“The Slow Spread Of Discord”
- From anti-halal to anti-Muslim protests
On January 19, an unruly group protested in front of the Maharagama No Limit, demanding that the shop be removed from the town. On Thursday (January 24) protesters in Kuliyapitiya burned effigies and waved offensive placards, calling for an end to halal-produced foods in Sri Lanka.
Both these incidents were said to be connected in some way to the Bodu Bala Sena group at the time. However, the Bodu Bala Sena group vehemently denies the allegations.
Executive Committee member Dilantha Withanage is eager to prove that Bodu Bala Sena is not a terrorist group as has been reported in the media. The group behind the Kuliyapitiya protest was alternatively called “Sinhala Api” and “Hela Sihila Hiru,” and were not connected with their group at all, Withanage said. Last Monday representatives met with the President to discuss their own concerns. The President in turn had reportedly told the group not to incite hatred, and that strengthening Buddhism should not come at the expense of other religions.
Bodu Bala Sena Logo Misused
The group had spoken publicly about their antipathy towards some Muslim extremist movements, Withanage said, which led to some Muslim leaders asking for the President to intervene. “They never initiated dialogue with us. Instead, they went to the President and said [all the protests] had been done by the Bodu Bala Sena,” Withanage said.
The movement the Bodu Bala Sena had spoken out against was ‘Wahhabism’- proponents of Wahhabism often received funding from Middle Eastern countries, to construct more mosques, according to Withanage. “When people from overseas dump money into the country for unnecessary construction, it would definitely create suspicion and stress,” Withanage explained. In addition, Withanage alleged, some of the funds were sent with the aim of converting more people to Islam. “We have an issue with people being converted because of foreign funding,” Withanage said, adding that such extremism was unwelcome.
Upon being asked whether Bodu Bala Sena receive foreign funds themselves, Withanage replied, “Not really,” adding that most of the work done was voluntary or funded through donations.
However, he revealed that one of their first events, a dhane for 1,000 bhikkus in memory of people who had lost their lives in the war, had been funded by a Buddhist monk in a foreign country.
The Bodu Bala Sena logo was misused during the protest in front of No Limit on January 19 and in the campaign in Kuliyapitiya, Withanage said, adding that the organization was not involved in either of these incidents and condemned them.
Apart from this, the group also pointed out to the President that the constitution calls for giving priority to Buddhism as well as protecting it, and had asked for a clearer definition on how Buddhism was to be protected. A Buddhist commission in 1959 had made many proposals in this regard but at the moment these were mere words. The 1959 commission had included rules to protect Buddhist temples and devalayas, but had been in colonial times, Withanage said.
The Bodu Bala Sena had also asked for amendments preventing temple land from being sold. They had also voiced their condemnation of a recent ‘Buddha Bar’ party in Beruwala, where the venue had been described as ‘Nirvana-style’. ‘These words were not used in a proper ethical manner and discredited Buddhism,” Withanage said (two hotel managers were reportedly arrested for organizing the event).
The group had also asked that Sri Lankan history be taught in all schools, including international schools, and voiced their displeasure at the Family Planning Act, asking that unethical abortions be stopped. With regards to recent events, they had also petitioned the President to stop sending women to the Middle East, but provide such women with social and economic development so that they can stay in Sri Lanka. They had asked that all communities be governed by one rule, and that party politics on religion, language and similar issues be prohibited.
The halal issue had also been raised at the meeting, Withanage confirmed. “We completely understand the right that Muslims have to use halal certification for business purposes. We just ask that Buddhists not consume halal foods,” he said. Just as Muslim organizations asked Muslims to eat solely halal food, Buddhists should refrain from eating such food, Withanage said. As such, they had proposed that a special corner be introduced in supermarkets where halal certified foodstuffs could be sold.
This suggestion had not drawn much response from the President, with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa explaining that the issue was a thorny one as Sri Lanka was promoting goods in the Middle East. “We did not expect him to intervene on this issue,” Withanage said. “We understand that most of these issues cannot be initiated immediately.”
In the past, Bodu Bala Sena has been accused of claiming that money from halal certification goes towards funding Hamas or groups connected to Al Qaeda. Asked about this, Withanage cited a Point de Bascule article which claimed that an authority handling halal certification in Quebec was sending funds to a Hamas fund collector. However, Withanage denied that they had claimed the same situation occurred in Sri Lanka. “We have received this information about other countries… we are just asking people to be vigilant,” Withanage said.
However, the group bemoaned the fact that they had been branded as a terror organization, citing several foreign and local newspapers.
Withanage said there were a number of youth groups who were using Facebook to create groups, some even disrespecting the name of Sri Lankan kings. “We condemn these groups. We do not need Facebook heroes, but real heroes”, Withanage said, adding that the Bodu Bala Sena was a transparent organization which had no secret affiliations with any groups as some media personnel had suggested.
Muslim Community Deeply Hurt
Even as Bodu Bala Sena vehemently denies involvement in the inflammatory riots, Muslim politicians and activists voiced their hurt about the recent demonstrations. Educator and diplomat Javid Yousuf said the protests had not only caught the Muslim community by surprise, but had also contributed to a sense of unease. The protests were no longer about halal products, he said, but were targeting the Muslim community at large. This was unfortunate due to the cordial relations the Muslim community enjoyed with Sinhalese and Buddhist communities in the past, he said. Yousuf added that non-Muslims had certain misunderstandings about the concept of halal, which did not just apply to food but rather to every aspect of their lives, including trade. Some protesters had even accused the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) (the Council of Theologians, who levy a charge to cover the administrative costs of issuing a halal certificate) of contributing these funds to Al Qaeda and jihadist groups.
Yousuf pointed out that the ACJU had been incorporated by an act of Parliament, and was thus subject to the rules and regulations of the country. In recognition of this, the Government had even donated land for building the ACJU headquarters. “It is unlikely that such a donation would have been made by the Government at the height of the civil war if there was even the slightest suspicion of any links with Al Qaeda or Jihad groups,” Yousuf said. He added that Muslims had always taken care to consume halal products, but he understood that non-Muslim communities are not compelled to eat such products. As such, he said, he would support having ‘halal corners’ in supermarkets.
Speaking about the Bodu Bala Sena’s objection to Wahhabism, Yousuf said this was ‘puzzling’ as there was no group of Muslims in Sri Lanka who called themselves Wahhabis- the term was usually used by some Muslims to refer to those who strictly follow the Quran’s teachings and those of the Prophet Mohammed. “The mere fact of overseas funding is no reason to oppose Wahhabism or any other ideology. Funding locally or otherwise becomes objectionable only if it is used for illegal or anti social purposes,” Yousuf added. “What one should be more concerned about is not whether a mosque is built with foreign or local funds, but whether there is need for a mosque in a particular area, whether it is built in conformity with all local laws, whether it functions in a manner that does not inconvenience other communities in the area, and so on.”
Yousuf added that the rapid mushrooming of websites spewing anti Islamic sentiment were ‘extremely disconcerting’ and dangerous to national stability. Yousuf added that a further problem arose with lack of accountability on the part of these websites, unlike with traditional media. These websites were quietly planting seeds of religious discord, and youth were vulnerable when exposed to these messages of hate, Yousuf said. As such, Yousuf said it was time for the state to curb this menace by registering websites to ensure accountability. He added that in order to maintain freedom of expression an independent statutory body should be entrusted with this task, thus safeguarding against hate speech.Also troubling was the fact that the police had remained passive bystanders during several of the demonstrations, Yousuf said.
“If the Police act impartially and enforce the law without fear, these incidents can be controlled without being allowed to snowball. The Police have a solemn duty to ensure the protection of the people irrespective of their race, political or religious belief,” Yousuf said.
However he added that there had also been police officers who had tried to be even handed and these officers should be commended. Finally, Yousuf exhorted the Muslim community to act with restraint, identify the areas of mistrust between Buddhists and Muslims and work to build up confidence in these areas. At present, the demonstrations were slowing down the process of national reconciliation.
“If the goal of the protestors is to articulate Buddhist rights or grievances that is understandable and legitimate. But the articulation of the rights of Buddhists or indeed any other community should not be done in a manner to hurt the feelings of other communities,” Yousuf said.
Minister of Trade and Commerce, Rishard Bathiudeen also spoke to The Sunday Leader, saying the Muslim community was deeply hurt by the protester’s recent actions. “Even though we speak Tamil as a language, the Muslim community has always stood for one country. This is why the Muslims were even kicked out of the North by the LTTE,” Bathiudeen said, citing the shooting at Kattankudy mosque and the eviction of Muslims from Muttur during wartime.
“The Muslim youth have never taken up arms against the state, although they use names to describe them such as ‘jihadist’ or ‘Al Qaeda’” Bathiudeen said. He added that even when the UN resolution was taken up the Muslims always supported Sri Lanka, even while a religious leader in Mannar was asking people to vote against Sri Lanka. “We pray to Allah to give the protesters guidance to not hurt other religions again,” Bathiudeen said.
Bathiudeen said that he met and spoke with the President, explaining that the movement was not against Muslims but was in fact moving against the Government. “We suspect that there is foreign money involved and this might be an anti Government movement,” Bathiudeen said. He added that there had previously been attempts to interfere with Parliament affairs in 2007, when attempts were made to buy Members of Parliament to the other side. Given the high rate of development and advances in the tourism sector, certain influences might be trying to create problems for them, Bathiudeen said.
Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs, M. K. A. D. S. Gunawardena would only confirm that the meeting between the Bodu Bala Sena group and the President took place. “They came and stated their case and had a discussion,” Gunawardena said.
The question remains as to the identity of the group named ‘Hela Sihila Hiru’- the Bodu Bala Sena group have already dissociated themselves from the groups which have been stirring up trouble, both online and off. No record can be found of the Hela Sihila Hiru group save the articles naming them as the instigators behind the Kuliyapitiya protest. There is however an ‘Api Sinhala’ page which has 570 ‘fans’. It is unclear whether this group participated in the Kuliyapitiya incident. The posts of this page include pictures with the logo ‘no halal’ and other posts proclaiming Sri Lanka to be a Sinhala Buddhist country. Several other similar groups also exist which bear anti-halal messages. As ominous as these mushroom Facebook groups are, what is even more troubling is the accusation that police are not intervening, even when things spiral out of control.
As Yousuf notes, the protests are no longer against halal certification but are turning out to be anti-Muslim protests. In Kuliyapitiya, the protesters carried pictures of pigs and burned effigies; acts clearly aimed to hurt and outrage. It remains to be seen whether the President’s words to the Bodu Bala Sena will dissuade the smaller extremist groups from continuing their protests, and indeed, what these groups hope to achieve in spreading their message of hate.