Where is the Muslim leadership?
Sri Lanka's Muslim community is passing through its worst ever
political and religious leadership crisis, which has placed the
community in a precariously helpless situation. The tragedy is that this
happens at a time when so many hostile forces, both local and foreign,
are openly and secretly working against Muslims.
Ever since the evolution of political reforms in the 1930s, Muslim
leaders who were respected by all worked for the community and won their
rights while maintaining the goodwill of the majority community. The
situation began to change drastically after independence in 1948 due to
rising racist politics.
The vote-catching strategy of promoting majority community interest
begun by the United National Party (UNP) continued later by the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), despite its devastating overall impact on
However, Muslim leadership was represented in both parties. As a
result, despite rising chauvinism Muslim leaders managed to contain the
hatred towards the community though there were sporadic anti Muslim
However, the disaster came when late President J.R. Jayewardene
dismissed the UNP Muslims stating that "if they want they can stay, or
they can leave the government," when the Muslims opposed his move to
bring Israelis to deal with growing Tamil militancy.
The Muslim community was shattered and frustrated. They felt the need
for their own voice to highlight their grievances and ensure their
rights. Thus, there was a vacuum in the political leadership. This was
cleverly exploited by late M.H.M.Ashraf who was then running from party
to party in search of a platform to start his own party - Sri Lanka
Muslim Congress, SLMC.
Many senior Muslim politicians in the south warned him not to make it
an islandwide party, but confined to the east. I remember SLFP
politician Haleem Ishak advising him for more than an hour on a Sunday
morning at Galle Face ground around late 1970s not to pit the Sinhalese
against Muslims in the south by making it an islandwide Muslim party.
However, Ashraf did not find time for such sane advice. He started
the SLMC with Kalmunai as its base and the Muslims frustrated at rising
chauvinism supported the new Muslim party in the hope of safeguarding
their rights and dignity. In the subsequent years the SLMC began to play
a decisive role in forming governments.
His opportunistic politics did antagonise some Sinhalese proving
Haleem Ishak's fear credible.
From the very inception the SLMC was a one-man show. Within years
Ashraf built an image of a leader who was unpredictable due to his
alignment with different political forces. As a result Ashraf was
accused of widespread corruption and moral degradation. A number of
people who supported him began to leave the party and distance from him.
In the midst came his untimely death, leading to a severe leadership
crisis within the party. The Sinhala leadership, fed up of yielding to
Ashraf's demands, exploited the opportunity to suit their own agendas.
They began to pick up one group to promote by providing ministerial
portfolios and aggravated the division.
This division continued and the SLMC which came with the slogan of
Islam and Unity is divided into more than half a dozen splinter groups,
causing irreparable damage to the community.
They all aim at positions and perks by pleasing the Sinhala
leadership. Thus, they abandoned the community.
For example, the main SLMC and splinter groups remained an integral
part of defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa government despite its
atrocities against the Muslim community.
They joined President Maithripala Sirisena camp during the eleventh
hour only when they found that the community, dismissing the Muslim
parties, has decided to vote for President Sirisena.
According to rumors, they were absorbed into the government on the
eve of the January 8, 2015 presidential election after signing a deal
with the UNP which, perhaps, sealed their mouths and tied their hands
and legs. It is more than a year since then they failed to raise any
serious Muslim issue.
For example, their absence during the recent visit to the island of
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and the United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights Ziad Ra'ad Al Hussein demonstrated to what
extent they have abandoned the community.
Israelis, who clashed with the Muslim countries in the Middle East,
are here in a big way. They are bound to create problems for Sri Lankan
Muslims as part of their global campaign against Islam and Muslims.
Regarding this, did the Muslim parliamentarians raise any concern?
Did they take up the issue with the Prime Minister?
The shameful state of affairs is such that these Muslim
parliamentarians talk of unity these days. The question is unity for
what? However, their failure to come together to prepare a set of
proposals to safeguard Muslim interest in the proposed constitutional
changes is shameful. This was betrayal of the community for which they
had been notorious during the past few decades.
Under the circumstance, the only option for Muslims is to organise
the civil society into an effective force which could prevail on these
politicians and reestablish relations with the majority community.
Equally disastrous is the religious body, the All Ceylon Jamiathula
Ulema, ACJU which has miserably failed to stand up and guide the
community to ensure the age old ties with the majority community is
preserved despite rising racism by a handful of people.
The challenges posed by Sinhala racists on various issues were
ignored or not properly handled by the ACJU. As a result, the ACJU and
its leadership have lost the confidence of major section of the
community judging from the serious allegations in the social media.
There have been calls from different sections of the community on the
need for a complete overhauling of ACJU to suit the time and help guide
the community on issues, especially in the context of racist elements
trying to pit the majority against Muslims.
The ACJU and its leadership have failed, since the days of halal
issue followed by the blunder in deciding the Ramadan festival day. This
controversy almost split Jamiathul Ulema when ulemas in the east decided
to set up their own association.
The need to reorganise the Friday Juma sermons to educate Muslims of
emerging threats and to advice positive means to deal with them has been
felt by the entire community. The long felt need of a common curriculum
in Islamic education on par with national education, and the need to
make it more socially responsive have been ignored.
The allegations against the ACJU leadership remain widespread and
thus, the call for a new leadership which could guide the community is
For example, on February 12, 2006, London based website Colombo
Telegraph published an article under the title "Fundamentalism Creeps
into Muslim International Schools", in which Defense Secretary
Karunasena Hettiarachchi raised the issue of 'black face veil or the
Burqa'. He said this was seen as a symbol of rising radicalism.
The allegations against Ilma International School was totally
baseless and unfounded though defense secretary's concern about black
veil needed some clarification. Though an innovative phenomenon
assimilating Middle Eastern cultures due to our dependency on employment
in the Gulf, wearing what is considered by some as alien cannot be
attributed to radicalism.
Already, vested interest in the media began to unleash unfounded
fears and phobias disturbing society further.
In this article Channa Abeetha Dahanayanke, a researcher on
anthropology and social media trends had this to state;
"If you take Sinhala racism, the opposition comes from the Sinhalese
itself. Even if its Tamil separatism on social media, it's the Tamil
community who first raise the flag and then is joined by either racist
or moderate Sinhalese.
But what is alarming is the silence of Muslims. Muslims just do not
ever speak against this, and it's on one hand sad, and on the other very
Under such circumstance isn't it the duty of ACJU to issue a fatwa,
guide the community and ensure the rising hatred towards or
misunderstanding of Muslims is checked in the interest of national
The ACJU failed to attend to any such issues.
Their failure to respond on time in the right manner and
professionally as responsible religious leaders are damaging the society
in the similar manner as Muslim political parties are.
Unless the entire ACJU is reorganised to serve the community and the
country, what is in store for the Muslims is unpredictable.