Politics as usual no remedy for Islamic extremism
Posted on December 2nd, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

A heated exchange took place in parliament a couple of days ago (November 26 or 27) about the so-called Batticaloa Sharia University between Opposition MP Kavinda Jayawardane of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris MP (SLPP), as reported on Hiru TV. Following is a rough and ready verbatim translation of the dialogue with essential clarifications in parentheses (It is subject to the usual limitations of a translation, though):

KJ:- The Easter (Sunday) attacks killed more than 350 of our Catholic people and left more than  500 physically disabled to this day. Terrorist Saharan carried out those attacks. 

 Former (Eastern Province) Governor Hisbullah had direct relations with this terrorist. Even  the chairman of the presidential commission of inquiry (on the Easter attacks) said, in relation to this governor, that the legal process initiated concerning this university was unlawful. You, as the then Opposition, said before the presidential election, that this Sharia university will be taken   over by the government.

GL:- There’s no final decision on that (subject). We will not let it exist as a private institution. I say   this to the Hon. Member very emphatically.

KJ:-  This university’s curriculum includes Sharia Law as a course component. Unless it is brought under government control, this country’s innocent children will be taught the Sharia with extremist ideologies.

GL:- Before 2015, Hon. Member, there was a clear strategy to handle the problem. We did not  allow the Sharia law to sow dissension, hatred on the pretext of teaching various courses.  After 2015, they (the Yahapalana administration) even let foreign lecturers come into the country without checking on their  past; they were given the ‘visa on arrival’ (facility) at the airport. We didn’t do so in our time. The Yahapalanaya government gave carte blanche to anyone (any Tom, Dick or Harry) to come and teach any course at  any place at any time. We are reaping what you sowed.

KJ:-  Please tell the House whether this government is going to allow the teaching of the Sharia Law in this country or not? 

GL:- Sharia or anything else, we’ll see whether it is in conformity with the Constitution. 

We will find out who created this. It is a problem that you passed on to us.

KJ:- Don’t try to pass the buck. You are in power now. During the presidential election, you said clearly that you will not allow extremism to raise its head; that you will not allow Sharia to be taught; that those who caused abortions will be taken to court; that Dr Shihabdeen will be hanged. But now you’ve forgotten about Shafi Shihabdeen; you’ve forgotten about Sharia; you’ve forgotten about the Batticaloa Campus. In regard to the Easter Sunday attacks, officials are being hunted; but the persons who taught the bombers the terrorist ideology and induced the terrorist mindset (that drove them) are left alone.

GL:- All these things were done to obtain the support of certain extremist groups for achieving narrow ends. That is the truth. It is now that the evil consequences (of those actions) are becoming obvious.

(End of the translation)

First of all, I beg that Professor Peiris and Dr Jayawardane please bear with me for taking the liberty of subjecting your parliamentary conversation to a kind of dispassionate critical analysis, that, I hope, will contribute what little it may to the emerging trend of constructive, though usually hostile, criticism in the social media directed at the speeches and actions of our MPs both inside and outside the House. Personally, I have great respect for both: the senior one is reaching the summit of an illustrious career as a celebrated legal studies academic and as an experienced parliamentarian; the junior one, professionally a medical practitioner like his late father the then UNP’s  nationalist-leaning Dr Jayalath Jayawardane, is just starting what is invariably going to be a distinguished political career, given the potential he has already shown. No personal disrespect, humiliation, or offence towards either is intended by the following opinion, offered for what it is worth.

MP Jayawardane  may be exaggerating things on the spur of the moment when he says that more than 350 Catholics were killed in the Easter bombings (Of course, there’s no gainsaying the fact that even one killed is too many) and when he talks about somebody’s alleged past threat to hang someone. Be that as it may, as a concerned Sri Lankan, I found the exchange between the two Honourable Members in the august Assembly very depressing in these critical times. My impression was that both speakers were ignorant of, or indifferent to, the crucial matter they were, somewhat implicitly, arguing about: how to deal with the emerging Islamist threat to Sri Lanka, which is behind the simmering controversies including the Batticaloa Sharia University issue, Hizbulah’s connection with it, and complaints that Dr Shafi Shihabdeen had performed non-consensual tubal sterilisations on Sinhalese mothers during a flaunted record number of caesarean section operations.

To MP Jayawardane’s question whether the government was going to bring the Batticaloa Sharia University under government control, Minister Peiris assured him that though no decision had been arrived at regarding that, it will not be allowed to exist as a private institution. This could mean that the college will not be allowed to continue at all (which is unlikely) or it will be assigned to the state university system. However, this is part of the unimaginably thorny issue of what to do about the madrasas that have mushroomed around the country. Neither speaker seems to have the faintest idea about the bigger picture. Obviously, Peiris is bluffing and Jayawardane is trying to call his bluff, though both of them are equally ignorant of the real problem.

Jayawardane is asking whether the government is going to allow the teaching of the Sharia Law. Actually, it is a non-question. There is no question of allowing or not allowing the teaching of Sharia for it is an essential part of Islam. The Arabic word sharia means the ‘way’. Google says Sharia ‘is more accurately understood as referring to wide-ranging moral and broad ethical principles drawn from the Quran and the practices and sayings (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad’. In my opinion, it parallels the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. Of course, the two things are like chalk and cheese or apples and oranges. The issue is whether certain aspects of Sharia law (such as death for blasphemy, apostacy, and amputation for stealing) can be implemented in a democratically governed non-Muslim majority country like Sri Lanka. 

Minister Peiris maintains that, before 2015, extremist Islamic activism was kept under control, and that the present troubles  are the result of the wrong attitude of the Yahapalanaya to the problem. I’m afraid it is not at all true to say that the pre-2015 government did anything special to contain Islamic fundamentalism; Peiris is just being economical with the truth. Rishad, Hakeem, Hizbullah, Salley, etc pursued their careers in those halcyon days, as ‘powerful allies’ of president Mahinda Rajapaksa while underground Islamic extremist activities were going on, despite the vocal agitations of the monks, which fell on deaf ears. The above named Muslim politicians cannot be described as terrorists or terrorist backers; but it is quite possible, going by what is being revealed during investigations, that they were abused as a protective phalanx by the Jihadists including suicide bomber Zahran Hashim unbeknown to those popular personages. Such fancied exoneration of these worthies  may be too charitable for them. In the public eye, they are more vulnerable to the charge of having been willfully involved in a symbiotic relationship with terrorists. If they are sincere, they need to do something meaningful to contain Islamic extremism within the Muslim community itself, without palming it off entirely onto the government. 

Unfortunately, it looks like what happened in the past is happening today, despite the availability of young Muslim leaders, both in parliament and outside, who think out of the box as president Gotabaya Rajapaksa correctly insists on doing. MP Jayawardane, probably unknowingly, forced Minister Peiris to admit what is most likely to be the truth, which applies to politicians of both the main parties/their new manifestations: ‘All these things were done to obtain the support of certain extremist groups for achieving narrow ends. That is the truth. It is now that the evil consequences (of those actions) are becoming obvious.’ 

Trying to please veiled opportunists is no way to tackle the Islamist problem because they, like the few mentally unhinged terrorists, are actually in a really insignificant minority. Such a policy can easily demoralize the educated young Muslim leaders who are braving the wrath of a few lawless terrorists apparently ruling the roost within that community evading detection under the radar of the security agencies. Jihadist extremists use fear as a weapon. Despite this, increasing numbers of young Muslim women are now publicly speaking up against unwarranted impositions on them regarding their dress, choice of marriage partners, socialization with members of the opposite sex, and so on in the name of religion as decided by a few conservative Muslim males. It is a fact that growing numbers of young Muslims and Tamils of both sexes are establishing close political links with their Sinhalese counterparts. 

Incidentally, the spat between state minister of wildlife protection Wimalaweera Dissanayake, SLFP MP, and some officials of the wildlife department, no doubt, brought an unpleasant sense of deja vu to most of us who were familiar with the escapades of a now discredited and defeated former MP from Kelaniya. Whatever the truth at the centre of the episode, Dissanayake clearly failed to behave as he should have. There appears to be some nefarious activity indulged in by some crooks in that locality who may have won the misplaced confidence of the deputy minister. This impression was reinforced by some well known young activist monks who symbolically pulled down an unauthorised shed built to shelter cows in the forest reserve; the monks complained that criminal elements were continuing their activities in that place rich with ancient archaeological remains in spite of the relevant authorities having been warned about the matter before. Adding insult to injury, MP Roshan Ranasinghe of the SLFP has also castigated the wildlife officers.  This cannot be approved of either. There may be a few of them who are guilty of various offences, but indiscriminately condemning government functionaries is a bad thing. We know how dedicatedly our doctors, nurses, police and army officers execute their duties in trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic situation; they are doing that in the name of the country, most of them inspired by the example of the new president, expecting no public plaudits unlike most politicians. Had Gotabaya not been there, some of these politicians would not have been elected to parliament. They are obstructing the president’s action plan. It is clearly a national crime for any politician to do or say anything that is likely to demoralize even a single dutiful public servant.    

The Parliament or the House of Representatives is traditionally described as ‘august’ and the elected members who meet there to legislate as ‘honourable’. These are formal words that are ceremonially used, but they are not devoid of serious meaning. The augustness of the Parliament as the supreme legislature of the country and the honourableness of the Members of Parliament as the elected legislators are inviolable, though the persons who man the institution from time to time may or may not be really worthy of the epithet ‘Honourable’. ‘August’ in this context means dignified, distinguished, imposing, stately, solemn, etc; the opposite qualities include frivolous, silly, undignified, and so on. ‘Honourable’ has the sense of bringing or deserving respect, honest, moral, ethical, principled, righteous, etc.  Antonyms of the word are dishonourable, despicable, crooked, deplorable, and similar negatives. Having said this, I would like to finally add that it is a reason for consolation for us that our MPs do preserve their personal dignity and the solemness of the institution that they man up, with a few exceptions, that too, under pressure of circumstances. Occasional unparliamentary behaviour among members is what prevails in legislatures in many democracies around the world, and that is due to fallible human nature.  Of course, human fallibility is no excuse for people’s representatives to resort to dishonourable conduct in an august body like the parliament.   

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