Waruni Kumarasinghe & Dinithi Dharmapala, from the Strategic Communications Unit, LKIIRSS, … whose preferred title i “Amnesty International Report on Sri Lanka: Far from the Truth”
Amnesty International’s latest report on Sri Lanka, titled “From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Violence, Discrimination and Harassment in Sri Lanka” (October 2021) levels very serious accusations against this country. The overall argument of the report is that Muslims in Sri Lanka are an oppressed minority subjected to state-sponsored violence and systematic discrimination. The argument, as will be explained in a moment, is deeply flawed.
According to its official website, Amnesty International’s mission among other things is to “mobilize the humanity in everyone and campaign for change so that we can all enjoy our human rights.” If this is the case, then AI has an obligation to be fair and balanced when reporting on the human rights situation in a particular country. Furthermore, at a time when extremism is on the rise everywhere in the world, it is incumbent on organizations such as AI to refrain from exacerbating or stoking ethnic or religious passions by one-sided or partial portrayals. For all these reasons it is vital to take a closer look at AI’s new report.
As evidence for its claims, the report discusses the anti-Muslim riots that have taken place in Sri Lanka since 2014—i.e. Aluthgama (2014), Ginthota (2017), Digana (2018) Ampara (2018)—and also, a) the proposal to ban the Niqab, b) [the] cremation/burial controversy in regard to Covid-19 death, c) failure to reform the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act of 1951, d) purported efforts to ban Madrassas and also the importation of Muslim religious books and some other matters.
The flaw in the report is that its conclusions do not follow from its sample of evidence. In other words, there is ample evidence as revealed by the relevant statistics that the Muslims in Sri Lanka are a thriving and prosperous community. Furthermore, enormous state resources have been channeled especially to the Eastern Province where Muslims are the majority to facilitate development of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and so on, resulting in tangible benefits to the people of those areas. Such a situation is inconsistent with a State systematically discriminating against Muslims.
In order for a general reader, especially an international reader, to gain an idea of the position of Muslims in Sri Lanka it suffices to consider, a) the trends in population growth, b) foreigners’ observations of the conditions of life of Muslims in Sri Lanka and c) the relative economic strength of the community as a whole. So, let’s turn to these matters keeping in mind that of Sri Lanka’s population of roughly 21 million, 75% is Sinhalese, 15% Tamil and 9% Muslim.
With regard to population growth, the Department of Census and Statistics after surveying the trends from 1911-2012, states, “The Sri Lankan Moor community has recorded a phenomenal growth over these years.” (Census of Population and Housing 2012, www.statistics.giv.lk , p.142). To turn to observations by foreigners, Roomana Hukil, a scholar who was working for the international NGO “Peace and Conflict Studies” in 2014, says: “Post 2009, Muslims started flourishing in their business enterprises, trade and commerce units in urban spaces. They gained a foothold in the Sinhalese army and acted as significant contributors to the economy.” (Roomana Hukil, “Muslims in Sri Lanka: Four Reasons for their Marginalization,” 31 October 2014, www.ipcs.org.)
With regard to the relative economic strength of the community, Professor G.H Peiris (one of Sri Lanka’s foremost academics) after surveying the manufacturing sector for the period 1980-1999 has observed that the Muslims have done even better than the Tamils, the second-largest minority. He says,
“It is of course known in general terms that, despite the continuing political instability, some of the largest manufacturing firms in Sri Lanka—those that have remained in the forefront of profitability throughout these two decades—are owned by investors from the minority ethnic communities including Sri Lankan Tamils….[Moreover] in light of the evidence indicating that certain investment opportunities in manufacturing were made available to the private sector on the basis of political favoritism, it is likely that among the main ethnic groups in the country, Sinhalese and Muslims have gained substantially more than the Tamils.” (G.H. Peiris, Challenges of the New Millennium, 2006, p. 422)
To repeat, the picture suggested by the above observations is inconsistent with that of the State systematically discriminating against Muslims. It is true that, there have been a number of incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the recent past and it is vital that the reasons for these things be thoroughly examined and addressed. However, from the fact that there have been these incidents it is unreasonable for anyone to suggest that they reveal or reflect systematic discrimination against Muslims in Sri Lanka.
To turn to some of the specific accusations leveled by the report, with regard to the proposal to ban the niqab, it must be said that first and foremost the proposal by the government of Sri Lanka was to ban the burqa not the niqab. It is also important to remember that the origin of the burqa was in Middle Eastern countries where it was a climate appropriate garment solving the problems of living in deserts i.e protecting people from fatal sand storms. Sri Lanka’s climate is tropical and hot with periodic monsoon rains, none requiring the protection of a burqa. Easier travel and increased migration is the only reason it has entered Sri Lanka and [it] is not the traditional attire for Muslim women in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the stated intention of the proposal was to ban the full face veil/face covers and did not include other attire of Muslim women such as the hijab. However, the report insinuates that the proposal reveals a deeper problem, namely, state disrespect for the rights of Muslim women. Moreover, religious head coverings that do not reveal the face have been both a security and an emotive issue in many countries and such bans are in effect today in at least 16 countries in the world including countries in Europe. So, how does this report make sweeping generalizations, based on this proposal, about the state of Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka?
To such a suggestion, one can also state that the situation of Muslim women in Sri Lanka especially with regard to education, access to health care, right to work, is often comparable to advanced Western countries and better than in many Muslim countries. Sri Lankan women including Muslim women have enjoyed adult franchise since 1931. Meanwhile, all Sri Lankan women, including Muslim women, have access to free education, free healthcare, and the right to work.
More importantly, AI’s writers have failed to mention that resistance to Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka comes primarily from their own community. Fathima Fatheena Mubarak, a scholar at the London School of Economics, quotes the Islamic scholar N.A. Nuhuman’s remarks with regard to this matter as follows:
“It is well known that in Sri Lanka Muslim women are heavily dominated by male chauvinistic ideology than are the women of the other communities….A great majority of religious-conscious Muslim men believe that they are the custodians of their women, and according to this ideology they have religious sanction for this belief. No religious sensitive Muslim male accepts the concept of the equality of women. To them it is un-Islamic.” (Fathima Fatheena Mubarak, “Tradition and Modernity: A Sociological Comparison between Muslim Women in Colombo and London,” 2003, www.etheses.lse.ac.uk , p.75)
To turn to the cremation/burial controversy, since burial of the bodies of Covid-19 patients is now allowed there is no longer a controversy. However, the report insinuates that the fact that there was a controversy at all is proof that Muslims are persecuted in this country. Nothing can be further from the truth. First, even at the height of the controversy, the suggestion was only that patients known to have died from Covid-19 were to be cremated. It was not a blanket ban on burials. So, the right of Muslims to bury their dead was never in question. The only issue was whether it was safe to bury bodies known to have had the virus. Moreover, burial of the dead is a practice among Christians/Catholics and Buddhists as well and is based on individual choice. By extension of the same argument by AI one can claim the decision also discriminated against Christians/Catholics and Buddhists!!! The fact is the decision was taken and implemented with equal application to all and not intended to discriminate against a particular community.
Second, one must recall that, when Covid-19 began to spread it was a completely unknown disease and many people were terrified of it. Therefore, even though it may have been insensitive of some people to advocate only cremation for bodies of Covid-19 patients, one cannot immediately conclude that they did so because they were against Muslims. One must entertain the possibility that they were genuinely concerned that bodies known to have had the virus might contaminate the ground including the groundwater and thereby be a threat to the living. Since burial is now allowed, it shows that Sri Lankans have the ability as well as the democratic institutional structure with which to correct themselves if and when they make mistakes.
Next, the purported failure to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951. If the Act is to be reformed the impetus for it must first come from the Muslim community itself, and even there it cannot be limited to just ‘activists’ and NGOs, but must be broad-based and include vocal support from the Muslim political parties. Otherwise, the accusation will be leveled that the Sinhalese majority is yet again trying to impose its will on the Muslims. Once there is such broad-based support from the Muslim community for the reforms in question, there is no doubt they will take place.
Finally, [to address] the accusation that the Government has tried to ban Madrasas and also obstruct the importation of Muslim religious books by declaring that such books must first be reviewed by the Defence Ministry. The report claims that this is a violation of the rights to freedom of thought and conscience as well as the right to practice one’s religion guaranteed by the relevant provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution as well as international covenants.
However, as the Easter Sunday attacks showed, and even more recently the attacks in Norway (where a suspected Islamist extremist killed five persons with a bow and arrow) and in the U.K. (where a suspected Islamist stabbed to death a Member of Parliament) show, Islamist extremism is not going away and it is the duty of every State to take every reasonable measure to confront it. It is not in dispute that, radical religious preachers are one of the prime means through which Islamist extremism is propagated.
Therefore, it is reasonable that some measures be taken to monitor and regulate such persons and/or materials. In any event, from the fact that the Sri Lankan State has considered such measures it does not follow that the State is bent on attacking the freedom of thought and conscience of Muslims in general as the AI report seems to suggest.
The past 50 years have shown that every ethnic community in Sri Lanka has some issue to be aggrieved about, some real and some a matter of perception. Reconciliation is very much a work in progress. However, biased accounts that do not reflect ground realities only serve to sow discord and suspicion which hardly helps to heal wounds and help all communities live in harmony. Allegations of systematic discrimination, where none exists, do not help at all.
Overall, AI’s report is one-sided. Given its credo of enhancing and advancing the human rights of all persons, AI should have taken pains to present a more balanced and fair portrayal of the situation of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
ALSO NOTE this ITEM
On our current affairs program at @HydePark on Ada Derana 24 with Indeewari Amuwatte tonight, we aired never before seen footage of the farewell message recorded by Easter attack leader Zahran Hashim and his followers, that may be able to answer a lot of questions in the public domain regarding the source of the group’s funding. Speaking on the program Prof. Rohan Gunaratna of the Institute of National Security Studies, explained that the footage shows Zahran clearly boasting of not having accepted funds from non-believers to carry out his deadly plan.