By Kshama Ranawana
The pieces of their lives, and attempt to make sense of that dastardly act, a more insidious campaign is taking hold of the country.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric is not new in Sri Lanka, but the Easter Sunday bomb blasts carried out by members of extremist National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) has given it a new breath of life.
The move to stifle Muslim owned businesses has been around for more than a decade, but it is gathering momentum now. There is no end to social media posts that lists various businesses that must be boycotted. As well, the anti-halal issue has been revived.
Along with the call to boycott Muslim owned businesses comes the Islamaphobic posts in the form of videos of years old speeches and protests carried out by Muslims both here and abroad. One such video doing the rounds on Monday, just after the release of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero from jail, was of a protest carried out much earlier against the proposed reforms to the Muslim marriage and divorce Act. In that protest a speaker is seen berating the Thero. That video has in turn roused up viewers who believe the protests were held recently. A couple of weeks after the Easter Sunday attacks another video of a protest by Muslims based in the UK was posted on social media. That was from 2014 soon after the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama. Again, most people erroneously believed the protest by the Muslims against the government was a result of the Easter Sunday massacre.
What is interesting this time around is the support such actions, primarily carried out by Sinhala Buddhists, is receiving from the Tamil and Christian communities.
Speaking at a press conference Prof. Sitralega Maunaguru, formerly of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka, stated that handbills were being distributed in the Batticaloa area promoting the boycott of Muslim shops. Tamils are also being encouraged to stop working in Muslim homes and business establishments. Interestingly, the Sinhalese are being told the same, though whether the advocates of such actions plan to secure alternate employment for all these Sinhalese and Tamils is anyone’s guess.
Despite the many social issues and natural disasters faced by the people of the East, Prof. Maunaguru stated that the by and large there was some form of congeniality between the communities. However, the current actions are helping to sow hatred of the other. Tamils who until just ten years ago were treated with suspicion owing to the long drawn out ethnic conflict seem to have no empathy with their fellow Muslims. “The Tamils are suffering from amnesia’, the Professor stated.
The press conference organized by the Women for Peace, Non-violence and Equality was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on May 23rd, where speakers shared their experiences following the Easter Sunday incident.
As always the first casualties of a conflict are women.
Just last week a three-wheel driver in Colombo told my daughter “You can’t be a Sinhalese.” On her inquiring why he assumed so, his response had been, “Sinhala women will not be dressed in that manner.’ My daughter was in a Kurtha. Sr. Noel Christine, a Catholic nun who spent several days helping the victims of the bomb blast in Negambo and the refugees had been asked to remove her wimple by the Civil Defence guard at a church entrance. Pointing to a priest, the guard had asked her why she could not dress like the way the priest does! Her work amongst the refugees has resulted in many hateful tirades against her, with one text message asking if she would like some straw! On another instance, a young Catholic man had “spoken very sternly” to Sr. Christine, for helping the refugees. “Our Christian teaching does not advocate making a difference between religions and races,” she told the press conference, adding that we have carried out our Christian response to the Easter day massacre. “Now it is time for the government to step in; to ensure safety for all.”
Attorney-at-Law Ermiza Tegal pointed out the ban on the Burqa came within the week of the Easter Sunday massacre. Interestingly, it took the government nearly three weeks after the incident, May 13 to be precise to issue the Gazette banning three organizations, the National Thowheed Jama’ath, (NTJ), the Jama’ath Milla’athe Ibrahim ( JMI) and the Willayath As Seylani.
The ban on the Burqa which was imposed soon after the blasts is puzzling. After all, none of the perpetrators of the crime wore Burqas to hide their identities. But the justification for the ban, which has resulted in unjust bullying of many Muslim women, was said to be for security reasons. Interestingly, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) had, prior to the Gazette notification appealed to Muslim women to uncover their faces to assist with the security situation. So, was the rush to impose the ban a move to appease the majority community which has harboured a long-simmering disquiet about Muslim women covering their faces? The ban, as Ms. Tegal stated has brought on more grief than ensuring security, with reports of even women who only cover their heads being targeted for harassment. Muslim women teachers have been barred from entering schools unless they uncovered their heads. The most recent incident is of a woman accosted in a bus and being yelled at by a man insisting she take off her head covering. Sadly, not a single passenger, nor the driver or conductor came to her aid. And then, there is the case of the Muslim woman whose dress sported a ships wheel motive being remanded, accused of having the Dharmachakra on the dress.
There is little or no police protection for most people, Ms. Tegal added, describing how a Muslim woman activist had been requested to call at the police station, only to be told to leave the country as the police had information she was under threat, but could not offer her protection.
The behaviour of mainstream media in building on the fear and hatred of the other is yet another issue. As journalist Dilrukshi Handunetti of the Centre for Investigative Journalism told the press conference both social media and mainstream media needs to ‘resist from being part of the problem.” Noting that media must turn the spotlight inward, she pointed out that it is imperative that national and international professional guidelines are observed. Media professionals must ensure news is verified and be responsible, not be a part of the “othering of another community” she said.
Professor of Politics and International Relations at the Open University, Atulasiri Samarakone explained that historically, these communal sentiments have been a non-issue amongst the ordinary folk. The problem stems from amongst the clergy and society’s elite. Finally, it “also becomes a political project,” that will raise more concerns in the future. The Buddhist clergy for instance, he states, use their sermons to tell the faithful that some land where now other communities live, were ancient Buddhist sites.
The growth of Wahabism is another issue, as is the concern that Muslims control most businesses. “Everything ends up being taken out of context.” Though such issues have been around for some time now, successive governments have done nothing to allay the fears or stem the spread of falsehoods, he added, pointing out that it is important that people are educated on these fears. For example, people need to know that Islam has several sects, and that all are not extremists. The Muslims too must take the initiative to educate the others.
Meanwhile, in a letter dated May 23rd. the Halal Accreditation Council (Guarantee) Limited has appealed to President Sirisena to appoint a Committee or a Commission of Inquiry to resolve the issue regarding halal certification. Pointing out that halal certification is a marketing strategy necessary to promote local products around the world, the Council states that there has been misinformation circulated by ‘prejudiced quarters’ since 2013. “In the aftermath of the horrendous killings of innocent lives by inhumane murderers on the 2st of April 2019, sections of the citizens have become increasingly but unfairly critical of this facility, though beneficial to the country.” Listing several allegations that the Council claim as false regarding the halal controversy, it states the agitation against halal certification is a “direct result of ill-informed allegations circulating in the public domain.”
Will the government that failed spectacularly to ensure the safety of the entire population, take concrete action against this menace that threatens to rip the country once again at its seams?