communities in the form of the Left movement and the Christian churches, both of which included members from both communities. In the case of the Muslim community, despite its internal diversity, social movements and institutions creating strong bonds with other communities have been limited. Furthermore, with a regime subscribing to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism at the helm of the state, the attacks by chauvinist forces against the Muslim community is bound to aggravate the isolation.

A first step towards addressing the fear of the Muslim community is the need for dialogue both within the Muslim community as well as between communities. It is through such dialogue that bridges can be built. And here, forums in universities, inter-faith dialogues, discussions in schools, activist initiatives etc. can begin to address the problem by recognising that it is the responsibility of non-Muslims as much as the Muslims to challenge the climate of fear.

Some may argue that the solution to the current predicament of the Muslims lies with strengthening a secular liberal democratic state. While sympathetic to the calls on the state to have a strong response to anti-Muslim violence, I find it hard to place faith in the ruling regime and the state to address the larger problem. I see the modern state, of which the secular liberal democratic state is one avatar, as an entity that increasingly encroaches into the lives of people through its policies, laws, surveillance, repression and more generally, state power. And modern state power, which is the cause of much fear, has also atomised individuals away from their communities, isolated communities from other communities and curtailed the ability of communities to build bridges and address social problems.

Others may argue that the recent onslaught of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the support it gets from the state calls for the more cautious approach of watchful waiting while the extremist and repressive forces play themselves out. We do not have that luxury. A couple of decades ago, as the Muslim community came under attack from the LTTE through mosque massacres and ethnic cleansing, many within the Tamil community, drunk with nationalism or paralysed by the fear of the LTTE, remained silent. The consequences were disastrous for all communities. The same could be said of the current moment, where critical thinking, dissent and dialogue between communities are the need of the hour.

When an individual is fearful or under threat, the temptation may be, for the individual, or for those of us watching on, to wish the fear away or look away. But we need to stare back at such fear, even when it is backed by state power. That is crucial for unpacking the workings of fear and to begin building bridges between the communities, so that we don’t fall deeper into the pit of ethnic polarisation.

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Latest comments

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    Ahilan,

    It is easier said than done.

    We cant stare back at fear in Sri Lanka. We know the saffron robed thugs who have the support of the state and the police will hit you back.

    Critical thinking, dissent and dialogue do not work either. The Azath Sallay case is a mild case of what the state could do with even the most harmless of dissenters.

    Ahilan, the die is cast. This will play out to the bitter end. Many Sinhalese street thugs ended up rich with pillage of Tamil homes and businesses. Rape of tamil women was a bonus. Bloodletting is the clarion call of the majority Sinhalese. No one was ever made to face justice for the horrors they committed.

    Now it is the turn of the Muslims. The saffron robed thugs and their coterie of followers have been empowered by the state to such an extent no one can stop the tsunami of racial violence that is waiting to burst forth. It will take only for one monk to be hurt (or for a monk to self inflict harm and to put the blame on a muslim) for this couldron of hate to spill over. We have seen race motivated devastation so many times in Sri Lanka the result this time will be the same. The monks will benefit, the Sinhala street thugs will benefit, the government will benefit, the police will benifit and another minority in Sri Lanka will bite the dust.

    That is all.

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      Unless something miraculously changes in the next few months, sadly, I have to agree with this prognosis.

      • 0
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        Good stuff!
        Gota, the military dictator-in-waiting deploys THUGS and MONKS to divide and distract Sinhalas folk – by attacking Muslims, Christians and Tamils.
        The Role of the Balu Sena is to DISTRACT people from the fact that Gota is creating a DEEP STATE or State within a state in the name of BUDDHISM – to legitimize and ensure his transition to Lanka’s first military dictator – after brother Mahinda is Deposed. But democracy will not die so easily in Lanka and establishing a military dictatorship will be difficult!

        Gota has studied how ISI (Pak Intelligence) and the Military in Pakistan uses Islamists and Taliban covertly to secure itself and also get funding from the US. He is doing the similar thing in Lanka – covertly setting up the BUDDHIST TALIBAN (Balu Sena, Ravaya Balaya etc) to DISTRACT the Sinhalas form the fact that he GOTA the white van goon is the true ENEMY WITHING THE BODY POLITIC in Lanka.
        Gota wants to set up a BUDDHIST DICTATORSHIP in Lanka and DESTROY Buddhism which is a peaceful religion, by using and militarizing Buddhist monks to spread hate against the minorities. The end game is DIVIDE, DISTRACT and RULE Lanka.

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      A very good and correct analysis and I sincerely hope a Gaddafi-style revolution takes place sooner than later!

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      Good piece. However, the Muslim community and its leadership has failed to act in a principled manner and take LEGAL ACTION against those who are attacking them and spreading HATE SPEECH. The Church has filed a case on behalf of those who have lost their lands in the Regime’s land grab.
      If the Muslim leadership, would follow the example of the Christian community it would be good. But the Muslim leadership will not help the Muslim people, and the Muslim people won’t help themselves either it seems – and seek legal remedies (ironically when the Minister of JUSTICE is a Muslim who is in bed with the regime)! In this scenario Muslims cannot expect others to fight their battles..
      In the final analysis the Muslim community and its leadership, particularly Rauf Hakeem are as blameworthy as is the Rajapakse regime for the current “fear” that the Muslims live with today..

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        @KAPILA..,
        yes sir….you are correct…….. I have been telling about the legal action against these RACISM and INSULTING to this HAKEEM through some media ……..but NO USE SO FAR….

        THERE MUST BE A BRAVE MUSLIM LEADER WHO FEAR ONLY TO THE ALMIGHTY come forward to lead Muslims in LANKA..Then we can have a peaceful solution for all this trouble……..hope in the near future..

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        How can you expect the Muslims to protect themselves when the SLMC voted for the 18th Amendment. Without independent commissions the minorities become more vulnerable.

        Its funny but in SL. Most decisions made by the Sinhala leadership (Sinhala only, standardization etc) has hurt the Sinhala community more. The Tamil leadership with its Vadukkodai resolution hurt the Tamil community more. The SLMC…. well enough said.

        The bane of all Lankans seems to be their political leadership. Perhaps because there is yet to be such a thing as a ‘SRI LANKAN’ leader. Chandrika and Dudley came close. Most others were only concerned with the advancement of their own communities.

  • 0
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    Excellent piece. Well argued. How is this going to end. Very sad to see the state too is involved.

    S,Geetha, USA

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      So which is it. Are you B. Geetha or S. Geetha?

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      Hopefully it isn’t BS. Gettha!

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    Although the Govt does not openly act against the safron thugs, the danger has been realised and appropriate action is being taken to contain the problem. Unfortunately the political realities on the gorund are such that neither the Govt, nor the Opposition, is willing to take firm action or even openly oppose the miscreants who are members of the Buddhist Clergy.

    It is upto the Sangha Council to deal with these monks who go against the vinaya rules. It is upto the Buddhist Majority to identify and correct their problems without attacking other religons and faiths. Failure on their part will lead to an increasing problem which may have international ramifications. It is best that action be taken at this early stage rather than allowing extremists and fundamentalist the space to further their agendas.

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    Sinhala buddhists have no concerns. Only the Muslims, Tamils and Christians have grievances.

    Why no one answering the question why none of the muslims countries or societies are open to other religions. but, Sinhala buddhists have to bend to every one because that is how things should be.

    The amazing thing is when men looks at a woman, that becomes a political issue. If men don’t look at a woman, she should really ugly.

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      As a nutty Sinhala Buddhist, I suggest that you bend in two before your master, Hitlerpaksha. He will do the needful!!

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        Unfortunately, it seems that the Muslims of Sri Lanka have developed a tradition of kowtowing to the Sinhala racists, beginning with such as “Sinhala Marikkar” of SWRD’s time.
        They have to break away from this mold and exert their independence as an independent, non-chauvinist entity, not fettered by narrow, religious concerns only.
        In short, they need to join the broad majority of Sri Lankans seeking social justice for ALL Sri Lankans, not just dollars in the bank accounts of the Rajapassas and their friends.
        THAT is the ONLY way out of what faces them (and ALL minorities)

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    ‘a tug at a headscarf’ -I saw this happen a couple of months ago.I was on holiday in Sri Lanka in early 1979-and I felt the vibes of fear among the Tamils. It was JR time. It was undescribable. I understand what the Muslims must be feeling now.

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    Really an interesting Article!

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    I suggest Mr Kadiragamar read this interview…
    Muslims in Sri Lanka are Self-alienating Themselves From the Mainstream Community-Dr.Ameer Ali

    18 July 2013, 8:45 pm
    Muslims in Sri Lanka are Self-alienating Themselves From the Mainstream Community-Dr.Ameer Ali

    By

    Ranga Jayasuriya

    Dr. Ameer Ali, a prominent Islamic scholar and a former adviser of Muslim Affairs of Australian Prime Minister, John Howard’s Government, said Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community. He is an academic at the Faculty of Management and Governance of Murdoch University. He spoke to Ranga Jayasuriya on the issues confronting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.

    Read the full interview… He speaks of MUSLIMS OF SRILANKA

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      JKW,

      I beg to differ. Dr. Ameer Ali’s self-serving interview was a disgrace. I hope we will see more protests from Muslims. Fortunately or unfortunately the interview was published in a newspaper not considered mainstream.

      I take serious issue with some of his statements.

      01. About the Niqab/Hijab- No one can dictate how individuals respond to their spiritual needs. If a woman feels the need to cover herself, that need must be recognized as her right and that right protected.

      I am unconcerned about the implications from a one dimensional social perspective because societal concerns must balance individual needs too. Recently there were riots in France because a woman in Niqab was arrested. Clearly this piece of legislation will create more and more attrition among those for and against individual freedom in France and can be a test case in Europe.

      02. Mosques in Kattankudy. I am again appalled at this self-deprecating statement. I am no authority on the number of mosques that are appropriate for the Muslims or places of worship for any community.

      Consider his statement in context- the population of Kathankudy is 48914 ( gov. stats). Now if one were to divide the population by the number of mosques, one mosque serves the needs of 843 persons or approximately 168 families. I leave it to readers to judge his claim that there are at too many Mosques in Katankuddy implying that Muslim zeal for building mosques is unwarranted.

      03. Funds received from ME. It is a fact that all communities receive funds from well-wishers abroad. Japan for example is a generous donor to Buddhist temples. The various churches spend large sums of money in our country. So why pick on Muslims for the funds that flow in to the community?

      I am wondering why the censure from Dr. Ali? What is required is transparency and an audit of how funds that are disbursed to ensure legitimacy.

      04. Muslim Sects- Dr. Ameer Ali would prefer one type of sect over another. I submit that our relationship with our maker and what makes us whole spiritually cannot be decreed. Could we ask the learned Dr. Ali how he arrived on the choice on our behalf?

      I am inclined to think that the interview was targeted at pleasing the Australian government rather than out of any concerns for Muslims. In doing so Dr. Ali has echoed the same chauvinistic sentiments of the Sinhalese.

      If he is a true to his word let him elaborate and explain how appeasing the majority by devaluing Muslim religious values will help Muslims of Sri Lanka!

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        Nabil is a very good example, how muslims would behave when they have the upper hands.

        Then the other religions simply have to obey the muslims.

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          Jim,

          Don’t whinge. Counter my points. I am willing to concede if my POV is unacceptable.

          Since most of you cite France with regards to the banning of the Niqab, please remember the decision to ban the Niqab is inconsistent with EU Human rights regulations and France will have a time defending a piece of legislation that is considered universally reprehensible.

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          As long as “Physco patients” like JimSofty, Asanka, Lester, in ruling, there is no peace and harmony in Buddhism and in SL.

          • 0
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            Well said David

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    Mr KADIRGAMAR PLEASE Read the full interview… He speaks of
    MUSLIMS OF SRILANKA AND
    MUSLIMS IN SRILANKA…

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    THE FEAR FACTOR !! :)

    In fact, my prediction that the Sinhala protests will die down if ignored has come true so far. Nothing really serious happened to the Muslims.

    1. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts !! ( Tamils concerned about Muslims. Really ? seriously ? )

    2. Mountains out of mole hills ( beware of rabble rousing journalism )

    3. Sinhalaya modaya, kavum kanna yodaya ( The lazy Sinhalese are not
    very good at long term planning & lose interest easily. )

    Judging by what’s going on around the world, I think the mostly Sunni Muslims of Sri Lanka have to worry more about their own Shia brothers gaining strength in Sri Lanka, than any planned progroms by the Sinhalese.

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    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTBgV7X_CE ]

    the original video of LTTE killing sinhala soldiers. Callum Mcrae Modified this.

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    It is really sad to read some of the facts given in the Articles and comments. You guys, your heart consious really know who are the real racists in this country. Muslims enjoy every right in this country morethan what they would get even in any other Muslim country and you know very well what you guys are doing make this country a muslim country. You actions made/force Sinhalese to stand for their rights. So called extream Sinhala Buddhists are million times better than your average guys. This is really disgusting.

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    Racist,selfish and egoistic minority groups are a real menace to this country’s development and the entire world. I’m 100% sure all moderate citizens must be cursing on you.

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    Dehumanisation is an ongoing process. Sinhala and Tamil extremism is a reflection of that. The basic problem is economics. An open economy that has fuelled social instability where by certain communities benefit, Extremism encouraged by petro money which is changing the life style of the muslim community with the hijab etc that was never seen, Capital that is encouraging corruption and violence etc are the cause Extremism ,Buddhist or otherwise don’t come from thin air. The best writers could do is to check the reasons of gradual pauperisation of the sinhala community, the effect of reduced subsidy on education and health care , and petri dollar supports the muslim community is receiving and the corruption fuelled by increased acquisition of wealth, the avoidance of paying taxes etc.

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    The amount paranoia and racism in this country is sickening.

  • 0
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    Could you practise Christianity or Buddhism in Muslim world

    • 0
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      Dayaram, you mean Sinhala Racist Buddhism?

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    Was it a group gazing at your friend’s wife and at him or your friend imagining so in the context of what goes on. I am no Muslim but when O go out with my or daughter groups look at them and at me. I do not know what is in their thoughts. This is nothing usual in this country.A good look,a smart dress or some unusual features, always attract attention. people seem to have become too sensitive.

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      yes and therein lies the problem. I have not taken my family on holiday since this BBS thing happened despite many long weekends. I have to avoid people and place I am not familiar with. I avoid travel late in the night. The reason fear grips the Muslim community.

      I have no idea who is racist and who is not. But because none of you is willing to stand up to defend us, the minorities I have to assume that we do not know whom we are dealing with. I am aware, particularly in the health sector Muslim men and women are now seeking out Muslim doctors and private medical care.

      When I am with a group of strangers I am acutely conscious of the fact that someone might make a racist remark, and to avoid unpleasantness I have to make sure they understand that I am a Muslim, from my hairdresser to the kade Mudalali to the three wheel driver.

      The decent Sinhala folks would like to live in denial. For the government its all part of a political stratagem. To many racist Sinhalese this is a god given opportunity to go after the hapless minorities.

      While we Muslims worry and wait…….

  • 0
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    THE ROOT CAUSE TO THIS PROBLEM IS WHEREEVER MUSLIMS LIVE THEIR MIND SET IS SHAPED BY EXTREME BEHAVIOURS AND INTOLERANCE OF OTHER RELIGIONS ,SPECIALLY WHEN THEY COMPRISE OF SIGNIFICANT % OF POPULATION.WHEN THEY ARE IN A MAJORITY, THEY DO NOT TOLERATE OTHER RELIGIONS. EG;DESTROYING OF HISTORICAL BUDDHA STATUES IN AFGHANISTAN. WHEN THEY ARE IN MINORITY THEY ESPOUSE PRINCIPLES OF DEMOCRACY. AS CORRECTLY POINTED OUT BY DR. ALI, THIS HAS BROUGHT ABOUT SELF-ALIENATION.
    A SIMPLE QUESTION TO KADIRAGAMAR !
    WHEN THERE IS A CRICKET MATCH BETWEEN SRILANKA AND PAKISTAN,WHY MUSLIMS IN SRI LANKA OPENLY SUPPORT PAKISTAN???

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      Are you saying the Muslims are responsible for the attacks on them by the monks.

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      WHEN THERE IS A CRICKET MATCH BETWEEN SRILANKA AND PAKISTAN,WHY MUSLIMS IN SRI LANKA OPENLY SUPPORT PAKISTAN???

      When there is a match in Australia, why are Sri Lankan born Australian citizens supporting Sri Lanka instead of Australia?

      How is that many Sri Lankans follow the IPL and not the SLPL?

      Why is Manchester United Football Club in UK more popular than Renown or Saunders Sports Football?

      Where is your the logic in your argument?

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        The Sri Lankans in Australia cheer for sri Lanka as they are of Sri Lankan origin. Do you mean to say the muslims in SL who cheer for Pakistan are of Pakistani origin.
        Also Dr. Ali questioned the need to dress like Arabs or Pakistanis you chose to ignore. More pertinantly Dr. Ali spoke of muslims of Sri Lanka’ and ‘muslims in Sri Lanka’ which you don’t seem to understand.
        When one choses look different from others it naturally attracts attention. If you fear that just don’t attract attention!
        It doesn’t matter you are a muslim or any other just look like and behave like a Sri Lankan thats what Dr. Ali says in nutshell

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    The conflict in Sri Lanka its entire history was never a religious one
    but now thanks to the MR and his Thugs BBS it has taken a turn for the worse.
    The country has now descended into anarchy sad indeed.

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    Very enlightening piece of work by the writer.

    Your prognosis is quite true.

    There is going to be another 1915 and a 1983 at any stage.

    There will be an evil Budhist monk like the one who killed himself self harming himself to accuse a Muslim person and the street Sinhala Budhist thugs taking over the issue.

    The govt will never be able to contain the situation and you will see bloodbath.

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