Religion as a Business and the Heart of Corruption by DR AMEER ALI

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There is a roaring Hajj business in Sri Lanka. As a friend of mine commented, no business is as good as the religious business. The Hajj committee, whose members are appointed on recommendations of Muslim politicians, in collusion with Hajj agents, operate like a mafia that has converted a religious obligation into a money making enterprise with blessings of the so-called religious dignitaries.

Thousands of poor devotees who set aside a portion of their hard earned income over years with the intention of performing that lifetime pilgrimage to the Prophet’s land ultimately succumb to a rapacious Hajj mafia. Apart from the Hajj pilgrimage, there is also the Umra or the shortened version of Hajj, which could be undertaken at any time.

The Hajj committee that handles Muslim pilgrimage is a post 2005 creation by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Before that it was the Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs that looked after Hajj matters. Mahinda’s notoriety for amassing wealth is now a legend. But whether the Hajj committee also contributed to Mahinda’s coffers is not known. However, the Hajj committee’s political sympathy with his party was once relayed through a few Muslim politicians in parliament who voted to pass that controversial 20th amendment. The appointments to the Hajj committee are made at the mercy of these politicians who are still in power. With the right political connection with ruling group, the Hajj committee is said have accumulated about Rs. 15 million while the pilgrims’ welfare is neglected. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was instructed by IMF to clean up corruption, is powerless to look into the Hajj mafia because his own political future requires the support of these businessmen. But what is shocking is the silence of the executives of the so-called apex religious body of Muslims, the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema (ACJU).

Free return air tickets with a generous spending allowance to fly to Saudi Arabia, besides the golden opportunity that the travel opens to engage in private business in gold and precious stones, are too lucrative an attraction to miss for any crook who wants to be a member of the Hajj committee. This year for example, the Saudi Government has offered ten free visas to Sri Lankans to perform Hajj. Who the lucky beneficiaries are and on what basis they are going to be selected is not revealed. Will the committee publish its selection criteria if not the names of the selected? The Hajj committee is supposed to look after the welfare of pilgrims from the time they leave until they return. But the difficulties the pilgrims encounter and complain about vouch for the dereliction of duty by the committee. This scandalous situation needs to be properly investigated in the interest of Muslim devotees.

Not only in Sri Lanka but in every part of the world Hajj is big business. Saudi Arabia, the epicentre of this massive gathering of worshippers, is collecting as much as $8 billion annually from Hajj and Umra visitors. In fact, before the discovery of oil, Hajj was the chief source of government revenue to that desert kingdom. Historical research reveals that Hajj provided opportunities for Arab merchants to make business deals with different clans and tribes during the pilgrimage season. That was another reason why inter-tribal and inter-clannish fights were prohibited during Hajj time.

While the Hajj committee originated in 2005 and is expected to serve the interests of pilgrims, the Wakfs Board has a history going back to 1956 and was created to protect and take care of charitable properties doated by philanthropic Muslims in the interest of the Muslim community. But this board has lately been accused of dereliction of duties and moneymaking deals with unscrupulous elements in the community. For example, its inaction in the case of the Ghafooriya Arabic College is a monumental neglect. This college was built in 1931 on a wakf property donated by N.D.H. Abdul Ghafoor. One of the descendants has filed a case in the court to acquire the college premises along with the Sulaiman Hospital. The Ghafoor buildings, another wakf property in the heart of Colombo, has been sold to private parties by the descendants of Ghafoor Hajiar because of a legal loophole in the Wakf deed. The entire community is alarmed and protesting but without the support from the Wakfs Board.

The recent controversy over financial corruption in management of the Kaleliya Muslim Girls Arabic College, which was also established on a wakf property, shows the incompetency of the Wakfs Board. Without proper care and interest the board has failed to preserve the rare historical documents that the community would need to prove its ownership over certain lands that now under threat from other aggressors.

The Hajj committee along with the Wakfs Board, whose members are also government appointees at the recommendation of Muslim politicians, are institutions inseparable from Muslim politics, especially from the politics of the two Muslim parties, SLMC and ACMC. A third arm of these parties is the ACJU. The operations of the Hajj mafia, the incompetence of Wakfs Board and politicization of MMDA reforms by ACJU are all evidence showing how Muslim politicians are using these institutions to advance their own electoral influence to remain in power.

Muslim politics is money politics and for more than four decades this politics mixed with religious parochialism has only resulted in isolating the community from national currents. For example, at a time when the country is in the grip of a historic economic and financial crisis and looking for a way out, it is the duty of political parties and their leadership to contribute to the debate in finding solutions. Until now none of the two parties and their leaders had said anything along these lines. It only shows the ideological bankruptcy of these parties and their irrelevance in rebuilding the economy and nation. To make matters worse, a few of these politicians are also indulging in shady businesses as proven by the recent gold smuggling incident by one of them. The fact that neither his party leadership nor the religious ACJU had condemned this act speaks volumes about how money politics has scandalized the image of the community.

Although unrelated to the mafia’s exploitation of Islam to make money, but as part of the undignified status of Muslim politics, one needs to note with disappointment the official participation of the Muslim Foreign Minister, Ali Sabry, at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel. If the minister was really in support of the Palestinian cause as he claimed, he could have sent a deputy to represent him or at least shown courage by reminding his hosts that it was also the 75th year of Palestinian Nakba. To speak truth in front of power is a rare quality found only in selfless leaders with impeccable qualities and talent. The minster should have known that Israel, as Antony Lowenstein the Australian German journalist and author noted, is using Palestine as a laboratory for its technology of occupation and exports that technology to other countries including Sri Lanka. The armed forces used the hardware of that technology to wipe out LTTE and the Department of Archaeology and political Bhikkhus are employing its software to occupy Tamil and Muslim lands.

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Disclaimer: Religion as a Business and the Heart of Corruption by DR AMEER ALI - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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