By Kath Noble –
It doesn’t take many people to destroy a country. This is a lesson that we have to learn, and we have to do it fast, while the hard won peace in Sri Lanka is still more or less intact.
On Saturday night, a mob attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. The respected journalist DBS Jeyaraj has said that he believes that it was carefully planned. According to his report, thugs from outside the area met at the local Buddhist temple, then made their way clandestinely through land occupied by Sinhalese to the back of the mosque. On hearing the bells of the temple being rung, they started throwing stones and bottles at the building. Another group – led along the main road by monks, shouting that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and Muslims should be thrown out – joined the attack.
The temple continued ringing its bells, drawing an even bigger crowd of Sinhalese from the neighbourhood, who were told by their local priests that the mosque was in the process of being destroyed. They went along to help.
By this time, the gates of the mosque had been torn down.
The Police – who had been assigned to protect the mosque in the wake of a demonstration by the Ravana Balaya – stood and watched. DBS Jeyaraj says that they may even have encouraged the mob.
The mosque was saved by the arrival of local Muslims, who were determined to protect their place of worship.
This is when the authorities decided to intervene.
What concerned them was not the prospect of the destruction of a mosque, even though the Government had agreed after the dispute with the Ravana Balaya that it should be allowed to remain – thanks to the intervention of Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha, president of the SLFP’s Muslim unit and the SLFP’s co-organiser of the Colombo Central electoral division. (Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was party to the discussions, along with Prime Minister and Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs D.M. Jayaratne.) Instead, they were worried about the safety of the Sinhalese gathered outside the mosque.
A very similar thing happened again on Sunday afternoon.
Although on Saturday night the authorities had promised the Muslim community that prayers could be conducted in the mosque on Sunday itself, they did not keep their word. The Police closed access to the area.
Local Muslims had planned to gather and march to the mosque at 3.00pm in protest.
However, by 2.30pm, a group of Sinhalese outsiders had managed to enter the area without being stopped by the Police, and they started attacking Muslim homes and residences. Individuals too were targeted.
This resulted in clashes between the two groups.
At that point, the STF got between the Muslims and Sinhalese, preventing the violence from escalating. The Sinhalese group decided to back down, and they were escorted out of the area.
Meanwhile, thugs had arrived in neighbouring Maligawatte. They smashed threewheelers belonging to Muslims and started to make threats against the mosque, saying that Muslims should go to the one in Grandpass instead. Again, when Muslims heard what was happening and rushed to the scene in large numbers, posing a threat to the Sinhalese, the STF appeared to calm the situation.
No doubt the situation needed calming, but this should have been done at a much earlier stage.
Remember that it was on July 9th that the Ravana Balaya insisted that the Grandpass mosque should be closed within a month, so there was every reason to expect an attack this weekend.
Sinhalese extremist organisations try to hide their involvement in specific acts of violence after they take place, but they are quite open about their support for what they describe as ‘taking the law into their own hands’ – even the statements that they issue to deny knowledge of an incident refer to the failure of the authorities to deal with problems like unauthorised construction of places of worship, unethical conversions and uncontrolled funding of NGOs. They often talk of acting as ‘unofficial law enforcement officers’.
That a mob turned up to destroy the Grandpass mosque on August 10th was no surprise.
Of course the Government is to blame.
Every country has its lunatics. Last week, one of the most popular videos circulating on the internet was an interview by an Australian television channel with a candidate in their upcoming general election. The woman – a member of the fringe One Nation Party – managed to expose her ignorance and utter foolishness in a matter of just a couple of minutes. She said, ‘I don’t oppose Islam as a country, but I do feel that their laws should not be welcome here in Australia.’ Hopefully she is not interested in ‘visiting’ Islam either, because she is going to find it difficult to get a ticket!
She rose to prominence after being arrested for sticking labels on Nestle products in a local supermarket that said, ‘Beware! Halal food funds terrorism.’
On being asked about this in the interview, she said, ‘Only 2% of Australians follow haram.’ According to her, halal certification is very different from the actually virtually identical system of labelling kosher food for Jewish Australians, which she believes is perfectly acceptable. She said, ‘Jews aren’t under haram – they have their own religion that follows Jesus Christ.’
The lunatics of the Ravana Balaya are probably no more idiotic than this woman.
The difference is that the Australian government is not helping her. Indeed, she is being prosecuted and on being convicted she would not have been allowed to contest, but this is now a formality – the outcry generated by the interview has forced her to withdraw from the race.
She would be sent to prison if she even just talked about destroying a mosque.
In Sri Lanka, such people are invited for tea with the President.
The country is very fortunate that Muslim leaders have responded so responsibly to these provocations, but it would be a mistake to assume that they will be able to contain the anger and frustration of their community indefinitely. We have to do everything we can to stop this campaign immediately.