“Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) that emerged as a teardrop of politically and ethnically persecuted Muslims in the north east has become a food bundle feeding the selfish stomachs today,” my friend and fellow university student of that time wrote to the then weekly Sarinikar during a leadership crisis in the party that followed Ashraff’s death. His claim has been more relevant to the contemporary Muslim Congress. In effect, the leadership of Ashraff, founder leader of the SLMC, became active after his SLMC became a mainstream Muslim political party and a political partner of the Chandrika led UPFA government in 1994. During his 6 years of leadership until his death in 2000, leader Ashraff did lots for his community. He transformed his Muslim community politically from dependent community into independent community. Leader Ashraff also made some progress for his community in education and culture. Muslim areas, mainly in the east, also found significant development in his years. Leader Ashraff used his powerful ministerial position and his political clout maximum to do these for his people. His Muslim Congress also had a political stance for the north and east Muslims if the country’s decade old ethnic question was settled politically even though such stance received a staunch criticism from his own community too.
Mr. Hakeem who succeeded Ashraff after his death has been the leader of the party since 2000. In his more than 10-year leadership, he had received numerous political opportunities that his predecessor Ashraff had not obtained. In peace talks advanced by Ranil government with former Tamil Tigers in 2002, Leader Hakeem participated as a member of government delegation. He also struck a deal with ex LTTE leader Prabhakaran,called Prabha-Hakeem pact on behalf of Muslim community. Mr. Hakeem has also been a powerful member at cabinet of virtually every successive government after Ashraff. Unfortunately, he had never used all these politically important opportunities to address Muslims’ issues or represent their interests appropriately. Instead, he had repeatedly substantiated his ill-equipped leadership in representing his community on all these occasions. Whenever his Muslim community was being vulnerably targeted by Sinhalese and Tamil ethno-religious nationalist elements, leader Hakeem played undoubtedly an unacceptable role. He could not protect his people from attacks of these elements despite his strong political clout and presence in every government.
In 2001, in the south (Mawanella), when Muslims were killed and their businesses badly destroyed by some Sinhalese rioters, leader Hakeem who was a powerful minister of the time could only be a muted spectator. In 2002, while a ceasefire was in force between the Ranil government and LTTE, Muslims in the east were being killed and their bodies unacceptably burnt in contrast to their religious values. Muslims were also driven out of their land and villages. Their villages at times were given different names against their wishes. When the Tamil Tigers perpetrated these violent practices, the acknowledged human rights and ceasefire violations of LTTE, against Muslims, leader Hakeem who was a powerful minister, government peace talk delegation member and also a Praba-Hakeem pact’s signatory could do nothing to prevent them but to conveniently issue senseless statements over time. In 2003, when Muslims of the north and east expressed their legitimate political aspiration to participate as a separate party at government –LTTE peace talks to address their issues through a peaceful popular agitation in the South Eastern University of Oluvil, leader Hakeem could not deliver such separate delegation to his community.
Shortly before the August 2012 eastern provincial council elections, Muslim mosques from Dambulla to Anuradhapura were attacked and a decade-old Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura desecrated. Sinhalese mobs directed by some Buddhist monks carried out them. They barred Muslims from worshipping in these mosques and demanded their closure giving deadline too. On these occasions, leader Hakeem who was Justice Minister could not protect his people’s worship places. Once eastern provincial council election came, leader used these mosque attacks and desecration as a ploy to plunder more Muslim votes. At his election rallies, he accused the government explicitly for the first time of not protecting Muslim worship places. At the same election platforms, leader also portrayed the then eastern provincial council formed by this government with Pillayan as a puppet administration and vowed to form an independent administration with back-born after the elections. Interestingly, Leader made this rhetoric when he was still in the cabinet of this government, which was a flagrant political drama to mislead Muslim masses. Following elections, Hakeem uncritically helped the same government form a new administration to the province extracting some provincial ministries for his party stalwarts. But, mosque attack issue of the community was kept intact for next elections as another ploy.
Today, Muslim community of the country has become a vulnerable target of a section of Buddhist community in the form of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The BBS directed by radical Buddhist monks with unreasonable perception and anxiety over Muslims in the country has today prevented halal food for Muslims in domestic market. Halal (permissible) is an uncompromising religious practice in every Muslim’s daily life. In other non-Muslim countries of contemporary globe, even in Asia where Muslims have been minority community or living in small number, Halal has not been a problem to them or their countries. These countries absolutely permit Muslims to have halal food as their citizens. Local companies in these countries serve halal products in domestic markets. In Japan that has Muslim population in very small size, there has been a civil organisation Japan Halal Association (JHA) regulating halal food affair. The JHA claims the halal food delivery has increased in Japan largely for the past ten years. Cafeterias in universities, public restaurants and local manufacturers include halal food in their sales.
A cafeteria at Hongo campus of Tokyo University in Japan has newly announced to serve halal dishes to university people daily. The National Federation of University Co-operative Association of Japan reported that at least seven Japanese universities – in addition to Tokyo University- offered to serve halal dishes among their staff and students. The JHB has estimated that there are at least 200 public restaurants across the country offering halal food currently. Takayuki Ishihara, manager of the Gyumon restaurant in Tokyo offering halal food, said “I hope mutual understanding will deepen between Muslims and non Muslims by dining here.” Ryoichi Namikawa, professor of Chukyo University, emphasised in his book “the concept of halal” that an acceptable understanding on halal was essential to Japan as non Muslim country.
Muslims of the country have been denied religious freedom by halal removal. All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) has been sadly disgraced and forced to scrap its halal certificate issuance. This anti-Muslim campaign is being advanced unchecked by the BBS with, according to observers, alleged blessings of some in the corridors of power. So, the attack on Muslim halal has undoubtedly a political overtone too. The ACJU is not a political party, but a faith-based civil organisation to regulate Muslims’ religious life and affairs. It has no political say to counter this powerful politics behind halal crisis. Instead, it is an inherent obligation of Muslim Congress to deal with this political component since the party has been the mainstream political organisation with a wider popular mandate of Muslim community, and a political partner of current government. As always, in the halal issues too, the SLMC leadership has once again failed to perform its obligation. It has betrayed community’s religious life by delivering no solution to this problem. It would, therefore, be a historical blunder on part of the leadership. .
At a time when halal controversy was at its height, minister Nimal Siripala de Silva in his statement in parliament unrealistically claimed that no mosque in the country had been attacked. Leader Hakeem who blamed the government for such attacks at the time elections was shamelessly nodding to this claim with his unbreakable silence. He could not disprove Minister’s claim even though plenty of evidence over mosque attacks was unearthed. We learnt from media reports that the leader renewed his shameless silence in another the meeting with diplomats of Muslim countries in Colombo also when they asked him why he was silent as minister Silva misled the house on the issues. Unfortunately, Muslims have no political leaders or representatives in parliament to fight for their problems even though they have dozens of ministers, deputy ministers, MPs and political parties. They have to surrender to non Muslim political leaders in the country to address their problems and grievances.
In parliament, when opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, albeit political, voiced for Muslim community condemning the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign, SLMC leadership was again silently betraying its community by not granting him at least a moral support. Non Muslims’ fight for Muslims is not a new development. This has been a global phenomenon lasting long. George Galloway, British MP and journalist, has been the occupied Palestinians’ world voice. It is David Cronin of British, journalist and civil activist, to still fight to get their former Prime Minister Tony Blair tried for his role in US-led illegal war on Iraq. Cronin has also been running his online “Citizen Campaign” as of 2010 for this. Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist and volunteer of International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was also one non Muslim to fight for Palestinian cause. This young female activist sacrificed her life for occupied Palestinians while fighting to thwart Israeli bulldozer from demolishing Palestinian homes.
The BBS’ Muslim animosity has not ceased only with halal ban. It has now expanded to Muslim attires (male hat and female hijab) and Muslim economy. In Mannampitty of Batticaloa, a Muslim female post-master has been tried by unidentified persons to remove her hijab while on her way to office. In Kandy, the hat of a Quranic school teacher has been forcibly taken off from his head while in bus and trampled under the feet by an alleged auto driver. In Kurunagale, one Muslim woman, while travelling by bus, has been badly insulted for her hijab. Muslim business establishments are also being destroyed. As the latest development, the ACJU has been branded as terrorist supporting organisation. These developments all clearly mean that Muslims in the country are under existential threat. At this juncture, SLMC leadership does continue its betrayal of silence. As the leadership invariably convenes its politburo to decide to extract what ministries and for whom, It has not been summoned such politburo at least to debate this most critical situation against its community despite a repeated call from party ranks for an emergency politburo session. The leader claims he has 20 years of association with our president. Likewise, his deputy and party heavyweight who became a minister without leader’s knowledge after president’s recent cabinet reshuffling had professed that his spiritual might earned him such a ministerial position. Will both use this two-decade old relations and spiritual might to preserve their community? Muslim Congress leader is no longer capable of leading his community for many reasons observed above. This is the appropriate time for this hapless Muslim community to appreciate this fact.
* Salithamby Abdul Rauff pursues a PhD in social work at school of social sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia.