Category Archives: Foreign Affairs

My observations — mainly on Pakistan — on happenings the world over.

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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Shamsi airbase: From hunting falcons to taking down terrorists

Shamsi airbase

Shamsi airbase

Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, which is now in the eye of a storm after Islamabad asked the United States to vacate it, had for long been a landing spot for private luxury aircraft of rulers from Gulf sheikdoms who used to arrive in Pakistan for indulging in falconry trips, hunting and other activities.
In fact, the air base was leased out the United Arab Emirates in 1992, who in turn handed it over to the US for carrying out Predator drone strikes against Al Qaida and Talibani terrorists across Pakistan after 9/11.
The CIA began using this air base when General Pervez Musharraf was the president of Pakistan. The drone strikes against the militants have been deadly accurate in most of the cases, but there have been reports of collateral damage – read civilians — being victims in some cases.
The right-wing political parties supporting the Taliban have been time and again demanding that the US be prevented from using the air base since the terrorists have been feeling the heat after very important losses among their leadership.
Pakistan’s military leadership, too, have been uncomfortable with the American use of the Shamsi since many of their “strategic assets” have been lost to the drones. However, generous aid and not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the Americans have made them keep quiet till the Salala incident of November 26, 2011 when Nato aircraft hit Pakistani bunkers on the border with Afghanistan, killing 24 troops.
The strike itself has been shrouded in mystery, and Islamabad has accused the US of targeting Pakistani troops “without provocation”. But reports indicate that the area was a hotbed of Taliban activity, though Pakistan has been clearing that there were no militants in that area.
However, Nato sources indicated that their strike helicopters were called in after Afghan troops called for help after reportedly coming under fire from the border posts on the Pakistani side.
Pakistani border posts have been notorious to give covering fire to terrorists attempting to enter another country – and India has had enough examples of that. Even Pakistani analysts have been asking their government to come clean on that.
Nobody will attack somebody without a reason. Even though Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani had said that the attack was “unprovoked”, there are no takers for his statement, even within Pakistan.
One analyst went so far as to state that it is hard to believe that Nato forces would gratuitously attack military posts inside Pakistan territory.
One notable irony is that only a day earlier before the Nato airstrike, Pakistan’s Army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani was holding talks with the US commander in Kabul, John Allen on border cooperation.
But the loss of Shamsi airbase – or the cutting off the logistical supplies routes through Pakistan – will not have a major effect on US or Nato in Afghanistan. There is another air base right within Pakistan from where the US is operating drone and surveillance flights. Besides, the US has taken care to open other routes for bringing in logistical supplies into Afghanistan, notable from the Central Asian route.
Shahbaz airbase located at Jalalabad in Sindh province is also being used by the Americans, though Islamabad has denied this vehemently and said that it is fully under the control of the Pakistani Air Force.
This is the third time Pakistan has demanded the US to vacate the base. Similar demands were made after CIA operative Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in Lahore and in the other was in the aftermath of the US raid that killed Al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
But given its strategic location, the US would not like to lose Shamsi altogether. It asked the UAE to mediate with Pakistan. Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al Nahyan, who reached in Islamabad on Monday night, made the request in a meeting with the president and asked that Pakistan allow the US to use the base until investigation into the incident is complete.
But news reports claimed that President Asif Ali Zardari, who Sheikh Abdullah met, turned down the request flatly. However, Pakistan cannot afford to antagonize the UAE or Saudi or other Gulf Sheikhs who pump in petrodollars into that country and it remains to be seen what happens in the coming days.

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