Militant monk modernises Muslim marriages

Tuesday, 14 January 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera’s private bill in Parliament to altogether remove the MMDA, apparently to save underage Muslim girls from being forcibly married, and to modernise Muslim marriage and

Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera

divorce, although seemingly progressive to the uninitiated should be viewed in the wider context of a sinister agenda by Buddhist supremacists to homogenise Sri Lanka’s rich cultural and religious heterogeneity. 

There is no argument against reforming and modernising the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which has colonial footprints. Justice Salim Marsoof’s Committee, after 10 long years of painstaking investigation, produced a report with some progressive recommendations, (thanks to the role played by Muslim women in his committee) which should have been welcomed and adopted without prevarication and procrastination. Had Muslim leaders in the Yahapalana regime correctly read the direction in which the political wind was blowing at that time, they would have realised the need to redress the grievances of Muslim women, understood the dangers of a gathering supremacist storm to hit Muslims, supported the JMS report, got it implemented with a few changes and postponed further improvements or amendments, if desirable, to a later date. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. 

However, it was not to be. These leaders neither had the will nor intention to modernise the MMDA. Instead, they politicised the JMS report and played into the hands of the indomitable ultraconservative ACJU. 

Intolerance of diversity

Today, the ground situation in Sri Lanka’s politics has changed dramatically, and militant monks like Rathana Thera are so determined to “mould” the Muslims, as his obstreperous cleric colleague Gnanasara wished to do after his public rally in Kandy on 7 June 2019, that the JSM report is forever destined for dust in the national archive.  

In the meantime, the JHU representative and Buddhist supremacist Rathana Thera has taken the legislative cudgel to hit Muslims harder for their own incompetence and nonchalance. How can the Thera be blamed for using an opportunity provided by Muslim leaders themselves?  He now wants to get rid of the MMDA altogether and ostensibly, save Muslim women. 

The Thera’s proposal should be seen as part of a sinister agenda by him and his radical cohorts to homogenise the country’s historic heritage of a cultural kitcheree. In the name of checking the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, measures are being taken to homogenise the diverse cultural traditions of a plural society. Reform does not mean total destruction of the entity to be modernised and improved. What the JSM report aimed at was to clean the MMDA of its outdated philosophy and its domineering male bias and accommodate measures to reflect the advances achieved by Muslim women. As expected, the ACJU could not digest this approach and reality, and preferred to continue with the status quo. In the meantime, the militant Thera has gone to the other extreme and wants to abolish the Act completely.  

Rathana Thera’s slogan, ‘One Country, One Law’, in course of time, may include even one race, one religion and one language. Isn’t the latest hoo-ha about singing the national anthem only in Sinhala a manifestation of this wicked thought? One could only hope that scholar monks within the Sangha, who have been obviously silenced by rabble-rousing monks, speak out in the open, halt this destructive path and save the historic reputation of this country as one of limitless compassion and tolerance of diversity, born of true Buddhism. 

In this context, one should take note of another worrying development that is irking the Muslim community. It refers to the incident at Nelundeniya in the Kegalle District, where a Buddha statue suddenly appeared in the dead of night in front of a 125-year-old mosque. When the Muslims of that area complained to a viharadhipathy, that Thera had apparently told them, “Let the statue be there, you do your prayers, and if you agitate more for its removal you will have to bear the consequences.”  

It may be that this priest wants Muslims to pay respect to the Buddha first before entering their mosque to pray. This is supremacy in its militant outfit and part of the homogenising project.   

At last, it seems that the country has a President whose thoughts for developing this nation are set in the right direction. He started his presidential rule on a high moral ground rooted in Buddhism. One should wish him well. However, for his grand vision to reach fruition, peace and tranquillity on the domestic front are absolutely necessary. His plan for a polity and economy to achieve order and opulence has to be constructed on the edifice of national unity, territorial integrity and above all, social tranquillity. The President should not depend entirely on the security forces to achieve those goals. Sri Lanka is blessed and not cursed with a plural society and that pluralism is its strength and not its weakness. Even without the arsenal of modern weapons and a security apparatus, how our ancient monarchs magnificently and magnanimously managed this pluralism is a lesson that every student should be taught in school. Buddhism, diversity, compassion and tolerance all go together and are inseparable.

‘Understanding aspirations’

In his reply to the President’s address to Parliament, Sampanthan concluded his speech with the following words, which I am quoting from the transcript published in the Colombo Telegraph of 10 January 2019, but with my insertions bracketed to include Muslims. Why Sampanthan continues to exclude the Muslim minority is puzzling to say the least.  

“Gotabaya Rajapakse polled seven million votes in the country. Eighty-five per cent of the Tamil people, on our call (slightly less for Muslims), voted against him. He could not capture their vote. You cannot capture their vote with henchmen; you cannot capture their vote with stooges. You will only capture their vote with the support of people who understand the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil (and Muslim) people, their civilisation, their traditions, their language, their culture, their dignity and their self-respect. Those are fundamental,” he declared. 

The supremacist agenda undermines these aspirations and the President must take note of the danger it presents to his vision for a prosperous and peaceful Sri Lanka.   

It is in this wider context that one should study the real motive behind Ven. Rathana Thera’s private bill to abolish the MMDA. Any progressive measure benefiting Muslim women, whether it comes from a Buddhist thera, Christian padre or Hindu swami must be welcomed, provided it is sincere in intention. Unfortunately, Rathana Thera and his JHU, and Ven. Gnanasara’s BBS had been in the forefront of a vicious anti-Muslim campaign before the Presidential Election, and they have not ceased that mission even after winning that election for their candidate.  

Rathana Thera’s relentless anti-Muslim propaganda and his fast-unto-death drama to pressure the Government to remove and punish Muslim ministers, Muslim governors and a Muslim gynaecologist on allegations of corruption, misuse of power and public trust, which are yet to be proved in a court of law, has tarnished his standing as a true disciple of the compassionate Buddha. (This is not to exonerate any of those men of those allegations but to point out how those allegations were manipulated by the Thera to fuel an anti-Muslim flame, which was rekindled by BBS Secretary Gnanasara in 2014 in Aluthgama). 

This is why there is some legitimacy in questioning the intention behind Rathana Thera’s move to abolish the MMDA. Is the devil reading the scripture? 


(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance of Murdoch University, Western Australia)


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