In Sri Lanka, ‘halal’ becomes ‘haraam’

Buoyed by this huge victory over the halal certification issue, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Power Force has now found another campaign against the Muslims: the issue of attire worn by Muslim women in Sri Lanka. The BBS was set to begin a widespread campaign in the island nation demanding that Muslim women should stop wearing the abaya or burkha in public as it hurts and affects the sensibilities of the non–Muslim population that amounts to 91 per cent of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Muslim women on a college campus

Sri Lankan Muslim women on a college campus

Hidden from the Indian public in the uproar over the shenanigans of Tamil Nadu’s parties over the alleged genocide issue is a development that should be an eye-opener of how the Buddhist Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka have forced the minority Muslim community to bow to their “sensibilities”.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) or Sri Lanka Muslim Council had given in to Buddhist demands that meat would be sold without “halal certification”.

The halal certification became a fad the world over after European exporters eyeing mainly the Gulf countries succumbed to demands from dictatorial Islamic monarchies that all meat exported should be “halal certified”. Later, “halal certification” became popular in meat products sold in the EU countries and in the US and UK as more and more Muslims started demanding them.

Halal means “permitted” (by Islam). The opposited is “haraam” or prohibited. This does not cover food or drinks alone, but also personal and societal behaviours.

“Halal certified” meat products worldwide today are a $1.2 trillion business, according to conservative estimates.

After the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, radical Buddhist groups who campaigned against the Tamils turned their attention towards Muslims in this island nation south of India.

In the last few years, an anti-Muslim campaign was carried out by a group called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Power Force in Sinhalese. (Reminds us of Shiv Sena?)

The BBS has been in the forefront by organising anti-Indian campaigns, with petitions against Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, and leading protests against the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

BBS started off by taking up the cause of religious freedom of Sri Lankans working in Gulf nations, mainly the highly conservative Saudi Arabia.

They also took up the cause of how Sri Lankans, especially low-level labourers and maids were being subject to torture at the hands of their employers and eventually implicated in false cases and faced execution.

The execution of a young Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek, on obviously false charges also added to fuel to the fire, but this sentiment was across all sections of the Sri Lankan society. (Read about Rizana’s execution here.)

Boddu Bala Sena chief Kirama Vimalajothy Thera addressing a press conference in Colombo

Boddu Bala Sena chief Kirama Vimalajothy Thera addressing a press conference in Colombo

The BBS is headed by a Bal Thackeray-like figure, Ven Kirama Vimalajothy Thera.

The BBS has also protested against attacks on Buddhists in the recent incidents in Bangladesh.

International observers say mosques have been attacked, prayers disrupted, and Muslims in general accused of being anti-state. The Muslim Tamil National Alliance has written to the Secretary General of the United Nations, asking him for protection, and protesting against this nasty campaign.

Writing in The Dawn, a popular Pakistani newspaper, author Irfan Hussain, a regular commentator on Sri Lankan affairs, says “The (Buddhist) monks first flexed their muscles to shore up the Rajapakse government’s resolve to crush the Tamil insurgency. First, they blocked any possibility of compromise by offering the Tamil Tigers greater autonomy. To build up pressure, they formed a political party and won enough seats to take a place in the coalition government.”

“Then, when President Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya, was facing difficulties in finding enough recruits for the army, a group of monks fanned out across the Buddhist areas to motivate thousands of young men. These recruits were assured that they would not lose karma by fighting and killing in a war as they would be doing so in the cause of Buddhism,” according to Hussain, a writer who is admired by many Indians as well. (Read the full article here.)

The Muslims in Sri Lanka trace their ancestry to Arab traders.

Before the BBS campaign, the Muslims with a large population in the north and east of Lanka, where the pro-Tamil LTTE held fray, faced several difficulties and had to leave en masse. Muslims were viciously targeted by the LTTE.

The halal controversy was resolved on March 11, when it was announced that “removing the halal logo was not a defeat to any particular community but a win-win situation for everyone, in the country”.

All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) president Mufthi MIM Rizwe said that they would take steps to remove the halal logo from local products. Ceylon Chamber of Commerce President Susantha Ratnayake said that Sri Lankan producers would no longer carry the Halal logo on their products unless requested by the foreign consumers.

However, buoyed by this huge victory, the BBS has now found another campaign against the Muslims: the issue of attire worn by Muslim women in Sri Lanka.

The BBS was set to begin a widespread campaign in the island nation demanding that Muslim women should stop wearing the abaya or burkha in public as it hurts and affects the sensibilities of the non–Muslim population that amounts to 91 per cent of Sri Lanka.

Already, Sri Lankan Muslim women have been ridiculed in public, and in one case, for wearing the all-enveloping dress.

On BBS platforms, the phrase for the all-covering dress was “the scary Goni Billa” (Goni Billa meaning sack) since the abaya covered the whole body of the women.

At some places, street urchins allegedly tried to yank of the “goni billa” worn by the Muslim women.

The most serious incident so far has been in the southern Lankan provice of Dikwella when three young Muslims girls wearing the abaya were attacked.

The Muslims are not going to take this lying down anymore. Already on social media, Muslims have been warning of retaliation.

The last time a serious communal conflagration took place was in 1983. Will the BBS spark the fire for another conflagration now, or will the Muslims bow as they did in the case of the “halal” campaign?

Online, the blame is already being put on the United States, and more importantly India, saying that the halal controversy served their interests.

Post Script: Irfan Hussain in The Dawn writes that according to unofficial reports, the 2011 census indicates that Muslims form around 10 per cent of the total population of 21.4 million. This is a substantial increase from the 7.6 per cent in the last census.

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