The battle for sacred ground

The misty mountain village of Kuragala, just off Balangoda, came alive on Monday when a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter landed in the area carrying Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a full retinue of military, Police and intelligence officers onboard.
Accompanied by dozens of Buddhist monks including Jathika Hela Urumaya Leader Ellawela Medhananda Thero, Moulavis, Chief of National Intelligence Major General (Retd) Kapila Hendawitharana and officials from the Department of Archaeology, the Defence Secretary undertook a site visit of the rock face on top of which sits an Islamic heritage shrine.
Kuragala is home to an ancient Sufi shrine, sacred to Muslims because Arabic rock inscriptions, tombstones and other historical evidence point to a greatly revered Islamic saint having meditated in the rock caves for 12 years on a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak. Once a year, pilgrims flock to the site to commemorate the death anniversary of Saint Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir. At all other times, it is a haven for meditation and solitary reflection that Sufism preaches.Dharisha
The shrine’s tranquillity has been marred in the recent past by disputed claims over its historic origins. Buddhist monks and hard-line groups that are gaining momentum in the political firmament have renewed a decades-old claim that the rock cave was in fact an ancient Buddhist monastic site. The groups want the site cleared of all Islamic buildings and monuments, including the mosque. Given the significance the shrine holds for Muslims all over the island, any potential threat to the Jailani mosque and attempt to alter the history of the site could seriously escalate tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in the country.
Custody of Jailani
When a similar claim for Jailani was made by Buddhists in the 1970s the Department of Archaeology took custody of the site, although the custodianship of the Jailani shrine, the rock cave mosque and pilgrim rests in the area was held in trust by the Aboosally family. UNP Parliamentarian M.L.M. Aboosally was the first trustee of the Jailani shrine, and his daughter Roshan holds the trusteeship today.
On Monday, when the shrine’s trustees and Moulavis sat down for initial discussions with the Defence Secretary soon after a quick tour of the sacred site, the tone adopted was that the land belonged to the Department of Archaeology and all the buildings on the rock face had to go. Discouraged by the tone of the discussion, the Muslim representatives believed the battle was already lost. But subsequently, the Defence Secretary asked Director General of the Department of Archaeology Dr. Senarath Dissanayake to explain to the members of the Muslim community and the Sinhalese villagers who had also gathered there the actual situation with regard to the site’s archaeological significance.
Proposed compromise
Dr. Dissanayake explained that no harm would come to the rock cave mosque, but that the Archaeological Department had to investigate the inscriptions on the rock and inspect the rock caves. The Director General promised that the Government would allocate 26 acres of land for the pilgrim rests and mosque feasts to be held nearby. In return, the mosque would be left standing, but the other buildings on the rock face would have to come down while excavations and archaeological inquiry took place.
Several members of the Muslim community who listened to Dr. Dissanayake’s explanation were dissatisfied by the compromise. They believed that a surrender of the Jailani monuments and premises would effectively open the door for further ‘reclamation’ of sacred Islamic sites in the country based on claims of original settlement. However, moderates cautioned against being unyielding on the issue, especially after authorities assured the mosque would not be torn down. It was agreed that if further attempts were made to annexe sites sacred to the Muslims, the community would adopt a tougher position then, appealing if necessary to the international community and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a major Islamic bloc of 57 countries that has been staunchly supportive of Sri Lanka over the years.
No demolition
After Dr. Dissanayake had explained matters and reassured Muslim representatives that the mosque would not be harmed and Muslim pilgrims and visitors to the site would not be impeded, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa who had been walking around returned to the discussion. He assured the Muslim community that their religious rights would not be hindered and that the Government would ensure that no Buddhist monuments would be constructed on the site. Instead, Rajapaksa said, the site would be a free area, open to both Buddhist and Muslim pilgrims.
Given the tensions between the communities, both in the Balangoda area and around the country, it is unclear if this attempt at a compromise would help or hinder the peace. Large crowds of Buddhists with a territorial claim, encountering large crowds of Muslim pilgrims with a historic claim of their own, could spell trouble if unruly elements were to infiltrate the crowds to disturb the peace, analysts warn.
The Defence Secretary instructed Dr. Dissanayake to appoint a committee, comprising the shrine’s trustees, Medhananda Thero and other monks and the Archaeology Department to meet as soon as possible and find a suitable compromise that would defuse tensions regarding the Kuragala shrine. Interestingly, the Muslim representatives were assured that neither the Bodu Bala Sena nor the Sinhala Ravaya would have a say in the matter or sit on the committee.
Ellawela Medhananda Thero also assured members of the Muslim community that Buddhists would not impede Muslim pilgrims to the site. The JHU Leader takes a hard-line on most ethnic issues and the JHU as a political party has never espoused ideologies of peace, but the entrance of the Bodu Bala Sena with their blatant anti-minority agendas has made monks like Medhananda seem moderate.
Storming the rock cave
About 18 months ago, a JHU-led brigade of monks and laymen attempted to storm the Kuragala shrine, determined to “reclaim” the site and restore its rightful Buddhist heritage. Upon discussions with the shrine’s trustee Roshan Aboosally and other Muslim representatives about the site’s historic significance to Muslims and evidence to support legends of the meditating Islamic saint, the monks agreed to allow the matter to rest. But for hard-line groups gaining ground, the Jailani shrine was an easy cause to take up and it has become a key focal point in their anti-Muslim campaigns.
In January 2013, the Sinhala Ravaya and Bodu Bala Sena groups organised about 150 monks who attempted to storm the Jailani mosque. Accompanied by several policemen, they clambered up the rock face, carrying Buddha statues in their hands, sources say, only to find their attempt foiled by a massive thunder-shower that caused the group to retrace their steps.
Jailani’s strange tranquillity and otherworldly placement gives rise to a strong perception for believers that it is sacred ground and therefore protected by the divine. The Muslim community, tasked with protecting the shrine and increasingly concerned about the blatant attack on Islamic places of worship by hard-liners who appear to command the support of law enforcement in most cases, believe the sudden shower on a sunny day in Balangoda to be an act of God.
A tense meeting
The attempted raid of Jailani in January and the potential flashpoint the dispute was creating spurred authorities into action the following month. On 6 February, a meeting was held in the office of the Director General of the Department of Archaeology Dr. Senarath Dissanayake in Colombo. The meeting included the Trustee of the Kuragala shrine, other representatives and scholars from the Muslim community, Archaeology Department officials, officials of the Ministry of Defence and the Police and walking in at the last minute, representatives of the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya groups.
Adopting a harsh tone from the outset, the hard-line monks refused to allow Roshan Aboosally to speak in English, when she apologetically requested to be allowed to do so since her Sinhala was not fluent. The Bodu Bala Sena representatives flatly refused to allow her to do so, insisting that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala country and she should address the meeting in Sinhalese. The Bodu Bala Sena representatives dominated the meeting, responding to the Director General’s claims that things had to be done according to the law, with threats. “Neither laws nor acts nor history matters – if the Kuragala is not cleared by 14 February, we will bring a force of 25,000 people and take it back ourselves,” the monks raged.
According to representatives at the meeting, the threat of a raid on 14 February raised major fears of a clash on the sacred site, since the date coincided with the Jailani mosque feast that would bring hundreds of Muslims to the area. Following further extensive discussions, the “deadline” was extended to 30 April with a resolution to be sought before then.
Meeting at Defence Ministry
It was as a follow-up to that disastrous 6 February meeting that the Kuragala Shrine trustees and members of the Muslim community sought a meeting with Defence Secretary Rajapaksa last week. When the delegation arrived at the Defence Ministry, Bodu Bala Sena representatives were also in the premises. The Muslim representatives flatly refused to discuss the issue with the hard-line group, prompting the Defence Secretary to summon a different group of Buddhist monks to the Ministry.
The second delegation included learned and moderate monks, such as Prof. Bellanvila Wimalarathana Thero who was also instrumental in defusing the Halal controversy after a compromise was “brokered” on the issue. The monks and Defence Ministry officials however were insisting that a settlement be reached at the meeting and the matter laid to rest. However, the Trustee and members of the Muslim delegation insisted that the Defence Secretary visit the hotly-contested site before any settlement was reached.
Roshan Aboosally believes that the involvement of the Defence Secretary was an attempt to defuse tensions arising about the sacred shrine, especially after attempted raids by hard-line groups and threats that mobs would arrive at the site to tear down monuments on Vesak Poya Day. She believes that once the committee is convened by the Director General of Archaeology, a compromise could be reached that will allow the Jailani mosque to stand, even if the other premises on the rock will have to be given up by the Trust.
“My priority as the Trustee would be to ensure that the mosque remains, and that Muslim religious activities could still take place at the site. From here on, that would be my primary responsibility, to preserve the mosque and ensure Muslims can still come there to worship,” she said.
Creating controversy
The Kuragala issue is just one key flashpoint in a sea of tension created by hard-line groups that are being permitted to run amok. The creation of non-issues, like the Halal controversy or the conflict over the abaya, aimed at heightening paranoia in the Sinhala Buddhist community and inciting at the very least the boycott of Muslim businesses and consumer products, and at the worst, brutal violence against those enterprises and Islamic places of worship, is their modus operandi.
The anti-Muslim campaign is gaining such traction that it is increasingly becoming a concern as to how much longer the Muslim community and its elders can keep calm in their ranks and prevent any retaliation that could set communal fires ablaze. Not only does the campaign against another minority community push the country to the edge of renewed ethno-religious strife, but all signs are that Islamic countries of the world are sitting up and beginning to take notice.
Apart from its public statement raising the alarm about rising tensions against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) last month, the organisation has also dispatched a confidential letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa appealing to him to restore calm and contain the threats posed to Sri Lankan Muslims by hard-line movements galvanising support against them.
The country – having largely lost the support of the West, by its obdurate positions on devolution, reconciliation and investigating alleged war-time excesses and lately, even India – has come to rely more and more on the support of the Islamic bloc and the African bloc in its international battles.
It will be recalled, and not without some irony, that it was Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, that slammed the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month and even called for a vote to contest the move. Ties between Pakistan and Sri Lanka remain enduring and robust, especially after Islamabad was one of the few countries to continue supplying ammunition to Sri Lanka during the final phase of its battle with the LTTE. But with the anti-Muslim rhetoric growing louder in the island and its impacts spilling over as violence against Muslims, their enterprises and places of worship, especially following the attack on Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana, Pakistan faces a dilemma with regard to its continued and unwavering support of Sri Lanka.
Pakistan gets a briefing
Last Friday while Pakistan Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani was in Colombo for bilateral consultations, the Pakistani mission in Colombo arranged a special meeting for the official with key Muslim politicians and the community’s representatives to discuss the recent developments. Interestingly, the meeting was scheduled prior to Secretary Jilani’s meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
For several hours at the residence of Western Province Governor Alawi Moulana, Muslim representatives, including Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem and A.H.M. Azwer and other non-politicians, briefed the Pakistani Foreign Secretary about the ground situation relating to Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Minister Hakeem, who spoke first, chose to be measured in his statements, but nonetheless highlighted the threats that Muslims were facing in the country due to the meteoric rise of Sinhala Buddhist hard-line groups. Soon afterwards, Azwer who rose to speak rubbished the claims that Muslims were facing harassment. He said all communities were living peacefully in the country and said the incidents being reported were merely rumours.
President of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan Friendship Association Ifthikhar Aziz who commented on the situation at the meeting warned that Muslims were facing a grave situation in the country but had shown tremendous patience and conducted itself as a mature minority in the face of threats from hard-line groups. Aziz warned however that it took only one fool to react to the situation and make it spiral out of control. He explained that while the LTTE only represented the views of a small percentage of Tamils in their separatist claim, in the case of the Muslims, because it involved damaging insults to their religion, the entire community would get involved if matters reached boiling point and this situation had to be avoided at all costs.
The visiting Pakistani official was briefed on the various incidents of Muslim harassment being reported, including the damage to the Qurans in several mosques, the man-handling and verbal abuse directed at Muslim women wearing hijab and campaigns calling on the Sinhalese to refrain from renting office or house space to Muslims.
While appreciating the role Pakistan played in getting Sri Lanka the support of several Islamic nations at the UNHRC in Geneva last month, the Muslim representatives urged the visiting official that Islamabad also had a responsibility to remind the Government of Sri Lanka that the rights of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka must be protected.
By Saturday morning, President Rajapaksa had gotten wind of the meeting. He was aware of all those who had spoken at the meeting with the Pakistani Foreign Secretary and all the information that had been relayed. A fuming President questioned Governor Moulana as to why Police entries had not been made regarding these incidents against Muslims. He said the National Intelligence Bureau was keen to investigate the issue. Although it was not certain how the information had been relayed to the President so swiftly, many members present believe that MP Azwer, who had stoically maintained there was no anti-Muslim campaign in the country, may have played Judas and repeated the proceedings of the meeting verbatim.
Vigil against BBS
Meanwhile, resistance continues to build against the invective being propagated by the Bodu Bala Sena, both within the Buddhist community and outside it. Tomorrow, a Facebook group that has been making waves lately, calling itself the Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena, is organising a candlelit vigil outside the massive multi-storeyed building on Havelock Road that houses the Bodu Bala Sena offices. The vigil will take place at 7 p.m. and is garnering significant support both off and online.
Key leaders of the Bodu Bala Sena, including its vociferous General Secretary Galagodaththe Gnanasara, are currently on a US tour, aimed at taking the group’s agendas international and will not witness the vigil. But organisers hope it will be the starting point of a peaceful battle of wills between the Bodu Bala Sena’s ideologies of hate and the teachings of Gautama Buddha that resonate with other religious and ethnic communities and could unite moderates in a worthy cause.
Speaking at a forum organised by the Young Journalists’ Movement on Monday, former Bishop of Colombo Rev. Duleep De Chickera stressed the need for religious communities and moderates from all communities to speak out when another community comes to harm. “Buddhists must speak out on behalf of the Muslims. Christians must speak out on behalf of the Hindus,” he said. All moderates must transcend ethnic and religious boundaries to speak in one voice against attempts to harm the people of a community. It is the only way to make an impact, he explained.
Sam’s plea
TNA Leader R. Sampanthan may have taken the first step in this regard during a speech in Parliament on Tuesday, even offering his regret that the course of Tamil-Muslim relations had not always run smooth.
“Today the Muslim people are fearful; anxious and hurt by the invective surrounding them. As fellow minorities, the Tamil people feel the pain, the insecurity, the fear and the anxiety of our Muslim brothers and sisters. The relationship between the Tamils and Muslims has always been close – sometimes strained and to our perpetual shame, though very rarely, even violent and cruel – but always close. Our people are too closely intertwined for one to think that it can survive the fate of the other. We are connected to each other just as we are connected to the Sinhalese, the Malays and the Burghers; but the bonds of a common language and home cannot be broken easily. And so, when our Muslim brothers and sisters are harmed on the street; or attacked by mobs; or have their Mosques vandalised; we cannot unconcerned spectators,” the senior Tamil politician said in a brief but stirring statement to the House.
Sampanthan demanded that the violence against the Muslim people and the hate speech cease now. “We are conscious that the vast majority of the Sinhalese Buddhist people do not condone such actions and that they would very much wish to live in peace and harmony paying due respect to the rights of other peoples,” he said.
The TNA response has garnered an ugly response even from sections of the Government. Sampanthan is being accused of being an LTTE proxy and failing to speak out when the LTTE was massacring Muslims in the east and cleansing them from the north. But his words have already made an impact. It has reinforced the fact that any response to the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya campaigns of hate against the Muslims must be multi-religious and multi-ethnic in composition, in order to prevent one religious extremist faction being met with another.
Sri Lankans rarely make the freedoms and rights of others their own problems. Slain The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge bemoaned this very fact, in his last editorial, ‘And then they came for me.’
Perhaps the time has come. The hour has grown so late and so much is finally at stake that speaking out is now imperative. (Courtesy Daily FT)