By Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva
Yet another episode of violence against a group of citizens of this land, the lost paradise, has come to pass. No dictates or other forms of explanation can justify the violence imposed on a group of unarmed civilians that we have been witnessing sporadically in the recent past.
An incident best labelled as road rage or one where the absurd suspicion of a pill to sterilise the majority community has been cleverly manipulated by a group of people waiting to create chaos. This was possible because of the background of suspicion perpetuated among the Sinhalese majority over the years. After bringing the offenders to book, all efforts should be taken to prevent such irrational harmful behaviour in the future.
World over in any communal conflict, the majority community is routinely blamed for injustices to the minority who are universally considered the underdogs. However, it is time to stop and see the ground situation that is conducive to such violent behaviour of one community against the other.
Should the majority community bear the full burden of responsibility for such conflict? Isn’t the minority community at least partly responsible for this unfortunate situation?
The world scenario
We are inundated with news regarding violence caused in the name of Islam everywhere. From public beheadings of non-Muslims by the IS in conflict areas, Jihads and Fatwas declared by religious authorities to kill those blamed for blasphemy, suicide bombings and large scale murders in many parts of the world, and enforced conversions to Islam appear to be commonplace. Hardly a day goes by without some news of such violent acts somewhere in the world reaching us. It is reported that many are trained in schools (Madrasses) for instigating such violence, all in the name of Islam.
We see pictures of refugee immigrants from Muslim countries arriving in the West forcefully demanding special treatment. They even ask for implementation of their own Sharia law in areas where they are in large numbers. They strive to keep a separate identity in keeping with their faith while all others are happy to visibly integrate with the rest of the population in the host country.
This should be seen in the background of several leading Muslim countries where our migrant workers go, refusing even to allow artifacts depicting Lord Buddha or Hindu gods to be brought in.
The news reaching us indicates the adverse impact on the established social fabric in Western European countries like Belgium and UK due to the activities of the Islamic movement. Laws have been passed recently in several countries like France and Australia banning the Islamic dress covering the face in public places, and to promote better integration of Muslims with the rest of the society. Countries like Japan and China have long established ways of restricting the adverse influence of fundamentalist Islam.
We recall in history how countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran and Maldives have had their Buddhist heritage all but decimated by the enforced advance of Islam. How the Bamiyan Buddha statues, a world heritage site of much historical value, were summarily blasted by the Islamists brought horror to non-Muslims worldwide, is etched indelibly in our recent memory.
In the modern day we do not know of any other faith showing such a degree of intolerance to non-believers.
One may argue that all this is done by a small minority of extremists while the vast majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka and elsewhere do not condone same. We are told that the Quran (I confess I have not read this holy document) teaches compassion and love for fellow human beings but we see little evidence of that in practice. Unfortunately none of the so-called moderate Muslims amongst us have publicly condemned such violence and other forms of intimidating behaviour in the name of Islam. Their silence is naturally interpreted as collusion by others as well as by the extremists. Compliance with their intention of creating an Islamic state in the entire world is thus accepted by default.
The situation in Sri Lanka
Muslims have been living peacefully as equal, amiable and much loved citizens of Sri Lanka over many centuries. Society in general, especially those of other ethnicities, have accepted Muslims as our own brethren and defended and patronised them in politics, legal and business matters without any discrimination. Even though they tended to be concentrated in some areas, there was no suggestion of any sinister territorial ambitions.
Many of their leaders played an important role in the independence movement as well. In post independent Sri Lanka Muslim leaders enjoyed important positions in the political life of the country. Even now they hold leading positions in the national political parties. To ensure that they were adequately represented in parliament, multi-member electorates like Colombo Central, Beruwala and Akurana were created. Even after the sweeping political changes of 1956, Muslims were in charge of important cabinet portfolios like education, foreign affairs, trade and commerce, home affairs, local government, justice and post and telecommunications.
Introduced in the early seventies, the system of standardisation for university admissions to help the students from educationally disadvantaged areas, benefited the Muslim students to a large extent.
However we have observed with much dismay a negative trend in the attitudes, behaviour and appearance of our Muslim brethren in the past decade or two. Along with the rise of Middle Eastern countries with their petrodollars, there has been a global resurgence of Islam with fundamentalist groups gradually taking the upper hand.
It appears that the Muslims returning from employment in the Middle East brought in a new set of Islamist ideals. In parallel with the global changes, the exclusively Muslim political parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) made their appearance, initiating the divergence of Muslims from the main stream of political life of the country.
Now we see many women folk covered from head to toe in the black dress. Quite a number have only their eyes exposed. These appearances, however religious they claim to be, are alien to the culture we are accustomed to for many centuries. Even among our Muslim colleagues and acquaintances we see a noticeable change in their appearance, more visible in the younger generation.
We could not identify separately a Sinhalese, Tamil or a Burgher, a Buddhist, Hindu or a Christian if we met them anywhere. However, it is not the case with Muslims anymore.
While claiming to be just one people of Sri Lanka, Muslims are doing their best to show that they are different to those of all other races or faiths.
The places of worship (mosques) mushrooming everywhere in the country, quite out of proportion to the number of people patronising them, is another focus of attention.
Simply because one has enough land and resources to build, this kind of action is not justifiable. Even small dwellings are functioning as prayer centres. (Please see the article on ‘Spread of Wahhabism in Sri Lanka’ by Padma Rao, The Island on 19 March). We have seen how even a small Buddha statue placed under a Bo tree in areas where Buddhists are not the majority evoke a hostile response from non-Buddhists.
The loudspeaker calls from mosques for prayers several times a day has been a constant source of irritation for many. (I do not deny the occasional disturbance caused to non-Buddhists and some Buddhists as well by all night pirith chanting over loud speakers).
With arguably an abundant supply of resources coming from rich Muslim countries, they are establishing their own technical colleges, universities, overtly Muslim primary schools segregating themselves from a tender age and creating their own enclaves of residence. These are not open to any other community in the country. There are no such institutions managed by other communities which are closed to Muslims. Thus the Muslims are gradually isolating themselves from the rest of the society. It should be noted that throughout the history of independent Sri Lanka, all institutions managed by Sinhalese and Tamils have been open to all communities irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity.
What is happening in Wilpattu and Dighavapi areas is another case in point. Vast extents of land in a forest reserve area are being illegally cleared, at the behest of a Muslim minister, against all the laws of the land. Apparently these areas are earmarked for Muslim settlements. Sacred areas around Dighavapi and some other sites of historical value to Buddhists are being haphazardly bulldozed. These illegal activities are being used by some extremist groups to bolster their claim that the Muslims are working to a secret plan to carve out an exclusive enclave in that part of the country. It is hilarious how date palms are being planted along the roads in some areas!
Non-Muslims feel helpless and insecure as their political masters keep playing political games without enforcing the rule of law in these instances.
Yet another recent phenomenon is unsettling the majority community. There appears to be a gradual “invasion” by Maldivians in Colombo and the suburbs. With fears of their country getting submerged by the sea in the foreseeable future, there appears to be a conscious effort to relocate to Sri Lanka adding to the Muslim population here. They are acquiring property on a significant scale reportedly aided by the local Muslim community.
Let us not be ashamed to declare that the Sinhalese and other non-Muslims appear to have become a threatened majority. Hence the demand for protective action, as done in other countries referred to above, to be taken here.
The Buddhists and other non-Muslims in Sri Lanka have shown tolerance to all these worrisome developments. Unfortunately their tolerance is being interpreted as a sign of weakness by others. They have been doing their best to live in peace with their Muslim neighbours realising the anxieties of the latter being a minority living and outnumbered by the majority. The history of racial violence in this country is not helping in this situation.
Laws have been enacted to ban speeches and other activities promoting racial tensions. The vast majority of Buddhist monks are preaching and practicing non-violence. Some were even guarding the mosques during Friday prayers to ensure security. It is natural that at least some of them have decided to face the perceived threat upfront and warn the public of impending dangers. A few organisations have appeared that aim to protect the Buddhist heritage in Sri Lanka, one of only a handful of countries where they are still a majority. They may appear violent at times (not to be condoned) mainly because the authorities seem to ignore their concerns.
There is no purpose to be achieved by others trying to remind the Buddhists about love and compassion preached by Lord Buddha.
Thus in this background of suspicion and insecurity among non-Muslims, it is understandable why even an otherwise trivial incident due to road rage or a most irrational thought of pills causing sterility (“vanda pethi”) leads to violence instigated by those waiting for a chance to create chaos.
The good intentions of the majority community to maintain peace and racial harmony were amply demonstrated by the urgent action taken by the medical professionals to educate the public about the absurdity of the notion of a pill causing sterility. It is high time that our Muslim brethren took similar action to allay the fears and anxieties of all communities.
My dear Muslim brethren, recent changes visible in your appearance, attitudes and behaviour are contributing to the current racial disharmony to a significant extent. As such, a long lasting solution to ensure peaceful coexistence depends to a great extent on your ability to look inwards and make amends.
As a practicing clinician and a medical teacher for nearly 50 years, I am continuing to have a cordial relationship with mutual respect with hundreds of medical colleagues, medical students, patients and others in the Muslim community. I sincerely hope that this message will be received with the same spirit of reconciliation that I had in penning it!
(The writer can be reached via email at email@example.com.)