By Jehan Perera –
The immediate crisis over the issue of Halal certification by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama has been defused with the government’s appointment of a high level ministerial committee to make recommendations on how to address it. The appointment of a parallel committee by the UNP is also noteworthy, not only because it is the main opposition party, but also because of the totally different composition of the two committees. The ten member government committee includes nationalist Sinhalese politicians, some of whom have expressed strong views against the ethnic minorities. On the other hand, the six member UNP committee goes to the other extreme and comprises only Muslims.
It will be interesting to see what the two committees come up with as their responses to resolving the Halal issue that has suddenly burst into national prominence and caused intense feelings of insecurity in the Muslim community but also fed into Sinhalese fears of being a beleaguered majority in Sri Lanka. The government is likely to follow the recommendations of its own committee. However, the UNP committee’s view would provide a useful indicator regarding the degree of polarization that exists between the two communities, and whether it is more acute at the political level than at the grassroots level. Explaining his party’s position on the matter, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said, “All Muslims do not share the same opinion on the matter. As such, the issue should not be held against the entire Muslim community.”
Although the public mobilization of the Muslim and Sinhalese communities for confrontation is not visible there continues to be an undercurrent of communal polarization that is taking place at the grassroots level. Shoppers at grocery stores are looking to see what commodities have the Halal certification on them. Some Muslim-owned shops are seeing a decline in their business. There are messages being circulated on the internet that have a strong anti Muslim sentiment in them. I received such a message from a person I would normally regard as being a pillar of middle class morality and religiosity. This demonstrates the constant need for those concerned with social integration in a plural society to be at work.
The surfacing of the Halal issue has given the opportunity for public discussion about what it means. The public discussion has been positive to the extent that it has given Muslim spokespersons an opportunity to refute misconceptions about Halal certification. They have been able to show that the certification process is a voluntary process taken on by businesses that wish to sell their commodities to Muslims also. Businesses do not have to get the Halal certificate if they do not wish to sell to the Muslim consumer. In fact there are many businesses that do not have the Halal certification and are doing very well. However, businesses that do have the Halal certification contribute to economic integration and a common market for all communities in Sri Lanka.
On the other hand, the surfacing of the Halal issue has also provided an occasion for people in general to discuss about the Muslim community in general in a not-so-positive way. There is an unfortunate tendency of human beings to speak ill of others if they are given the opportunity. The targets of such critical commentary can be anyone, ranging from politicians to neighbours and even to less favoured family members. However, in the case of most people, these critical ideas are not voiced in public but are thought about in private. The problem is that when the opening is given via a problem that involves them, then the critical thoughts are given outward expression.
Unfortunately, the surfacing of the Halal issue has provided an opportunity for people in general to discuss the Muslim community and their practices in a way that generates a negative momentum. The fact that there are some things we do not talk about in public was brought out in a recent discussion between several professionals who were discussing the Halal issue. The Muslim amongst them had turned to one of his Sinhalese colleagues and asked him what his caste was. The discussion immediately froze. The Muslim person then said that there were some things we do not speak about in public, such as caste, and another is religion.
The problem is that both caste and religion are not only personal matters, but also have wider social and political dimensions to them. For instance, caste factors are taken into consideration by families in making traditional marriage arrangements. They are also considered by political parties in selecting candidates who will be appealing to different electorates. Caste can also be an instrument of social oppression. Those lower in the caste hierarchy tend to suffer from economic and educational deprivation. These are matters that need to be discussed so that the problems they cause people can be solved. They should not be discussed in a manner that will make the problem of social oppression worse. The same is true of religion.
Despite rapid strides after the end of the war, Sri Lanka continues to be a polarised and fragmented society with cleavages at various levels including the economic, social, religious and political. This has led to a lack of communication and acute mistrust between parties on different sides of the various divides. There is a sense of exclusion among communities, who feel they are not being included in national decision making and in enjoying the fruits of development. The government’s creation of a Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration reflects a positive effort towards more conflict sensitive policy that emphasizes the need to bring all social, ethnic and religious groups into the national mainstream.
The Ministry, under the leadership of Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who has been long time campaigner of socially excluded populations, has come up with a social integration policy that it is trying to implement. A recent cartoon in a newspaper showed him riding on a rocking horse, making efforts to move but staying in the same place. This represents the reality and the lack of priority that has been given by those more powerful in the government to issues of national reconciliation and social integration after the war. But now the need of the government to prevent the Halal issue and Sinhalese-Muslim tensions from getting out of control ought to impress upon the government the need to give more attention and resources to issues of national reconciliation and social integration.
Over the past several years, the government used the war against the LTTE as its primary mode of unifying this Sinhalese majority behind it and obtained its vote at successive elections. Now with the fourth year of the end of the war approaching there may be a need for new issues to keep Sinhalese solidarity perceived by sections within the government. It may not be a coincidence that the government has declared its intention to hold three provincial council elections later this year. It has also denied that an early presidential election will be held next year. Those who view the government’s actions as being directed towards its political advantage would notice that the Halal issue can be used to unify the Sinhalese majority in a common cause. However, keeping religious sentiments on the boil without creating a conflagration is likely to be impossible.
In an election time it will be difficult for political parties, including the ruling party, to be critical of the prejudices of the majority community or be seen to be taking the side of a minority community. However, civil society organizations that have no such stake in party political outcomes can take on the challenge of correcting misconceptions and creating more empathy between the different communities. Civil society organizations hope to work with government agencies in building links between the diverse communities that will create better country-wide understanding of the continuing grievances of the different communities. One important tool for confidence building would be the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the government.
The LLRC report calls upon civil society to play an active role in addressing issues of social and national integration. These include the formation of inter-religious committees at the grassroots level and people-to-people exchanges. These are areas in which civic groups have expended considerable effort in the post-war period. Although government leaders have pledged to implement the LLRC recommendations, there is skepticism regarding their seriousness in this regard. However, civil society organisations have only a limited role to play in the remaking of the polity, and that role is to play a complementary, supplementary and catalytic role. The government must provide an enabling environment by improving its relations with civic groups who campaign for inter-ethnic reconciliation and social integration.