Malevolent Journalism, Benign Cardinal & Beleaguered Muslims 

Dr. Ameer Ali

“Sharia Law Played Major Part – Cardinal”, was the sensational and mischievous headline of a report by a columnist, that appeared in Ceylon Today on 4 December 2020. Given the prevailing atmosphere of post-2009 Islamophobia that seems to grow unabated, a headline like this and words put into the mouth of a benign and erudite Catholic Archbishop is typical of malevolent journalism. May we take the liberty to reformulate that headline into a question and ask the Cardinal or the columnist, “Sharia Law Played Major Part in What”?

The headline was certainly meant to provoke angry reaction from the less discerning, and the establishment thrives on such mischievous journalism, because it diverts peoples’ attention away from the more crucial issues relating to the economy, the pandemic and oppressive rules, which affect their life and livelihood directly. The columnist went on to add that the Archbishop insisted, “Muslims may consider Sharia Law important, but that does not mean it could be interpreted or introduced as the law of the country and forced on other communities or used to intimidate and influence other communities”. These were not the words of the prelate but of the columnist, and it is also doubtful whether those aggressive sentiments were actually expressed by the Catholic Archbishop. At a time when the entire Muslim community is facing an existential crisis from Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism, no responsible religious leader would like adding fuel to the fire by such provocative remarks. That reporting was intentionally malicious and malevolent.

However, what is the relevance of sharia to what happened on that fateful Easter Sunday in 2019, if that was the chief concern of the Cardinal? Before answering this question, the confusion surrounding the term sharia needs to be cleared. This word sharia occurs in the Quran only once, and that too not in a legal but ethical sense, meaning, the path to follow. The literal meaning of that Arabic word is to take the horse to water. Therefore, the term sharia law was an invention by medieval Muslim jurists, who were all men, to sanctify humanly derived rules and regulations called fiqh, which no doubt was derived from principles embedded originally in the holy text, the Quran and the Hadiths of Prophet Muhammad. There were also other supplementary sources or mechanisms in deriving those laws. The important point is that these man-made laws were written by Muslims for the Muslims and when Muslims were rulers. Today, almost over 350 million or one-fifth of world Muslims are living as minorities in non-Muslim countries, and they are governed by laws of the country of docile, except in personal and religious matters. No Muslim ever imposed on any non-Muslim any of the religious norms and rules governing his or her personal life, such as birth, marriage and death. It should also be remembered that to obey and follow the laws of the land in which Muslims live is part of sharia or the right path.

Sri Lankan Muslims were living like this for more than a millennium without complaint from anybody. How then did this hoo-ha about sharia Laws originate? It originated from four sources. First was ACJU’s halal certification program. This was a program to charge fee from manufacturers and businessmen exporting food products to Muslim countries. Halal certification was adopted internationally for meat products, because importers from the Middle East demanded it. Exporters had no choice but to comply. Sri Lanka is neither a meat exporter nor an exporter of dairy products. Yet, ACJU insisted on halal certification for other food product exports, because it saw in it a lucrative source of revenue. This naturally put up the cost of exporters and reduced their profit. Not only that, even domestic consumers were made to pay a higher price for halal certified products.  

Muslims of this country were eating halal food for centuries without anyone certifying it and even non-Muslims were eating halal meat without any complaint. ACJU’s greed and lack of foresight created a problem, and to anti-certification protestors sharia law became a convenient slogan to target their attack on ACJU.

The second source for the confusion was Islamist extremism whose advocates craved and fought for an Islamic state governed by so called sharia laws. What were these laws and where are they? No one has answers to these questions. What the world witnessed instead, from Islamists like Taliban and ISIS, was barbaric beheadings, merciless killings and wholesale massacre of innocent men, women and children, which to many observers seem to be the direct product of non-existent sharia laws. 

It was in the midst of this growing confusion that the Batticaloa campus was built, the third source of sharia confusion. The legality of that campus is now under investigation, but sometime before the buildings were completed, its founders mentioned that that university would teach courses in sharia. That gave the impression that it was going to be a glorified madrasa. This was manna from heaven to Islamophobists and they immediately dubbed that campus a sharia university. To reiterate this writer’s earlier contention, that educational project was an ill-conceived and treacherous blunder born out of financial greed, political opportunism and societal ignorance. However, instead of destroying its educational purpose, it should be affiliated to one of the existing national universities and turned into an international institute for postgraduate studies and research in agricultural and veterinary sciences. The place where it is situated is ideal for such research and training.      

The final source of the confusion comes from the Easter Sunday massacre, which understandably is the chief concern of Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. Not only to him but to anyone with even an iota of love towards humanity the memory of that infamy would be destressing for years to come. Moreover, that massacre occurred soon after a similar one in New Zealand should not be lost sight of. A Presidential Commission that is investigating that infamy appears to have reached the closing stages of its task, and the world, along with the Cardinal, is waiting for its findings. Were the killers acted on their own volition inspired by their concocted version of sharia or were there other reasons, or were they simply hirelings of some foreign power, let the investigators provide the answer. Dan Jones, the author of Crusaders (UK: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2019) and who happened to be in Colombo on that fateful day, ends his fascinating account with the following words: “The crusades are over. But so long as there are crusaders – real or imaginary – in the world, the war goes on and on.” 

How did the Muslim community react to this horror? They were totally disgusted and realized the depth of anger it caused among fellow Sri Lankas. Not only did they join in condemning the act, but more than that they went on to deny the dead bodies of the murderers the religious rites of burial. This is the ultimate punishment any Muslim can receive from his community.  

Sections of the media is bringing the sharia slogan once again to the fore, because it wants to help the government it helped installed with an alternative target so that its disgruntled supporters could divert their attention away from criticizing the government for its failure on the economic and health fronts. The anti-sharia virus will replace the Corona virus and will affect Muslims only. To stir the public to agitate for one-country-one-law and make Muslims and their so-called sharia law scape goats is a diversionary tactic by a failing regime. To implicate a benign Catholic prelate in this conspiracy is a master move. Muslims in the country are a beleaguered community today.

Devanagala in the Central Province has become the latest hotspot for a repeat of Alutgama. It would be prudent if respected community and religious leaders could measure their words when facing journalists who are hired to keep the anti-Muslim fire burning. 

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