“We cannot be pushed too much”: Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lankan Muslim leader

Published : June 03, 2019 22:03 IST

When this correspondent met the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauff Hakeem, at 9 a.m. on June 3, he was still Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education. In the course of the interview for Frontline, he referred to the fast by a Member of Parliament and Buddhist Monk in Kandy as a sideshow demanding the sacking of two Muslim governors and a Minister.I In the view of the ultra-right they had either protected or were in league with those who carried out the April 21 blasts. Hakeem was concerned about the unreasonable demands but did not consider the possibility of resigning as Minister at that time.

In just a space of three hours, after the resignations of two Muslim Governors, things changed. All the Muslim Ministers decided to resign as a block, regardless of party affiliations, putting the pressure back on a beleaguered and dysfunctional government. It turned out that this was the last interview Hakeem gave as a Minister.

In your view, what has changed for the Muslim community after the blasts of April 21, which killed over 250 people across Sri Lanka?

As a community, Muslims have been equally shocked and dismayed by the existence of a dangerous terrorist outfit within our community. We have expressed our outrage and condemnation in no small measure and have also sincerely sought to engage in a serious introspection as to how such a deviant ideology could have nestled within a very close-knit community like ours.

The fact remains that there have been many lapses on the part of the people in authority when it comes to security and intelligence. When alarm bells were rung by the community itself—responsible leaders in the community have taken it up repeatedly—about the conduct of the leader of this group, particularly after the discovery of a small group in Mawanella which started vandalising Buddhist statues [in December 2018], it was clear to all of us that this is a group which is out to harm the Muslim community more than anybody else; that they were acting as agents of an outside force to create communal disharmony in the country and perhaps had other motives too, although we did not imagine at all that they could have graduated to committing such terrible terrorist carnage.

Right now though, we can rest assured that this cult has been identified properly, and all those involved have been taken into custody and the investigations are continuing. Some of the xenophobic forces have now taken it upon themselves to continue to keep the pot boiling and make the entire Muslim community the victims.

Isn’t that (the demonisation of Muslims) already happening?

It is happening. There are now a variety of side-shows that are going on attempting to once again instigate violence—one phase has already happened in Kurunegala [a town in Central Sri Lanka], and North Central province, almost 30 days after the incident. Violence by restive political elements, hell-bent on using this to their political advantage erupted; and also looking at the prospect of an election very soon [the presidential election will be held on December 7] .

The security forces as usual took some time to contain the violence, by which time serious incidents had taken place. Twenty-nine mosques and several business establishments and dwellings of Muslims were destroyed. Moreover, the damage to the economy because of the drop in the tourism sector and the overall impact is going to affect everybody.

Though very patronising remarks are made by higher-ups in the security establishment and political leaders, such as “Don’t blame the whole community”, “All of them are not responsible,” etc., they keep repeating the phrase “Islamic terrorism”. This is very hurtful. The Muslims are bewildered. These are terrorists and they don’t need to be given a religious tag. However much we try to exculpate ourselves by saying that none of us has endorsed this, some of these xenophobic forces, together with international agencies which keep the islamophobia hype alive, are hell-bent on harassing Muslims.

Now it has taken a different turn. They are looking at lifestyle issues. They are looking at trying to introduce so-called reforms, which are a little too intrusive. This is causing a lot of alarm. What we have assured the government is that as leaders we are prepared to engage in a very serious introspection and we are voluntarily willing to adopt certain changes to make healthy coexistence possible. And also address issues of the suspicion and fear relating to a variety of different issues.

Because of continuous outrageous attacks and insinuations by the so-called majoritarian xenophobic forces over a period of time, the community is also becoming insular. We have to prevent that. We are now sincerely engaging in that exercise. But then we are not given the space to make changes. They are trying to impose changes externally. Which is not going to be received and that might—what we fear—have the reverse effect of same type of insularism taking root again and resulting in unfortunate polarisation once again.

That marginalisation will again be a fertile ground for radicalisation. This is a vicious cycle. I think both the minority and majority communities have to realise this. In countries where there is the healthy mix of minorities and the majority community, we need to be mature enough to realise the dangers of trying to be monitors of other communities’ internal affairs. In the meantime, the minority community should also realise that they have to compromise wherever compromise is possible. But that will only happen in an atmosphere of empathy and understanding. That is lacking. That space has been unfortunately hijacked by those partly politically motivated and those partly driven by religious bigotry in the majority community. This has to be resisted. We are doing it without offending anyone’s sentiments.

We don’t want to be slavishly living in a country where they expect us to compromise on our right to live and to be treated with dignity. These things are the issues today. Right now, all types of people are trying to win brownie points. Allegations abound against politicians, against every person who has some authority if they are from minorities. This has to be very gently resisted. There has to be a prosper retrospection about what is happening.

The rulers are also handling some of these xenophobic forces with velvet gloves. That is not going to help. You need to be evenhanded in trying to contain hate speech. That is not happening. Only when it happens, there can be a cohesion and coexistence possible. You need to have confidence in your security forces and the state that institutional independence will not be compromised, and the rule of law will be handled in an evenhanded manner. That perception is important even for public order. There are a lot of rumblings in society. There is deep disgust and outrage at the manner in which the Muslim community is being treated in the aftermath of this.

Of course, we need to be thankful to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for the magnanimity he displayed in the initial period, which helped us a lot to engage in a very serious introspection and start doing something voluntarily to totally rid this community of all kinds of extremism, and do things right. But that space is not being given.

Repeatedly, there is an onslaught on the community’s daily life and livelihood issues… There are forces hellbent on taking political capital out of the misery of the people. This is very unfortunate.

A lot of Muslim politicians are unacceptable to the Sinhala right wing…

We formed a party to look after the interests of the Muslim community. We did not want to antagonistic in our approach and we always felt that we must engage in an open dialogue with everyone. We also maintained our rapport with majority community leaders in such a way that we do not become confrontational in pushing our rights agenda.

Our rights agenda has to receive some empathy and understanding in an atmosphere of friendship. You should also not throw your weight around too much. It can be very distasteful. Political issues are very sentimental and emotional stuff. We had the same rapport with our Tamil brothers, with whom we tried to reach certain compromises in arriving at an acceptable solution to the ethnic problem in this country.

There are some who wish to live in denial. You can’t simply say that you don’t have a problem. So these are symptoms of a larger disease. You can’t treat the symptoms and expect the disease to cure itself. That is the philosophy here. The symptoms have to be dealt with in the right approach. When it comes to law and order and law enforcement, there needs to be a balanced and right approach. This is where things go wrong.

This continuous feeling of being discriminated against will happen because your first interface is with the police and the armed forces when situations like this happen. There we will need to do a lot of reforms. There is a lot of institutional reforms that need to happen. This is where we believe we have stayed above controversy. But you never know. It only takes—in a situation of such ethnic polarisation—it needs only a few troublemakers and for law enforcement and the law and order machinery to look the other way for things to flare up. That is the danger here.

The community has cooperated well with the government and that is the reason why many were caught quickly…

Yes. Within a month the entire cult was identified and they have virtually isolated them and are now continuing to look at the larger picture. I think when it comes to efficiency, I don’t think we need to have any doubt that our intelligence and security apparatus… the systems are there. But complacency had set in with 10 years of peace.

We need to ensure that the lapses do not occur like when you allow miscreants to go berserk in minority areas. God forbid, it can create fertile ground for some type of extremism to once again come out—out of vengeful feeling of being unfairly treated by the state. That shouldn’t happen.

Healthy compromises cannot be done in a slavish manner. The majority community will be wrong if they try to impose solutions. Right now, it appears that there is a gung-ho approach by some of them. But we are gently resisting it and telling them “We cannot be pushed too much.”

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