Sri Lanka lost goodwill of Middle East due to racist politics and short-sighted policies

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Middle East countries were very well-informed on the ongoing campaign against Islam and Muslims – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara  


Sri Lanka’s centuries-old historic ties with the Middle East suffered a setback during the past decade and half due to the island’s racist politics, hostility towards Islam and Muslims and short-sighted policies.

The island’s ties with the Middle East could be traced back to more than 13 centuries when Arab traders who linked the West and the East with their trade began visiting the island.

In an article in the now defunct English daily SUN in August 1968 yesteryear’s well-known Tamil politician C. Suntharalingam said the “Arab traders visited the island more than 2800 years ago”.

Sri Lanka has also been a country loved by the Arabs due to religious reasons. For example, there has been a belief among Arabs that Adam, the first man, landed in the island on Adam’s Peak. In the translation of the book Travels of Ibn Batuta, Lecturer in Arabic at the University of London H.A.R. Gibb said, “Ibn Batuta made a pilgrimage to the Foot of Adam – the mountain peak of Ceylon.” 

These friendly ties continued uninterrupted through the centuries especially in the second half of the 20th century after the island became independent in 1948. Sri Lanka’s unstinted support to the Palestinian cause in all regional and international forums won the hearts of the Arabs. This brought the Middle East and the island closer.

This warmth was demonstrated when the island hosted the Non Aligned Countries summit in 1976. Those were the days when Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and President Joseph Tito of Yugoslavia were considered as four important pillars of the Non Aligned Movement of independent third world countries.

These growing ties were reflected when almost all Arab leaders, except Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, attended the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement on 16-19 August 1976 in Colombo. It was attended by 86 nations with additional 30 observers and guests representing all the continents in the world.

Sri Lanka then was a highly rated and respected country in the entire developing world.

Added to this, in the wake of the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s when job opportunities were available in the Gulf countries, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans found jobs there and remitted around $ 7 billion a year boosting the island’s economy. However, no political leader ever thought of visiting these countries and cultivating ties which could further boost the island’s economy. That was the mindset of Sri Lanka’s political leaders who brought the country to what it is today.

For example during late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s time the country was about to face the problem oil shortage. President Pemadasa summoned the Iraqi Ambassador Abdo Ali Daeri to Temple Trees and discussed the matter. It was around 8:30 p.m. and the ambassador said it was night there and he would speak to the Iraqi National Oil Company Chairman the following day. However the ambassador was shocked when President Premadasa was ready with the INCO chairman’s residence phone number. 

He got him on the phone and gave the phone to the ambassador to speak. The ambassador spoke to the INCO chairman who said that Sri Lankans are our brothers and two shiploads of oil, ready to leave Basra port the following day, would be diverted to Colombo. A few more shiploads of oil came few days later.

That was the warmth and respect the Arabs had towards Sri Lanka.

However in the aftermath of the defeat of LTTE, the Arab governments and the people alike were shocked when a very well-planned and orchestrated campaign distorting Islam and demonising Muslims began accompanied by violent attacks on Muslims, their mosques desecrated and properties burnt. 

This was also the time the Government had opened the country to Israel which was trying to enter the island for more than half a century and India’s RSS front Bharatiya Janatha Party – both known for their extreme hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Incidentally demonisation of Islam and violence against Muslims coincided with the arrival of Israel and Hindutva forces here.

Unlike in the past the government policy towards the Palestinian struggle for freedom also changed. The media in general, as proved later, was exploited by only come to power. 

During the unfortunate tsunami waves Muslims were the worst-affected. 1% of the Muslim population was wiped out. It was common knowledge that money given by donor countries to help tsunami victims, were not utilised to help the Muslim tsunami victims. Instead it went into pockets of influential people and there were several reports to this effect.

Saudi Arabia built 500 houses for Muslim tsunami victims. Racist elements opposed giving the houses only to Muslims and some monks even went to courts to stop these houses being given to Muslim tsunami victims.

As a result these houses remain unoccupied and dilapidated. Today they are surrounded by jungles where snakes, reptiles, monkeys and wild creatures live. People in the area point out that these houses cannot be repaired as they were neglected for years and it is economical to build new houses. Meanwhile the persecution and frequent violence against Muslims continued while the Government turned a blind eye indicating its support. This shocked the Muslim countries in the Middle East who were concerned about demonisation of Islam in the local media – perhaps backed by foreign global Islamophobic forces.

A saffron hatemonger even said that Sri Lanka doesn’t need Dubai oil, meaning Middle East oil.

In his interview to Daily Mirror on 7 June, Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thera who currently heads the Walpola Rahula Institute for Buddhist Studies, has provided all details about this conspiracy against, detrimental to communal harmony, only for political reasons.

In the midst the cremation of Muslim corona dead in violation of Muslim religious principles and the World Health Organization regulations caused deep disappointment among the helpless Muslim community. Cremation of a 20-day-old baby sent shockwaves all over and it was the topic of discussion during the Friday Jumna sermon in the grand mosque in Nigeria.

On the whole the Government, hostile towards Muslims, introduced numerous measures directly dealing with the religious life of Muslims.

Time and again President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that his Government was voted to power by majority Sinhala Buddhists and thus he has a responsibility to serve them. Middle East countries were very well-informed on the ongoing campaign against Islam and Muslims.

It is in these contexts that one needs to view President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call for Middle East envoys in the island to help Sri Lanka overcome the ongoing manmade economic crisis.

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Disclaimer: Sri Lanka lost goodwill of Middle East due to racist politics and short-sighted policies - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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