By Ayesha Zuhair
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to summon a meeting shortly to discuss a matter of vital national importance.
This follows a discussion he had with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem on Monday, during the course of which the President promised to resolve the dispute that has arisen over the Dambulla mosque, without harming the interests of the Muslim community.
At the press briefing held after Hakeem’s conversation with the Head of State (and where Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed was inducted as Deputy Leader of the SLMC), the Muslim Congress Leader asserted: “If any one attempts to shift this mosque which has existed since 1962 to another location, it will be considered an unjust act, which goes against the sentiments of all Muslims in the country. We will not give into violence, intimidation or thuggery.”
The meeting to be convened by the President (which may even take place today or tomorrow) and the events to follow are likely to have a huge impact on ethnic relations in Sri Lanka, and may well prove to be a litmus test of the strength of the Buddhist-Muslim bond.
The question in the minds of many is: will the Executive do what is necessary to ensure that centuries of communal amity between the followers of Buddhism and Islam in this island are safeguarded? Based on the assurance given by the President to Minister Hakeem, there is reason for optimism
As the SLMC Leader pointed out, “The SLMC and all Muslims without hesitation oppose moves to shift the mosque as it will result in dire consequences.”
Senior Minister A. H. M. Fowzie said that all Muslim MPs are “vehemently opposed” to the relocation of the mosque, and will make a joint plea to the executive to take the necessary steps to prevent the demolition of the mosque which has been in existence for many decades.
SLMC General Secretary and Parliamentarian M. T. Hassen Ali said that Muslim MPs are “firmly against” the relocation of the mosque, and will work together to maintain the current status quo
Government MP A. H. M. Azwer said that Muslim MPs are “fully united” on the issue, and that the decision to push for an amicable settlement was a unanimous one.
As reflected in these statements given by Muslim leaders, the entire community is strongly opposed to the demolition of the mosque, and any attempt to do so, will have detrimental, long-term repercussions on ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka
On April 20, the Hairiya Jummah Mosque located at 48/1, Kandy Road, Dambulla was stormed.
Photographic evidence and video footage of the incident showed an unruly mob, many of whom were clad in saffron robes, vandalising the scared place of worship, and preventing Muslims from offering that Friday’s Jummah prayers.
This was a clear violation of the Fundamental Right to religious freedom which is expected to be “respected, secured and advanced by all the organs of government” as per the country’s constitution.
Under Article 10, every person is entitled to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of their choice.
The incident was also a violation of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Article 12 (1) which ensures equality before the law and the equal protection of the law
It later came to light that most of those who were involved in the premeditated mob attack had been brought to the scene from outside Dambulla. So there is reasonable ground to believe that the incident was orchestrated to disrupt the cordial relationship between Muslims and Buddhists.
The Muslims in Dambulla are in fact very well integrated with members of other ethnic and religious groups. They are extremely conversant in Sinhala, and have not just co-existed peacefully with their Sinhalese neighbours, but have contributed significantly to the economic and social development of the area.
Despite the presence of the Police, who had been previously informed that an event of this nature might be staged, no action has been taken – to date – to question or arrest any of those involved in the atrocious act. No charges for intimidation and violent behaviour, causing malicious damage, and carrying out a premeditated attack on a holy site of worship.
The Trustees of the mosque have lodged three complaints to be Police in relation to this incident and are yet to receive any feedback from the authorities
Is a mosque not sacred?
Issues relating to rule of law aside, it is bewildering as to why a mosque may not considered as sacred as any other place of worship. Should we not accord the same respect to all places of religious worship – be it a temple, church, mosque, or kovil?
Katargama and Sri Pada are internationally famed, multi-religious sites of worship where Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have converged over the centuries for purposes of worship, as both historical facts and contemporary practice attest.
In Kandy there are mosques near the Sri Dalada Maligawa, regarded as the most sacred place of worship in the Buddhist world.
This is not Saudi Arabia , and Sri Lanka is not a mono-religious country; it is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation. So why can’t a mosque be located inside a sacred area? What is sacred to Buddhists can and indeed should be deemed sacred to Muslims, and vice versa.
A history of communal accord
Muslims in this island have long cherished the freedom to assemble, build mosques and madrassas, and practice Islam without feeling obliged to camouflage their identity from hostile eyes.
In fact, one could venture so far as to say that the communal amity enjoyed between the Buddhists and Muslims has been the subject of outside envy.
For thousands of years, Muslims have co-existed peacefully will the Sinhalese and did not have to compromise on their religious beliefs. On the contrary, visionary Sinhala leaders encouraged the Muslims to practice their faith without fearing persecution.
This historical bond is well-documented by renowned historian Dr Lorna Dewaraja in her book, ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka: 1000 years of ethnic harmony 900-1915 AD’.
During the time of the Sinhala kings, from the ancient period, up to the Kandyan Period, there was amity between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The Muslim traders were economically and politically an asset to the Sri Lankan king, and the King protected them.
The Muslims also fought with the Sinhalese against the Portugese, and the community in Akurana was settled as a gift for this.
The close relationship has yielded mutual benefits for both communities. This relationship is now being put to the test.
The Hairiya Jummah Mosque
Though it has been claimed that the mosque started operating only in 2009, in actual fact the Hairiya Jummah Mosque was established as a mosque in 1962 by U.S.M. Ibrahim, who was its first Trustee.
This is the only place of worship for Muslims in the area, and serves a broader national interest given its proximity to the Rangiri Dambulla International Cricket Stadium. According to the mosque trustees, even the Pakistani national cricket team has offered prayers in the mosque. Numerous local and foreign (Muslim) tourists also access the prayer facilities on a regular basis.
Even a special religious ceremony (which was broadcast on ITN) was held at the mosque in support of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to defeat a US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka.
If this sacred place of worship is relocated against the wishes of the entire Muslim community in this country, the message it will convey is: what is sacred to you is not necessarily sacred to us. You are ‘The Other’ and you might as well know it.
Perhaps more importantly, the Muslims see a trend in this – starting from Anuradhapura where a Muslim shrine was demolished in September 2011 and are wondering where this will end.
The fall-out from such a move will be exceedingly hard to quantify, and could push a community that is well-integrated in Sri Lankan society into extremist hands
A litmus test?
Despite some dark moments, Sri Lanka has had a long history of religious and cultural co-existence. Should we allow a few bigots to destroy this? To permit such a swing would be nothing short of tragic.
The days and weeks ahead will be a crucial litmus test of the government’s commitment to promote ethnic and religious harmony, and will also test the strength of the Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim bond.
Let’s hope that the relationship will weather the storm, and prove to be robust and dynamic courtesy: Daily Mirror