From left: Former MP Ferial Ismail Ashraff, Highways and Road Development and Petroleum Resources Development Minister Kabir Hashim, Former MP Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, and President’s Counsel Ali Sabry – Pic by Ruwan Walpola
- Muslim leaders condemn anti-communal attacks
- Appeal for moderates to step up to preserve harmony
- Reiterate Muslim community not aligned with Easter Sunday attackers
- Remind public of help given by the Muslim community to apprehend perpetrators
- Warns continued intolerance and violence only benefits extremists, appeals for all communities to break cycle of violence
- Say Muslim community already engaged in self-reflection
- Backs laws for Madrasas, pledges cooperation on Arabisation concerns
By Uditha Jayasinghe
In the wake of anti-Muslim attacks this week, representatives of the community yesterday appealed for moderates of all religions to step up to foster inter-communal harmony, insisting that violence was detrimental to all Sri Lankans.
Highways and Road Development Minister Kabir Hashim, former Ministers Ferial Ashraff and Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, and President’s Counsel Ali Sabry, speaking to media, made multiple appeals not to group the moderate Muslim community with the small group of radicalised people who carried out the Easter Sunday attacks. They pointed out that the moderate Muslim community does not condone or support their actions, and have stepped forward to condemn the bombers in the harshest terms.
Even the last rites were not given to the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks by Muslim religious leaders.
“The Easter Sunday attacks were carried out by a very small group, and they do not represent the entire Muslim community, most of whom are peace-loving moderates that have lived harmoniously with other communities in this country for generations. The Muslim community has been living in Sri Lanka for centuries, and we have always worked to discharge our duties as citizens of this country. I consider myself to be a Sri Lankan. Please focus on the similarities that we share, and do not let the small differences drive us apart,” Hashim said.
Recalling his involvement during the Mawanella incident, where several Buddha statues were vandalised last year, Hashim pointed out he and his supporters had personally intervened to find the culprits. The attacks have since been linked to supporters of National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) founder Zaharan Hashim, who is believed by law enforcement authorities to have masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks.
“When we were informed of the vandalised statues, we immediately took action and coordinated with the police and other regional religious leaders. We were the ones who helped track down the perpetrators, even though they were members of our community. In fact, one of my close associates was shot in front of his family as a result of our involvement, and he is still fighting for his life. Even by coming forward now we are taking a risk, but we are doing so because we do not want to see more bloodshed. We have to work together to fight extremism in our society. If we allow extremism and radicalisation to spread, then we as a country will suffer. It will not be just one community,” he added.
The Muslim community had also cooperated in the Easter Sunday attack investigations, giving several tipoffs to police that resulted in three safe houses being found in the Kalmunai and Saindamaradu areas. Hashim also backed steps taken in the last week to formulate legislation for Madrasas, and termed the formulation of an Act as essential. He also conceded that it was important for the Muslim community to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism, given recent events. Hashim argued that given the sweeping forces of globalisation, it was understandable for communities to over time absorb practices that were different to their traditional customs, but Muslims will “not be ashamed to engage in this self-appraisal.”
Former Minister Ferial Ashraff told reporters that in her view, it was possible that stakeholders were too complacent about the spread of different views within the Muslim community, and while there was some discussion about increasing conservatism, conceded enough was not done to address its spread effectively. Noting that the Saindamaradu area had once been her electorate, Ashraff stated that people in the area were unaware of the presence of the dozens of people who investigators have found were linked to the Easter Sunday attackers.
“When I talk to the people in these areas, they say they simply did not know there were such dangerous people in their midst. They did not notice the radicalisation. Now they are so concerned, they are voluntarily giving tip offs to the police and sharing information. This makes me wonder whether we were too laid-back in addressing the issue of extremism, and even though there was dialogue about it, not enough was done. But this situation cannot be resolved by attacking the Muslim community. All the moderates of different communities have to work together. You will have our full cooperation.”
Touching on the point of increasing “Arabisation” of the Muslim community, President’s Counsel Ali Sabry acknowledged it was a concern, but assured that the community was already engaging in a wide-ranging discussion on how to tackle extremism. He appealed for the Muslim community to be given time to deal with the issue, and find solutions through discussions with their various stakeholders. He also called for investigations into the source of funds that are reported to be promoting a more conservative form of Islam than what was traditionally practiced by Sri Lankan Muslims.
“Many discussions about Arab influence has already taken place among Muslims, but they do not appear in the mainstream, because most of these exchanges are done in Tamil. We have to create space for this platform to expand and engage with different people, both within and outside our community. But these changes must also happen from within and with the involvement of the Muslims. However, when anti-communal attacks happen, we push moderates towards extremism and radicalisation. When we talk to people, we have found out that after Digana, more Muslims drifted towards extreme groups like the NTJ. This must be stopped. If these organisations get even one more member, it means we as a society as failed,” he said.
Responding to questions on the slow progress of reform on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which seeks to bring the marriageable age of all communities to the universal age of 18 years, and prevent underage girls from being married, Sabry accepted the process has been dragging for years. However, he argued that the MMDA provisions had existed for decades, and could not be highlighted as a reason for the more recent anti-Muslim attacks. He also echoed the appeal that until reforms could be made, for other communities to act with tolerance, restraint, and patience, so that communal similarities are highlighted.
“Our behaviour will decide our future. I appeal to all politicians, media and community leaders to foster harmony. Sri Lanka has a history of cycles of violence. We have already been through the 1983 riots, which gave impetus to the Tamil Tigers. We have been through a three-decade war. As a country we cannot bear more. Ask yourselves, what kind of country are we leaving for our children?” stressed former Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar.