A Space for Faith
Reflections on religious freedom for Muslims in Sri Lanka
Through the months of June and July, Muslims across the globe observe the holy period of Ramazan. It is even more significant this year in Sri Lanka as June 2016, that marks 2 years since the violence in Aluthgama and Beruwela, falls within the holy month.
In a time when there is rampant misrepresentation of the Islamic faith and its followers by the media in several parts of the world as well as an undercurrent of extremism in our country too, we sought to find out how young Muslims in Sri Lanka perceived the place their religion has in our society.
These are the voices of the young people who answered the questions we posed to them; they are artists, teachers, designers, journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and researchers, each with unique perspectives on what it means to be Muslim in Sri Lanka and the freedom they have to practice their faith.
How important is the physical space of the mosque to you and do you see it as a safe place for worship?
"The mosque is a symbol of a community and functions as thus fulfilling the role similar to one of a community center - a safe space where a community comes together as equals to share and partake in knowledge, truth and justice."
"During the month of Ramazan, mosques acquire heightened significance for it brings together Muslims from all walks of life to offer night Taraweeh prayers in congregation. Therefore, mosques are a vital focal point of spiritual activity for the Muslim community."
"The change of government brought about a greater sense of security among mosque-goers. Recent incidents in Kandy and Dehiwela have raised fears of a revival of the orchestrated events during the previous regime that led to the Aluthgama mayhem. It is mainly because the so called 'all-party government' of today, even after one and a half years in office, has failed to prosecute the perpetrators of the Aluthgama riots."
Considering recent issues/threats to religious freedom in Sri Lanka, do you feel you have the complete freedom to practice Islam in Sri Lanka?
"I don't think we have complete freedom to practice Islam here in Sri Lanka. Obviously not every single action is possible when we are in a diverse country but, after recent issues, it seems we are losing our basic rights on choosing what we eat, dress and even a certain day to celebrate our own religious festivals."
"Yes, Muslims are allowed to practice their religion and engage in their cultural practices. But I am not so convinced about the other aspects of freedom here. But I am not going to be biased. There are mistakes of our own community that need some serious repair."
"I still see the elements who created trouble trying to stir up disharmony in the periphery. I don't see that going away immediately, as the some roots have taken shape.
Hatred has been instilled in a fair number of people."
"For over a thousand years, religious freedom has always strengthened Buddhism. It is of concern that a political group is seeking to exploit extremist groups in the country to enhance these threats in order to try regime change. If it succeeds, due to the failure of the government to arrest these threats firmly and effectively, one might anticipate serious harm to democracy itself."
Do you think Sri Lankan society is accepting/welcoming towards Muslims and if not, what steps need to be taken to address this?
"I think society isn't as welcoming towards Muslims. But that might also be a fault of the community. Muslims tend to not interact much with the other communities, and with more women choosing to wear the niqab, I think they are isolating themselves even more."
"I believe if the government acts decisively in enforcing the rule of law on extremist groups trying to incite threats and violence against the minorities, the silent majority as well as the minorities will be the happiest."
"With the recent turmoil between extremist groups and the stronghold of ISIS in world terrorism, some non-Muslims have started to become paranoid. They feel safe around traditional Muslims who try to adapt into Sri Lankan culture. There are so many Muslims and Sinhalese who reside in villages highly concentrated with people of their own race. They have no exposure or interaction with other cultures. This has led to many misconceptions of religions and therefore, racist issues."
"I believe in pluralism. I believe that religious hatred and violence stems from ignorance and misunderstanding. I believe if people make the effort to get to know each other, there is space for judgment and intolerance. All the religions have universal core values- peace, love, dignity, respect and equality."
"We need to bridge the path to a common ground by promoting meaningful and sustainable multi-faith dialogue among schools, institutions and overall society. To coexist as a multicultural society, every Sri Lankan needs to look at other cultures with an open mind; interact with different groups, adapt, accommodate, be Sri Lankan."
The Centre for Policy Alternatives wishes all those celebrating a blessed and meaningful Ramazan.