By Ameer Ali –
The survival of the seventy years old Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) passed in 1951, which provided legal protection to certain cultural idiosyncrasies pertaining to Muslim conjugal life and are claimed by Islamic orthodoxy as part of the shariah, is fated to come to an end soon, all in the name of a secular political mantra, One Country One Law (OCOL). In other words, MMDA has become the lamb waiting to be slaughtered in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Task Force abattoir headed by a street fighter Buddhist monk Gnanasara. How did Muslim leaders themselves contribute to this slaughter is another side of the tragic story, which I will elaborate shortly. Before that a few words on the timing of this ritual are necessary. Why did GR choose this moment of time for the slaughter?
Rajapaksa regime’s record of achievements over the last two years is dotted with more failures than success. The failure is particularly colossal in the economic front. For the first time in the history of this country farmers are out on the streets demanding fertilizer. Even the limited success in controlling Covid pandemic is overshadowed by costly errors in administrative management and inexpert health advice. It was quite early in the year that GR realized that his popularity had taken a terrible hit and questioned his advisors, why? His own failures were compounded by those of his cabinet ministers and parliamentarians. The country’s foreign relations are in a mess and have their own impact on the economy. It finally dawned on the president that he should cry Mea Culpa vow to lead the country “vigorously” along the path of development. However, to win back the trust and confidence of his critical supporters he needed an issue or a new battle in which he could register a decisive victory, as he did in 2009. OCOL provided that battle ground and MMDA presented the new enemy. The extreme vulnerability of the Muslim community, especially after the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre provided the best opportunity to a desperate president who wanted to demonstrate his fighting mettle.
OCOL and MMDA are inter-related. There was no mention of OCOL in the political history of independent Sri Lanka until the dying days of yahapalana government when Muslim parliamentarians and the community’s so called apex religious organization, the men only All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), began to play politics with MMDA. This piece of legislation in spite of some cosmetic changes introduced from time to time in the name of reforms, still remained largely misogynic and a new generation of Muslim women activists began to agitate for gender balance in matrimonial matters. The Justice Saleem Marsoof Committee (JSMC) appointed in 2009, which included a couple of Muslim women as members, submitted after ten years of hard labour, a report with some progressive recommendations to the then woman Minister of Justice, Thalatha Atukorale. ACJU immediately picked up a fight against those recommendations and canvassed among Muslim politicians to reject at least parts of that report. The timing of ACJU’s protest was crucial. General Elections was around the corner. Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP, which historically was the political fortress for Muslim voters began to feel the pressure. Muslim politicians became jittery that they could lose their seats were ACJU started canvassing against them. The minister concerned shrewdly passed the onus of accepting the report to Muslim MPs and gladly washed her hands off. In the end, that report began dusting in parliament’s archive.
There was one hardline Buddhist monk in the legislature at that time, who watched this tug-of-war between the government and ACJU. He was Athuraliye Rathana Thero, the man who went on a televised fast unto death campaign in June 2019 and in front of the Maligawa demanding President Sirisena to remove from positions two ministers and a provincial governor, all Muslims. He also spoke to the media after ending his not-so-hungry fast, and asked the president to use his powers to bring the country under one law and urged Muslims to join Thero’s campaign. Thus, OCOL mantra was a monkish invention that later became a vote winning slogan in GR’s presidential race. Finally, having entered the parliament for a second term, the same monk introduced a private motion in the parliament to amend MMDA on 8 January 2020. The message was clear. All this may not have happened had the Muslim parliamentarians ignored ACJU’s protest and threat, threw their support behind JSM report and helped Minister Athukorale to prepare legislating those recommendations. It should be recorded with great disappointment that Muslim political leadership after Badi-ud-din Mahmud did not have the political foresight and intellectual sagacity to envisage the direction in which the country and society were heading and take measures accordingly to prevent any possible clash between the national trend and community parochialism. A missed opportunity in 2019 is now adding to the agony and sufferings of Muslims in the aftermath of Easter infamy.
After winning this presidential race, GR brought into the cabinet his closest Muslim friend and Attorney-at-Law, Ali Sabry, and made him the Minister of Justice amidst strong opposition from GR’s supremacist cabal. Sabry at once announced that he was a minister for every community and that he would undertake reforms in the legal structure and institutions of this country. Accordingly, GR expected his minister to reform MMDA quite radically and perhaps preferred its total abolition. The Muslim minister was in a dilemma. He proposed a few changes to MMDA, such as to redress gender imbalance, raising marriageable age to 18 and making brides consent legally obligatory, but would not go far enough to satisfy all the demands of the President and of his hardcore supremacists, who want OCOL to become a reality without exception. Had it been anyone else but Sabry, GR would have removed him from that ministry forthwith and replaced him with one from the supremacists. The current foreign minister Professor G. L. Peiris would have been an excellent choice. But GR did not want to lose his friend. Therefore, he found another way to solve the problem and appointed another Task Force, eleventh in the series, and found a new Pope Urban II in the fighting persona of monk Gnanasara, who not only wants OCOL but intends to go further and include one race to make the mantra OCOLOR, to carry on with GR’s crusade against MMDA. Strangely enough this task force which deals with law has only two lawyers among the thirteen but four Muslim comedians to provide Sufi entertainment.
Muslim community is not in a position to stop the demise of MMDA. The community is virtually leaderless. MMDA lamb in GR’s Task Force abattoir with slaughterer monk Gnanasara is the President’s new battle front for an encounter with that community. He is destined to win that battle, reinstate his fighting credentials and hopefully would win back supremacists support. But the future of this country is anybody’s guess.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia