by Rohana R. Wasala
Justice Minister Ali Sabry is reported to have said the traditional brand of Islamism which has been practised by Muslims in Sri Lanka for centuries has to be preserved while the religion should not be practised according to the likes of one group. He reportedly made this remark after taking part in a religious ceremony at the Dewatagaha Mosque, Colombo. (This architecturally impressive place of Islamic worship is a proud national monument situated at the heart of the commercial capital; it is a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Muslims with Sri Lankans of other faiths.) The Minister is reported to have added that unity among Muslims in Sri Lanka should also be preserved just like preserving unity among various religious and ethnic groups.
Sri Lankans of all beliefs interested in the early restoration of the externally disturbed customary religious and communal harmony subscribe to that laudable view with the necessary alterations. But will his equation of Islam with Islamism work in the current context.
(CAVEAT: There is no way to check the authenticity of the news report in question unless Minister Ali Sabry confirms or denies what is claimed in it about him. It has not been indicated in which language he expressed these ideas. Did he actually use the words Islam and Islamism speaking in English or their equivalents speaking in another language, or has the media arbitrarily translated into English, using those two terms, what the speaker said in another language?)
But for the purpose of this essay, I assume that the Minister’s words have been reported accurately. I don’t know whether Muslims in Sri Lanka have started using the words Islam and Islamism interchangeably, which, of course, I’d have thought, is a near impossibility, given the universally recognised difference in meaning between the two terms. Google.com defines Islam as ‘the religion of the Muslims, a monotheistic faith regarded as revealed through Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah’. Islamism on the other hand, is generally taken to mean Islamist fundamentalism associated with violent militancy, which is purely a religiopolitical movement. The Wikipedia defines Islamism thus: “Islamism (also often called political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism) is a political ideology which posits that modern states and regions should be reconstituted in constitutional, economic and judicial terms, in accordance with what is conceived as a revival or a return to authentic Islamic practice in its totality”.
(By the way, the Wikipedia is no longer regarded as an easily available smart tool for the amateur researcher for the reason that the entries are made by voluntary editors at various levels of scholarship and academic authority and authenticity. The Wikipedia user must be sufficiently educated and well informed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the definition given is sound enough.) Explaining the relation between Islam and Islamism, the Wikipedia says:
“The relationship between the notions of Islam and Islamism has been subject to disagreement. Hayri Abaza argues that the failure to distinguish between Islam and Islamism leads many in the West to support illiberal Islamic regimes, to the detriment of progressive moderates who seek to separate religion from politics. A writer for the International Crisis Group maintains that “the conception of ‘political Islam’” is a creation of Americans to explain the Iranian Islamic Revolution and (that) apolitical Islam was a historical fluke of the “short-lived era of the heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 1945 and 1970”, and it is quietist-political Islam, not Islamism, that requires explanation.
“Another source distinguishes Islamist from Islamic “by the fact that the latter refers to a religion and culture in existence over a millennium, whereas the first is a political/religious phenomenon linked to the great events of the 20th century”. Islamists have, at least at times, defined themselves as “Islamiyyoun/Islamists” to differentiate themselves from Muslimun/Muslims. Daniel Pipes describes Islamism as a modern ideology that owes more to European utopian ideologies and “isms” than to traditional Islamic religion.”
When Ali Sabry reportedly made the particular remark, he probably had in mind what the Wiki quote refers to as ‘quietist or political Islam’ (which, in common parlance, is called ‘moderate Islam’). Moderate Islam is not regarded as a problem, but Islamism definitely is. It need not be reiterated that the problem of Islamism affects the whole world. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, Islamic/Islamist fundamentalism came to prominence relatively recently, although it has been smoldering since the mid-20th century as some commentators have pointed out. Given this background, responsible speakers do not use the two words (Islam and Islamism) as alternatives. I believe that minister Ali Sabry speaks as a responsible person. That is why I am sceptical about what has been reported of his speech. But these are strange times. Anything is possible.
However, it is somewhat inconceivable that Ali Sabry, who has been entrusted by the President with such a great responsibility or an array of responsibilities as he bears in a government that sought election on the main platform of “One Law, One Country” and that is poised to bring in a new constitution, made this thoughtless identification of Islam with Islamism.
The President wanted to assure the Muslim community that they were safe and would not be subjected to discrimination under his rule, particularly in the face of incursions into Sri Lanka of rampant Islamist extremism, although most Muslims did not vote for him at the presidential election in November 2019. It is conceivable that the President’s more important aim in appointing Ali Sabry to that key post was to enlist the participation of the Muslim community in governance despite their implicit initial refusal of his goodwill. It is unlikely that Ali Sabry has forgotten this.
In Memorium: Daya and Alfred Wijewardena
Daya Wijewardena was many things to many people. These included, but were not limited to, being: a wife to her husband, Alfred; a surrogate mother to her nephew, Dayananda; a grandmother/great-aunt to Dayananda’s children; a teacher to countless students at Anula Vidyalaya; a trusted confidante to my mother; and a beloved aunt to my brother and me. In her later years, she greatly supported the work of her husband, spending many countless hours, being a sort of unpaid personal assistant charged with doing, things, like taking down dictation for his planned workshops. Her one complaint was about her own handwriting, which she didn’t consider to be very good since she had been forced in school to write right-handed, despite being a natural left-hander. It’s been a decade since her passing, but the void left by her absence has not diminished.
Alfred Wijewardena – or D.A. Wijewardena, as he was professionally known – was a multi-hyphenate Renaissance man, who lived by the motto ‘plan your work and work your plan’. A qualified Attorney-at-Law, with a Degree in Laws and a B.Sc. in Logic, he was also a Justice of the Peace, but in his early days he’d done a variety of jobs, including being the Game Ranger at Yala National Park and a teacher at Ananda College. He subsequently focused on administrative matters, becoming the first Secretary of the then newly-formed State Services Disciplinary Board (which had replaced the Public Service Commission, where he was an Assistant Secretary). He ultimately set up his own institution known as The Centre for Studies in Disciplinary Management. An avowed workaholic, he worked well past retirement, only stopping in the last two or three years of his life. When he had some free time, he enjoyed playing tennis at the SSC, where he was a Vice President for many years. He left us three years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t think of or talk about him.
My brother and I called Alfred’s wife ‘Daya Aunty’, although in reality those two words tended to morph into one, creating a brand new descriptor specific to her: ‘Dayaunty’. She loved us abundantly, with that love even extending to our childhood puppy, Shiny, who similarly adored Dayaunty, particularly as she often brought Shiny a succulent bone to chew on when she came to visit. Dayaunty was kind, caring, nurturing and she loved to laugh, albeit very softly… She didn’t ever have a cross word for us.
We never referred to Dayaunty’s husband as ‘Alfred Uncle’, despite our multi-generational age gap. To us he was ‘Alfie’, because he was our pal: someone who was always on our level, someone we could relate to. For years he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, which we referred to as the ‘Alfie Car’. He was such a character that he constantly had us in stitches, giggling until our sides hurt, thanks to the yarns that he spun. Picture the perfect babysitter (or, from our perspective, a best buddy) and that was Alfie. He set the bar very high when it came to fun uncles.
Our childhood was enriched beyond measure for having Dayaunty and Alfie in it. When Alfie (often distracted by other thoughts but still wanting to be a part of the ongoing conversation) would say something grammatically correct but factually unfeasible — like his infamous “You spoke to him when he was dead?” line of inquiry — Dayaunty would titter almost silently, which naturally made us crack up even more.
Dayaunty had a sense of adventure and would have happily travelled the world if only Alfie wasn’t tethered to work. (“Inquiries, baba, inquiries” is how he explained his professional life to us.) So, a solitary trip to India on pilgrimage notwithstanding, Dayaunty had to make do with escapades in-country. These included one memorable visit to Yala during which her quiet chuckling threatened to actually form sound when someone, on seeing a herd of elephants, queried incredulously: “Why does that elephant have five legs?!” Dayaunty was much quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, but when the penny finally dropped, it was a wonder that all the wildlife in our immediate vicinity didn’t run for the hills, such was the laughter emanating from our vehicle!
On the singular occasion that our parents were unable to have us join them when they went abroad for a conference, they entrusted us into the care of Alfie and Dayaunty — and we had a ball. Even though we loved and were used to spending time together, and they treated us like their own children, both Dayaunty and Alfie must have felt the weight of responsibility that came with such a serious undertaking; however, we never saw any hints of anxiety from either.
When Dayaunty unexpectedly had a stroke 10 years ago, I thought she would soon recover. So, when Alfie called me to convey the news of her passing with the words “the firecracker has gone”, it took a long time for the reality of the situation to sink in. Dayaunty’s departure was a seismic event and it felt as though she took a part of our childhood with her when she went.
Then, in 2018, after bemoaning his loss of productivity and his perceived lack of usefulness to society as a result of stopping work, Alfie decided to follow suit. Never again would we hear him recite ‘Inky, Pinky, Polly’ incorrectly, just to make us laughingly (and somewhat exasperatedly) exclaim: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know anything!” Gone were the tales of his exploits on the tennis court (“I have bad knees now because my doubles partner used to make me run for all the drop shots!”) and his adventures in emailing (“I was worried about writing to you too much because I thought I’d fill up the computer!”). If part of our childhood went with Dayaunty, the rest accompanied Alfie.
How does anyone recover from — or at least mitigate — such grief, devastation and loss? One step is to remember the good times and focus on all the positive things that Daya and Alfred Wijewardena brought to so many people — in their immediate and extended families, amongst their friends, in their lives and in their careers.
As we mark, on successive days, what would have been Alfie’s 100th birthday (7th December) and 10 years since Dayaunty’s passing (8th December), we pause to reflect on two extraordinary lives that touched so many others in a multitude of ways. We will always love Alfie and Dayaunty, and we’ll be forever grateful for the roles that they played in our lives, particularly our childhood. We hope their sansaric journey is short. May they both attain Nibbana!
Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene
Need for traffic lights at Pamankada junction
Now that the Havelock Road is open to traffic on both sides up to the Pamankada bridge, the Pamankada T-junction has become a real bottleneck, especially during the rush hours in the morning and again in the evening. There were no problems when it was one way. With unruly drivers manning private buses and three wheelers and the motor cyclists, it is indeed a hassle for the law-abiding drivers to manipulate their vehicles in a melee.
As Havelock Road has been opened to vehicular traffic both ways, there is a large number of buses belonging to the CTB as well as private buses on route numbers 120( Horana and Kesbewa to Pettah) ,162 (Bandaragama to Pettah), 135(Kelaniya to Kohuwala) and 141 (Wellawatte to Narahenpita) that ply up and down passing this T- junction.
It would be good before some serious motor accident takes place to install traffic lights at this junction. Every driver tries to get out of the melee as quickly as possible and ultimately all vehicles get stuck and take a longer time to move on. Installing the lghts would instill some discipline to the reckless drivers especially during the time that school children are transported.
HM Nissanka Warakaulle
Lessons learnt from outrageous power outage
The countrywide power outage that took place on Friday 03 November, 2021, shook the nation.
As everyone is suspicious of everyone else in this country, most people suspected that it was sabotage masterminded by the Engineers of the CEB Unions. The engineers have threatened the government that they will resort to a strike if their demands, particularly on the subject of the New Fortress Energy agreement are not met.
It became quite clear that the 21 million Sri Lankans living in this country could be held hostage by the union leaders, even if, in this instance, they had not been responsible for it. Public spiritedness which has to be the basis of any national action had in any case been ignored by the CEB Unions when they threatened the government a few days back.
The situation has shown how delicate our predicament is. A small group of people could hold the entire country to ransom if they disagreed with the authorities. Both the country and the Government has now taken cognizance of this. This can also be a massive security risk.
Continuation of the outage could have even led to a violent uprising of the public against the Union officials who would have been targeted. Fortunately, the government held its nerve and better judgment prevailed on the side of the Engineers to correct the situation.
However, like with all adversities, several new opportunities have surfaced. One is how to diminish the monopoly that the CEB, which is a bane of the country. Here one option could be to decentralize the generation and supply of power to the districts. A study should be undertaken to enable every District to control it’s electricity supply and, over a period of ten years make it into a viable profit-making undertaking. This will be particularly endorsed and greeted by those of the Northern and Eastern Provinces who are agitating for more decentralised powers. Also, the other Districts will support this proposition. Engineers from the Districts will be able to use their ingenuity in working out techniques for cheaper and more cost-effective generation of electricity and giving assistance to the multiple industries that will commence in the future.
With regard to the security dimension of electricity supply it is imperative that the armed forces are made conversant with every aspect connected with the running of the Electricity facilities. In this way, the country can never be held to ransom by any group. The armed forces will be trained to move and take over the operations in case of sabotage or even if one day an attack takes place by external forces.
In all this it seems evident that the New Fortress Energy Agreement is not acceptable to the general public and not only to the Unions. The Government has to take this into account and if necessary call for a plebiscite on this issue. If Parliament and the people of this country want the government to proceed with it so be it. However, if the people reject it the government has a valid justification to withdraw from the agreement.
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