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Sunday, 21 February 2016

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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 the country.

Chauvinism

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 attacks.

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.

Islandwide

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.

Antagonise

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.

Abandoned

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?

Betrayal

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.

Split

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 imperative.

Radicalism

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 alarming".

Failed

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 harmony.

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.

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