Tackling Islamophobia | Sunday Observer

Tackling Islamophobia

It was a calm afternoon months before the unpleasant incident in Dharga town, Beruwala 2014. The location was the University of Kelaniya, and a group of friends were gathered around a table and eating a lunch packet. There was a Muslim girl in the group too, one could clearly say just by looking at the shawl drooping down her shoulders.

The friendly talk was about languages and the breaking of barriers relating to English speaking. The girl commented- “we should not try to master it as the British do. Then it’s like we are chasing an illusion. But we must adopt the language in our own way and master it”.

Talking fluently in English she continued, “Even though I can speak well in English, sometimes I get stuck. But that never happens when I speak Sinhala. Because it’s my mother tongue”.

Sri Lankans have an “island mentality”. Among our different phobias, Islamophobia is one such great force which has begun stripping the communal harmony of the island in recent years.

But to understand these phobias, one must look at the bigger picture. Former Minister and Attorney at law Imthiaz Bakeer Markar explained the historical factors behind Islamophobia.

“When we look at world history, from time to time fear is created in different communities. First the Jews and then communists. Japanese also faced similar prejudice. Likewise before attacking Iraq, Libya and Syria media propaganda was used to fuel Islamophobia. The aftermath was the assassination and displacement of millions of people” he said.

“There was this Indian politician called Subramaniam who has also visited Sri Lanka, created a great fear of Islam saying that this is how Islam works in a society where there are only 2 per cent of Muslims, (in India), and then where there are 10 per cent Muslims (in Srilanka) ... which are all lies” said Imthiaz.

He said, “International Gallup surveys clearly state that 90 per cent of the entire Muslim population of the world are moderate and peaceful. Therefore the link, which powerful media try to create between Islam and terrorism is not proven by statistics. That is what Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said too - to look at the broader picture”.

Nilar N. Kasim is one of the Muslims closest to the Sinhala community in contemporary times, no doubt.Nilar has a greater fluency in Sinhala than many native Sinhalese and he also enhances his language capacity by song writing. Therefore for a Majority of Sinhalese who have had no Muslim friends ever in their lives, Nilar is the closest Muslim.

“I am a faithful follower of Islam. If someone in the society has no respect for Islam, they cannot respect me either” Nilar said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

“There is a certain ideological placement obsessed by world media in reporting. This can also be seen in our country” he said.

“There is a cold war between western countries and the Islamic world. Islamic fundamentalism has (been interpreted) to the public with that. Certain organizations which claim to be the ones who represent the rights of the Sinhalese community, also has some linear behavior, not a fair movement. I believe this Islamophobia emerged as a result of the political agenda activated in the last 10 -15 years” he said.

Meanwhile pointing out the vigilance of the Muslim society in Sri Lanka towards what is happening, Imthiaz said, “When it comes to Sri Lanka, Muslim academics were raising their voice against certain groups in Muslim society as they are a great danger to society, but no one listened. I don’t understand whether that is just mere negligence or for any other reason”.

Words have a very critical part in this context. Especially irresponsible usage of social media has provoked hate among different communities to an irreversible level.

“I remember in my school days, friends used to ask me, “Thambiya Uba Keame Kaalada?” (Hey dude, have you eaten?). There, the use of word ‘thambiya’ had a very hearty and brotherly context. But nowadays the word ‘Thambiya’ used in a very racist format” explained Nilar.

He continued, “In a developed society if someone speaks in a way that hurts someone’s ethnicity or religion it will lead to sever punishments. But in our country it is not like that. We are lagging behind by hundreds of miles as compared to a civilized modern society”.

Nilar sees his integration with Sinhala society as backed by his language skills. He also urged the due desire of breaking language barriers of society. “Any minority group should understand that in order to be with the majority community we must learn their language. If not it is hard to associate with them. I understood that at a young age. I broke all my barriers with the Sinhala community by learning their language. In contrast, misunderstanding can be prevented only by proper communication” he said.

Similarly Imthiaz who is a fluent speaker in Sinhala is proud of his language skills. Also being an old Anandian he advocates for removing religious labeling of schools too.

‘Until the question is not yours, the answer will be philosophical’is a common saw used to put down people who advocate communal harmony and have the passion to represent, ‘the other one’ of society. But people like Nilar challenge the validity of such sayings by their response to injustice.

“My younger sister opened a restaurant in Chilaw a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant got wrecked by the recent riots. So this incident could easily turn myself into a hater of the Sinhalese. But we should not allow personal losses to shape our principles or at least I don’t do so” said Nilar.

“Now some people have narrated the Holy Quran as a creation of the devil and they have insulted the prophet Mohammad. I very kindly ask those, if someone insulted the Lord Buddha or any other character in Buddhism, won’t you get a pain in your heart? We are also having the very same pain when someone insults our religion, the holy Quran or our prophet” said Nilar.

Despite the fact that neither Nilar nor Imtiyaz wears the traditional hat when they appear on public functions or television programs, they both are Islam believers.

“My Muslim identity is well placed within me. It’s in my name too. But if we started over displaying our identity such as by wearing a Burka, we are stepping out of line” said Nilar.

He added, “If someone looks at me as a Sinhalese I take it as an honour. We should not judge people by their outer appearance. Because religion resides in the heart, not in the appearance. I do all required rituals of my religion. But It is very personal. The religion should not be something that you display to others. That is the barrier we must break”.

Meanwhile Imthiaz talked about the importance of looking at each community to identify root causes why youngsters are misled into extremism. “The Muslim community must self-criticize and check why these youngsters followed this unacceptable path. As well as the Buddhist community also should self-criticize as to why their youngsters launched this type of attack “ he said.

“Islamophobia is a historically developed phenomenon. There are many political elements in this as well. In the Sri Lankan context, one good example is the religion based political party system” said Ven. Galkande Dhammananda thera in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Director of Walpola Rahula Institute for Buddhist Studies and Lecturer, University of Kelaniya, Ven. Galkande Dhammananda thera a frontline Bikkhu who had been advocating for religious harmony for years, recently started a continuous public dialogue on the same topic. The first episode of the discussion forum ‘Buddhism’s role in a suicidal time period’ was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute last Thursday (16) with the participation of Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardena and Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri.

“Recently a new trend in Islam stirred up in Sri Lanka, with Arab and Middle-East influence. This Arabisation is one reason for the Islamophobic culture nurtured throughout the world in the recent past. I was born and raised in Ampara. Therefore I have had very close ties with the Muslims since then. But later, we as a community maintained a distant relationship with Muslims.

This isolation or disconnection paved the way for this type of misunderstanding” added Dhammananda thera.

(The above introductory incident about the lunch time discussion at University of Kelaniya, was not a fiction. It was actual and the writer himself personally observed the chat)


[Imthiyaz makes heartfelt appeal]

Addressing a media conference held by the Sri Lanka Muslim Council and the Muslim Civil society representatives Former minister Imthiyaz Bakeer Markar, highlighted the need to correct our path immediately for the unity and prosperity of the country. The former minister, emotionally made the following comments:

“I come from Beruwala. The Arabs first stepped into this island from Beruwala. The first mosque was built in Beruwala in the nineteen-hundreds.

I come from that village- a village that is surrounded by Sinhala villages-Bonnaragoda, Nallahena, Boragalla and Hettiyakanda. When we were small we used converse with our grandparents in Tamil but with our parents we spoke in Sinhala. There was no difference between us. Where are we trying to take our country”?

Are we to think about our future or are we going to become prey to these international, national or political agendas, and drag down the country with us? It is a crucial time that we have embarked upon.

Look at certain media reports. I have seen people writing to make things worse, to create more trouble. Some media outlets have changed after the riots in the last few days, but prior to that they were working to fulfill their own agendas.

Extremists like Zaharan and his followers and these people who had been inciting violence during the past 24 hours have no difference. They travel in luxury vehicles, lives in comfortable luxury houses. One needs to ask- who is funding them? They are only about 1 percent of the population. If you look at history, the majority rejected extremism. However, even a small group can ignite violence, they can even destroy the world.

We must be one united family. A school should reflect a cross section of our society. When Muslim children are educated in a Muslim school they don’t know how to respect a Buddhist monk or a Catholic sister.

When we say that Sinhala medium teaching should begin in Muslim schools it should not be refused on the basis that there are insufficient teachers. We must push for these things.

During the Nugawela era, when Jaffna schools asked for Sinhala teachers we couldn’t provide them as we didn’t have Sinhala teachers to send to Jaffna.

We should not repeat that mistake.