- Another ingredient the society lacks is honesty, when it comes to ethnic harmony
- National parties are naturally more concerned about Sinhala votes than minority votes
- It is exhibitionism, not necessarily extremism or terrorism, despite hindering social integration
The initial reaction by Sri Lankan Muslims to the Easter Sunday terrorist suicide attacks on churches and five-star hotels was not something unexpected. While sympathizing with the victims, they genuinely felt a sense of shame and guilt, because the suicide attacks that killed 266 people that day were carried out by terrorists belonging to their faith and having committed the heinous crime in the name of Islam.
The ideological conflict between religious extremists and the others among the Muslims had been behind the scenes for the past few decades having suddenly burst out with the ordinary Muslims launching a scathing media campaign against the extremists. They dissociated themselves from the extremists some of whom finally turned into murderous terrorists and for the first time came forward to openly expose the damage caused by the extremists to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka during the past three or four decades.
They intuitively came forward to assist the security forces to zero in on the terrorists among them. The people of the Eastern Muslim township of Sainthamaruthu prevented another catastrophe by alerting the authorities about a hideout of the dreaded National Thowheed Jama’at (NTJ), the local terrorist organization that was behind the Easter Sunday carnage. That timely intervention by the Sainthamaruthu people led to the NTJ’s three main figures, the father and two brothers of the outfit’s leader Zahran Hashim, killing themselves along with another twelve people including children by setting off three bomb explosions.
It came to light after April 21 that Muslim leaders had since 2013 been alerting the authorities, about a dangerous trend within the community which later turned out to be full blown terrorism. They had been doing this without going public, apparently for fear of being branded as traitors or being dragged into unnecessary clashes. In the wake of the April 21 catastrophe, the ordinary Muslims openly expressed their willingness and preparedness to reform the community through introspection and self-criticism.
Thus, the discourse on social integration naturally came to the fore, along with the crackdown on the newly-exposed terrorism. Many non-Muslims also naturally joined the bandwagon, though many of them held the matter from the wrong end. They raised their concerns over the face veil, which some Sri Lankan Muslim women had been wearing for the past decade, Madrasas or the traditional Islamic religious schools, division of government schools on religious lines, the Muslim personal law and ethnicity-based political parties as causes of terrorism, while the moderate Muslims viewed these issues as an hindrance to their integration into the ordinary Sri Lankan society.
In fact, terrorism is an extension of extremism coupled with intolerance, two properties, which are seen among other communities as well, as we saw this month in the Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts. Above issues raised by the non-Muslims had been a far cry from terrorism. Therefore, Muslims were also caught off-guard when NTJ terrorists struck at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
The women whom the police announced as wanted terrorists proved that the face veil has nothing to do with terrorism as they were seen without Burqa or Niqab in the pictures published by the police. A majority of face veil-clad women are from ordinary Muslim families and they don them as something fashionable. It comes under exhibitionism and not necessarily under extremism or terrorism, in spite of the fact that the face veil hinders social integration.
Madrasas which have been existing for the past nine or ten decades have not necessarily contributed to extremism or terrorism as a majority of their products, the Maulavis have been the ones who had maintained peace among Muslim youth during the recent anti-Muslim hate campaigns. Yet, the limited education imparted in many Madrasas which is confined to religion, as being done in religious schools of some other faiths, is another hindrance to integration.
The Muslim Personal Law as the other Personal Laws in the country covers very personal issues such as matrimonial and property issues and they have never hindered social integration or contributed to extremism and terrorism. Besides, they are under the common legal system of the country. Yet, there are backward elements in those laws which have to be rectified.
Ethnicity-based schools and political parties are two other phenomena which have to be done away with to achieve integration, despite them having not necessarily or directly contributed to terrorism or extremism.
But, can the Muslims integrate themselves fully into Sri Lankan society, without the support of the other communities? As the proverb goes “you can’t clap with one hand.” Unfortunately, that support is not sufficiently forthcoming. For instance, at a time when Muslims came out openly against the terrorists after the Easter attacks, the media dramatized the search operations, as the Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake explained. The media also demonized the entire Muslim community, while quoting the leaders of the country and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith saying that all Muslims are not terrorists.
This led to the racist elements burning down hundreds of Muslim-owned houses and shops and damaging and vandalising several mosques in the Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts on May 12, and 13. The Army Commander said that organized mobs were behind the anti-Muslim riots amid allegations that certain politicians were behind them. Amnesty International, the London based human rights organization said impunity in the past triggered the attacks. Whatever the reasons maybe, a community struggling to come out of their insular cell is being pushed into the same cell again.
How are we going to do away with ethnicity-based political parties, when Muslims and Tamils are left to themselves to solve their problems by the so-called national political parties? Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had confessed several times he was not allowed to take action against the group that terrorized the Muslims during his tenure by one of his ministers who was said to have threatened to bring thousands of monks to the streets.
This is an acknowledgement that Muslims were left to themselves to solve their problems. National parties are naturally and justifiably more concerned about Sinhala votes than minority votes. But, then the vacuum created among Muslims by the situation would inevitably be filled either by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem or Rishad Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC).
The writer studied first in a Sinhala school conducted within the premises of a Buddhist temple and studied Buddhism too as a subject. However, the competition in education has now prevented Tamils and Muslims students except for a privileged few from being admitted to Sinhala-medium schools. Besides, Muslim female students find a conflict between the dress code for students in several schools and their culture. Again they are being put into the same insular cell. Without considering this aspect many people are seen these days waxing eloquent on the ill effects of ethnicity based schools.
Integration cannot be a one-way process; it is necessarily a two-way process. Another ingredient the society lacks is honesty, when it comes to ethnic harmony. People of all communities wax eloquent on ethnic harmony in public but talk ill about other communities when they are with the members of their own community. The end result is inevitable.