Rauff Hakeem is the Minister of City Planning and Water Supply in Sri Lanka’s national unity government and the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a prominent Muslim political party. A lawyer and a senior parliamentarian, he represents Kandy district, which recently witnessed violent attacks by Sinhalese mobs that claimed at least two lives and destroyed many mosques, Muslim-owned shops and homes. The episode has left the island’s Muslim minority, who make up about 10% of the population, in shock. Speaking to The Hindu at Dharussalam, his party headquarters in Colombo, Mr. Hakeem situated the violence within the larger political scape of Sri Lanka after the civil war ended in 2009, with the armed forces crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as well as in the global context of growing Islamophobia.
How do you view the recent attacks targeting Muslims in different parts of Kandy district in the central highlands and the preceding incidents in Ampara in the Eastern Province? Anti-Muslim attacks have been on the rise from 2012.
On the one side, this has been a local manifestation of an international problem – Islamophobia. It has intensified due to very deliberate actions of certain xenophobic forces that have mobilised themselves intensely, particularly after the war victory, looking for another enemy. They look for pretexts to attack Muslims and target their economy and livelihoods. Their deliberate attempts have had a fair share of political patronage.
Some of these [Sinhala-Buddhist] extremist organisations came into prominence around 2011-12, starting with the hijab issue, then the campaign against Halal [certification], which were all pretexts to create this “enemy mindset”.
The Halal issue was used to create unnecessary fear in the minds of non-Muslims, whereas food practices of Muslims, Halal slaughter methods or ingredients that go into the food consumed by Muslims have never been a problem in the past. Business rivalry, jealousy and a variety of other reasons also contributed towards creating a phobia. And then it came to other lifestyle issues of Muslims, particularly women wearing the hijab — these were also being looked at as alien to Sri Lankan culture.
The Aluthgama, Beruwala incidents [anti-Muslim riots in 2014] were among the worst violent episodes based on hate speech. These two incidents in Ampara and Kandy were very carefully planned. They happened soon after the local government elections where the [Mahinda Rajapaksa-backed] Joint Opposition had a very sizeable victory, and in which the country’s ethnic polarisation was pronounced. That is another indicator of whether there was some political background to this. We cannot totally rule out the possibility of some type of political motivation. This is endemic to our culture.
Whatever political party we [may be from], we need to refrain from patronising extremist elements for political expediency. The recent incident was not a Sinhala-Muslim clash, it was a mob attack on Muslims and it was repeatedly taking place. The failure of the government to protect Muslims — that is another serious issue.
Yes, you have accused the police of having been lethargic.
Totally. They are complicit in this violence by their deliberate negligence, to say the least, if not active support, by not coming to the rescue of Muslims in a timely manner. On top of it, the failure of the intelligence community to have a proper early warning about what was going to happen. We local politicians knew that something was going to happen on the day of the funeral [of a Sinhalese driver who succumbed to injuries after an altercation with Muslim youth in a road rage incident, which triggered the riots]. We kept speaking to all the responsible officers, they kept reassuring us that there was nothing to worry about and that they would take care. Finally, when it happened, they all put up their hands in exasperation and said, “We never anticipated that this would be of such a scale and we just could not contain the violence”, simply trying to trot out excuses. They should have been prepared for such a calamity. It looks like callous disregard for the safety of the Muslim minority in this country.
Minority or any other community, it is the bounden duty of the government to ensure their safety, particularly when it is quite apparent that something sinister was brewing. A lot of people have a lot of explaining to do.
This is where impunity comes in. The culture of impunity that was there during the Rajapaksa regime came to re-establish itself in this manner when it came to law enforcement. This is a very serious issue and Muslims are furious. Just after the war victory, these xenophobic forces gained momentum and it culminated in pogroms such as Aluthgama and Beruwala, which resulted in the entire minority community deciding to send that regime back home and installing a new government. Just because you wear a saffron robe it does not mean you have total freedom to say what you want. Particularly when it comes to hate speech. While some action was taken against one or two originally, the government felt they had to soft-pedal this.
In this country, the values of coexistence are well understood, and Muslims have contributed in no small measure to national unity and to the safety, sovereignty and integrity of this country. We have absolutely no problem living peacefully with the Sinhala majority.
Then there is also a canard being created about demographic changes happening by deliberate fertility programmes among Muslims and making Sinhala women infertile through preposterous, dubious methods. The government needs a proper communication strategy to stop such false propaganda.
You spoke about backing this government. In 2015, the national unity government would not have come to power without the support of Muslims. Given that eastern Muslims voted as a block for this coalition, do you think the government is letting down the Muslim minority?
Given the way in which the government was reacting to some of these issues, the least you can say is that there was this unwarranted inhibition in their approach to strict law enforcement. This is what is angering Muslims. Why this inhibition? The inhibition is perhaps due to the fact that they are losing ground among the Sinhala majority, but this is a minuscule minority of radicals. You are never going to win that vote bank.
This could also be part of a design to wean away Muslims [from this government]. The minorities, the pattern in which they voted in the local government polls, indicated quite clearly that they still remain the pillar of support of this government. Trying to create this perception that Muslims are now disgruntled and outraged to such an extent that at least a certain percentage will move away could benefit some sections politically.
Can you reflect on this a bit more historically? In one of the first major riots in Sri Lanka in 1915, Muslims were targeted. In terms of parliamentary politics in the last few decades, your party has mostly aligned itself to the government of the day. Is it uncomfortable for you to still be in government when repeatedly, post-war, your constituency is targeted?
When you look at it emotionally and sentimentally, you can become very impulsive, resign in a huff and go to the opposition. I don’t think there is anybody more qualified than me to speak about it — because I have done that twice before. In hindsight I feel that we cannot be so impulsive all the time. We have to look at the total picture.
But here again there was another issue. There was this blame game by the two partners in government against each other, destabilising the government itself, contributing further to its decline.
You mean after the local government elections in February?
Yes, soon after the local government elections the type of blame game that took place between the two major partners in government was a matter of discomfort for all of us who are partners in this government. It seems that there is no coherence in governing, and there is a lot of indecision. Such political instability creates a fertile ground for these [extremist] forces. That needs to be settled quickly.
How do you respond to claims that there is rising fundamentalism in the Eastern Province, with funding from West Asian countries?
You know, it’s very typical, this question after a lengthy interview of this nature. Not only you, several media people who have come to interview me end up asking this question. It is again a manifestation of an international mindset. But locally, I don’t see that Muslims have been radicalised to that extent so as to resort to violence.
Whatever radicalisation has been happening, it is in the cultural domain — you see their dress, their attitude to observing their faith, you see a certain amount of this happening, they talk about Wahhabism, or the Salafi ideology being the cause for most of this radicalisation. Then there are various Jama’aths like Sri lanka Thawheed Jama’ath. It is not a case of sectarian radical groups coming and taking root, but these are different schools of thought in Islamic philosophy.
We local politicians know. We have been monitoring, we keep our ears to the ground and we interact with all these people. Sometimes when it is necessary we criticise the attitude of some of these people — the way they propagate their ideology because it can give a different perception to the outsider, that this community is becoming a bit introverted, very exclusivist and reducing interaction with the rest of the community — these are frowned upon by a majority of Muslims in this country.
When it comes to religious practice, whether it is in Hinduism, Christianity, or Judaism, there are different strains, different ideologies being practised by fringe groups. I don’t think we need to worry about these fringe groups as long as they don’t resort to violence as a means to propagate their culture or ideology.
Issues like women’s rights have come into focus. People tend to think Islam is very slow in embracing certain liberal values when it comes to women’s emancipation or their rights. They are cultural issues and those reforms will have to come from within and that is happening now.
Today one of the main issues is women’s participation in the labour force. In South Asia, we are far behind compared to other countries. There are several factors contributing to it. It is because we are more protective of women. But any religious taboo against women working has over time got de-escalated so much that a large number of Muslim women are freely working. But of course, the way in which they dress or behave will be dictated by cultural norms, and that you cannot prevent. That is the right of those people to practise their own culture. That accommodation needs to be there and it should not be perceived as “the other”.