Islamophobia in Sri Lanka: To cremate or to bury Muslim Covid victims is the question

Sri Lanka asked Maldives to bury Sri Lankan Muslims dying of Covid, claiming that burials would contaminate groundwater

Islamophobia in Sri Lanka: To cremate or to bury Muslim Covid victims is the question

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

March 30, 2020, was a normal day in Negombo, a lagoon city north of Sri Lankan capital Colombo. At least normal by the standards of a pandemic year. While there had been a few deaths here and there but by and large Sri Lanka was coping well. Coping well before it saw its first Muslim Covidvictim. Mohammed Jamal had left behind a wife and a daughter to mourn him. Except he was cremated before they were even told about his passing. This would be the first such incident in the series of several others that have rocked the Sri Lankan Muslim community.

In complete disregard of the WHO’s or similar guidelines, the Sri Lankan government made it mandatory for all Covid victims to be cremated, including Muslims and Christians. Till date about 50 Muslims have been forcibly cremated.

Sri Lankan Muslims have done well for themselves in all these years. Mercantile spirit coupled with the penchant to stay under the radar has helped them create a life that is relatively more prosperous than what their brethren lead across the Indian Ocean. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, Sri Lankan Muslims, also colloquially known as Moors, had to strike a very precarious balancing act.

However, their luck ran out when the ethnic cleansing that followed a massacre perpetrated by the LTTE saw many taking shelter and starting a new life in the Sinhala dominated areas. However, following the culmination of the Civil War, a section of Sinhalese Majority has turned towards them. Now that the Tamils have been taken care of, they are the new sore thumb.

The Buddhist-Muslim relationship in Sri Lanka is becoming progressively bad. Since at least 2012, there have been several agitations and movements targeting Muslims. Most of these movements have been led by Buddhist clergy with tacit support from the ruling dispensation.

The watershed moment in the Buddhist-Sinhala relation was the Dolahey Karalla agitation started by Buddhist clergy in 2012. It has been followed by a campaign of terror by BodhuBalaSena, a paramilitary like organisation that in its ideology and structure is similar to our own famed “cultural organisation” that sees its name in the FIR of every communal riot. The agitation of Aluthgama was a dark chapter in the violence against Muslims which was followed by a similarly despicable Ampara agitation. All these agitations were based on Islamophobic conspiracy theories.

What has been remarkable in Sri Lanka, however, is the fact that unlike other places where they have been suppressed, Muslims in Sri Lanka have not retaliated violently. They have time and again reposed their faith in the internal mechanism and institutions of Sri Lanka. However, that faith has been shaken.

The statements issued by the government and the leaders are mostly measured. However, they hide more than they reveal. The government has struck by its stand that this is being done on the recommendation of the scientific panel which said that the burial of Covid patients would lead to contamination of ground-water. Although this is preposterous and has no scientific value, the government has stuck by it.

However, as in India, the messaging from the government is sent from two levels. The official channels continue to say non-controversial things Muslims in Sri Lanka protest against government's decision to cremate bodies of those dying of Covid Veteran diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka in his newspaper column rhetorically asks that if Muslim victims are to be buried in the Maldives, where shall Catholics be buried, in Kerala? so as not to draw censure from international bodies but the unofficial channels, their cadres and supporters both online and offline, are told through dog-whistles to create an anti-Muslim environment.

While the leaders from the ruling dispensation and the government channels are sticking by the fig-leaf that their scientific panel has given them, the supporters and cadres of the party are openly saying that if bodies are handed over to Muslims for burials, they will “weaponise” the virus.

The mainstream Muslim elites in Sri Lanka were slow in reacting to this policy. However, they have woken up belatedly when they realised that their silence and inaction will permanently discredit them in the eyes of their constituency. Azath Salley, a very senior leader of the National Unity Alliance (NUA) and an ex-Governor has condemned the move. Ali ZahirMoulana of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress has also condemned it. Similarly, Rauff Hakeem, another senior SMC leader has condemned the decision. However, these condemnations are seen as too little and coming too late.

Experts in Sri Lanka are fearful that new Muslim leadership that is not entrenched economically and politically with the Sinhalese-ecosystem will start to emerge which will see its redemption in global Islam rather than putting its faith in the Sri Lankan institutions. This will have a catastrophic effect. Particularly bad is the judgement by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court that upheld the government’s unscientific decision without giving any valid argument in its favour.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka, which is well-educated is aware of the WHO guidelines vis-àvis disposal of dead bodies and understands that barring burials has no scientific basis. Not surprisingly, the ruling dispensation, and by that extension, the Sri Lankan state, has lost its trust. Muslims now believe, accurately, that since there is no scientific backing behind this policy, it is a matter of politics now and the decision is political and the policy will not be reversed.

If that was not enough, the ruling dispensation rubbed salt to the wound when it asked the Maldives to facilitate the burials of Muslim Covid victims in the Maldives. However, the majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka condemned this move as it further promoted Islamophobic and racist views in that it gives the signal that Sri Lankan Muslims are not Sri Lankan and that they have another home in the Maldives.

The proposal was so ludicrous that the veteran Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka in his regular column in a broadsheet lambasted it by asking rhetorically that if Muslim victims are to be buried in the Maldives, where shall Catholics be buried, in Kerala?

As expected, the issue has caught the attention of regional and international bodies including United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Belief, Amnesty International and the OIC who have all condemned the decision. Carrying on with the policy will attract further censures globally, a situation that Sri Lankan diplomats want to avoid what with Colombo not having very many friends globally. However, pulling back will be seen as a political defeat. This is one neat bind the ruling dispensation has found itself into.

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