Doyenne of Muslim activists says Lanka can return to communal harmony
Jezima Ismail (84) is a prominent Sri Lankan educator and social activist who is seen as the country’s Matriarch of Muslim civil society and human rights. In 1989, the Sri Lankan government honored her, the doyenne of Muslim activists, with the title of Deshabandu, the third highest national honor in the country.
Following the April 21 Easter Sunday terror attack she had stepped up her work in peacebuilding in Sri Lanka through organizations she founded in the 1980s, namely, the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Women’s Conference (SLMWC).
Among the prominent posts she has held include the Vice Chancellorship of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, chairpersonship of People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), and headship of the Muslim Ladies College, Colombo. She was also a teacher in the prominent Buddhist school Devi Balika Vidyalaya in the 1950s.As a human rights activist she had been on Sri Lankan committees to look into the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka.
Jezima Ismail speaks to South Asian Monitor about her recollections of the Sri Lanka she grew up in over eighty years ago; her understanding of the present challenges pertaining to the Muslim community following the Easter Sunday ISIS-style bombings; and her continuing work for a peaceful Sri Lanka.
South Asian Monitor (SAM): You are seen as a pioneer in Muslim civil society work and education in Sri Lanka, especially pertaining to Muslim women. What are you focusing on currently?
Jezima Ismail (JI): Well, the work I started along with others in the 1980s is continuing. The current juncture in Sri Lanka shows us that we have very serious challenges. The Easter Sunday terrorist attack was beyond the imagination of someone like me who has lived from pre independence Sri Lanka and followed all the trials and tribulations facedbythe country over the years, especially the 30 year war between the LTTE and the government military.
At 84, I sometimes lack the energy I had, but it is my duty to this country to ensure that the peace loving Muslims of Sri Lanka continue in the tradition of harmony. Muslims have co-existed with others in Sri Lanka for centuries. The Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF), and the Sri Lanka Muslim Women’s Conference (SLMWC) which I initiated in the 1980s, remain committed to educating all citizens of Sri Lanka on the concept of pluralism.
We have organized three events after April this year and we are planning to organize more in November and December as well. We have had discussions with many religious and political leaders in Sri Lanka as well as with grassrootslevel social leaders. We will continue to do so, to ensure that the kind of violence we saw, does not happen again.
SAM: How do you understand what happened on Easter Sunday that caused the deaths of around 300 and maimed over 500 persons?
JI: As I said earlier, the April 21 incident was the type which we never imagined could happen in this country. I am still trying to understand. I cannot say that I know how this could have ever happened. Ofcourse there are many global and local contexts and geo-political developments that we have to take into account.
We have to begin with how Islam, one of the most peace loving religions, has been interpreted with fundamentalist streaks to fulfill diverse and perverse ends. Of course, one has to take into account the Middle East oil boom and the power of petro dollars which saw the import of a strange form of Islam that is associated with Wahabism to countries such as Sri Lanka. Then there are other global influences such as the Iranian revolution.
There are also many local factors that could have been the background for Muslims to separate themselves – the Lankan war which isolated the Muslims. In 1990, they had to leave the North at gunpoint following the LTTE decision to expel them.
Muslims who were also a minority like the Tamils, were carving out an identity of their own. There was a lot of ghettoism especially in the East of Sri Lanka. The open economy in Sri Lanka in 1978 saw many Muslims seeking employment in Middle Eastern countries and they came back with a different brand of Islam than what was practiced here.
Then there was a mushrooming of Islamic teaching centers known as madrassahs which were sponsored by diverse countries spreading their particular brand of Islam. All of these saw a transformation of Islam, which was such a progressive religion in 570 CE, into a narrow, puritanical, joyless, and judgmental religion.
This caused estrangement with the Sinhalese. If you look at it from the lens of an ordinary Sinhalese villager, who suddenly finds his neighbors dress differently and distance themselves from local boutiques because they are suddenly, after so many years of living together,are over-conscious of ‘halal food’ and suddenly makes a fetish of it, then naturally, divisions begin.
What I am trying to explain is not what directly led to the Easter Sunday attacks but to the background that changed the way Islam was viewed by Muslims and non-Muslims in Sri Lanka.
These are changes which took place over many years. The changes have to be viewed also with the change of stance of the Sinhalese Buddhists towards Muslims and the emergence of a radical brand of Buddhism propagated by some elements.
The early changes among Muslims, I myself witnessed, having grown up as a child in the East in a village called Sainthamarathuin pre-independence Sri Lanka ruled by the British. I was born thirteen years before Sri Lanka got independence, and I was one of three girls in our family with a housewife-mother and a father who was an irrigation officer with the government. I learnt my Islam as it should be practiced,from my father.
I recall that when my mother was seen on duty in an election booth, one of the British officers told my father to request my mother not to do it as it may not be fitting as the wife of a government servant. But my father had refused to interfere in his wife’s independent decision and told the officer concerned that it was the prerogative of a Muslim woman to take her own decisions as prescribed in Islam. This is how our father brought us up as independent women.
Following the Quran to the letter, the life we led was such a wondrous one. We dressed beautifully, used nice beauty products and went out socializing, with chaperones when needed, and interacted widely with youth of other cultures, including the British. However, my two sisters and I learnt the Holy Quran from a young age.
It should be noted that I was growing up at the time of a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, after years of being vanquished by foreign invaders. Simultaneously there was an Islamic identity revival as well, with Lankan Muslim leaders spearheading education rights of Muslims and schools such as Zahira college and Muslim ladies college being established.
In my 35-year teaching career, having served on the staff of Devi Balika Vidyalaya, and as the Principal of Muslim Ladies College, I have seen the changes that have occurred in terms of ethno-religious identity in this country.
In the 1970s, one of the Muslim countries sent a representative to the Muslim Ladies College I was head of, and urged me and some senior students to start wearing the headscarf and the Islamic school dress of the type we see today, promising to provide the material free of charge. They said that if I and a few teachers and students wear it, others will follow suit. I categorically refused.
Today this dress is the norm in Lankan Muslim schools and there are teachers who are covered up to the eyes.
SAM: Has this type of differentiation made the Muslims “the other”?
JI: Yes, I think so.
SAM: But does the change of dress and the adoption of puritanical practices alone lead to the kind of senseless act that occurred on Easter Sunday?
JI: Well, no. Terror acts happen within the global and local contexts. But I fully believe that the solution is within the country and through the elimination of extremism. One has to take into account Buddhist extremism that began targeting the Muslims who were seen after the end of the war with the Tamils, as the new ‘other.’ All these had an impact. Some of the young men who joined the terrorist Zahran for the attacks were from very affluent families who had studied in Western countries. They had been brainwashed by certain extremist elements.
Some records show that the anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and 2018 had made it easier for the ring leader of the Easter Sunday terror attack to recruit followers.
There is also the politicization of religion – Muslim and Buddhist political parties that were created two decades ago have to be looked at because there have been evidence that radical groups on both sides of the ethnic divide have had some kind of political affiliation.
It is very hard to fix one narrative to understand the horror of April 21 but all the factors that I mentioned facilitatedthe act carried out by a few madmen.
SAM: After the Easter Sunday attack there were a lot of calls for education to be separated from ethnicity and religion. Your views?
JI: I agree that education should be pluralistic. If there are schools called Muslim schools or Christian schools or Buddhist schools, the ideal would be that achild of any religion should beable to attend any school no matter what its ethnic or religious brand. No school should be exclusive on religious-ethno lines. This is the ideal. I do not know if we will ever reach it.
I went to a Catholic school where the majority were Catholics. My religion was a private matter within my family, upon which I built my core values added with the humane Christian valuesimbibed at the school.
Sri Lanka is a pluralistic society with overarching Buddhistic values because the majority practices Buddhism. We have to respect these values. The education system should not lock us within narrow confines and prevent us from cross-cultural interaction which is so vital for the building up of human beings with healthy minds. We should educate the child to see the human being before the label of ‘religion’. If we are educating children to see the religious ‘label’ first, it is very dangerous.
SAM: You have maintained publicly that you have been criticized by fundamentalists at some point or the other. Could you explain?
JI: Yes, I have been criticized by Muslim fundamentalists. But also there are some cases of Buddhists fundamentalists telling that maybe I should migrate to Saudi Arabia. I strongly believe that religion, whether it is the one that a person is born into, or a religion outside one’s family, should be used for the betterment of the human being and society. That is what leaders such as Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ and the Lord Buddha did. They were social leaders who changed the society they were in for the better.
A Muslim has a lot to learn from Buddhist philosophy and also from Christian values or Hindu wisdom. It is the core and the purpose of religion, its vital ‘spirit.’ It’s ‘spirituality’ that one should focus on.
I have benefitted greatly by trying to learn about these philosophies deeply. Despite my energy levels not being as it was years ago, my commitment to pluralism and understanding and enriching myself and others with the rich multi religious heritage of Sri Lanka, remains.
It is unfortunate that because of a senseless few, Sri Lanka’s exemplary religious unity that has existed from the time of ancient Kings, has been lost. But I believe that this loss is temporary. I am fully confident that the Muslims of Sri Lanka will fight extremism and that Buddhists would do so too.
In one of my most difficult moments, when I lost my son, I have beenconsoled by the kindness extended to me by persons and leaders of all religious traditions who prayed for the recovery of my son. Then too some extremist ideas did spring from some Lankan Muslims who went to the extent of saying I lost my son because of my ‘non Islamic practices.’
But I strongly believe in the hope that the Muslim community of Sri Lanka and my Buddhist brothers and sisters will collectively realize their long historic and peaceful affiliation.
SAM: Today some parts of the East of Sri Lanka, such as Katthankudiare associated with extremism. You grew up in Sainthamaruthu in the Eastern district of Ampara. How different is it now?
JI: Totally different. In my time in Sainathamarathu, as elsewhere in the East, there were village festivals, songs and dances. There were Muslim communities who specialized in tie and dye saree weaving. There was vibrancy in social life just as there was in the time of the Prophet. There was no fetish about things being ‘haram.’ Ofcourse, we were all God fearing Muslims and we knew right from wrong as prescribed in Islam.
Sainthamarathu was my mother’s village; a quaint but vibrant fishing village which also had farming and trade happening.The Muslims of those areas who had settled in the East, following the generosity of the Lankan kings who gave them those lands during the invasion of the Portuguese who were seeing the Muslims as a trading threat, practiced their faith in the way it should be; being loyal to the country.
SAM: Do you think Muslims have fair religious rights in Sri Lanka?
JI: Yes. There is fullfreedom in this country for Muslims to practice their religion. There are many new mosques being built. Azaan is heard throughout the country.
SAM: How do you think extremism, whatever religion it belongs to, could be prevented in South Asia, in general?
JI: Through wise governance and by strong educators and clergy who remain above racism.In South Asia, we see that patriotism is such a misconstrued thing. It is often confused with communalism. Patriotism is loyalty to the country by all its citizens and not one section of citizens taking on another. Again, we could analyze all these through diverse historical view points. But the fact remains that South Asia is a powerhouse of human potential and we should not destroy it.