It is almost two years since the pandemic broke out, and Sri Lanka was one of its earliest victims. Millions died all over the world and many more suffered and were debilitated. Economic losses had been colossal and continues. Yet, in Sri Lanka, the Muslim community went through a most exceptional and harrowing experience during those two years. It all started when a group of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalists blamed the Tablighi Jamaat for bringing that virus from India. A similar blame was spread in India by Hindutva zealots. It was proved false later. In Sri Lanka, the first Covid victim was not a Muslim, but a 44 years old Chinese woman. However, the accusation refused to go away for some time. Although the history of anti-Muslim violence goes back to the years immediately following the end of the civil war, the provocation for the blame was the anger of Buddhist zealots and their thirst for revenge on Muslims for deserting the Rajapaksas in the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. These zealots took pride of the fact that they were able get a Buddhist elected to the presidency solely on the strength of Buddhist votes, and GR acknowledged it. His collusion with Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism came to be clearly reflected in his post-election relations with the Muslim community. The fact that he appointed a Muslim as Minister of Justice, in spite of strong opposition from the ethno-nationalist camp, was meant to payback for services rendered by a trusted friend who happened to be a Muslim rather than a willingness to accommodate a Muslim in the cabinet.
A precious opportunity to seek revenge on the community came when Muslims too started losing lives from Covid. Based solely on an opinion rather than solid research findings, and that too not from an epidemiologist or a medical scientist but from a professor of soil science at the Jayewardenepura University, who argued that by burying the Covid dead there was a danger of the virus spreading through contaminated water underground, an order was made by the President to cremate all Covid dead bodies irrespective of the dead person’s religious affiliations. This order was a shock to the local Muslim community and to the world of Islam at large. Since Islam was born burial of the dead after funeral prayers had been the universal practice, and neither the WHO nor any epidemiologist nor a medical expert from any part of the world saw any danger from burying the Covid dead. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his Viyathmaga and a saffron army of ethno-nationalists were not willing to give in, and despite protests from compassionate Buddhist monks, Christian prelates, human rights activists and civil society leaders. The psychological torture of forced cremation traumatized the Muslim community for one whole year, until the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, took up the issue at UNHRC. Rajapaksa regime’s debacle at UNHRC’s 48th session in Geneva forced GR to relent and withdraw the order of forced cremation.
However, the torture took a different form and continued for another year. A new order was issued to the effect that all Covid dead bodies should be buried only in one cemetery in Oddamavadi, a sleepy Muslim enclave in Eastern Province. No reason was given for that choice. (Coincidentally, the soil scientist who gave the original advice to cremate and who carries a soft corner for hardline ethno-nationalism resigned from the advisory group around this time). The cost of transporting the corpse to Oddamavadi from all corners of the country with army escort, taxed the public and private purses enormously. In addition, restrictions imposed on family members to participate in the final journey agonized Muslims further. The torture continued until the 49th session of UNHRC in February this year. Finally, in fear of further strictures, admonitions and legal repercussions from UNHRC the government withdrew the second order and freedom returned to the dead to be buried in any cemetery in any district.
This torturous experience teaches one important lesson to the Muslim community. During the last two years the community’s political and religious leadership proved utterly impotent in persuading the regime to relax its hardline policy. Neither the Muslim minister in the cabinet, nor those Muslim representatives in legislature who sold their votes to pass that infamous 20th Amendment to enable President GR behave like a virtual dictator, could do anything to ease the community’s pain. The most hilarious incident in this episode was the advice given by the then ACJU-chief who recommended Muslim relatives of the cremated to accept the ashes and perform the required religious rites before and burying! This was adding insult to injury and the community condemned at once the man’s idiocy. Ultimately, relief came from the initiatives of a world body.
In between the world body and the government of Sri Lanka is the diaspora community, which has now become a force to be reckoned with. Although this community is dominated by Tamils it has now become multi-ethnic, including Muslims and Sinhalese. With hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans are dying to get out of the country, because of the chaos prevailing there, the numerical strength of the diaspora community is set to swell. What is more important is the influence and pressure that the diaspora community is able to exert upon governments of their respective countries of domicile. That influence and pressure was one of the factors that made UNHRC to take a stand on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. It is time local Muslim groups in Sri Lanka realize this fact and start coordinating their activities with diaspora counterparts. Muslims should give up the idea that as members of a so-called universal ummah, Islamic countries would come to their aid in times of danger. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for example, could only be effective when it works through other multi-ethnic and multi-racial international bodies. Such international fora are the only hope for minorities enduring majoritarian oppression in their home countries.
Recently, stories have emerged that Sri Lankan security forces had sexually harassed and mistreated Muslim women who were taken for questioning with regard to the Easter massacre. These traumatized women when released were found afraid to talk in public about their ordeal for fear of bringing shame to themselves and their families. These are serious allegations, and if local Muslim groups could collect the factual details and bring to the notice of diaspora leadership, those matters could be dealt with on international levels. All this are totally unnecessary however, if the country could return to normalcy under a democratic regime free of any ethno-religious bias. In the meantime, while Muslims should work hand in hand with other communities to bring about such a regime change, in the current oppressive political climate the community’s link with diaspora leadership is vital. This the lesson that Covid has taught to Muslims.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia
Disclaimer: A Covid Lesson To Muslims By Ameer Ali – - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view