Former diplomat, educator and peace activist Javed Yusuf in an interview over recent development says it is very unfortunate that when we as a country are facing a number of challenges on the international front we are shooting ourselves in the foot by creating another problem which has already drawn unfavourable international attention.
Mr. Yusuf is an Attorney-at-Law, Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Former Senior Advisor on Arab and Islamic Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Former Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims and Former Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka. Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q: To begin with, what is the Shoora Council in which you are a member and it is alleged that its activities are not transparent. Why do you think it is being subject to attack by certain groups?
One should not get unduly excited by the use of an Arabic word without knowing its full import. The Shoora Council came into being in the wake of the challenges faced by the Muslims in Sri Lanka during the past two to three years. It is not a formal organisation but a coordinating body/forum/network of several Muslim Organisations with a National reach and with several professionals and other intellectuals. This springs from the Quranic teaching for Muslims to “consult each other in your affairs” before coming to a decision.
The idea of “shoora” which broadly means “consulting each other” is an eminently democratic process which is based on the premise that no single individual has a monopoly of knowledge and wisdom on any one matter. It encourages a pooling of ideas and exchange of views and opinions before arriving at a decision.
The reason for the use of the word Shoora is because the Muslims relate to and understand the concept very well and for no other reason. The attempt to compare it with other “Shoora Assemblies” in Muslim countries is misplaced as there is no comparison whatsoever. In most of those countries bodies which have similar names are statutorily set up, while in other countries and other situations they are informal bodies with no powers except to engage in consultations.
When examining a word or phrase for its meaning it is always important to examine the context before rushing to conclusions.
For example we have a Youth Parliament set up by the Ministry of Youth Affairs. Using the word ‘Parliament’ in this context is not considered an affront or breach of privilege of the National Parliament by another body. Similarly, the usage of a word must not be misunderstood without understanding the deeper meaning and intention.
If we take yet another example, the word “Madrasa” used in Arab countries refers to schools where secular learning takes place. In Sri Lanka the word “Madrasa” is used to describe institutions that impart religious knowledge similar to the “Daham Pasalas” of the Buddhists or “Seminaries” of the Christians.
We who live in Sri Lanka know that this country which has been greatly influenced by the Buddhist tradition has been a great model of religious tolerance where followers of different religions have lived in harmony for centuries. This is something the majority community of Buddhists can be justifiably proud of, but this proud history is in great danger of being tarnished by the acts of a few.
Q: There are quite a number of Muslim representatives in the government and there even is a Muslim party that has made alliance with the government. Do you think that they have failed to address the ongoing situation against the Muslim community?
Being partners in the Government they have to share the blame for failures to address the situation. While Mr. Rauf Hakeem and Mr. Rishard Bathiuddin have been making statements on public platforms and in the media critical of the failure of the law enforcement agencies to act decisively to bring a halt to the targeting of Muslims, this will in no way absolve them from their collective responsibility as part of the Government for its acts of omission and commission in addressing
What is more important than public pronouncements is for them and other Muslim Parliamentarians to take up these matters in Cabinet and Parliament more vigorously, however challenging and daunting such a task may be, and try to persuade their colleagues in Government that the recent happenings are not only manifestly unjust by the Muslim community but also detrimental to the
Muslims, like the Sinhalese and Tamils are an integral part of the nation and have contributed from historical times, including at the time of independence, for the establishing and securing of national sovereignty and national development. Hence, when one part of this integral fabric is affected, it hurts the entire nation and its peoples.
Q: While the Muslim community lived peacefully with other communities in Sri Lanka for years, the allegation of extremism and mistrust seems to have started only within the last couple of years. Why has this situation arisen or been created and who do you think is responsible?
This is precisely what has taken the Muslim community by surprise. The sudden targeting of Muslims has come as a complete surprise to everyone and is a worrying phenomenon. These allegations are only figments of imagination designed to justify a vendetta against the Muslims. The only extremism (from whichever quarter it emanates) that is objectionable is one that is violent or impinges on the rights of others. They have not been able to identify even one such instance and seem to rely on Goebbel’s theory that a lie when repeated several times will be believed.
What all Sri Lankans have to ask ourselves is the question how did the BBS which is only two years old manage to have such an extensive reach throughout the country within such a short time and enjoy immunity from prosecution in the face of clear evidence for their misdeeds? They claim they have had over 40 meetings all over the country. From where did they get the immense resources to carry out such a far flung campaign. Allegations have been made that these are part of a conspiracy to destabilise the country. If indeed this is true, the conspiracy must be unraveled and the conspirators brought to book.
In the absence of such action the allegations of conspiracy will remain as excuses for inaction while the actions of the BBS will most certainly destabilise the country.
Q: Certain international Islamic extremist organisations and their activities (Like Boko Haram and certain activities of Taliban) are used as examples to create a fear-psychosis against Muslims in Sri Lanka. Do you think we have such extremist Muslim groups in Sri Lanka?
You are absolutely right. The names of these organisations are used to create a fear psychosis among ordinary citizens of the country and others to create a non existent bogey of Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka. There are no such extremist organisations in Sri Lanka. The fact that the law enforcement agencies have not been able to detect any such organisations despite the repetitive string of untruths is further proof of the fact that these unfounded allegations are only part of the strategy of hate mongering.
Q: There are allegations against a certain dress code (like Burka) which is claimed by certain Sinhala sections as a threat to Sri Lankan cultural identity. This has become an issue in some European countries as well. What should be the stance of moderate Muslim leaders on this issue?
This is again a non issue used as a pretext for whipping up anti- Muslim feeling. Muslim women are required by their religion to cover their entire body other than their face and hands. There are differences of opinion among Muslims whether this should extend to the covering of the face but this has been left to the individual to make one’s choice. I presume by Burka you mean the face cover which is also known as the Nikab.
While every individual has the right to like or dislike the Burka; equally every woman has the right to choose to wear or not to wear the Burka. It is absurd to say that earlier Muslim women did not wear the Burka and therefore they should not wear it now. That is a matter for the individual Muslim or the Muslim community
"We who live in Sri Lanka know that this country which has been greatly influenced by the Buddhist tradition has been a great model of religious tolerance where followers of different religions have lived in harmony for centuries. This is something the majority community of Buddhists can be justifiably proud of, but this proud history is in great danger of being tarnished by the acts of a few"
Recently I saw a leading Buddhist girls’ school having their Old Girls Parade. All the Old Girls were clad in uniforms, T shirts and pants. It would be the height of ridiculousness for a Christian or Muslim religious leader to point out that 50 years back the old girls did not wear T shirts and pants and that they should go back to the saree which they wore in the days past. If at all such a request is to be made it must emanate from the School or from the Buddhist religious leaders.
In some countries of Europe this has become an issue for other reasons. Some countries have taken secularism to the point that any manifestation of anything that is deemed a religious symbol in public is frowned open. But there are many countries including the United Kingdom where the Burka and Hijab are
Q: What international repercussion will Sri Lanka have especially due to incidents relating to Muslims that have happened in the recent past? Would Sri Lanka have a negative response from the Arab and Muslim countries over these incidents?
It is very unfortunate that when we as a country are facing a number of challenges on the international front, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by creating another problem which has already drawn unfavourable international attention. This shows that organisations like the BBS are least interested in the international image of Sri Lanka and recklessly indifferent to what will happen to our country so long as their objectives are achieved.
No doubt the Arab and Muslim world with whom we have enjoyed excellent relations will be closely watching what is happening here and must be quite surprised by the turn of events.
Q: There are allegations by certain sections that Jihad is in operation in Sri Lanka and this has been used to frighten other communities in the country. What is your opinion on this?
The word Jihad is repeatedly used by various Muslim groups all over the world for political objectives and methodologies which are often totally alien to and contrary to the teachings of Islam. For instance during the early days of Islam when defensive wars had to be fought to protect the Muslims, the soldiers were clearly told that no harm must come to non combatants, the aged, women and children, vegetation etc. These principles are now codified thousands of years later in what we call international humanitarian and human rights laws.
As we can observe most of these so-called Jihadist groups in other parts of the world which represent a minority of the Muslims do not adhere to these rules and give the entire Muslim community and Islam a bad name in the eyes of the world at large. This is similar to the activities of a small group like the Bodu Bala Sena giving Buddhism and Buddhists a bad name in other countries where people do not have the time or inclination to research and realise that it is only a small group that is responsible for the recent incidents and not the majority of the Buddhists.
"In the long run the leaders of all communities and particularly the Buddhist religious leaders must speak out and cry a halt to what is for Sri Lankans a clearly self destructive journey. Failure to do so will result not only in the Muslims losing out but all of us as a nation committing collective suicide"
Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) stated that the greatest Jihad is the struggle for the conquest of one’s self; that is the struggle towards attaining purity of conscience and soul. The so called Jihad for the attainment of essentially political objectives by different groups which we see on the TV screens and other media are alien to the Muslims in Sri Lanka and are non existent here. As I mentioned earlier, these allegations are used only to demonise the Muslims and to in turn create insecurity among the Buddhists.
Q: How do you think we can avoid incidents similar to which took place in Aluthgama from recurring in the future and what measures should be taken to end mistrust between the Muslim community and other communities in the country?
The last two to three years has witnessed a deliberate and concerted attempt to spew hatred towards the Muslims and to a lesser extent the Christians. Websites have sprung up whose sole objective seems to be to hate-monger through a mixture of lies and misrepresentations designed to influence and change attitudes of the Buddhists towards the Muslims. The Bodhu Bala Sena’s public campaign has been the outward manifestation of such a strategy.
As a result an enabling environment has been created for destructive elements to take advantage of any minor incident to inflame passions and create mayhem. The failure of the law enforcement agencies to take stringent action against law breakers in several incidents like the attacks on the Dambulla and Grandpass mosques (to name just two) have emboldened these hate mongers to continue to create mayhem.
What started off as an ordinary traffic incident between two individuals belonging to the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Alutgama was converted by the hate mongers into an opportunity to attack Muslims and their houses and means of livelihood. It is now clear that like many of the previous incidents, the violence was planned and executed largely by those who had come from outside, while the law enforcement agencies did nothing to prevent the mob from running amok.
Adding insult to injury is the attempt to portray the incidents in Alutgama as one in which the actual victims (the Muslims) are the aggressors. What is equally deplorable is the effort to make these incidents look like a clash between two communities when it was a plain and simple attack on the Muslims by a small but influential group of hate mongers who refused to even heed pleas from Parliamentarians like Minister Kumar Welgama and Palitha Thevarapperuma who sought to intervene and bring order and sanity to the mayhem that was being let loose.
"One should not get unduly excited by the use of an Arabic word without knowing its full import. The Shoora Council came into being in the wake of the challenges faced by the Muslims in Sri Lanka during the past two to three years. It is not a formal organisation but a coordinating body/forum/network of several Muslim Organisations with a National reach and with several professionals and other intellectuals"
The way to avoid repetition of such incidents in the short run is to ensure that the Rule of Law prevails and is applied to all without fear or favour. All the institutions of Government including the Police should be strengthened and given strict instructions to carry out their duties in an impartial and efficient manner.
In the long run the leaders of all communities and particularly the Buddhist religious leaders must speak out and cry a halt to what is for Sri Lankans a clearly self destructive journey. Failure to do so will result not only in the Muslims losing out but all of us as a nation committing collective suicide.