By Mohamed R. M. Farook –
Every person has their citizenry in the country of birth, has rights that cannot be tampered with by any other, and has duties of responsibility to be executed whenever the needs arise in order every human being is given a natural or universal guarantee to live as a free person. But in realty this concept of equality is, most of the time, breached through majoritarian or supremacist mind-set prevailing in religious and / or racial divides in many countries in the world. By default, or otherwise, Sri Lanka too has fallen to this unacceptable behaviour at present through which the Muslims are challenged in their dress styles, especially Muslim women; the way the Islamic knowledge is being taught; and insisting on to do away with Muslim personal laws – all these being advocated by a tiny group of Sinhala Buddhists spearheaded by a small number of Buddhist monks and this must be curtailed by the government that is supposed to be practising democratic politics. This has made a dent in the many generations-based binding unity and relationship between the Sinhala Buddhists and the Muslims and has gone to that extent that mending the dent may not be an easy task. Yet it could be done by making the instigating Buddhists understand that their mission should be one of renaissance to make the Buddhist population become aware of the neglect of Buddhism in them, and lead a life based on Buddhist principles without harming members of other faiths. It is travesty on the fundamental rights of Muslims to ask them to give up their religiously based dress styles, to close Madrasa education, and do away with the Muslim Personal Laws. Though the Muslims are made to face unacceptable scenarios, yet the Muslims are interacting with the Sinhala community in the best possible regard, respect and unstinted friendliness. Let truth and sanity prevail and make all Sri Lankans live together happily as from now onwards.
The concept that all humans are equal in their fundamental requirements or rights is embedded in religions, philosophies, ideologies and other discourses dealing in the well-being of humans and these notions exist mainly in the theoretical side of these doctrines and discourses by virtue of the fact that every human divide has its own constructed notion or thinking as to its importance, legitimacy or superiority and thus in one way or other breach the commands of their faiths, philosophies, thoughts etc. That is why the need for order is established through constitutions and many other legal frameworks. On the other hand, in worldly statuses in terms of wealth, learnings, influences, power and many more mundane aspects, humans differ from one another as individuals and collectives. These differences do exist and have to be accepted as they are, without posing unwarranted questions of how they attained their present statuses either legitimately or otherwise and that being a different issue has to be dealt with in a different way through a different topic. Along with rights, every doctrine imposes responsibilities too – responsibility to somebody or something and responsibility for the duties and activities one has to do.
Persons born and bred in Sri Lanka – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims – have common rights and responsibilities as citizens of this island nation and no group has any exclusive rights to the detriment of another or others and this is a fundamental premise in which mankind lives in this world, and conflicts reign when this premise is not upheld. Religious, social and cultural practices of each religious group are their rights and must be respected by all others without casting aspersions on such practices and rituals. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, people are being divided, side-lined or even marginalized based on their religious, social and cultural practices due to majoritarian supremacist thinking, prejudices, fanciful vengeance, hatred etc. commissioned under what may be label as racism. In the developed world, particularly in the United States, the marginalized Afro-Americans though having their equality rights enshrined, protected and operationalized, there remains distinct behavioural patterns between the American Whites and the Afro-American Blacks having mismatch in terms of expressions, gestures, perceptions, outlook etc. thus any conflict could be attributable to inborn mind-set of each group. This clash of cultures had been there for a long period of time in the USA and some other developed nations and therefore solutions of a permanent nature may not be forthcoming at the present stage in these countries.
Whether it is due to the copycat syndrome or any other factors borrowed from the outside world or manipulations by any vested interests from within or outside, Sri Lanka too has recently become partly submerged in racist behaviour particularly targeting Muslims at present. The motives attributable to this racist behaviour cannot be imagined as the Sinhalese and the Muslims had been living in cordial and healthy relationships for nearly, say, one thousand years, each community having trust in the other without any hesitations. The hitherto existed ways of peaceful living, the mutual trust and inter-community interactions in socio-cultural events have been ruptured at present due to unthoughtful behaviour of few Buddhists claiming that they are in a mission to help the Sinhala Buddhists to regain their lost rights, privileges, landscapes and heritages. In this scheme of anti-Muslim scenario, aspersions were cast on Muslims as to their assimilation, patriotism and loyalty, which suddenly caused them (Muslims) to feel that they have been purposefully alienated in their own social and cultural milieu (environment) which is nothing but Sri Lankan identity.
Even if there is an iota of truth in what the Sinhala Buddhists are saying about their drawbacks, the remedy is not in attacking the Muslims but to use workable strategies without harming other communities through peaceful interventions, may be, a renaissance approach. When multi culturalism is a reality and quite a number of researches are being done to know more about the contributions of multiculturalism to the smooth functioning of world order, we in Sri Lanka are trying to wipe out multiculturalism altogether due to racism used for political expediency. It is very unfortunate such activities are taking place when what Sri Lanka needs is a combined effort from all communities to make her rise up from the present economic mess to which she has fallen and move forward to be a nation of economic, industrial and commercial prosperity. For this to happen and yield favourable results, the enmity that has been created, promoted and presently operationalized by the few so called fake ultra-nationalistic Buddhists particularly on Muslims should be checked, contained and eliminated as far as possible by the governing political hierarchy without any hesitation. This is a must and any indifference shown by the state agencies to this visible communal diatribe without taking actions to contain them will not only remain a thorn on Muslims but also undesirable for effective governance.
Muslims in Sri Lanka are her citizens by birth like others – the Buddhists, the Christians, and the Hindus. Their ancestors were Muslims through many generations, born and lived in Sri Lanka (or then Ceylon), established harmonious socio-cultural relationships with the Sinhala Buddhists (also others) and contributed immensely to the overall development and well being of Sri Lanka / Ceylon, especially by way of giving unconditional support to the Sinhala forerunners of the Independence Movement for gaining Independence from the British rule in 1948. Muslims were also lead business people in wholesale and retail trades especially in commodity trading. The wholesale Muslim traders were practising the cardinal characteristics of the wholesale trade viz. ‘breaking the Bulk’ and keeping small margins yet having large profits on turnover. The Muslim wholesalers gave on credit terms to their retail traders who went into different areas interior and established their retail businesses – this was one factor, but not the only one, for the spread of the Muslims into various parts of Sri Lanka.
Though the (Middle Eastern) Arab traders had been frequenting Ceylon (Serendib) for business trading before the advent of Islam in Arabia (Makkah) in the Seventh century and a few of them did get settled down in Ceylon (Serendib) making Ceylon their new home country in that period, the history of the Muslims in Ceylon (Serendib) starts as from the beginning around 8th/9th century A.D – say, one hundred and fifty years after the advent of Islam in Makkah. Now the Arabs coming to Ceylon were Muslims and these Arab Muslim ‘visitors’ were all males and consisted mainly of business persons (traders) and few physicians. The Sinhalese kings welcomed and entertained the Arabs and the Arab physicians became the family physicians to the Sinhalese kings. The Arabs brought merchandise and bartered them for spices of Ceylon (Serendib). This business interactions developed through time to family based relationship when the Arab business persons got married to Sinhalese Buddhist women and settled down in Ceylon that became their home as from then onwards. It was on the insistence of the Sinhalese kings for the Arab Muslims to stay in Ceylon (Serendib), the latter consented to marrying the Sinhalese Buddhist girls / women on condition that the women get converted to Islam. After this condition being agreed upon, the Sinhalese kings requested all the beautiful Sinhalese spinsters of the high cast (Goigama) to take part in the traditional public procession (Perahara) through which the Arab Muslim traders selected their wives – and that was start of the Sinhala-Muslim lineage (or pedigree) of the Ceylon Moors. Many historians writing about the ‘Muslims of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ have given detailed descriptions of the Ceylon Moors and how they rendered their contributions to the various matters pertaining to the protection, stability and development of Ceylon (Serendib) among many other aspects that need not be repeated here which would amount to reinventing the wheel. That said, what this write-up wish to emphasize is that the Muslims are rightful citizens of Sri Lanka on par with the Sinhalese Buddhists and others of equal citizenships.
All citizens of different religious divide in Sri Lanka have the same fundamental rights in terms of owning lands and properties; establishing and operating businesses; having equal access to educational facilities and employments; to be treated as equals in the dispensation of justice; and many more. The rights of the Muslims are no different from any other Sri Lankan community. In any democracy, every community has the rights to perform their religious duties / rituals, socio-cultural mores, recreational practices and so on and have to be allowed without barriers – this is essential for the smooth functioning of the society at large. But unfortunately, the Muslims are made to face various difficulties in the performance of their legitimate activities in their religious and socio-cultural domains. Propaganda against the legitimate activities of the Muslims which are nothing but their legitimate rights started in recent times around seven years ago in a small but powerful way by a small group of Buddhist monks belonging to Budu Bala Sena (BBS) along with their cohorts opposing the labelling of items, for example, including bottled water, as HALAAL by issuing certificates by an organization of Muslim clerics – All Ceylon Jameeyathul Ulama (ACJU) which has no legitimate status whatsoever to act and speak for and on behalf of Muslims of Sri Lanka – they can teach Islam as any other individual Muslim or Muslim organization could do. The Halaal labelling and certification process of ACJU was a foolish act.
The concept or the meaning of Halaal has wide connotations. Halaal means what a Muslim does (in their earnings and lifestyles), consumes (food), utilizes (requirements), are legitimate and legally allowed in Islam. The opposite of HALAAL is HARAM which is illegitimate and legally disallowed in Islam. Few examples to clarify the Halaal / Haraam dichotomy before the idea of Halaal is clarified in the slaughtering of permitted animals for consumption by Muslims will bring in some insights in to the issue at hand. Examples: 1. When a Muslim takes to their possession a property of another (Muslim or others) without the owner’s consent, that property and any income derived from that property are Haraam. 2. Income derived through exploitations either in businesses or any other earnings is Haraam. 3. Usurping the legitimate position or title of another (Muslim or others) is Haraam. 4. Cheating and / or lying for material gains is Haram. 5. Indulging in sexual activities prohibited in Islam is Haraam. In essence all that are prohibited in Islam if done are Haraam.
The consumption of meat by Muslims has to conform to two conditions viz. the animal / bird should be those allowed in Islam for consumption and the name of Allah (swt) must have been pronounced when slaughtering – and this is only applicable for the consumption of meat. BBS took the case of bottled water (with the Halaal label) and vociferously made the accusation that the bottled water (with Halaal label) has been blessed or made sacred in the name of Allah (swt) – which is not the case – and therefore Buddhists cannot use that water in their religious ceremonies. The BBS was partly correct though their perception of the Halaal label in the bottled water was wrong. The real trouble creator in this case is ACJU by trying to label non-meat consumer products as Halaal which was not necessary at all. This is a clear instance where conflicts could arise when a religious body (in this ACJU) trying to overdo their perceived religious duties without proper understanding of the Islamic obligations to be mindful of the actions / activities on people of other faiths. The assertion by the BBS that ACJU was making profits through their Halaal programme was correct – Islam does not allow / permit the exploitation of Islamic duties for commercial gains either by individual Muslims or Muslim organizations.
BBS turned their anti-Halaal programme to vilify the Muslims and Islam through hate speeches – that is not acceptable in a democratic and decent society. They started to disgrace the wearing of Abaya, Hijab, Jilbab etc. by Muslim women and proceeded to speak against the Muslims in their meetings in Kurunegala, Kandy, Aluthgama, and their meeting at Athugama initiated the violence against the Muslims and their properties in Aluthgama / Beruwala in 2014 and other places later on. BBS by their violent acts and hate speeches never ever did any good to Buddhism or to the Sinhala Buddhist population except corrupting the minds of the Sinhala Buddhists especially the vulnerable and innocent youth to look at the Muslims as if they (Muslims) are dangerous to the Sinhala Buddhists while in reality there was no danger or anything like that ever prevailed – their slogan had been ‘saving the Sinhala Buddhists from the dangers – imagined of course – of Muslims’. These instigators were working against Buddhist Principles, may be for political reasons and / or personal gains either on their own or through the backing of vested interests, hell bent to destabilizing Sri Lanka or to make a dent in the Sinhala-Muslim unity and relationship. We believe it is appropriate here to state two Buddha quotes: (1). “If your religion requires you to hate someone, you need a new religion”. (2). “What hurts you today, makes you stronger tomorrow”. Everyone can become better if they accept these quotes. We also would like to give two inspirational quotes (a) “If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t’ say it” – Marcus Aurelius (Stoicism). (b). “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions” – Confucius (Stoicism).
Muslims both males and females have their rights as any other citizens to wear decent dresses as per their religious obligations and socio- cultural practices. To say Muslim women should not wear their outer garments known as Abaya, Hijab, etc. is travesty of the fundamental rights of Muslims. It becomes the bounden duty of the Sri Lanka state to check on the vicious propaganda against Abaya, Hijab and put an end to it so that the fundamental rights of the Muslims especially the Muslim women who are interested in wearing the Abaya / Hijab are not breached.
Every religious community is obliged to teach their religious texts to their children either in their places of worship or some other places dedicated to the said purpose. The Muslim community teaches their religious text the Qur’an in places called Madrasa meaning Islamic religious schools as the Buddhists have their Dhaham Pasala. To say Madrasa teach terrorism is pure imagination and disastrous mental construction simply because the terrorists of the Easter Sunday attack in April 2019 made use of two or three Madrasa in Kathankudi / Puttalam for their terrorist propaganda / training activities. Some Madrasa are managed by ACJU, some others by other Muslim organizations and we also find Madrasa run by various Muslim collectives. Teaching Islam through religious schools (Madrasa) is a fundamental rights of Muslims as of other communities. For the purpose of transparency, it is advisable that the Madrasa schools should be run under the supervision of a Ministry so that unwanted suspicions would not arise in people of other faiths.
Every religious community in Sri Lanka has their individual personal laws, including the Sinhalese, that are used to adjudicate in matters pertaining essentially to specific issues arising to people of their faiths. The Muslims have their personal law in their marriage and divorce matters in the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act (1951) – MMDA – and had been effective throughout Muslim marriages to date and is administered through Quasi Court system. All legal systems throughout the world have their disadvantages and deficiencies – no system is perfect and every system needs amendments now and then to make the system perform better. Thus MMDA too needs amendments, complying to the Qur’an and Hadith, to rectify its prevailing deficiencies and not to do away with it (MMDA) altogether. Muslims having their personal laws are their fundamental rights.
As regards responsibilities, the Muslim community had been in the forefront in discharging their responsibilities to the people and the country as and when required. This is not a blank statement but a proven fact if one were to look at it without bias. Responsibilities for Muslims flow from their religion (Islam) – Qur’an and Hadith. One specific example is prohibition of alcoholic drinks. Alcohol or intoxication or drunkenness is the first cause of most of the problems in a society. Islam prohibits gambling, belief in astrology, lending or taking money on interest (usury) to name a few. Thus when Muslims avoid these anti-social activities, they are naturally behaving in responsible manner. Muslims will be glad to take on many societal responsibilities if they are offered by responsible state agencies or even by the government itself, but unfortunately the fact is that the Muslims are side-lined from responsible government positions due to the greediness of the Sinhalese to have all positions to themselves.
Responsibilities could be upheld or operationalized through individuals, informal human collectives, volunteer entities, non-profit establishments, for-profit business organizations, religious bodies, recreational associations and so on, and the Muslims of Ceylon (Serandib) – now Sri Lanka – historically had been and also are presently involved in through these various entities rendering their responsible behaviour to individual Sri Lankans, different communities, and society at large in various ways as per the needs of the situations. The foremost responsible behaviour of an individual Muslim and formal / informal Muslim collectives is peaceful coexistence with other communities. The Muslim business sector in being involved in retail and wholesale trading, Muslim involvement in manufacturing, construction industry, running of secular and Islamic educational organizations, participation in inter-community sports and recreational activities through schools and other bodies, helping needy individuals irrespective of ethnicity, religion or any other divide, having cordial inter-relationships with religious and secular organizations belonging to other faiths, and many other involvements of helpful nature, have shown the extent to which the Muslim community are involved in their responsibilities as citizens of Sri Lanka without any bias whatsoever to the recipients’ social statuses, faiths, criminal records, social relationships etc.
Like any other community, the Muslim community too has their bad eggs but that is a very microscopic minority that are in a way tarnishing the good image of the rest of the Muslim community. The large majority of Muslims behave in responsible ways that are helpful to their community as well as others in the society and that should be the yardstick to measure the ‘responsibility-outputs’ of the Muslim community rather than banking on the activities of the negligible coterie of the black sheep unfortunately existing among the Muslims as among other communities too. Communities have limited leverage / power / influence to curtail the anti-social and / or criminal activities of their socially deviant members and thus it becomes the bounden duty of the government to check on, take remedial measures and enforce required punishments on the social outcasts to make democratic governance operate in the way it should.
Muslims are on par with the Sinhala Buddhists and others in being equal citizens, having equal rights and discharging their due responsibilities for the well-being of every citizen irrespective of religious or ethnic identity of the other. While this remains the true picture of the Muslims, it is very sad to note that a few elements within the Sinhala Buddhists spearheaded by a small group of Buddhist monks in their ignominious mission of trying to disgrace the Muslims based on their wishful and fictitious thinking about Muslims are casting aspersions on the religious and socio-cultural practices of the Muslims that has brought a ‘split’ in the hitherto existing relationship / bond between the Sinhala Buddhists and the Muslims. The main outcome of this is, while in the past throughout where the Sinhala community were happily and enthusiastically awaiting the foods from their Muslim friends and neighbours during the Muslim festivals of Ramadan and Hajj, today many Sinhalese are reluctant to accept the foods due to their minds having been changed to look at Muslims in suspicious ways, whereas the Muslims are treating the Sinhala community in the best possible regard, respect and unstinted friendship after they (Muslims) being somewhat badly treated at present. Let us hope that this situation will change when truth emerges and sanity prevails.