What the Sri Lankan Muslim community lacks


by C.A.Chandraprema

An obviously spontaneous outbreak of violence over a Facebook post in the Chilaw town in the Puttalam district, soon resulted in several non-spontaneous and obviously organized attacks on Muslim-owned shops and business establishments in places like Kuliyapitiya, Bingiriya and Dummalasuriya in the neighbouring Kurunegala District and also in places like Minuwangoda in the Gampaha district. While the clash in Chilaw, which is supposed to have sparked off the whole thing was clearly a clash between locals, the attacks carried out in the Kurunegala and the Gampaha Districts was described by the locals of those areas as having been orchestrated by complete outsiders. So, what Sri Lanka managed to avert last week was obviously an organised attempt to foment a religious riot.

Unlike on previous occasions, people saw through the organised attempt to foment a riot immediately. The blocked facebook was full of posts accusing the perpetrators of violence in the Kurunegala and Gampaha districts of being the stooges of politicians. One facebook post even asked the perpetrators to desist from what they were doing because smashing up Muslim owned business establishments only results in insurance payments as well as government compensation being paid out resulting in the owners of those establishments getting much more than they lost. The furious outpourings on Facebook, accusing those involved in the violence of being pro-government conspirators probably had more to do with putting out the fires ignited by a few organised gangs than the curfews and arrests made by the government.

If we take our minds back to July 1983, what sparked off that mother of all communal riots was the clash between the police and the mourners at Kanatte during the funeral of the 13 soldiers killed in Thirunelveli in Jaffna. The rioting started in Borella and spread like wildfire throughout the Colombo city and the rest of the country. There were reports of organised gangs who had lists of Tamil-owned properties. But those organised gangs were riding on a wave of spontaneity. The Sinhala-Muslim riots in Ampara and Kandy in 2018 were also largely spontaneous. But the incidents in Kurunegala and Gampaha were obviously contrived. Even though many people think of Facebook as a means of communication that can set a country on fire, last week’s events showed that it can also douse flames and discourage people from joining the melee. If we now have normalcy in this country, we have to thank the posters of biting comments on facebook for that.  

In fact, ever since the terror attacks of April 21, the idea that there would be an anti-Muslim riot was in fact ever present. When I interviewed Azath Salley two weeks ago I asked him whether there was the likelihood that elements within the Muslim community would try to use Gnanasara thera (assuming he would be released from jail on a Presidential pardon) to start a riot so that the Muslims can become victims instead of perpetrators of terror. After having participated in a campaign against the Muslims, Gnanasara thera was later tamed. Even Salley gave him a character certificate saying that Gnansara thera had been instrumental in preventing a more serious situation from developing in Digana and Gintota last year. Since this was a volatile monk affiliated with various people at various times, anything was possible.

Be that as it may, the events of last week ensued that these attempts to artificially spark off a riot will not work. Now, thanks to the fact that such an attempt has been made, exposed, and stopped and that it petered off almost as soon as it began, the likelihood of even spontaneous clashes like the one that took place in the Negombo area and later in Chilaw from snowballing into a full blown riot now look very slim.

Contrition expressed by

helpless moderates

Last week, Muslim politicians Kabir Hashim, Imtiaz Barkeer Markar, Ferial Ashroff and leading lawyer Ali Sabry held a press conference to admit before the public their own responsibility as community leaders for the events that occurred and stressed the need for self criticism. There was however a sense that this was too little coming too late. Kabir Hashim described himself a s a mainstream Muslim. But what is the Muslim ‘mainstream’ today? Is that a reference to the Muslims who are prominent in public life or the majority of the Muslim community in numerical terms? If the latter is the criterion, then in all likelihood, they may no longer be the Muslim mainstream. When I spoke to Azath Salley, he insisted that the Sufi sect was still the majority in Kattankudy.

However, when one looks at offhand comments made by other politicians and certain other factors, one gets the distinct impression that the Sufis are now a frightened, hounded, minority of around one third or even less of the population in Kattankudy. This is why when the suicide bomber Zaharan Hashim ‘summoned’ all Muslim candidates in the Batticaloa district before the 2015 Parliamentary election and imposed various conditions on them such as refraining from the use of firecrackers and music in the election campaign, they all signed up. The extremists are able to call the shots because they are now in the majority in that town. It would appear that these extremist views have spread mostly among the lower orders of Muslim society, with returnees from the Middle East having been the first to be indoctrinated.

Wealthy Muslims who would not have been influenced by funds from the Middle East however would have retained their old ways since they were independent. Wahabi fundamentalism is a relatively new thing even to the Saudis. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has shown how before 1979, Saudi Arabia was much the same as any other country. At that time obviously, there would have been very little difference between a mainstream Muslim in Sri Lanka and a mainstream Muslim in Saudi Arabia. But after the Iranian revolution and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by wild eyed fanatics who claimed that the government of Saudi Arabia was not Muslim enough, all the suffocating restrictions that outsiders now associate with Islam became the norm in that country.

Crown Prince Salman has said that it was his generation born after 1979 that has suffered the most as a result of such restrictions. As Azath Salley pointed out Saudi Arabia was now changing, but the changes that Saudi money made in the practice of Islam in other parts of the world was not changing and the likes of Kabir Hashim, Ferial Ashroff, Imtiaz Barkeer Markar and Ali Sabry are at least at this moment largely a voice in the wilderness. Sabry was not a politician at all but a Presidents Counsel and a prominent figure in the community. Of the other three, only Hashim is in Parliament.  

Islamic terrorism is new to Sri Lanka but a very familiar phenomenon in all Muslim majority countries. In fact all countries have an extremist political fringe. In Sri Lanka, the example for that is the JVP, which tried to seize political power through two armed rebellions. The JVP comprised almost exclusively of Sinhala Buddhist youth was slitting throats and beheading people long before the appearance of ISIS. While in societies like ours, the beheadings take place in the name of Marxism, in Muslim majority societies, such terrorism always takes the form of Islamic extremism. Naturally, every Muslim majority country treats Islamic extremists the same way that our governments treated the JVP.

Every Muslim majority country has fanatics, but in no country except perhaps in Afghanistan have they ever succeeded in capturing state power. They are a thorn in the flesh of every Muslim majority state. In Pakistan the most dangerous place to be is a mosque particularly if it happens to be a Sufi or Shiite one. This ever present lunatic fringe in Muslim societies is dealt with by mass jailings and mass executions and the like. In Muslim majority countries, it’s a permanent war by mainstream society much like the permanent war against crime that we see in all societies. We too now have the misfortune of having to deal with this contagion in a situation where the Muslim leadership is completely paralysed due to their fear of the extremists within their ranks.

What would have happened to Pakistan and Bangladesh if the elites in those countries were as frightened of the extremist Islamic hoi polloi as our Muslim leaders? Indeed, what would have happened to this country if our governments in 1971 and 1987-89 surrendered to our own Marxist extremists? In Sri Lanka, the situation has been compounded by the fact that the Muslim community is a minority. In India, extremist tendencies within the large Muslim minority in that country is kept in check because the intelligence services keep close tabs on even the slightest manifestation of extremism because they think that every Muslim extremist in India is an agent of Pakistan. Hence in India, Islamic extremism is mostly a matter restricted to the mind because anything beyond that is dealt with, with an iron fist without a velvet glove. Sri Lanka too will have to learn from India how to keep extremism in check.

The good news in that respect is that the idea of having Tamil speaking Muslim extremists is as much a nightmare for India as it is for Sri Lanka. For decades, India has been complaining that Pakistan was sending Tamil speaking Muslim agents into South India through Sri Lanka. Hence we can expect the fullest cooperation from India in combatting this menace. Since Pakistan, too, is reeling from extremist Islamic terrorism as is Bangladesh to a lesser degree we can expect the fullest cooperation from those countries as well. When India bombed parts of the disputed area of Pakistan recently, a Pakistani cricketer made a heartfelt social media post appealing to India to realise that Pakistan was up against the same extremism and terrorism that India is up against. That is, in fact, true. The extremist elements in Pakistan have destabilised Pakistan to a much greater extent than they have destabilised India.

The weak link here is the Sri Lankan Muslim leadership. In Sri Lanka, the Muslim leadership kept quiet until Wahabism became the mainstream or the majority within the community. This situation has been compounded by the spread of ethnic politics in this country with Muslim-only political parties depending on an exclusively ethnic vote bank to get elected to Parliament. Thus, Zaharan Hashim, who was a self appointed preacher of Wahabi Islam and reportedly not a qualified Moulavi of any sort was able to summon the Muslim candidates in the Batticaloa district and dictate terms to them. Because the Wahabi tendency was in the majority in those areas and because the Muslim politicians in that area needed every vote, they dared not antagonize the extremists or even refer to them as extremists or oppose their activities within the community.

The Muslim politicians had in fact been providing the extremists with the cover they needed to carry on their activities. Zaharan Hashim’s group had been responsible for several large scale clashes among Muslim groups in Kattankudy, which included one incident where 120 houses of a rival group were burnt down. Due to complaints made to the police against him, Hashim could no longer live openly in Kattankudy but he operated freely in other parts of the East. Would any man in this country be able to burn down 120 houses and remain free unless he had political patronage at the highest levels? It is obviously the Muslim politicians of the East who provided Zaharan with the cover to go about his business with complete impunity. So long as this situation where Muslim politicians dance to the tune of those who can deliver Muslim votes to them , Kabir Hashim, Ferial Ashroff, Imtiaz Barkeer Markar and Ali Sabry will be whistling in the wind.

As of now, there isn’t anything comparable to even the token resistance to the LTTE that there was within the Tamil community to the extremists within the Muslim community. Within the Tamil community, there were at least a few prominent individuals who dared to stand up to the LTTE. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) was one such group. Some of the armed Tamil groups like the EPRLF, PLOTE and EPDP also opposed the LTTE and paid a heavy price for it. Even as far back as 1986 when the LTTE tried to ban a protest held by Jaffna university students against the abduction and disappearance of a student by the LTTE, Douglas Devananda arrived with some armed EPRLF cadres and provided protection to the student protest.

One also has to remember the contribution made by Lakshman Kadirgarmar in Tamil resistance to the LTTE. In later times, individuals like Karuna Amman and Pillaiyan who broke away from the LTTE also joined the resistance against the LTTE. There are however no Kadirgarmars or Douglas Devanadas, Dharmalingam Siddharthans or Karuna Ammans to resist the extremists within the Muslim community. Therein lies the problem.

A bouquet for Sajith

Last Friday’s broadside by UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa against the Counter Terrorism Law proposed by his government to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, has more or less sealed the fate of this ill-conceived piece of legislation which seeks to mollycoddle terrorists. This writer has been pointing this out from the time that the first draft of the proposed Counter Terrorism Bill was made public. Every change of law made by the yahapalana government has been an unmitigated disaster. The people of the country have acutely felt the effects of the legislative bungling of this government. Through the 19th Amendment, they created a Parliament that cannot be dissolved no matter what, until the lapse of four and a half years.

Thus, we now have a President pulling in one direction and a Prime Minister pulling in the opposite direction and a government working at cross purposes. After the April 21 attacks, each side was trying to pass off the blame on the other. There was no one to take matters to hand and control things. We are now in a country that is largely running on auto pilot. The 19th Amendment also created an IGP who cannot be removed even after a serious lapse of security that resulted in South Asia’s deadliest terrorist attack. The change made by the yahapalana partners in the electoral system as regards the local government institutions and the provincial councils have resulted in chaos at the local government level and the total absence of elections at the provincial councils level.

Fortunately for this country, this government was not able to pass the new constitution it drafted it would have had the effect of dismantling the entire Sri Lankan state and creating nine semi-independent provinces. The other great legislative danger was this proposed Counter Terrorism Act to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act. If the proposed Counter Terrorism Bill had been passed at this stage, that would have seriously hampered the ongoing operations against Islamic terrorists in this country. By somehow mustering the courage to speak out against a draft law that his leader was pushing for all he was worth, Sajith has probably saved the country and in fact saved the UNP as well.

I use the word ‘probably’ because Sajith will need to have the courage to stick to his guns and to force the UNP to change course on this issue. He will not only have to refuse to vote for it, but also canvass against it within the UNP to ensure that it does not go through. The CTA, if ratified, will immediately bring about a change in the way operations against terrorists are conducted and the people would have noticed the change and blamed the UNP – something that the party can hardly afford at this stage. The fact that the party deputy leader had to step in to correct a major mistake that the party leader was about to make shows how Nero-like or Marie Antoinette-like the UNP has become.

Anybody who can read can see that the proposed Counter Terrorism Act will be a total disaster if ever enacted into law, but the UNP leadership is pushing it like their lives depended upon it. For the first time since 2015, a voice has been raised from within the UNP against the harebrained and self destructive schemes of the party leadership. Whether this will be a reset for the UNP is still to be seen.

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