Colombo Telegraph

Liberal Values And Sri Lankan Muslims

By Rajiva Wijesinha

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

I am pleased to have been invited today to the celebrations of the SLMC, since the Liberal Party was also recognized officially on the same day 27 years ago. In the midst of our satisfaction, however, we had to face tragedy for it was on that very day that Vijaya Kumaranatunga was assassinated. In the year before his death, he had stood out as a symbol of hope and enlightenment for all those who wanted Sri Lanka to reaffirm its status as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where there was not just mutual tolerance but also mutual understanding and affection.

I believe strongly that Islam too is based on such concepts, which are essentially liberal. This may seem paradoxical at a time when the world is deeply worried about what is termed Islamic fundamentalism. But while certainly there are extremists amongst Muslims, just as there are amongst adherents of all religions, let me say quite confidently that God can never be a proponent of prejudice or cruelty or selectivity. God is about love.

Of the four great religions that co-exist in uniquely significant proportions in this country, two are monotheistic, one is polytheistic, and the other is in essence atheistic. But as we all know, adherents of all religions visit the holy places of the others, as is exemplified in the wonderful museum at Kataragama, which was set up by Sudharshan Seneviratne, perhaps the best person to represent us now in India, given his pluralistic outlook.

Unfortunately in all religions there are those who crave exclusivity. This is not what God wanted. Nor does God want inclusivity based on compulsion. Sadly, for many centuries that was a trait practiced by many religions, because religion was used by rulers as a means of asserting identity.

Before the will of the people became the foundation of a nation, rulers needed a pretext for presenting themselves as the embodiment of the people over whom they ruled. Religion was used as one such pretext, perhaps the most powerful. It is immensely depressing then that some people are still stuck in the mindset of the past, and believe that imposition of a uniform identity is the way to hold a nation, and peoples, together.

This is to ignore completely the intellectual revolution that overtook the world during what is termed the Enlightenment. That movement reaffirmed what all religions had initially put forward, the centrality of the individual. The relationship between an individual and God has always to be a matter of personal conviction. And indeed, even in Buddhism, which formally recognizes no divinity, the fantastic parable of the mango tree which was the basis of the conversion of King Devanampiyatissa, affirms the centrality of the individual in his or her relationships with the world.

The significance of the individual is the basis of Liberalism, which is why it is thev philosophy that has continued to dominate politics in the last three centuries. Other philosophies may be more successful in the short term, given that they appeal to particular interests, and it is always possible to cobble up majorities through presenting others as alien – whether on the basis of race or religion or class or caste. But history has taught us that such categorization can be used against anybody, and that is why in the end people have realized the need for opposing any form of discrimination. As we found out during the recent election, what we all have in common is much more important than our differences, and we must build on those commonalities to ensure a better future for all.

In this context I should stress the need for social equity, which I think binds the Liberal Party and Muslims together. Though all religions stress our common humanity, Islam is especially strong on the brotherhood of men. Unfortunately there are some Muslims who misuse the historical context of the founding of their religion to deny equality to women, but a proper reading of the Koran makes clear the respect in which women are to be held. In a changing social context that must entail equal rights, and also the right to express their own individuality without subjection to any other individual, father or brother or husband or son.

This has been a significant element in Islam, at least as far as Asia is concerned, as we know from the great Muslim civilizations of India and Iran, or the progressive Muslim democracies of today, Malaysia and Indonesia. I hope therefore that here too we will follow such examples and ensure equality of opportunity for women. In this context I would urge that the Muslim Congress also makes full implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan a keystone of its policy, and supports the Liberal Party in ensuring that the Bill of Rights is incorporated in the Constitution.

But before I end let me stress the importance of cooperation in reintroducing a balance into the body politic. That was the basis on which we worked together so well with your Founder, Mr Ashraff. Sadly the agreement we negotiated on your behalf with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was broken by that party in 1988, which was the reason for Mrs Bandaranaike failing to win the Presidential Election. Again the agreement we reached with your party was broken by your party in 1994, and I am glad that your leader apologized to us at our 25th Anniversary celebrations for his role in persuading Mr Ashraff to break his promise. I have no doubt myself that, had Mr Ashraff kept his word – and he told us his mother-in-law, a woman of great integrity, had told him not to come home if he did not – the Muslim Congress would have had more influence in the years that followed

But all that is water under the bridge. Today we are at a crossroads when, under the leadership of His Excellency, we can return to the path of moderation that the two major parties strayed from in the seventies. As the President put it in his inaugural address, we must recall the example of the two great leaders he mentioned, Mr DS Senanayake and Mr SWRD Bandaranaike, with their commitment to both social equity and nationwide development. Unfortunately, from the seventies onward, the party of the first moved towards simple capitalism and the belief that the trickle down effect of economic growth would be enough to satisfy the social aspirations of our people. Contrariwise, the SLFP sank into an extreme form of state socialism, just when the rest of the world realized this did not work.

Though subsequent leaders of the two parties did try to move towards a median position, they were not able to conceptualize this, and it is not well understood by many of those they have chosen to exercise Executive powers in Cabinet. But given our joint commitment to affirming the primacy of the private sector in economic activity, while the state promotes a level playing field through enhancing opportunities and in particular for the worst off, I trust that we can assist the President to develop a coherent politics of moderation, an ethical approach to governance, and effective systems that are not subject to personal prejudices or predilections.

Let me thank you then again for the honour of inviting me here today and wish the party all the best for the future. The close friendship between our founder Chanaka Amaratunga and your founder Mr Ashraff was deeply moving, and I am sad that other individuals destroyed that. I much appreciated my interactions with your General Secretary over the last few years, because we both felt the need to stand firm against the increasing excesses of the last government. Perhaps we could have done more, but at least we made it clear that there were some values that transcended political alliances.

I believe then that rebuilding between our parties the connections of 27 years ago will not be difficult. I hope then that we can work together, to promote the values that Muslims should celebrate, in terms of the universal brotherhood of not just man, but all people.

*Text of a talk at the celebration of the 27th Anniversary of the recognition as a political party of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress – February 11th 2015

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