By Rasika Jayakody –
The Muslim community of Sri Lanka, unintended victims of the Easter Sunday explosions, is currently facing steep challenges on many fronts.
Almost every Muslim household in Sri Lanka has come under scrutiny by security forces that are tasked with stamping out nascent Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka. Reports of swords, machetes and other suspicious items being recovered from some Muslim places of worships and households have further complicated the situation and drawn the ire of other communities — particularly the majority Sinhalese.
There is also a vibrant and well-organized social media campaign currently underway calling for the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses in Sri Lanka. Many sources confirmed that a number of Muslim businesses in predominantly Sinhala areas are experiencing a dismaying drop in sales. This is a cause for concern not just for the Muslims who own the businesses but those from other ethnicities who work for them.
The racial violence that broke out in many parts of the country targeting Muslims has damaged hundreds of homes and businesses. While some of these attacks appear to be politically orchestrated and conducted by organized mobs, most were carried out by incensed village youth, driven by long-harboured hatred for Muslims. These sentiments are fueled by extreme right-wing populism and the constant vilification of Muslims by ultra-nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist organizations. Although the situation has returned to normalcy, for now, the country is resting on the crest of a volcano.
Aside from the hatred and mob violence, there is a strong mistrust between the Muslim community and other communities in Sri Lanka. Corrupt and power-hungry Muslim political leaders—most of whom are affiliated with the government—have not demonstrated a genuine will to bridge the trust gap between these communities.
Some Muslim political leaders including All Ceylon Makhal Congress (ACMC) Leader Rishard Bathiudeen and Eastern Province Governor M. L. A. M. Hizbullah have already come under fire for maintaining close links with extremist militants. Mounting calls for investigations into their involvement with the extremist militants have fallen on deaf ears. And even though Army Commander Lt. General Mahesh Senanayake went on public record saying that Bathiudeen spoke to him thrice about a suspect arrested in Dehiwala, no action has thus far been taken against the Minister.
While the Muslim political leadership has let its own people down, religious leaders too have failed to act as a unifying factor within the community against the growing wave of extremism. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) made certain interventions to diffuse tensions in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday explosions, but other communities are reluctant to accept the ACJU as the unequivocal voice against extremism.
What the Muslim community requires at this point is strong community leadership that can drive internal reforms, bridging the trust gap between Muslims and other communities. The community leadership must transcend political and other internal divisions while driving important reforms that will deter radicalization.
It is against this backdrop that four Muslim representatives—namely Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, Ferial Ashraff, President’s Counsel Ali Sabry and Minister Kabir Hashim—came forward last week to conduct a press conference on solutions to the current situation in the country. At the well-attended presser, the four representatives made it clear that the Muslim community must look inwards to seek sustainable solutions without pursuing mere cosmetic changes.
The speakers expressed progressive views on regulating madrasas and doing away with cultural practices that alienate Muslims from other communities. They also reminded those present of the marked difference between the large majority of Sri Lankan Muslims and a handful of extremist militants who have espoused violence.
The press conference was widely appreciated by moderate Muslims who feel the intervention is timely. It has also demonstrated a semblance of the leadership from the Muslim community, sorely needed to navigate current tensions. The initiative now requires the wider support of Muslim business leaders and other sensible voices in the community.
A press conference alone will not bring about solutions to the issue of radicalization the Muslims in Sri Lanka are now grappling with. The community leadership must steer its people in the direction of making decisions they’ve hesitated to make before. They must engage with their own community—in the strongest of terms—and communicate the importance of making themselves acceptable to an angry majority community.
This initiative by four Muslim civil society representatives, however, presents an opportunity to lay the foundation for a larger movement that will make a much-needed moral intervention to resolve the issues within the Muslim community, particularly that of radicalization. The onus is on the Muslim civil society to ensure that this significant movement does not die a premature death.