By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader, Rauff Hakeem, has come out with a timely book on the Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim conflict in the island. As the title ‘WE ARE PART NOT APART’ suggests, the 266-page volume brought out by Vijitha Yapa, is an attempt to bridge the gap between the two communities so that they live in harmony, as indeed they had done for centuries.
Hakeem portrays Muslims as a peaceful trading community, which, being in transition, has recently developed certain traits which have aroused the animosity of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. In the well-argued and well-researched book, he appeals to the Sinhala-Buddhists to see these new traits in the proper perspective based on facts, while appealing to the Muslims to temper those traits which annoy the majority community to ensure that the latter do not harbour fears of being overwhelmed.
A trilingual intellectual, lawyer, administrator and politician with decades of experience, Hakeem looks at the clash of views dispassionately, setting aside his own religious affiliation. He is by no means an apologist of Muslim cultural, political or ideological extremism, nor is he in denial of any wrongdoing as a community. He sees the Muslim community and the emerging trends in it for what they are, warts and all, so that the diagnosis is correct and the remedy appropriate. Except for a faint hint or two, he avoids escapist references to an outside “hidden hand” to exonerate the community of any fault. While condemning the baseless charges made by extremist Sinhalese groups and their excesses on the ground, he asks Muslims not to live in denial, but be realistic and considerate to other’s perceptions.
The author discusses all issues, including the alleged Muslim bid to overtake the Sinhalese in population by not practising birth control; the alleged bid to sterilize Sinhalese women and make the men impotent; the alleged bid to introduce Arabic Wahhabist culture, mores and modes of dressing in Sri Lanka aimed at overwhelming the primordial Sinhalese Buddhist culture and values; and last but not the least, an alleged bid to turn the Muslim community in Sri Lanka into a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.
Hakeem also goes into detail about the controversy over the reform of Muslim personal law, the age of marriage of girls, and the rights of women, including their right to be Quazis or Islamic judges.
To put the apparently deep-seated conflict in its historical context, Hakeem harks back to the Sinhala-Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala who began the process of “othering” the Muslims early in the 20 th.Century. Dharmapala had said: “The Muhammadans, an alien people… by Shylockians methods, became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese, sons of the soil whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country from alien invaders ….are, in the idea of the British, only vagabonds….The alien South Indian Muhammadan comes to Ceylon, sees the neglected villagers without any experience in trade. The result is that the Muhammadan thrives and the son of the soil goes to the wall…”. The “othering” of Muslims led to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and other areas between May 29 and June 5, 1915, in which 29 were killed.
However, Sinhala-Muslim relations were cordial until the “Sinhala Only” act of 1956 divided Sri Lanka on linguistic lines and the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the East, under the leadership of M.H.M.Ashraf, threw in their lot with the Tamils. But it did not take Ashraff long to realize that separatism would do no good to the Muslims and that the Tamils would not treat the Muslims as political equals. The founding of the SLMC followed in 1981.
But despite close collaboration with the Sri Lankan State and its armed forces in their fight against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the government did not consult the Muslims before signing the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in 2002, even though both pacts were going to affect the Muslims adversely. The lack of consultation on the CFA and the ill-fated Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) was particularly galling as Hakeem was then a cabinet minister and a member of the government’s negotiating team. Hakeem writes that in the peace talks, he was disgusted to see other members of the government team nonchalantly giving in to the LTTE’s anti-Muslim demands.
After the LTTE was decimated and the Tamils subdued in 2009, Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian forces turned their attention to the “Marakkala Menace” (the Muslims) as he put it, raising a variety of bogies about them. Cultural and sartorial changes were seen as markers of defiance. Seen against the backdrop of the depredations of the ISIS, al Qaeda and the US war on terror which followed 9/11, the fear of Muslim separatism raised its ugly head in Sri Lanka. It was stridently articulated by Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners and silently harbored by the general population. Hakeem quotes the then Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa saying in September 2013 that the Muslim community “bred terrorism”.
In 2014 and 2018 anti-Muslim riots took place in Aluthgama and Digana, with the law and order machinery allegedly playing a partisan role. The multiple suicide bombings of April 21, 2019 carried out by a lunatic fringe of Lankan Muslims, exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiments. The whole Muslim community was blamed for it. In the riots which followed, innocent Muslims were targeted, and in the investigations, attempts were made to implicate Muslim leaders. Hakeem sees the whole campaign to divide Sinhala- Buddhists from the Muslims as being driven basically by a desire to get votes.
He debunks with facts and figures the charge that the Muslim population has been increasing exponentially and that the day is not far off when Muslims will outstrip the Sinhalas. According to him, the merger of diverse Islamic communities into one “Sri Lankan Muslim” community in recent censuses, gave the impression that Muslims had expanded greatly. He quotes studies to show that the higher birth rate among Muslims is class-related, determined by income and educational levels as in the case of other communities.
As for the allegation that the Muslims proliferate because they get their daughters married at the age of 12 while the Lankan legal norm is 18 and because they can take four wives, Hakeem says that few Muslims actually do what is alleged. But he readily grants that Muslim leaders, political as well as religious, have been reluctant to change the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act for fear of seeming to be too reformist when the Muslims’ identity is being aggressively challenged and when paranoia is being fostered for political reasons even on issues in which there is no scientific basis for the charges made, as in the case of mixing contraceptives in food or conducting mass sterilization of women in a government hospital without anyone noticing.
While defending the right of Muslim women to wear the face veil or the abaya, they should be mindful of the fact they are living in a multi-cultural country. He says he would not subscribe to “any particular tribal cultural practice from any part of West Asia or Middle East.” He takes pains to point out that the face veil is not intrinsic to Islam but is an earlier tribal practice. On the age of marriage too there are various contradictory theological views, he points out. As for the demand for female Quazis he points out that in many Muslim-majority countries women are allowed to be Quazis. On the paranoia about Halal certification by the All Ceylon Jammiyath Ulema, Hakeem says that in Australia is it is widely practiced as it promotes sales.
Hakeem’s over-arching plea to all Sri Lankans is that people of all ethnicities and religions should see cultural differences in their midst not as threats, but as markers of a plural society and democracy. But at the same time, Muslims should temper some of their newly acquired practices so that they do not annoy other communities or put fear in their minds. And last but not the least, all communities must identify and shun the extremists in their midst because their agenda is crassly political, and not the promotion of the real interests of the communities they claim to speak for.