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Muslim leaders appeal for unity, caution against extremism on both sides

By Himal Kotelawala

Highlighting the introspection and self-evaluation evident within the Muslim community in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, a collective of Muslim political and civil society representatives today urged the wider Sri Lankan populace, particularly the Sinhalese, to not fall into the traps of communal politics.

At a press conference held in Colombo this afternoon, Minister Kabir Hashim, former ministers Ferial Ashraff and Imtiyaz Bakir Makar and President’s Counsel Ali Sabry underscored the Muslim community’s commitment to making changes to its identity in the interest of integration and cultural assimilation.

“Religious leaders and Muslim intellectuals are looking at ways in which we can change the Madrasa Act and other religious laws. We’re also trying to see whether we have brought in foreign ideology which isn’t part of our religion. We’re looking at what we must do away with, whatever has held us back from integration with the mainstream of this country, and make whatever changes necessary,” said Minister Hashim.

Any cultural elements that are incompatible with mainstream Islam and religious laws not in line with the law of the land, he said, will be reviewed and changed.

“But we have to do this together. We’re ready to look inward. Maybe we have contributed to the breakdown in trust, too,” he said, appealing for unity between communities.

The Minister also questioned the wisdom of judging an entire community based on the acts of a few.

“We must not judge the majority of the Sinhalese based on the acts of a very few. The same should apply to the Muslims of this country, who shouldn’t be judged by the acts of 0.01% of the community. Their Islam is not my Islam,” he said.

Calling for the regulation of Madrasas, President’s Counsel Sabry meanwhile said no one in the community will oppose a more transparent approach to religious education.

“The syllabus must be reviewed, along with a critical examination of the teachers, students and the sources of funds. The Madrasas must be regulated,” he said.

Sabry also highlighted the importance of recognising that opposition to the extremist ideology that fueled the Easter Sunday act of terrorism came from within the Muslim community itself.

Cautioning against the dangers of extremism from all sides, the lawyer said the Zahran Hashim, the mastermind of the Easter attacks, only had 20 to 25 followers until the communal clashes in Digana and elsewhere.

“Extremism feeds extremism,” he said, calling for an end to segregated school education along ethnic or religious lines.

Former UNP minister Bakir Makar, too, expressed similar views, highlighting the various agendas at play on the international, political and trade fronts.

“Rather than focus on the differences of our religions, we must strive to highlight the many similarities,” he said.

Former UPFA parliamentarian Ferial Ashraff, echoing the sentiments of the other speakers, said Sri Lanka has seen enough bloodshed. She appealed to an end to the targeting and harassment of innocent Muslims.

“I urge you not to lump us together with the small group that carried out the horrific attack. Please do not fuel extremism or terrorism. When people are repeatedly harassed, there is a risk of them being pushed towards extremism. We suffered at the hands of LTTE terrorism for 30 years. We cannot shed more blood on this land. Enough is enough,” she said.