Islamic peacemakers and queasy monk invitees: A retrospective look at the ‘National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence’ from a citizen’s perspective
Posted on April 25th, 2021

By Rohana R. Wasala

 ………Please understand the global movement that becomes a cat’s paw of other individuals and groups who have nothing to do with your deep faith and your sincere desire to live your religion to the fullest to reach their selfish goals. Be brave enough to reject extremism. Rise up against schools and organizations that brainwash (the faithful) to kill people in the name of religion. ….” 

  • Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to My dear Muslim brothers and sisters”of Sri Lanka

No ethnic or religious strife to be quenched in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has never had an ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. It’s only a separatist problem that had its origins in the last decades of the divisive British colonial rule that came to its demise in 1948; but its powerful ghost is still haunting Sri Lanka in the form of Western neocolonialist interventionism. Tamil separatism gradually escalated into a fully fledged military confrontation/a civil war of over twenty-five years duration (1983-2009). While the government security forces clashed with armed rebels, mostly in the jungle and while separatists mounted terror attacks on civilian targets in towns, the ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils lived in accustomed peace and amity, equally tortured by the extremists’ terrorist violence.  Mainstream Muslims (mostly following the Sufi tradition) who form the second largest ethnic minority in the country, largely Tamil speakers themselves (Tamil-Sinhala bilingualism is more common among them than among the other two communities), used to get on well with both Sinhalese and Tamils until, with the recent advent of Wahhabism/Salafism related Islamist isolationism, a sort of religious separatism came into the picture. (If there is any subterranean Muslim vs non-muslim religious division in Sri Lanka, the total responsibility for that lies with the handful of Islamist extremists who have taken cover behind certain powerful opportunistic communal Muslim politicians as strongly suggested by information gathered by the police   and army intelligence agencies since the 2019 Easter blasts and evidence revealed in the course of investigations by the PCoI. 

Apparent travesty of justice in some PCoI recommendations

Though these politicians are mentioned in the PCoI Final Report with relevant allegations of having been accountable for behaviours which were contributory towards the provocation of the Easter bombings, apparently no punitive action is recommended against them. Two outstanding cases are All Ceylon Makkal Congress leader Rishad Badiuddeen and Ceylon Tawheed Jamath leader Razik Abdul.  In stark contrast, there is a special severeness in the recommended treatment of Ven. Galaboda-Aththe Gnanasara Thera in the same context whose name appears at the end of the list: The organization that he heads should be banned on the basis of the allegation that its activities undermine religious harmony. His speeches and and actions are alleged to have partly contributed to the radicalisation of Muslim youth. The AG is to consider instituting criminal action against him under the ICCPR Act for his speeches made at Aluthgama in June 1914 and on Feb. 17, 2013 at Maharagama, which will mean that he will be charged with an unbalable offence leading to a heavy sentence. A strange case of criminal suspects with plausible evidence against them going free, while the complainant is sent to jail. There must be some power or force behind such a judicial aberration. This reminded me of (then MP, now Minister) Udaya Gammanpila’s emotional speech in parliament on May 9, 2019 on the subject of a brazen attempt at direct  interference in our judiciary by a foreign power geared to reinforce the ‘successes’ achieved through the regime change that they engineered in January 2015, which, according to him were: pushing through the until then stalled federal constitution and anti-terrorism acts, and the witch-hunt against the war heroes. In this speech Gammanpila also praised the Cardinal (who, he said, was one of the total 120 Cardinals who provided spiritual leadership to the 1.3 billion Catholics of the world) for his sagacity in calming down the targeted Catholics and in bravely identifying the Easter attacks as the result of an international conspiracy, and not the work of the country’s Muslim community (something he repeated with more conviction  during a commemorative ceremony on the second anniversary of the attacks held on April 21 this year a couple of days ago, as you will see below – RRW). The MP remarked on the existing accustomed peace and fellow feeling among the communities demonstrated in the fact that Buddhist pansalas were offered to the Catholics to perform their services, and that Muslims helped apprehend suspect extremists among them and hand them over (to the police).  

A history of colonial discrimination against the majority community through the preferential treatment of a small elite of the minorities 

Just as the European colonialists used a minuscule elite of the minority communities through preferential treatment during their rule to the disadvantage of the majority Sinhalese, whose unique historic homeland they were occupying, their successors, the Western hegemonic powers, assisted by determined Indian expansionism, are capitalizing on false allegations of Sinhalese majoritarianism and ethno-religious (Sinhalese) Buddhist intolerance by a handful extremists of the same minorities and supportive foreign funded NGOs, to undermine the Lankan state. These same neocolonialist powers seem to have found an ally in the widely known global exporters of ruthless Islamist extremism in destabilizing the Sri Lankan state purely in the interest of their geopolitical agenda in the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, where it is geographically located. It will be to the great detriment of Sri Lanka for its politicians, whether in or out of power,  to agree to kowtow to the latter (i.e.,  those that the Americans earlier held to be purveyors of Islamic extremism) while allowing them to act on the false assumption that mainstream Muslims of Sri Lanka are single-minded supporters of the few Wahhabist/Salafist extremists. 

His Eminence the Cardinal’s special statement on April 21, the second anniversary day of the Easter bombing

In his special statement on April 21, 2021 the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday attacks, His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith reiterated his not unreasonable allegations of  neglect and dereliction of duty by the highest political and civil authorities of the previous regime that allowed the attacks to be carried out. He was clearly dissatisfied with the level of progress so far made under the present administration in bringing those responsible to justice. Was there an attempt to sweep the truth under the carpet in order to let those behind the crime escape punishment as a result of some political wheeler-dealing? Politicians of both the previous and present governments acted and are acting in an indifferent, inactive manner swayed by changing political winds. He repeated his determination to pressure the authorities to deliver justice. The cardinal expressed special appreciation of the Buddhist clergy and the laity for always being with the Catholic community in dealing with the tragic aftermath of the devastating terror attacks, while preserving national peace and unity. The Catholic prelate implied that the Muslims’ attitude was different on the whole. You haven’t still come forward to condemn the Easter attacks. If you joined us in an earnest spirit, demanding (of the authorities) to find out who was responsible for the attacks, the problem would have been resolved by now….”. But, in the same breath, he stated that this lapse on the part of Muslims in general was only until that moment (of speaking), for the moulavi who spoke before him (Hassan Moulana) stressed how his fellow Muslims totally rejected the terrorists who blew themselves up (because they were not true Muslims), and how they refused to accept their bodies for burial and handed them over to the army to be disposed of in whatever manner they decided. 

The Cardinal further said (in verbatim translation): …Therefore I’d like to take this opportunity to make a special request of you my dear Muslim brothers and sisters: In geopolitics, there are its local agents and brokers who are prepared to commit any form of betrayal out of their greed for money and power. Please understand that religious extremism is a useful tool for attaining their goals. Please rise up against Wahhabist schools and organizations that brainwash (adherents) to kill in the name of religion. Let us bring pressure on the government to fulfill the promises given to the people. Because the process of finding out the truth is still not happening at an acceptable level of transparency, and because it is the expectation of everybody to see that goal achieved, let us encourage the authorities to devise an express mechanism to that end. We urge that steps be taken immediately to implement the relevant recommendations of the PCoI to ban schools and organizations that propagate Wahhabism”.  

What Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobitha said

Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobitha Thera said that the most primary obligation of a government was to protect the people. The previous government miserably failed to perform this responsibility. He pointed out that there were many allegations heard from all directions that the present government was not doing better in the area either, and that they must immediately improve matters. He remarked that though some one billion rupees was received from the Muslim World League for helping the affected families, no one knew what happened to those funds. (However, the monk seems to be ill informed about it; the money has still not been paid by the Islamic NGO as MP Wijedasa Rajapaksa complained recently. – RRW)

‘National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence

After these background comments, let me address the subject proposed by the title. A (actually, the second) meeting  of the so-called ‘National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence’ was held at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, Colombo on March 4, 2021. The chief guest was the general secretary of the Saudi-based pan-Islamic NGO the Muslim World League (MWL) Dr Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdul Kareem Al-Issa. (MWL leader Mohamed Abdul Kareem had pledged USD 5 million to support the families of the dead and injured in the Easter Sunday terror attacks at the first National Peace Conference that took place at the same venue under the patronage of the previous president Maithripala Sirisena on June 30, 2019; but this money has not been received yet.) This arguably questionable NGO involvement in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings through this rather adventitious National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence has passed almost unnoticed in the media. The negative repercussions of this well- or ill-intentioned intervention in a situation created by dangerously radicalized Muslims will be evident in the time to come. The MWL itself deserves our gratitude for offering to help us on this occasion. Not so the politicians involved, who should be the object of our reproach. (Strangely, MP Wijedasa Rajapaksa, who believes in the good intentions of the MWL, has made an issue of the nonpayment of the promised money by the Saudi based and funded NGO even by the second anniversary of the Easter bombings. Shouldn’t he have known better, I wonder. Doesn’t he know the calibre of the Muslim politicoes mentioned in the PCoI Final Report who appear to seeking undeserved refuge under the wings of the powerful global Islamic organization?)

The Hiru TV news footage of the event that I watched the next day (March 5, 2021) showed PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and former presidents Maithripala Sirisena and Chandrika Bandaranaike attending the event along with some Muslim politicians including A.H.M Fowzi, Rishad Badiuddeen and M.L.A.M Hizbullah and others (the last two having got ‘honourable’mention in the Final Report as shown above). There were also a group of Buddhist monks who had been invited as guests (though it was evident that they were unwilling guests). The news report featured two leading monks expressing their views about the incompatibility between  the Islamic religious ideology that the MWL espouses and the ethical philosophical doctrine of Buddhism where peace-making was concerned; one of them spoke in Sinhala and the other in English. The monks were the Anunayake of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven. Wendaruwe Upali Thera, and Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobhita Thera. The first, speaking in Sinhala, emphasized the ideological hiatus between religion/s and the (Buddha) dhamma

Anunayake of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven. Wendaruwe Upali Thera’s definition of the difference between religions and Buddhism 

The truth about our participation in this event must be stated: It needs to be remembered that we are here as a mark of respect to the order given by the Mahanayake Theras,  and that too, only as observers. It must be due to some shortcoming somewhere that this multi-religious concept has come about. All religions might be the same; but it is a well known fact that the Buddha Dhamma is not a religion. Religion and the dhamma are clearly two different things. The dhamma guards the mind whereas religion gratifies the mind. When a Buddha statue was damaged (by jihadist fanatics) at Mawanella, it was as if we were struck on the head. But won’t you accept the fact that our Mahanayake Theras did not incite the Buddhist public to violence (in retaliation)? How forbearing we were (even under such provocation)! How well were peace and harmony preserved avoiding a bloodbath after the April 21 attacks due to the calming voice of (His Eminence) the Cardinal! In reality, we don’t have anything to learn from  you about peaceful coexistence; it is we who are teaching you (now) and have taught you (before this moment) about it”. 

(What I have added parenthetically and what I have specially emphasized in my translation here are naturally grasped by a Sinhala speaking audience without them being explicitly expressed. The valid point the monk raises here is something not very easy for a non-Buddhist or a non-Sinhala speaker to grasp and appreciate. Even today, in rural Sri Lanka, Christians are colloquially mentioned by Buddhist neighbours among themselves as ‘agamkarayo’ (people of religion), the implication being that what they follow for moral and spiritual guidance, Buddhism, is not a religion. The important Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention of 1815 contains the crucial phrase The Religion of the Boodhoo….” in its English version (The phrase was actually a product of a political and linguistic sleight of hand by ace intriguer and spy John D’oyly who drafted it). The Sinhala original, which was really important from the point of view of the occupied nation, had the equivalent of the ‘sasana of the Buddha’ or Buddhist establishment and the ‘agama’ (religion) of the devas (deities)”; but this didn’t appear in D’oyly’s English version. When Christian Europeans arrived in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 16th century, there was no religion in the modern sense in the country, but a highly cultured society with its Buddhist spiritual foundation, the Buddha Sasana and its characteristic practices and cultural rituals; there was no Buddhist ‘religion’. (Of course, no one could expect a positive response to the monk’s words from the head of an Islamic NGO that is devoted to the task of promoting a particular brand of  religion in a world where the scientific knowledge enlightened people are fast moving towards a global humane culture without religion.)

Ven. Dr Sobitha’s challenge to the Islamic peacemakers 

In the course of his speech, which was in English, the other monk, Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobhita, said, as reproduced here thus unedited: While we are trying to be united together as Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, it is regretted that our Muslim friends are demanding for a separate food system, they are demanding for separate law and order system, separate uniform and dress code, separate education, separate universities, separate, separate, and separate. Ultimately, we understand this separatism paved the way for separate from the whole. Actually, friends, we are hurt so much; we are disappointed. Then we find out what is the  reason for these different ideas and separatism. Then I found the very reason is the Quran. I am not criticising the Quran. I am revealing the truth. Let me quote certain phrases of the Quran: ‘Allah will shed human blood while angels praise in heaven (Surah Al Baqarah No 2); again, ‘Kill disbelievers wherever you find them, but if they desist in their unbelief, don’t kill them’ (Surah Al Baqarah). ‘Attack on the necks of the disbelievers whenever you fight against them. Those who die fighting for Allah will be rewarded’ (Surah Muhammad No 47). Lastly, I just quote this line (from) Surah Al Fath: ‘If you refuse to fight for Allah, he will punish you with a painful doom’.  If this is the teaching in this holy book, how can it be implemented to achieve peace and harmony in this society? Please enlighten us if we are wrong, and let us enlighten you if you are wrong”.

From their point of view, the monks here, no doubt, believe that they have hit the nail on the head: the root of the trouble is in the religion itself, in its basic teachings (but this view is not likely to be shared even by the least dogmatic Muslim. Dr Omalpe Sobhita’s desperate challenge or invitation to some sort of intellectual or ideological interaction is not likely to be entertained by the MWL or its local proteges. But the monk cannot be blamed for that. The BBS leader Ven. Galaboda-Aththe Gnanasara has, on a number of occasions, also hinted at the idea of arranging a peaceful resolution of the growing Islamic extremist problem through a rational dialogue or debate with Islamists, the sort of adversarial but cultured interreligious disputation between erudite Buddhist monks and unrelenting Christian missionaries equally well versed in their religion in the form of the famous Five Great Debates (Pancha Maha Vadaya) including the iconic Panadura Vadaya (1873) in the latter part of the 19th century. The missionaries were well and truly beaten by the monks in this ideological confrontation. The news of the Panadura Debate impressed the American soldier, journalist, lawyer and theosophist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. His arrival in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1881 contributed to the boosting of the already burgeoning Buddhist revivalism in the island. But such an easy resolution of the anti-Buddhist Islamic fundamentalist problem is impossible, given the fact that Muslim believers, particularly the Wahhabist literalists that the MWL was believed to represent in the past (Wikipedia) will never be amenable to any form of argument that contradicts Quranic teachings or challenges their infallibility. It would be too naive for these monks to even remotely imagine that their form of ‘non-religious’ (Buddhism is not a religion) polemic will prevail against what is accepted as divine revelations by Muslims the world over. By now, they are informed enough about the differences between Muslims’ religious beliefs and their own characteristically liberal Buddhist attitudes; these differences cannot be resolved through dialogue with those extremists. For dogmatic Muslims, religion and politics are one. Something that the Islamic peacemakers should not overlook is the fact that these monks know more about the religion of Islam than they (Islamic peacemakers) themselves probably know about Buddhism.

Any reason for MWL’s involvement?

As far as I can see, there is no reason why the NGO known as the Muslim World League should offer to make peace or mediate between Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours (the majority of whom are Buddhists) between whom there has never been any religious controversy  or physical clash that we know of in our post-independence history. A few Buddhist monks started sounding warnings about foreign funded promoters of potentially violent forms of Islamism in the country at least two decades ago, and have come out with evidence of unacceptable activities targeting Buddhists (and Tamil Hindus) by Islamic and other religious extremists; they have brought it to the attention of the authorities. But the monks’ complaints fell on deaf ears. Nothing was done about provocative anti-Buddhist excesses committed by Jihadists, such as encroaching on ancient Buddhist archaeological sites, vandalizing Buddha statues, and raising false allegations against the activist monks to demean and deprecate them in the eyes of the world. The most prominent one among these monks was reported to have been described by the leading April suicide bomber Zaharan, as a ‘demon’. Zaharan had been angered to call Ven. Gnanasara a demon by his relentless but just criticism of the former’s violent movement. 

During the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter attacks (PCoI) investigations it was revealed, as the media reported, that though Zaharan’s original plan was to bomb the Kandy  Perahera which is annually held in August, he changed his target and advanced the time of attack in order to make use of the then prevailing lax national security situation under Yahapalanaya to avoid the risk of his plan being discovered and aborted. Attackers did not differentiate between Buddhists and Catholics. However, it was evident that anti-Buddhist elements and media regretted that there was no indication of a Buddhist link to the bombings.

Why does a Muslim World NGO seem to take it upon itself to re-create the interreligious peace that is already there? This is like the West’s reconciliation mantra. It is true that a handful of Islamic extremists who probably had enjoyed the patronage of the Saudi-based movement tried to wreck that peace in the name of the religion that the MWL fosters, which means that the MWL should do better to rehabilitate those misguided Islamists from among whom the suicide bombers emerged. Be that as it may, the fortuitous National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence that hosted its chief met about two and a half months after the bombings. No doubt the organization has good intentions. When it was first held, the Yahapalana president Sirisena presided, with his predecessors Mahinda and Chandrika in attendance. People are yet to learn what new thing they learned about peace, harmony and coexistence? The same dignitaries were dutifully present at the NGO’s recent  second meeting. What did they achieve for the country by having this sort of thing organized? What is more important?National dignity need not be relinquished in accepting charity offered in friendship. National sovereignty was debased and national security compromised under president Sirisena. Should that evil legacy be allowed to continue into the future indefinitely? Unfortunately, there has been no clarity in this department of governance in the wake of the yahapalana maladministration, a situation worsened by the choppy waters of humanity denying geopolitics amidst the still rampant the Covid-19 pandemic. The MWL, on other hand, should be careful not to be misled by the local promoters of Islamist extremism that caused the Easter Sunday attacks to take place two years ago.  

The solution lies mainly with the mainstream Muslims 

I wish to conclude this piece with the following part of the Cardinal’s appeal to his dear Muslim brothers and sisters” during his commemorative statement on April 21 aforementioned, which makes oblique reference to the interventionist global powers that instrumentalise Islamist fundamentalism in pursuit of their geopolitical agendas:  ………Please understand the global movement that becomes a cat’s paw of other individuals and groups who have nothing to do with your deep faith and your sincere desire to live your religion to the fullest to reach their selfish goals. Be brave enough to reject extremism. Rise up against schools and organizations that brainwash (the faithful) to kill people in the name of religion. ….”    

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