By Ameer Ali –
Iftar or breaking of the dawn to dusk fast is a pious and customary event during Ramadhan among Muslims. It is a solemn occasion traditionally participated by family members and their friends to thank the Creator for all the blessings bestowed upon them and humanity in general, and the occasion ends with the obligatory evening prayer. In recent times however, this solemnity had been broken and iftar has become instead an occasion for wheeling and dealing on mundane matters by politicians and their hangers on, held over grand dinner parties in prestigious venues and in the presence of specially invited dignitaries, who invariably happen to be people in power and prestige. Iftar has been shamelessly politicized and prostituted for pecuniary advantage. Over the last few years Colombo Telegraph published at least three of my pieces addressing this issue and calling for preserving the spiritual sanctity of iftar (see, “Ostentatious Iftars and Obnoxious Poverty: Changing Religious Topography of Sri Lankan Muslims, 1 July 2016; “Prostituting Iftar for Political Gains”, 30 May 2018; and “Iftar & Infitah: Essence of Muslim Politics and Economy”, 13 June 2018). This year, such parties have been thankfully avoided, thanks to Covid-19.
Yet, there had been one politicized iftar this year, organized not by Muslims but by Prime Minister MR, and it was attended by a carefully selected Muslim parliamentarians. Before discussing the controversy surrounding this event, another side of iftar that has become part of a public relations (PR) exercise in the West should also be noted. This PR exercise had its origins in 2001, and was aimed primarily at winning the support of Muslim minorities living in the West, which were becoming publicly critical at the indiscriminatory manner in which Western governments were treating members of Muslim minorities in the name of preventing terrorism. In countries like Britain, US, Australia and New Zealand, governments were hosting iftar dinners for local Muslim leaders and their organizations. More than governments even Christian churches were inviting Muslims during Ramadhan to break their fast in the church and perform their prayers too. Didn’t the Prophet himself allow Christians from Najran to perform their prayers inside his mosque in Medina? There was no politics in this except a genuine wish to build healthy relations among different faith communities living in plural societies. In Sri Lanka however, iftar has turned out to be a shameless exercise in politicizing and prostituting a religious tradition to achieve ends which are more mundane than spiritual.
Prime Minister MR’s controversial iftar for a specially selected number of Muslim parliamentarians falls into this category. If his intention was to build bridges with Muslim citizens who have been unfairly targeted to repeated insults, harassment and arbitrary arrests, especially since PCoI report was handed over to the President and he decided to act on a few of its recommendations, he could have invited all Muslim MPs and a few of the more prominent Muslim religious dignitaries for a frank chat over iftar. But why did he invite only those MPs who happened to support that crucial 20th Amendment in the constitution? According to the attendees however, it was not a formal iftar to which they were invited, but the time of breaking fast happened to have fallen while they were discussing important matters with the PM in relation to Muslim community. Shouldn’t the Muslim public know what those matters were and how the PM responded to their requests? As they say, devil is in the details, and the whole episode smells a rat.
What is significant in this episode is the timing of the meeting. Very soon, another crucially important legislation, as far as the government is concerned, is going to come up for debate. This is the legislation regarding the Colombo Port City and its Commission. The Supreme Court has also raised its concerns over certain aspects of that Bill which it agrees are unconstitutional and threaten to jeopardize the sovereignty of the country. Accordingly, Minister G. L. Peiris has announced that amendments would be introduced to rectify the situation. Even then, the Bill requires a two-third majority in the parliament to become law. Already one hears of murmurings about division within the ruling coalition, which does not augur well for the success of the Bill. Hence, the PM has to muster whatever support he could get outside the coalition. Once again, his eyes have fallen on those eight Muslim parliamentarians who voted for the amendment. That seems to be a reasonable explanation for this political iftar. Will they be bought again is the $64K question.
Muslim parliamentarians must learn one important lesson from their past misdeeds and betrayals. That is, one cannot fool all the people all the time. The community has awakened, and it will not put up with these cheats any more. Opinions raised through the social media demonstrate how angry Muslims have become at their own leaders. After decades of educational progress there is a new generation of Muslim men and women who are more politically alert and discernible. They are desperately working towards promoting a new leadership. One should wish them success.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia