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‘Where every prospect pleases, man alone is vile’

Image courtesy Aaron Joel Santos

The title of this article is a line from a beautifully haunting hymn written by Bishop Heber of Calcutta who, clearly, had an imperialistic mindset.  He visited our island in 1825, and the hymn must have been written around that time.  The next line reads, ‘The Heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone’.  Because of the racism implicit in it, this hymn is no longer sung in most churches.  But in the light of the extended anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping the country, we may need to pose the question, ‘are we vile?’ Are Sri Lankans a nation?  Are we one people? Are we a law abiding democracy?  Are we a model of friendly co-existence?  Till a few decades ago the answers would have been a resounding no to the first question and an emphatic yes to each of the others.  But now there are some fanatical groups claiming be Buddhists who seem determined to reverse each of these answers.  We do remain the Isle of Serendipity, but at the pace at which we are destroying our physical environment, even this claim may soon ring hollow.

Language and religion are not the only categories of a people – there are many others.  There are twenty million people in our island and each of us is, in several respects, belongs to one minority category or another.  During the twenty years of civil war the Tamils in the North and East suffered terribly; many yet do, as the recent attack on the TNA meeting in Kilinochchi reminds us.  From time to time Christian Churches and clergy have come under grave physical attacks; the latter include several Sinhalese.  But now the community singled out for attacks, sustained over many months, is the Muslims.  Many seem to regard the Muslims as a community outside the pale.

When the anti-Tamil July 1983 pogrom sponsored by sections of the state occurred, there were Sinhalese, Muslims and others who went out of their way at great cost and risk to themselves to defend, protect and sustain Tamil families.  Within a few days the attacks were over although, as could be expected, the recovery has taken many years.  There was a crack down (though some what belated and inadequate), much remorse, a Commission of Inquiry (again belated) and apologies from the highest in the land including President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Likewise, when the Boxing day tsunami occurred, most of the victims were Tamils and Muslims, but many Sinhalese went over to the affected coastal regions with gifts of food and clothing for total strangers.  The response to the current crisis affecting the Muslims is strikingly different. Are they not an integral part of our population?  Even the few criminals who were arrested appeared to have been released because the Muslim victims were intimidated into refusing to give evidence.  Are they to wait for relief from Arab countries?

The Muslim problem was evident even during the 1915 riots nearly a century ago.  They had to fend for themselves.   The British administration charged some Sinhalese leaders (some of whom were innocent) of organizing or carrying out the attacks on Muslim traders.  Those who intervened and even went to London to plead for mitigation were more concerned to establish the innocence of the Sinhalese leaders and not with justice and compensation for the Muslim victims.  A good friend and neighbour, Judge M.A.M. Hussain, made this point forcefully to my father and myself in a conversation half a century ago.  He asserted that the Muslims needed a political party based in areas dominated by Muslim population and voters to look after their interest; they cannot expect similar commitment from Muslim MPs who are mainly dependant on Sinhalese votes.  In due course he helped to establish the SLMC led by his south east based nephew Ashroff.  Judge Hussain and Ashroff are both dead and the current top SLMC leadership is no longer from the east.

I was reminded of Judge Hussain’s arguments when the LTTE committed massacres in Kattankudy, Eravur and elsewhere, and there was not even a Commission of Inquiry by the state.  Nor was there one or any attempt to stop the eviction when the entire Muslim population of the North was summarily driven by the LTTE from all the northern districts.  Equally appalling was the totally inadequate response to the recurrent massacres of Tamils during the civil war, especially in the closing stages.  Also appalling, and even more surprising is the seeming indifference to the massacre by the LTTE in the east of 600 policemen, mostly Sinhalese in the late 80s.  Are we to conclude that there could be a residue of truth in the charge set out in Bishop Heber’s hymn that in this island man is vile?

The anti-Muslim caravan is advancing, gaining momentum with, seemingly, no obstacles. Strangely, the top leaders of the SLMC remain in the cabinet.  Mosques and churches are being demolished and their clergy physically attacked, Muslim led business establishments are being forcibly closed down and their owners driven out of business.  The criminals responsible are being highlighted in the media, proudly asserting their racist ideology. Clearly, the top leadership of the nation is complicit in all this.  What is going on?

In the past Buddhism (together with Jainism) was, with much justification, regarded as the  most tolerant of the great religions.  Is this true any longer of Sri Lankan Buddhism? Judging by the following BBC report, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church at Aberdeen, Scotland and its Minister Poobalan (of South Indian origin) has much better claims to that distinction as evident from the following extract from a BBC report.  The record of that Church and that Pastor are both an inspiration to people everywhere and an affront to the anti-Muslim Sinhala Buddhist racists of Sri Lanka and to the anti-Sinhala Buddhist racists of Tamil Nadu.

Christian Church opens doors to Muslims

By Divya Talwar (image above courtesy BBC)

BBC Asian Network

On a bitterly cold and snowing afternoon in Aberdeen, the doors of St John’s Episcopal Church are open to hundreds of Muslim worshippers, arriving for daily prayers.The familiar sounds of Christian hymns have been replaced with Islamic prayer in the chapel this Friday lunchtime Muslims from the Syed Shah Mustafa Jame Masjid mosque next door share this church with Christian worshippers up to five times a day.  Church leaders believe this may be the only place in the country where Christian and Muslim worshippers pray side by side.

The rector at St John’s has opened his doors to Muslims because there was not enough space for them to pray in their own mosque and many were forced to worship outside on the street. The Reverend Isaac Poobalan, who grew up in Southern India surrounded by Islam, said he would not have been true to his faith if he did not help his neighbours. “It was a very cold day, like today, and when I walked past the mosque I saw dozens of male worshippers praying outside, on the streets, right near the church. ”Their hands and feet were bare and you could see their breath in the freezing cold.

”Jesus taught his disciples to love your neighbour as yourself and this is something I cannot just preach to my congregation, I had to put it into practice.” Reverend Poobalan adds: ”I felt very distressed when I saw my neighbours praying out in the cold and I knew I needed to do something to help.”  ”I know I cannot solve the world’s problems, but when there is a problem I can solve, I will.”

Reverend Poobalan asked his congregation for permission to open the church doors to Muslims. At first, Muslims were reluctant to accept the invite, but they have now settled in well into their new home.  Worshipper Mozhid Sufiyan said: ”We are so grateful to the church for giving us a space for our prayers.  “It was very difficult, especially for the elderly, to pray outside on the floor.  ”Father Poobalan has been very kind to us all by inviting us into his church.’ ”He has respected all of our beliefs and made us feel comfortable.”

There has been some opposition to the arrangement, with Reverend Poobalan facing abuse by online trolls on social networking sites.  The Bishop of Aberdeen said it couild be a lesson for the rest of the world  Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, while Muslims regard him as a prophet.  But despite these differences, there does not seem to be any tension in St John’s Church, with both faiths having learnt to respect each other.  Peter, a member of the church congregation, said: “Any opposition is from people who do not belong to the church and do not understand the arrangement we have here. “We do not have any issues with sharing our building. ”My faith says if you see anyone out in the cold, you invite them in, so I don’t have any problem with it all.”  Muslims and Christian worshippers at St John’s Church hope their special relationship could serve as a model for the rest of the country.

The Episcopal Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, Dr Robert Gillies, said the arrangement at St John’s could serve as a lesson for the rest of the world.  ”What we are doing here, is something local that has global significance,” he said.  ”We have demonstrated that Christians and Muslims do not have to agree with one another.  ”But they can learn to respect each other’s different beliefs and actually come to get along and even like one another.”