Image courtesy Quartz India

It is with heavy hearts that we have listened to and observed the debates on whether or not burials should be permitted for Muslims who succumb to COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. Parts of Muslim communities in Sri Lanka believe that the government acted unfairly in hastily cremating the remains of two Muslim victims of COVID-19, that the will and wishes of families of the deceased were not considered, and that there was no explanation of why WHO guidelines that allow for burials with strict conditions could not be followed. Some individuals in the government, media and from outside the Muslim community argued that Muslims were playing the ‘religion card’ without considering the interests of wider society and that Muslims were playing the victim and ‘demanding’ ‘special treatment’ based on religious belief. Some others expressed and fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment especially over social media.

We write to highlight a perspective that we believe has been conspicuously absent in these debates. We appeal to an approach based on compassion, an approach that unites us as Sri Lankan citizens, and an approach that puts at the centre those who matter the most – the deceased and their families.

Grieving the dead and funeral rites are important to all people, regardless of religious affiliations. The rituals that each of us adopt whether traditional or not, whether informed by religion or not, are based on a deep desire to secure dignity and peace for our deceased loved ones. The rituals also provide a degree of control over how we grieve and give us a meaningful way of honouring our loved ones as they pass from this world. Around the world, people are losing their opportunity to say goodbye by being close to their loved ones during their final hours, the opportunity for closure by carrying out rituals and fulfilling responsibilities, and the opportunity to grieve and mourn in ways that are familiar and valued. Countries across the world recognize the significance of this and are doing whatever is possible in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak to respond to the deeply human need for dignified and meaningful rites. Sri Lankans are no different and Muslims in Sri Lanka are no different.

Muslims are equal citizens of Sri Lanka. This equality transcends every aspect of our lives. Ensuring this equality places responsibilities on the state, as well as our respective Muslim communities.

The state has the responsibility of giving due consideration and respect to the views and beliefs of its citizens, and in today’s context to also set an example of respectful, non-xenophobic, non-discriminatory conduct and use language that does not place blame or incite ill will. The government should make an effort to explore the human resources needed, designate burial sites and assess other prescribed protocols to provide an option of safe burial with acceptable, appropriately modified rituals. However, if there are good reasons as to why it is not possible to allow for burials, and/or the actual public risk and strain on the health system that makes the option not feasible, then this needs to be communicated clearly to the Muslim communities in a transparent and compassionate manner.

The government and media must ensure the privacy of those in quarantine, patients, and the deceased and their loved ones. The strict protocols relating to COVID-19 deaths can be implemented with the utmost dignity and respect for the human beings who have passed away. It is both an individual and collective right to dignity.

Putting compassion at the centre of all procedures will allow our families, our communities and our country as a whole to grieve and heal during this crisis. It will also help alleviate the high levels of stigma associated with contracting the virus. It will build more confidence in medical care that is offered, and to minority communities it will also reduce the fears and anxieties that our lives and those of our loved ones will be treated with equal respect by the government of Sri Lanka. 

As members of Muslim communities, it is our responsibility to ease the pain of the families of the deceased, to reassure them that the cremations that have taken place does not mean that they are part of any wrongdoing nor does it mean that the deceased is not Muslim or not deserving in any way. It is also our responsibility to engage in public discourse that adherence to law and public benefit is also part of our faith so as to reassure all Muslim in Sri Lanka that there need not be any fear or blame associated with seeking treatment. Islam, as we know it, is a religion for all time periods and all circumstances. It is a religion of peace, a religion of consent, and religion of knowledge including science. Burial as a funeral ritual is very important to Muslims. However, we firmly believe that as Muslims, if there is no alternative, a change in the burial ritual during this unprecedented time in human history does not make us any less Muslim.

We are proud of the resilience and resourcefulness the citizens of Sri Lanka have demonstrated, in public and private capacities. We recognise the risks and efforts taken by those who are treating and caring for individuals who have been infected with COVID-19. We ask that the focus of essential information and services be on those without access to technology, delivery systems and additional support be directed for the elderly, low-income families, daily wage earners, immuno-compromised persons and those with special needs.

If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is how intrinsically our lives and fates are tied to one another regardless of our ethnicity, religious belief, income levels, language or geography. It has shown us that one person’s health and safety is reliant on the health and safety of everyone around us. We cannot fight this pandemic alone. We are all in this together.

We urge every conversation about COVID-19, from awareness-raising and prevention, to health care and after-death care to be grounded in humanity, trust and kindness. Put compassion in the heart of the COVID-19 response. It is the only way we can all move forward, together.

By Ermiza Tegal, Hyshyama Hamin, Hasanah Cegu Isadeen, Maryam Azwer, Sumaiya Pallak, Nadia Ismail, Zahrah Rizwan and Sabra Zahid.