By Haaris Mahmud –
The idiom ‘Forcing a person to the wall’ means to push someone to an extreme position; to put someone into an awkward position. The Muslims of Sri Lanka too feel that they are being unnecessarily driven towards an awkward position in recent times, arising from the unreasonable standpoint of the establishment with regard to the cremation issue, as well as the impunity regards the well-orchestrated demonization campaign being waged both in the media and through dog-whistles against the Muslims, with the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the law enforcement authorities turning a blind eye to such machinations. It is a shame that the All Ceylon Muslim Theologians Body (ACJU) as well as the so-called Muslim political leadership and the civil Muslim organizations have been taking a laissez faire approach, to this growing cancer, thus implicitly appearing to fall in line with the official position on cremation and tolerating the official apathy on anti-Muslim hate. Thus, Muslims caught in-between, are wondering whether these ‘representative’ bodies of the community are acting in fear of a majoritarian government surviving on a racist vote-base to win the next election, or is it mere self-centred-ness (to safeguard their lot), without considering the adverse consequences both in the world and the next (as they believe) for overlooking these injustices?
There has been much heat than light, already been generated in the rogue sections of the Sri Lankan media as well as in the social media,with regard to the on-going issue regarding the cremation of Covid deaths, with much accusations being levelled at the Sri Lankan Muslims albeit unreasonably, that they are unpatriotic, selfish and also unaccommodating. This is further from the truth. Be it as it may, in terms of all applicable perspectives through which this issue can be viewed at- whether rights, theological or scientific/medical perspectives, any independent analyst will easily spot the unreasonable position taken by the health authorities and by extension the GoSL in respect of this sensitive issue affecting the Muslims in particular, although it is also an issue of relevance to the Christians too.
‘Choosing the burial over the cremation option’ is not an issue to hit at the patriotism of the Muslim community. It is an issue which has been unreasonably created by the authorities in Sri Lanka with no acceptable scientific or medical basis either within Sri Lanka or in a global sense. The denial of the burial option through a gazette notification to such effect, is rather a stubborn and obstinate move of the GoSL to stifle the rights of those who opt for such option( particularly the Muslims). The media release by the Presidential Media division published by Shivanthi Ranasinghe, Director International relations and Foreign media appears to confirm that even the President is in agreement. She also stated that ‘ill effects’ of burying such bodies may even be seen, thousands of years later, (citing some mysterious deaths when opening ancient graves), which is rather humorous to say the least.
The premier medical professional body was clear in their stance in this regard. The GMOA has recommended that a panel be appointed to study this subject, accepting in their letter to the Director General of Health Dr Jasinghe that both options are available under the WHO guidelines. This suggestion was not heeded. Many Muslim and non-Muslim medical and scientific professionals have made also representations to the Health authorities about the safety of the burial option and all their appeals have fallen into deaf ears. Dr Paba Palihawadana, Chief Epidemiologist, Director, Central Epidemiological Unit, Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka, in fact clearly stated in an interview that Covid dead bodies have no adverse effect on the water table or that waterways cannot be contaminated as a result (a doubt most commentators raised and the government quoted in justifying their position). With regard to the WHO guidelines, it is not necessary to repeat that their position is clear enough allowing burial and cremation option. In fact, they tweeted that it is only a cultural decision and non-allowance of burials has no scientific or epidemiological basis at all. Besides, the official authorities have not shown any acceptable scientific reason to rule out the burial option. In fact, the Muslim community has made it very clear that they will have no objection for cremation, if such a scientific basis is shown, based on WHO guidelines. But to date there is no such explanation; rather the racist sections of the Media are weaving one racist story after another to show that Muslims are not falling in line with the views of the medical profession. It is an outright lie propagated with malicious intentions to demonise the Muslims. A UK expert, Dr Feroze M Mubarak, COVID-19 Practice Strategy Lead based in London, also dispelled the fallacies about the possible risks arising from burials too.
As is known, Muslims follow Islamic guidelines in planning out their lifestyles and last rites. From a theological standpoint, it is clear that Islam forbids cremation of the dead, based on the Quranic principle of Karamah (dignity to be bestowed on the human being whether alive or dead). According to Muslim scholars, this dignity is accorded even in death, by according a decent burial (without allowing the body to be ‘tortured’ by way of burning) – to all , whether Muslim or not in a Muslim land. However, there may be very strict exceptions to the rule based on necessity for example if it is proved that there is a clear danger to the living when an infected body is so buried.(The reason why bathing the body and enshrouding is not observed in respect of Covid deaths). But, there is no acceptable scientific evidence in support of the such position. The reason why over 182 countries are adopting the burial procedure without any controversy.
Thus, when the religious/cultural practice of burial, with no compelling scientific evidence to the contrary, is denied to the Muslim community, then the natural inference is that their rights have been denied both unreasonably and with malicious intentions other than on logical grounds; which tantamount to racism. Muslims, like all other citizens belonging to other nationalities enjoy many fundamental rights under the constitution as well as under the obligations of the State to protect certain rights as per international legal regimes. Right to choose a religion and freely practice one and a culture of his/her choice are among them. From a rights perspective, no one denies that Muslims have a burial right according to the religion/ culture they follow and that it cannot be violated (human rights) by forcing cremation upon them unless there are compelling reasons to do so.(utilitarian value).
The Rights Approach focuses on respect for human dignity. This approach holds that our dignity is based on our ability to choose freely how we live our lives, and that we have a moral right to respect for our choices as free, equal, and rational people, and a moral duty to respect others in the same way. In a democracy like Sri Lanka, all citizens have certain unalienable rights. The term “right” is defined to be a “justified claim that individuals and groups can make upon other individuals or upon society; to have a right is to be in a position to determine by one’s choices, what others should do or need not do.” Rights can be legal in nature, or pertain to human rights or moral rights.The opposite of rights based ethics are utilitarian ethics. Utilitarian ethics are based on the maximization of “good outcomes” and minimizations of “bad outcomes.” Utilitarian calculations on taking or sparing lives seem unavoidable in some situations, where a utilitarian calculation to save several lives would outweigh the one innocent life. Thus, not even an innocent person’s right to life appears absolute. Human rights no doubt face significant hurdles in trying to balance them with utilitarian values when applying them universally across cultural, religious and political divides. However, in the case of the denial of the burial option to the Sri Lankan Muslims, GoSL cannot rely on the utilitarian arguments, as the strong body of evidence from reputable organisations have clearly shown that the burial poses no more danger to the environment and/or the people than the cremation option.
Already, apart from WHO stating its clear position on the burial Issue; 4 UN Special Rapporteurs including the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion wrote to the President, requesting the GoSL to reconsider the provisions in the MoH Guideline by taking into account of the key considerations provided by WHO Guideline for the disposal of the bodies of human beings deceased from the COVID-19, and revise the circular accordingly. The gazette notification ruling out the burial option was issued notwithstanding such requests. This underlines the audacity of the GoSL in not paying heed to international opinion and practices. This callous approach was seen even in the disregard of the UN HR resolution on Sri Lanka relevant to alleged war crimes as well. Recently, an army offender Sunil Rathnayake, who allegedly committed murder of Tamil victims, and was sentenced to death was given presidential pardon, misusing powers under the Constitution.
Then comes the official silence on the on-going anti-Muslim demonization campaign seen on a daily basis in the racist sections of the Sri Lankan Media like Derana/Hiru TV and Divaina Newspaper. The nation saw how Dr Shaffie’s case was unfairly highlighted by Divaina, after the Easter Sunday attacks, which was instigated by the likes of Ratana Thero et el to demonise the entire community. It is a mystery why the so-called ICCPR and the penal code laws cannot be applied to these openly racist Media outlets. It was clear as daylight that the Muslim community not only totally condemned the vile acts of this fringe extremist group among them who carried out the barbaric Easter Sunday attacks, but there were also evidence that the authorities deliberately overlooked and ignored the community warnings of the emergence of this violence prone group, apart from intelligence warnings.
Further, during the parliamentary select committee hearings on the Easter Sunday attacks, evidence led revealed that Zahrans were created partly because of the lack of action by the authorities in regard to and the impunity with which, many anti-Muslim communal attacks were carried out by hate groups. Ven Gnanassara who instigated the Aluthgama attacks operated without any fear or sanction; worse of all he was even given presidential pardon for committing a contempt of court. Those who were prosecuted for Digana and Minuwangoda anti-Muslim violence were released. Thus, these types of impunity, false shows, inaction and indifference on the part of the GoSL and its’ law enforcement arm and the armed forces, to prosecute the hate peddlers and offenders, will create future Zahrans, Prabakarans and Wijeweeras, as the history has proved.
Both ‘push’ (These include: marginalization and discrimination; poor governance, impunity for racist crimes, violations of human rights and the Rule of Law; prolonged and unresolved conflicts; and radicalization in prisons), and ‘pull’ (which includes distortion and misuse of beliefs, political ideologies and ethnic and cultural differences;) factors, act as drivers towards violent extremism, as was illustrated by the ‘troubles’ in Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Violent extremism also tends to thrive in an environment characterized by injustice, poor governance, democracy deficits, corruption and a culture of impunity for unlawful behaviour engaged in by the State or its agents.
Then, there is also the growing fear that President Gotabaya is getting into the dreaded former Defence Secretary’s garb. For whatever the defects or faults of the Yahapalana government were, people then experienced more freedom of expression. They criticised the rulers freely. Today, there seems to be a fear not only among the grass-root levels, but even the intellectuals seem hesitant to express their views freely. This ‘Iron curtain’ rule, will have a death knell effect on the working of democracy. This sense of fear has afflicted the Muslim leadership and local intellectuals too; the near silence and hesitancy to stand up for their community is deafening, when their just rights are infringed at will by a government voted in, on a majoritarian, nationalist mandate. A Muslim social activist named Ramzy, who spoke about the need for the Muslims to wage an ideological struggle ( which he called an ideological Jihad) to counter the increasing hate campaign, was remanded recently. This is shameful for a leader who stated at the Independence Day event that those rights to speak freely and criticize the government will be assured. Sadly, this is not to be.
The President thus should create a mechanism to consult widely with minority representatives across the country and respect their sensitivities. GoSL should allow people to vent their frustrations about the government in legitimate ways and tolerate dissent. They must give an ear to the reasonable grievances and aspirations of the minorities and end the chronic impunity crisis besetting Sri Lanka in respect of both corruption and racism, and be fair to all, without surrendering to the majoritarian compulsions of the electorate. Respecting and allowing the burial rights of the Muslims specially when supported by scientific evidence, and ending the continuing demonization of the Muslims and the impunity are not special privileges afforded to them. It is being fair by them as equal citizens of Sri Lanka and taking preventive action on possible future emergence of extremism, which led to much suffering in Sri Lanka in the past. Fairness is what justice really is. Do what matters, now, before regretting later.