In Conversation with Rishad Bathiudeen
Uniting a divided people is a difficult task
There has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment since the Easter Sunday attacks around Sri Lanka on 21st April this year. The situation was further exacerbated by allegations that Muslim politicians were supporting the terror groups. The tension from both situations resulted in many Muslim ministers vacating their posts, including the Deputy Minister of State. Catamaran spoke with former minister Rishad Bathiudeen in an exclusive interview. Bathiudeen is a member of the Parliament and the former Minister of Industry & Commerce of Sri Lanka. He is also the founder Leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Party, a political party he registered in 2005 after his departure from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress the previous year. He resigned from his post as Minister for Industry & Commerce on 3rd July 2019.
Catamaran: How would you describe the situation faced by the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka now?
Rishad Bathiudeen: The entire community is facing great difficulties due to the Muslims involved in the attacks and a few communal forces have resorted to retaliation against the Muslim community. Muslim owned businesses, properties have been destroyed or damaged in the North Western Province including 29 mosques. One person was killed and many injured. Several Muslims around the country are harassed and are prevented from following their customs in peace.
Catamaran: There is an accusation that the actions of politicians are the cause for ethnic and religious conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka to increase voter bases. Can you talk to us about this?
Rishad Bathiudeen: It is not wrong to seek to increase votes from the community one represents. However, it is wrong to create communal and religious tension to garner votes. Other than the two main parties in Sri Lanka, the rest are seen as representation of the ethnicities. You can work for a community to get votes. But one cannot be communalist. A law needs to be introduced to prevent communal politicians and religious extremists from carrying out their activities.
Catamaran: Is there a thought that all political parties that represent ethnic or religious communities should be proscribed?
Rishad Bathiudeen: It is a childish argument. Every community living in this country should have the right to form a party. If someone thinks that banning such political parties could prevent terrorism, it is naive. None of the attackers represented a culture. They appeared in Western style dress. Therefore, my view is that commenting on these attacks in such a manner will only increase the ethnic and religious conflict.
Catamaran: Some information has linked your name with the Easter Sunday attacks, what’s your opinion on this?
Rishad Bathiudeen: MP Wimal Weerawansa made the allegations against me after a failed attempt to seek our support for the coup d’etat (26 October, 2018). Our party (All Ceylon Makkal Congress Party) has seen tremendous growth in a short term and they are unable to digest this. If the police or the military make allegations against me, it can be accepted. Instead, these allegations are being made by members of the opposition and fundamentalist organizations such as Ravana Balaya and Bodhu Bala Sena. More than 3000 Muslims have been arrested so far and only few released. Many are being detained and interrogated. However, I have not had an inquiry so far.
Catamaran: Despite attempts by the government and civil society representatives to end communal conflicts, they are not operationally successful. What do you think is the reason for this?
Rishad Bathiudeen: Uniting a divided people is a difficult task especially with communal and religious forces carrying out activities to destroy the country and cause communal conflict. They must be identified and steps taken to eradicate them. The government has taken some measures in this regard so we cannot say they have all failed in their efforts – but I agree that the success gained is not enough.
Catamaran: You say that all the people of the country should act with a sense of being Sri Lankans, but there is an allegation that the Muslims here follow the culture Islamic countries rather than rather than that of Sri Lanka. Your thoughts?
Rishad Bathiudeen: There are different cultures around the world and technology makes interaction with these cultures easy. So, it is not proper to say that it is only Arab culture that has influenced Sri Lanka. With Muslims traveling to Arab countries, they wear their favorite attire. Similarly, those who go to the West, like to wear the western dress. There is nothing in it to magnify out of proportion.
Catamaran: Usage of Arabic language is found in many parts of the Eastern Province. How do you see this?
Rishad Bathiudeen: There are about 3000 mosques in Sri Lanka. There are many Muslim villages and some have Arabic name boards but we don’t see it everywhere. Arabic is one of the five official languages of the United Nations. When donations are made by Arab countries, some prefer to have it written in Arabic and some announcements from mosques are in Arabic. That’s all. There is no wide usage of Arabic in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is unfair to view this as a big problem.
Catamaran: What suggestions do you have to eliminate hatred of Muslim people in the country? What have you done as a representative of Muslim people yourself?
Rishad Bathiudeen: Some forces are trying to create hatred of Muslim people. However, it is not possible to put a full-stop to it on my own. Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. This message has to be made clear to everyone and do so requires a focused, long-term plan. Fundamentalist forces have misrepresented Muslims and Islam in the past too, so we need to work on changing that.
Catamaran: There are allegations that the resignation of posts by Muslim ministers has separated Muslims from the rest of the country. What is your response to this?
Rishad Bathiudeen: We feel that some Buddhists are plotting to exterminate Muslims living in this country. So we resigned from our posts to protect them and avoid the world-wide damage to our national reputation. We have not resigned because of religionists or communalists. The actions and speeches of the communalists have also affected innocent Sinhala people. Our intention was to prevent this. In the aftermath of the attacks on Aril 21st, Muslim properties were destroyed and lives threatened. We resigned to prevent that calamity. We resigned for the sake of the country and for the safety of our people.