Photo courtesy of Daily Sabah

As he watched his son’s body being placed in the crematorium, Mohammed Fahim stood outside the cemetery, weeping.

“How could I watch my baby being burned,” demanded the Muslim man, whose faith prohibits cremation and any form of mutilation of the body after death.

The family had been dealt blow after blow when their infant son Mohammed Shaykh was diagnosed with pneumonia upon admission at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital. An antigen test conducted on the 20-day old infant revealed he was positive for the corona virus. His parents, including the mother who was breast-feeding little Shaykh, have tested negative.

The hospital refused to perform the more reliable PCR test on the infant and forced his parents to leave the hospital, despite Shaykh’s mother’s pleas to be permitted to stay overnight with her baby.

When little Shaykh died at the hospital several hours later, he was alone.

The hospital demanded parental consent to cremate the infant and Fahim says he refused, begging the hospital to release Shaykh’s body to his family for burial instead. The situation reached a stalemate and the distraught father finally left Lady Ridgeway Hospital without his son.

The state has justified the forcible cremation of baby Shaykh on the basis that he had tested positive for the corona virus.

On December 1, after postponing hearings for months, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka summarily dismissed several fundamental rights petitions challenging the Government’s mandatory cremation policy and declined to give reasons for the dismissal. With no avenue for redress, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community launched a campaign of civil disobedience. If the Government was going to deny them burial rights, Muslim families decided not to claim custody of the body or pay the costs associated with coffins and crematoriums. Since the campaign began, over 20 unclaimed Muslim victims of Covid-19 have been cremated at state cost on the orders of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On December 8, Baby Shaykh joined their ranks. Even as they grieved the loss of the son they had longed for over six years, Fahim and his wife made the difficult decision not to claim his body.

The main function of religion throughout history has been to explain the “great mystery” of death. To the devout of any faith, final rites are deeply personal and intensely important as a bridge to the afterlife and a means of closure for the living. People of the Islamic faith are always buried facing Mecca, their Holy City. In the Islamic burial tradition, a corpse is never even embalmed but only washed and perfumed with scented oils.

Hilmy Ahmed, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, explains that the idea of cremation is particularly horrific for Muslims who are taught practically from birth that the fires of hell will consume the sinner. “Devout Muslims believe they will be resurrected when they meet God. The act of cremation, for the devout, is like watching the remains of a family member being cast into hellfire,” Ahmed emphasised.

Ahmed believes the policy is the Government’s way of showing the Sinhalese majority that it was “teaching the Muslims a lesson”.

That was what the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised to do in the run up to the 2019 presidential election as he crested a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment buoyed by the Easter Sunday bombings, he explains.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has been a vocal critic of the cremation policy, recently warned that forcing Muslims to cremate their dead would push certain sections of Muslim youth into the arms of extremists. His fears are well founded.

Watching the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018 unfold, it was not hard to predict the cycles of trauma and violence the pogroms would trigger. In the aftermath of violence that targeted majority Muslim villages and towns, community leaders pleaded with their people to remain calm. But despite these efforts, the attacks provided fuel for darker forces gathering quietly in the shadows. Fire has a way of spreading, and no one understands this prospect better than the extremist forces on every side of the politico-religious divide.

In the days and weeks following the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, journalists retraced the steps of Zaharan Hashim, the radical preacher who had masterminded the bombings, over several years.  What was his message? Who did he teach? How did he convince six young men to become suicide bombers?

From little village mosques in Kattankudy, Kandy and down south, we picked up the threads of Hashim’s story. Always on the move, Hashim actively sought out Muslim towns that had been the targets of mobs led by extremist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and used his religious teaching classes to indoctrinate teenagers and young adults. He found refuge in small towns inside regions of the East like Kattankudy where the Wahabi influence on Sri Lankan Islamic tradition is particularly acute and visible.  Within the Muslim community in those regions, some noticed glaring red flags, prompting Hashim to move quickly and quietly to another part of the island, and sometimes across the seas for a brief time. But most of the time, parents in those far-flung villages thought he was just teaching their kids the Quran.

Radicalisation thrives on grievance, perceived or real. In the past decade, hardly anyone will deny that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has been reeling from a persecution that has been very real, and one that has often felt state sanctioned. Mobs that burnt Muslim homes and businesses have rarely faced justice. Ancient Islamic shrines have been seized and reassigned as Buddhist archeological sites. When Sri Lanka confronted the first Covid-19 outbreak in March this year, the Government and its agents moved swiftly to blame Muslims for spreading the virus.

Begun in March this year, the Sri Lankan Government’s mandatory cremation policy was pointedly stark in its ethno-religious prejudice. The guidelines for disposal of corona virus fatalities were changed from burial or cremation in accordance with WHO recommendations to cremation only soon after the very first Muslim succumbed to the virus.

The policy has been in effect for months, based on unsubstantiated claims that burying Covid-19 victims could contaminate groundwater resources. With no scientific basis, the cremation policy smacks of an attempt to use the fight against the corona virus to force cultural assimilation on an ethno-religious minority in the island. Covid-19 has claimed the lives of 1.6 million people in over 200 countries and territories around the world. Yet only in Sri Lanka, which counts 150 fatalities from the virus, is such a monumental debate raging about how to dispose of the dead, which underscores the fact that the mandatory cremation policy has little to do with public health.

This week, reports surfaced that President Rajapaksa had reached out to the Maldivian Government to strike a deal about exporting Sri Lankan Muslims who die of corona virus for burial in the archipelago. The ignominy of the request, the insult to the citizenry and the ceding of sovereignty to another state is cruel and disrespectful to 2.5 million Muslims who have called Sri Lanka home for generations. It is also without precedent anywhere in the world.

As Minister Ali Sabry points out, decisions by the state to deliberately wound the Muslim psyche by denying the community basic burial rights could have lasting consequences for ethnic and religious harmony in Sri Lanka for years to come.

But it would seem the Government actively, desperately, seeks this war.

One year into the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, the shine has faded and the façade of the efficient technocrat has fallen away.

The Government response to the corona virus pandemic has been comical at best and criminally negligent at worst. A regime that promised scientific governance has resorted to throwing clay pots in a river to ward off the plague and endorsed a Covid-19 cure touted by a snake oil charmer. For months, the administration has locked down lower income, overcrowded quarters of the capital, often areas home to daily wage earners. The tourism industry has been crippled, credit agencies have consistently downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign ratings, the Treasury is cash-strapped and economic figures are devastating.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a government in such dire straits must conjure an enemy. A distraction in the hard months to come that will help the Sinhalese community to forget the emptiness in their bellies. An enemy to be feared more than poverty, deprivation and hunger.

For a Government brought to power on the wings of rampant anti-Muslim sentiment after the Easter Sunday bombings, this is a familiar playbook. The strategy could not only prove critical to its political survival in the months ahead but in the end game, it may even be the regime’s only trump card.

The forced cremation of Baby Shaykh was an emotional flashpoint that left many Sri Lankans questioning the Government’s motives. Even supporters of the ruling SLPP have balked at the policy that tore a 20-day old infant away from his parents and thrust him into an incinerator against their will.

When Fahim arrived at the Borella cemetery the day his son was cremated, media crews were already on site to record the death of “Sri Lanka’s youngest corona virus victim”.  He stood at a distance, watching his son for the very last time before returning, broken-hearted, to his family.

Most Sri Lankans understand the untold joy a new baby brings to a household and the grief of a child’s untimely passing. So, in the tragedy surrounding his death, Baby Shaykh has sparked a small, silent rebellion.

Around the island, white handkerchiefs have appeared on cemetery gates, lampposts and gates in the infant’s memory, expressions of protest at his cremation. They disappear overnight on the gates of the Borella crematorium but more show up the next day.  Politicians and Christian clergy have participated in the symbolic protest. Activists are encouraging people fearful of marking protest in public to wear the white fabric on their wrists in solidarity instead.

As for the State, it has good reason to be fearful of the white ribbons appearing on cemetery gates in many parts of the country. Resistance movements are often sparked by isolated incidents – when soldiers fire live ammunition into a crowd of people demanding clean water or shoot and kill fishermen pleading for lower fuel prices; when factory workers are killed on the streets or innocents are cast into the flames. History has already proven that these things just seem to have a way of catching fire.