Colombo Telegraph

Violence Directed Against The Muslim & Other “Minority” Communities 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

With Hitler, Prabakaran, Dictatorships, LTTE and Sinhala Buddhism cluttering political discourse, and a visible resurgence of indiscipline, things do not portend well for integration, reconciliation and progress. Hypocrisy all round us is dominant. The terror unleashed and suffered by the previous dispensation and the nearly thirty-year period of extreme horror, have apparently not taught us much. The rumblings of imminent disaster are all too real. Incendiary and hateful speech is still prevalent. No sector is innocent. Prompt action is vital.

We marked the end of the Moslems holy month of Ramadan fasting. Eid al Fitr celebrates the occasion with Ifthar Banquets .Our political big-shots rivaled each other in hosting the event at the plushest hotels. The hospitality is not of the host but on State (that is yours and mine) Funds. It should be an opportunity to reflect upon the place of Muslims within the World Order and how it impacts on us.

In so doing, we can only deplore the violence directed some time ago at the Muslim community, beginning with the Beruwela and Darga Town incidents, and surfacing subsequently at Ampara, Digana, Akurana and other places in proximity to Kandy. While condemning this barbaric behavior most vehemently, we may re-visit these events to seek possible reasons that may underlie the violence. Mercifully, the heat has subsided. Complacency cannot be allowed to obscure reality, and the incidents should serve as an opportunity to realistically assess the causes and seek possible remedies. However painful, this is the only rational way to heal the wounds, dispel misconceptions and prevent recurrence. It is simply unwise to ignore the causes for this enmity and pretend that nothing untoward has happened. This will only mean that we trot along to the next disaster.

Signs are that rumblings are still there and could lead to disaster if not addressed urgently and vigorously curbed. If the media is correct, there are dark hints. As usual, politicians are the main culprits. In Jaffna there are moves to prevent alleged settlement of Sinhala persons, in Wilpattu, protected lands are being raped to accommodate Muslims displaced by LTTE terrorists and we are told of similar attempts elsewhere.     

All too often, violence erupts from fears, real or imagined. The inconvenient reality is that perceptions and prejudice often over-ride facts and figures. Popular perceptions are often wrong and supported by questionable “evidence”. While rejecting the plainly absurd – such as the male sterility story, it is only reasonable that other concerns be sensibly addressed. In our context, it must be admitted that certain practices could inflame emotions among misguided zealots, ever ready to exploit an over-heated opportunity. In this matter, a major responsibility lies with the Moslem Leadership. They should, jointly with representatives of the majority community, seek sensible ways to eliminate any provocative factors that may have prompted the resort to violence. It must be admitted that some anxieties and ill-will do exist. This is an attempt to identify some potential flash points – whether justified or not.

It has been pointed out that one of the worst things that a minority wishing to integrate with a majority could do, is to set itself apart by residence (Ghettos), dress, occupation or custom. Thus Moslem ladies who identify themselves by black uniform cloaks, Hindus with ash or pottus on foreheads, while perfectly within their rights, may be seen by misguided extremists as an alien threat. Particularly during periods of heightened emotion, a genuine bonding with the majority would be prudent insurance.

It is worth reflecting on the existence in all religions, the twin factors of philosophy (or content) and ritual (or symbolism). Buddhism labels them as “Prathipatti puja” (respect to  the teachings: spiritual) and “Amisa Puja” (adherence to custom: material). These are not mutually exclusive, but more correctly, symbiotic or even synergistic.  There is remarkable congruence and commonality in the underlying rules of conduct laid down in the different religions that we profess. They are best encapsulated in the universal injunction, “Do unto others as you will that others do unto you”.

As a Buddhist, I feel more at ease being critical of my own. In our tutoring, we often learn to parrot Stanzas (or Gathas), without an understanding of what they mean. I have been made aware that in his final words, addressed to Bhikkhu Ananda, he said “The best homage to the Buddha is to follow the Dhamma” .It is incumbent on the Buddhists to critically examine our present day practices in the light of this advice. The Kalama Suthra was also a brilliant exposition of the true role of custom and teaching. In a remarkable exposition of enlightenment, the Buddha was bold enough to encourage critical evaluation of even his own teachings. There is thus no such concept as “blasphemy”. How much more liberal can anyone get? 

The Mahanayakas spend much of their time advising sundry panjandrums on how to ru(i)n this country, when they would do much better to step out to discipline the hooligans who dishonor the sanctity of The Order and that of the Robe. In their wisdom they must see that they are being dangerously pawned for political advantage.

It is evident that encouragement of ritual practices benefit established Ecclesiastical institutions. But Bhikkhus assuming the Robe of their own will, reject attachment to worldly possessions – except in so far as they provide their modest material needs and thus help develop the virtue of sacrifice. Beyond this, it blurs into avarice.

There is a compelling argument for schools to teach Comparative Religion, leaving the choice to the student on reaching the stage of understanding. This will considerably reduce enmity arising from fears of proselytization, unfair and insulting Evangelism, vandalism of images, statues and places of worship. Hopefully, this will also drive home the point that Common Humanity is much more real than religious label. All religions teach moral conduct, while only the rationale, the path and the goal may differ. Does this matter much and is this difference reason enough to kill each other? 

World opinion

It is a reality that Muslem immigrants fleeing terror have provoked reaction in several parts of the World, and that much seemingly plausible material, rapidly infiltrates the Internet. Examples such as from Japan, the US, Australia, Some European States and elsewhere, often backed by presumably valid data, are often identified as countries seeking to counter “the threat”. Many countries, particularly in Europe are troubled by immigrant influxes and possible future demographic distortions. Demands for Shariah Law, involvements in terror attacks such as 9/11, opening of allegedly indoctrinating Madrassas do not help assimilation into host communities. While followers of Islam are not all terrorists, but a distressingly large proportion of terrorists profess to be Islamists. Extreme radical, militarist groups such as Al Queda, Wahabis, ISIS and other such assemblies are feared specters.

Dress Codes

While the choice of how one wishes to dress is entirely the right of the individual, any that blatantly distinguish one from others can be provocative. It becomes much worse when the garb identifies with militant groups. The perceptible increase in the number of women wearing black full body outer garments that provide only narrow slits for vision, has recently grown hugely. The wisdom in so arousing resentment or fear is a matter for the Muslim leadership to guide. Just as much as a uniform sets apart members of the Armed Forces or the Police as symbols of authority, so also do they make themselves a target for hostile forces.  

The Halal issue and Humane Slaughter

Some time ago, the issue of “Halal” labeling of foods threatened to unleash violence. It was sometimes used in a senseless way – for example on bottles of water, soda, and packets of salt! But, sadly in the case of animals slaughtered for meat, the archaic and cruel practice of slitting the throat and bleeding the animal to a painful death, has escaped attention. The historical reason may have been that the blood in the carcass would hasten spoilage. This would have been of help to serve nomadic desert tribes, before the advent of refrigerated storage and rapid transport. This is an area where Muslim clerics could educate their flock that this practice may be irrelevant in this age when humane methods are available. It is obligatory to be conscious of the feelings of all sentient beings and to refrain from inflicting needless pain. These have more a flavor of barbaric practices than religious compulsions. 

The justification of many practices ( Shariah Law, Muslim marriage and rights of women, female circumcision, ritual Animal Slaughter, Madrassas and loud calls to prayer), is that they are part of Koranic or other teachings. This is an issue for Muslim Clerics and other authorities to sort out among themselves. It has to be realized that religious practices and traditions, like all else have to change with the times. Islam particularly as the youngest of the major religions, has reason to be the most enlightened, adaptive and modernistic.

As Social (and Economic) Threat

Much of the prejudice is unfair but real perceptions and demands should be properly addressed. The major concerns are Demographic Shifts – by high Birth Rates, economic monopoly, tendency to establish communal Ghettos and intolerance of other faiths. All of these are amenable to fair resolution. Here again, it is the responsibility of the Muslim leadership to address these suspicions fairly and provide means for their correction, or grounds for their denial. The Muslim Political Parties are more a problem than a solution. Their tendency to fragment into sub-groups is also unhelpful.  Issues such as Wilpattu naturally inflame feelings (Religious and Conservationist) and it is imperative that the leadership addresses fairly, this festering canker. Discriminatory behavior should be sensitive and subordinate to the national interest. Names that connote minorities (such as Tamil Union, Moors Sports Club, Muslim Congress etc) should change to ones suggesting cohesion, assimilation and unity. The Sinhalese Sports Club should set the lead. These may look like trivialities, but together with others, they would collectively encouraged Unity, integration and friendship.

Although the original intent was to focus on violence directed at the Muslim community, a few remarks applicable generally may not be out of place. There are rumblings in the North and East of our country that bring to mind the dire consequences of ignoring such signs and failing to take timely action to neutralize them. Nearly thirty years of the LTTE insurrection caused dreadful distress and cost to all. Victors should avoid triumphalism and display magnanimity, particularly on the vanquished. The moral compulsion on the majority community is intense. When Mr.Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court Judge, who has spent his life among the Sinhalese, was chosen to be the Chief Minister of the North, there was immense hope. Sadly, this has been totally betrayed as he has proved to be as bad as the worst, in addition to having done little for the Northern citizenry. Resurgence of criminal groups such as AAVA, and reports from Intelligence sources, must be taken very seriously and resolute action taken to quash such forces. In the long run, this would be most economical both in monetary terms and potential human misery. The visible breakdown of discipline all round, is frightening.

The above comments, although focusing mainly on the current tensions worries of  the Muslims, are equally applicable to others. The majority Sinhala Buddhists community has a special responsibility to be magnanimous as hosts or partners. Properly managed, this country has ample resources for us all.

Back to Home page