Sri Lankan Muslim community faces an unprecedented dilemma with the political leadership placing itself in an unenviable position. For the first time in recent history, the political leaders of the Muslim community found that a wrong decision at this moment could put the community interests in jeopardy, and cause irreparable damage to the Sinhala-Muslim harmony.
The collective resignation by all the Muslims from their ministries, state ministries and deputy ministries has given a wrong signal to the majority Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala and Tamil Christians that the Muslim politicians trying to cover up the extremists’ Islamist connections of some of the Muslim politicians. Although, two moderate leaders – Rauff Hakeem and Kabir Hashim – speaking in fluent Sinhala – tried to reassure the Sinhala community that the collective resignations should not be perceived as an attempt to whitewash some Muslim leaders with shady deals, the motive is very suspicious to the majority community, not only to the Sinhala Buddhists, but also to Christians, who took the brunt of the Islamist terrorist attack on Easter Sunday.
The demand of Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera, who undertook a fast last week, was the sacking of the Governors M. L. A. M. Hizbullah and Azath Salley and Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. When President Maithripala Sirisena asked the two governors to resign, it was expected that Rishad Bathiudeen would also resign to allow an impartial investigation to verify if there were connections with these Muslim leaders and the Islamist terrorists.
The best option available to the moderate Muslim leaders was to ask Bathiudeen to resign and get an assurance from the Prime Minister that he would be reappointed if the investigations give a clean chit to him. Instead, all the nine Muslims in the government relinquished their positions giving the impression that they would float or sink with Rishad Bathiudeen.
At the Cabinet Meeting on Tuesday, President Sirisena reportedly expressed concern and said that the en masse resignation of Muslim ministers from the government may have detrimental effects on Sri Lankan identity and the community. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said that the collective resignation of Muslim ministers was not a positive development for the country.
The collective decision of the Muslim leaders shows that they did not want one leader to emerge as the saviour of the Muslims and push others to the sideline.
A similar approach was also seen in the actions of the Buddhist monks. When Venerable Rathana Thera undertook the ‘fast unto death’, overnight he became the most popular Buddhist monk. Not to be outdone, Mahanayaka Theras, as well as radical monks, joined the bandwagon of Venerable Rathana Thera. Even the most radical of them, Venerable Galabodaatte Gnanasara Thera visited Venerable Rathana Thera’s fasting venue in Kandy and led a march in support of the demands. However, within hours he realized that he was losing his grip over the radical Buddhists, he changed his stance and said that he was leading the movement and not others with political agenda such as Venerable Rathana Thera.
Similarly, moderate Muslim leaders will also find that the support extended to Rishad Bathiudeen would give a wrong signal to the Sinhala community, whose support is essential for them to promote coexistence and harmony among the communities.
In the past, the Muslim leaders of Sri Lanka worked together with the leaders of other communities. The United National Party (UNP) was founded in 1946, it was done by amalgamating three right-leaning pro-dominion parties from the majority Sinhala community and minority Tamil and Muslim communities. Sir Razik Fareed, the “grand old man” of Muslim community and “uncrowned king of the Moors of Ceylon”, became a minister in the UNP government of D. S. Senanayake. What Sir Razik said was that Muslims were too small a minority to play any decisive role in the nation’s political affairs, and the best they could do to promote their interests was to cooperate with rather than confront the Sinhalese majority.
When S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike resigned from the UNP and formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a Muslim leader, Badiuddin Mahmud became a founding member of the new party. Both Badiuddin Mahmud and C. A. S. Marikkar were members of the SLFP led government. Later, Badiuddin Mohamed held a powerful education portfolio in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government.
While Muslim leaders found respectable places in the two national parties – UNP and SLFP – in the first three decades after independence, M. H. M. Ashraf thought the bargaining power of the Muslims would improve if they have their own political party. Thus the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was formed.
With the tragic death of Ashraf in an aircraft crash, SLMC split into factions. In 2015 elections, only one of its members contested and won on SLMC ticket while the others chose the UNP vehicle to assure victory.
Easter Sunday attacks
Average Muslims feel that their community interests have been ignored by the leaders who go behind the ruling party to secure some basic privileges and concessions for themselves. There also was an apprehension that some of them would not be able to get reelected without the support of one of the main parties.
By and large, the Muslim community has extended fullest cooperation to the law enforcement authorities investigating the Easter Sunday attacks to arrest culprits and the supporters of militant Islamists terror activists. Although Muslim ministers who resigned have alleged that thousands of innocents have been arrested and kept in custody for long periods of time, President Maithripala Sirisena set the record straight by disclosing that only 559 persons are in detention and more than two thirds of them will be released after preliminary inquiries and only the suspects against whom sufficient evidence available would be kept under detention for subsequent prosecution.
Addressing the national Ifthar ceremony earlier this week, he said that if conflicts arise due to different ethnicities, the country will be doomed and all should work together with mutual understanding and contribute in ensuring the peace of the country. “All should work with proper understanding and wisdom regarding the current situation that has emerged in the country and it is of extreme importance that everybody must solve the issues”, he said and assured that as a government every required step would be taken to make the situation of the country peaceful.
It is high time that the Muslim leaders understood this message of harmony and peace and extend support to the operations to wipe out Islamist terrorism and secure peace for the citizens, including the Muslim community and ensure coexistence, instead of adopting a belligerent attitude.