A year has passed since anti-Muslim violence broke out after the Easter Sunday bombings. It was on May 13, 2019 violence spread in a major way with rioters destroying and setting fire to houses and places of business belonged to Muslims. During the violence, some mosques too were vandalised. Quoting Muslim Aid Sri Lanka, a UK-based Islamic Charity Organisation, it was reported that nine civilians in the Gampaha and Kurunegala Districts had allegedly died in the violence. Mobs further damaged or destroyed 159 houses and 196 Muslim-owned businesses.
With the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Muslim community was again targeted through mandatory cremation policies and stigmatized as virus carriers. In this backdrop, Daily Mirror spoke to some Muslim community leaders for their views on last year’s violence and the current situation, and how both have impacted the community.
Sri Lanka Muslim Council President N.M. Ameen said some media had tried to blame Muslims for the COVID-19 outbreak. “At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak some areas where Muslim communities lived were isolated, and some media tried to depict that Muslims had brought the virus,” he said. “However we thank the Health Ministry for issuing media guidelines when reporting on COVID-19 patients. At the start people weren’t aware of the situation. Once the Navy cluster emerged, the situation changed. We must look at this problem together rather than from an individual perspective.”
Ameen noted many mosques had been distributing essential items and communities were looking after each other. “There are no communal tensions as far as I’m concerned.” However he expressed concern regarding the government’s mandatory cremation policy for coronavirus victims. “Our only concern is about the cremation of bodies. Because burial is a basic right for Muslims. According to Islam we
cannot cremate bodies.”
Commenting on the Easter bombings, Ameen said the terror attacks happened due to some misguided elements within the Muslim community. “If the Muslim community had fully supported the attacks, it would have been like the LTTE. But the community extended its support to law enforcement authorities to apprehend the perpetrators. With COVID-19 we have got a good opportunity to unite and work together.”
Hilmy Ahamed, also of the Muslim Council, said Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka had a history of peaceful co-existence. “Muslims and Christians never had any problems with each other. Some misguided elements were used to plan the attacks. This incident demoralized the entire Muslim community because of targeted racist activities carried out by extremist Buddhist elements. If you look at the Minuwangoda riots, not a single Catholic or Christian was involved in them,” he said.
Speaking on the health crisis, he said many people in cramped areas had been infected with COVID-19. “The infected persons were living in areas from Colombo 10 to 15. These are densely populated areas and living spaces are not even 8 by 10 feet. Since many people cannot sleep inside these houses, they take turns to sleep.” He noted there were no communal conflicts in these communities. “But when one person gets infected, it can spread like wildfire. Out of the nine deaths, four were Muslim. The electronic media showed visuals of people living in these areas. So the Muslim community was easily targeted. But with the emergence of the Navy cluster, that threat diminished.”
Commenting on mandatory cremations, Ahamed said many Muslims now feared taking medication for ailments. “Even if they died from another medical condition, they fear they will be cremated. Therefore they try home medication.” He said nowhere in the world were bodies cremated against the wishes of the deceased or family. “Even World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines are clear. But racist elements say burials would contaminate water. But the WHO says the virus may live inside a dead body for just two to four hours.”
Ahamed mentioned the case of the 44-year-old Muslim woman from Modara who was cremated, but later reported as negative. “We have asked the government to hand over bodies in sealed body-bags, and to give us a few minutes to perform the final rites. We have said we would dig deeper graves. But none of these proposals were accepted. It therefore looks like a political agenda because Muslims did not vote for the President.”
Ahamed said they had asked the government to appoint an expert committee to review the issue of burials, including an expert from the Muslim community as well. “If a professional body has evidence to prove why burials are not suitable, we will accept it. Burials are taking place in over 80 countries including Italy, Spain, the UK and so on. In fact, they bury bodies in mass graves.”
He noted the Muslim community did not vote for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa due to extremist elements supporting him. “Muslims and minorities in general felt threatened they would have to face consequences. If not for racist activities more than 50% of Muslims would have voted for him. After his post-election speech, minorities were starting to have faith in him. If not for COVID-19 there would have been a sizeable shift in the Muslim community supporting the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna for the general election.”
Walking the talk
Educationist and social activist Deshabandu Jezima Ismail said people needed to understand the dangers of communal violence. “We must keep differences aside and stand up together as Sri Lankans.” She said while at home, people have had the time to change themselves, and reflect on how we think and look at ourselves and those around us. “We need to stop community dissension and be the type of Sri Lankans described in patriotic songs and speeches. We sing songs and give speeches, but we haven’t walked the talk. Everybody must contribute to build harmony and think how each one of us can contribute to make this a peaceful place to live in.”
Reconciliation is a work in progress
Constitutional lawyer Mohamed Ali Sabry PC praised the government for its ant-COVID-19 eradication measures. “The government has done a tremendous job containing COVID-19. Whenever a Muslim person was infected they were taken for treatment and eventually the communities were isolated, tested and quarantined. They are being treated well in quarantine facilities where even ‘Ifthar’ breaking fast is being done. The government cannot work on its own, and people must unite and collaborate.”
He said initially the media had played a role in creating communal tensions,and that was regrettable. “Of course people didn’t understand the ground realities because Keselwatta is a congested area.” Speaking on co-existence and reconciliation, Ali Sabry said there was a long way to go. “It’s a work in progress.”