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All communities should be treated equally without distinction

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by Jehan Perera

The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.

Due to the timely intervention of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, in whose diocese the two most serious attacks took place, there was no retaliation against the Muslim population by those who had lost their kith and kin. However, in the weeks that followed, there were mob attacks against the Muslim community in parts of the country that were distant from the bomb attacks. These attacks were not spontaneous but organised and intended to loot Muslim property and cause fear in them. The government, which was under political siege for having failed to prevent the suicide bomb attacks, failed once again to adequately protect the Muslim community.

It is in this context that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Easter bombings takes on significance. About two months ago he gave a deadline by which he asked the government to identify who was behind the Easter attacks and the cause for them. The Cardinal has consistently spoken up on the issue of the Easter bombing, first to ask for restraint on the part of the victims, then to ask the government to identify the perpetrators and prior to the elections to take the position that the people needed a government that could protect them. Now he has said that “Our brethren were attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”

MUSLIM OUTREACH

Two years after the Easter bombings in which they were branded as supporters of religious extremism, the Muslim community seeks in many different ways to overcome the suspicion that once engulfed them and which they fear can do so again. The use of the black Islamic dress that was an increasing trend among Muslim women has been much reduced. Muslim organisations are making energetic efforts to network with other religious organisations, join inter-religious groups and to liaise with civil society. They make available to them the Islamic teachings on peace and coexistence. This weekend I was invited to the opening of a community centre in the Kurunegala District by a Muslim organization.

On the walls of the community centre there were panels put up with sayings from the different religions on a number of important matters, such as how to treat others, and the role of spiritual values in everyday life. The foremost place at the opening ceremony was given to Buddhist monks who had come to attend the ceremony along with government officials and police officers. The monks who spoke said that the Muslim community living in the village had good relations with the Sinhalese living in the neighbouring villages, and this had continued for generations. Another monk said that after the Easter bombings they had heard there were violent gangs heading in the direction of the Muslim village, they had come there to ensure no harm would befall those people.

In this context, the announcement that the government will ban 11 Muslim organisations sends a negative message to the country at large about the Muslim community. It creates an impression that Muslims organisations are under suspicion and possibly even close to performing acts of violence which necessitates them being banned. Of the 11 banned organisations, two are foreign ones, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda which have been reported internationally as engaging in violence. However, the other nine are Sri Lankan organisations which do not have a track record of violence or illegality. Four of them have the name “Thowheed” in them, which in the Arabic language means “faith.”

 

DIFFERENT TREATMENT

The ban on these Thowheed organisations may be due to the fact that the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran, was part of an organisation that had the name “Thowheed” in it. The ban on them may also be due to the fact that the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombings recommended such action against them. However, the Commission also recommended that other non-Muslim organisations be banned which has not happened. This suggests that the Muslim organisations are being treated differently. The danger is that when it treats organisations differently, the government may be generating resentment in the Muslim community, especially the youth. If the words of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith are correct, the problem lies not in Muslim extremism but in partisan power politics.

Sri Lanka has experienced Sinhalese youth insurrections twice and even the Tamil militant movement was started by youth, who were once called “the boys.” Perhaps in anticipation of such a radicalisation phenomenon, the government has recently passed an add-on called the “De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will permit people who fall into its ambit to be send to rehabilitation centres for up to two years without trial. This may provide the government with an opportunity to release up to 250 Muslim citizens currently under detention on suspicion of being involved in the Easter bombings and send them for rehabilitation. On the other hand, this regulation may be used in the future in regard to other persons and other groups. The better way to prevent radicalization is to make people feel that the law is even-handed to all, and also to encourage engagement between communities.

During the discussion that took place at the opening of the community centre in Kurunegala, it was noted that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialised jobs. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in which there is conflictual relations, the tendency on the part of those from different communities will be to live in their own silos rather than interact with those of other communities. Living in peace in plural societies requires purposeful and energetic interaction which is organised. Where there has been ethnic and religious strife the world over, the better answer has been to provide people with encouragement and incentives to mix together, which is what the Muslim organization in Kurunegala was trying to do.



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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic

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This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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Dip Corps Plum Job? I don’t think so!

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I was reading an article in the papers the other day saying that the Attorney General (soon to retire) had turned down a “plum job” (interesting and archaic term) by refusing to go as the High commissioner to Canada. In the days when terminology such as “plum job” was used indeed any member of the Diplomatic Corps was considered elite. They usually came from people who had got degrees with a class and preferably a 1st class, and I believe they had to get through a tough civil service exam as well. Before they reached the top post of High Commissioner (if they came from the service) they had to spend many years learning the ropes. A few High Commissioners were appointed from among civil service retirees in other fields and if so, their role was largely ceremonial with the other staff in the embassy handling the actual policy matters.

Ever since the advent of “Kukul Charlie” to Scandinavia as H/C, during the R. Premadasa regime, this worthy actually had a mini chicken farm in the premises of the embassy, and slightly before that the actions of A.C.S. Hameed as the minister of foreign affairs during the J.R.J. regime.The Dip: Co: has degenerated into a mess. Most of the staffers are political appointees and even the progeny of Ministers and MP draw salaries from the embassy, to fund their overseas studies. Everybody seems to be running his or her own little racket to supplement his or her foreign currency incomes. Many of them don’t even come back when their terms are over. The Ambassador’s main role seems to be a taxi driver or to use modern terminology Uber driver for vising VIP’s and their assorted relatives.

Is it a wonder that the incumbent Attorney General chose to decline an offer of this sort? An offer that would have consigned him to oblivion (as seems to be what happens to all able-bodied, intelligent, and capable people in the Pearl) and to top it off, dealing with the freezing conditions of the Canadian winter. This is a blatant attempt to sideline a capable professional who is perceived as a threat to the government as he seems a bit of a maverick and his penchant to toe the line cannot be guaranteed. Now, instead of appreciating constructive criticism and the actions of a professional guided by his knowledge and ethics, the increasingly military regime wants order followers. Extensions of terms come very easily to those characterless wimps who fill and overflow the ranks of government employees! In this case, a “kick upstairs” seems to be what the powers that be require. I guess the inherent and ever-present guiding light of jealousy among his peers, keeps organisations such as the bar association from protesting these actions? I am sure they will find an excuse all covered in legalize. I fear Mr. Livera will have to carve his own path through the morass of muck that is the Pearl at present.

What demoralises me further is that editors of newspapers and even so-called “journalists” write and publish such articles when they are well aware of the true reasons and facts. Then again, I have read articles quoting government financial “geniuses” saying that printing money will not be detrimental to the economy and even some ministers saying that devaluation of the rupee simply means more money coming in from Middle Eastern remittances and a better lifestyle for the beneficiaries! I was even sent a link by a friend to a published article saying Sri Lanka has done a better job than New Zealand to maintain a low Covid death rate. Of course, the link came with the words “Ammata Siri” from a friend of mine!

On the subject of Covid, I am told the predictions for the Pearl based on statistics put out by American Universities, are dire. Now, I know that those ruling the country firmly believe that Sri Lanka is the centre of the universe and anything said by anyone other than themselves is utter rubbish. BUT I see an opportunity here … this is the time to form a “war cabinet” to overcome this catastrophe. Kick out all the idiots who are simply drawing huge salaries, and gadding about in flash new duty-free vehicles. Send them to their electorates and tell them to stay there, travel by bus, mix with the populace, and do their JOBS. Cut their salaries by 75% and use that money to give benefits to those affected by the virus and resultant recession. Form a Cabinet of 20 (maximum) and concentrate on saving our country and her people so that we can live to fight another day.

I have heard rumblings of discontent among the ruling clan. The big cheese is apparently being hampered by the blue cheese (old cheese) and his direct decedents. Be that as it may there certainly are around 70% of those currently in government who can be sent home to their electorates. There are a handful of those in Opposition who may be able to do a good job in these circumstances if included in this war cabinet. There certainly is a foreign minister in waiting, who doesn’t even have a parliamentary seat at present. The current sitting of parliament is said to cost an astronomical figure per sitting. Close it down and have cabinet meetings at Temple trees or TT as is the current local parlance. Another huge saving that can be distributed among those daily paid labourers who have no way to feed their families at present. Use the Parliamentary cooking facilities to make lunch packets for the needy.

There are opportunities even among this present and perceived chaos. All it takes is the will of a strong leader who is prepared to think outside the box. The current president certainly has the powers, but does he have the will? The country certainly thought he had done when they gave him that massive majority!

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Vaccine need and experts vs political power

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Manna from the skies and the drop of water to a man dying of thirst is for most now a jab in the upper arm which will hopefully keep at bay the dreaded omnipotent, omnipresent Covid 19 virus. It seems to be getting more virulent especially in poorer countries. But countries with massive daily numbers of those ill with C19 and large numbers dead, are fast returning to near normal e.g. USA. A young man who hibernated for the last fourteen months is away on holiday in the Big Apple – a separate State from his. And take it from Cassandra whose age, experience and potent gut feeling qualify her to judge situations, the improvement is due to President Biden’s leadership against that of Trump. Kudos go to Biden mostly for his selection of experts in relevant fields heading various government departments; selected solely on merit and matching the need; not considering relatives, sycophants, ethnic origin of the selected Americans. And he is totally receptive to expert advice. Judge his Secretary of State – Antony Blinken – a polar difference from big brash Mike Pompeo, in the mould of Trump. See how Dr Antony Fauci speaks now to the American media as shown us by CNN. He is confident; knows he is respected and trusted as Chief Medical Advisor to the President and also Director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases while with Trump he nearly had his head cut off for making statements about the pandemic contrary to what Trump wanted to hear. In this context why Dr Anil Jasinha was transferred as Secretary, Environmental Ministry, is still a mystery, since we Ordinaries do not believe it was a promotion. He did magnificently well, with the Army Commander and others in minimising the damage of the first C19 wave.

Many in Colombo are due for the second dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. When will it be given? We were lulled to complacency being told some time ago that the second dose was safely stored in time for vaccination three months after the first. Now we find the medical department’s cupboards are as bare as Mother Hubbard’s as regards the A-Z vaccine and there’s begging going on for the WHO to shower enough of this vaccine on poor Siri Lanka. Threatened is a cocktail of merrily mixed AstraZeneca with Sputnik or the Chinese vaccine. We all shout: No thank you!

We do sympathize with the government battered on all sides and reduced to begging. We appreciate what is being done, but go mad when we hear statements like “Development must go on” when development is a speedway to Ratnapura and purchase of helicopters.

Many approve of the move to lockdown regions and Grama Sevaka divisions and now even provinces since locking down the entire country is really too drastic a measure even though it will reduce mass infection.

Wise experts give of their expertise all the time.

The major issue that confronts the government at present is imminently losing the battle of the Covid 19 pandemic. Next, of course, is the mess of the second vaccine for which blame lies on the government. Then the fast-declining economy and solutions thereof, one solution being import of tourists and asylum given to those fleeing India. For this obvious blunder, blame is squarely on offshoots of the government like hoteliers, travel agents and leading the lot, Udayanga W with his Covid barrier-breaking influx of ‘ballooned’ tourists from Ukraine, one of the worst affected countries. The ‘balloons’ burst no sooner they landed in Paradise and were taken traipsing around Resplendent Sri Lanka.

Another disturbing situ inaugurated by the Prez himself is the fertiliser issue – his overnight banning of chemical fertilisers, to save farming community from kidney disease and win laurels as first country to ban such. Misfiring. Tests have shown the use of these fertilisers is not the cause of KDC. More damning: the sudden ban with no substitute organic fertiliser in large quantity will badly affect our primary cash crop and from the next Yala harvest itself our stomachs will rumble with hunger pangs and the poorer will surely starve. Nothing must be done with the sweep of the pen or the gush of words of command.

And here is Cassandra’s bone which she picks with the government. Experts abound in this country of intelligent people. They are not, apparently, consulted before decisions are made. As Prof, Rohan Rajapakse writes in his article Ban on agrochemical: where are we heading? in The Island of 11 May: “Three eminent scientists, namely Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha, Prof O A Ileyperuma and Prof C S Weeraratne have effectively dealt with the repercussions of the ban on chemical fertilizers.” (He gives their credentials in full). Prof Rajapakse goes on in his article to the sphere of pesticides and warns about that too.

No politician or army high-up nor even the Prez knows it all. So experts must be hearkened to, to serve the country and save its people.

Ubiquitous

Have you noticed as Cass has that the Minister of Sports and Youth is seen at very many meetings and exhibits involvement in fisheries, the environment, even the economy; far extended from his sphere of sports and youth. Latest sighting (Tuesday May 11) was him on TV news inspecting the marvelous hospital constructed in a couple of days by hard working, skilled young men. It will be manned mostly by young girls, nursing Covid 19 patients, at risk to themselves. So, Cass praises this young minister for being so interested in the welfare and well-being of the Ordinaries – we the people of Free Sri Lanka. A sports writer in the gossipy column on the last page of The Island of 12 May, gave him a paragraph, not complimentary like Cass’ paragraph (this). Also, we do not approve at all of exercise equipment being set up in villages. The villager has enough exercise in his farming and his spouse in house and garden work. Such centres, said to be open air, will only attract gawkers in their numbers, and laughter. Of course, someone will make money.

Dire danger of military in power

The youth of Myanmar are demonstrating to the entire world what the consequences are of military men ruling countries. Pro-democracy leader Daw Suu Kyi was given one term of half governing the country as Counsellor; the second time she and her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. She worked with the army leaders and going along with them – a la the Rohingya – was derided as a Nobel Peace Laureate.

The November 8, 2020 elections gave her Party a bigger majority. Then power was snatched off her and she was held hostage god knows where. (She suffered long years of strict house confinement after her first victory.)

The youth of the country rose up for democracy and for Suu Kyi being released. Listening to excerpts of conversations with two fighters for democracy – male and female – on BBC, Cass was overwhelmed with a fifty-fifty, long lasting spurt of emotion: sorrow and admiration for these young uns. Bless them and may they win the battle for a right of every human being – freedom from oppression and dictatorship. But these kids are being shot at with live bullets and more than fifty (if remembered correctly) are dead. Why-oh-why are base men so greedy for power?

The young of Hong Kong also fought unrelentingly but they were imprisoned and not killed deliberately. Their battle is against the growing power of China where a dictator resembling a military man rules supreme.

A bright spot

In media, whether print or visual, we long for news with optimistic effect to drive away, even temporarily, the doom and gloom that envelops us. Cass had her descending-to-depression spirits uplifted by watching a video clip of the Queen declaring the new Parliamentary sessions ‘open’.

Here was the mid-90s Sovereign walking steadily with her eldest son beside her and reading her speech about what ‘her government’ and ‘her ministers’ would do for the country in a steady voice with steady hands holding the script.

Top on this list was fast recovery from the pandemic followed by environmental, health and educational betterment. She hid signs of emotion that would have battered her because for almost seven decades she came in with her beloved Philip by her side at this ceremony.

Cass took courage from this marvelous woman.

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