By Rohana R. Wasala
Government MP Dr. Wijedasa Rajapaksa, a former Justice Minister and an ex-president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, stated over a month ago that the Muslim World League “(owes) families of those who had perished or suffered injuries in the Easter Sunday terror attacks USD 5 mn.” (‘Wijedasa takes it up with Saudi-based outfit’ by Shamindra Ferdinando, The Island, March 25, 2021). This is money that the MWL General Secretary Dr. Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Kareem Al-Issa was said to have promised on behalf of his organization towards the relief of the surviving victims of those attacks at a so-called National Peace Conference held at Nelum Pokuna under the patronage of the then President Maithripala Sirisena on June 30, 2019, a little over two months after the Easter Sunday attacks carried out by eight Islamist suicide bombers in the name of their religion. As claimed by MP Rajapaksa, the Sheikh made the promise in the presence of the then incumbent Sirisena, and former presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa, among other dignitaries. The same three past presidents dutifully attended the second National Peace Conference on March 5, this year. MP Rajapaksa told The Island that he brought up the issue with the MWL head. This was through a letter of his dated March 22, 2021, where he urged the latter to fulfill what he had promised without further delay. MP Rajapaksa stressed: “Let us hope those who organised the Nelum Pokuna event, too, will take up this matter with the Muslim World League and finalise the transfer of funds before the second anniversary of 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.”
The failure of the MWL was mentioned even at the PCoI, according to the MP, who further said that he had raised the matter with the offices of the previous and present presidents. Dr P.B. Jayasundara (Secretary to the current incumbent) had confirmed that the funds in question had not been received. A letter that the then Western Province Governor A. J. M. Muzammil had received from Muhammad Al-Issa, to which MP Rajapaksa refers, seems to have a hint about the possible reason for the unexplained delay in the payment of the promised financial assistance: it is probably being withheld “pending Sri Lanka providing information relating to the spate of suicide attacks”. Whether the MP’s importunity in the given context is shared by the government is in doubt. What should be of greater concern for the government is the fact that, by contriving to get themselves identified as constituting the whole Muslim community of the country, the handful of Islamist extremists who are widely believed to have provided tacit or explicit support for the suicide bombers are also foisting themselves on its (the MWL’s) powerful patronage. While being grateful to this organization for offering welcome help at a moment of national distress, Sri Lankan leaders must take care not to allow these Islamist extremists tainted with suspected association with the terrorists who caused that suffering to jeopardise its relations with the traditionally friendly Muslim nations through subterfuge. At the same time, it behoves our leaders to establish the genuineness of the MWL’s intentions and to have a correct understanding of the rationale of its involvement in the post-attack context, before accepting its charity.(Aside: Islamic Jihadists and fanatical Christian proselytizers are minorities that should not for a moment be identified with the traditional Sri Lankan Muslim and Christian communities who have always lived in harmony with the Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus for centuries. Sri Lanka must take special care to prevent the problematic Islamist and Christian extremist sects from pretending to the outside world that they respectively represent the country’s Muslim and Christian mainstreams in order to subvert its foreign relations as certain powerful Muslim politicos who have somehow contrived to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be seem to be doing at the moment.)
According to the Wikipedia, the Muslim World League is a (Saudi) government-funded NGO, which was founded in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 1962. The name suggests that it is about the pan-Islamic Muslim world, not the world in general, which Muslims share with people of other non-Muslim faiths. It came into existence for the purpose of serving Islam and Muslims. Its founding charter, according to the information currently given in the Wikipedia, is as follows:
“We the members of the Muslim World League, representing it religiously, hereby undertake before God, Almighty to: Discharge our obligation towards God, by conveying and proclaiming His Message all over the world. We also reaffirm our belief that there shall be no peace in the world without the application of the principles of Islam. Invite all communities to vie with one another for the common good and happiness of mankind, establish social justice and a better human society. Call upon God to bear witness that we do not intend to undermine, dominate or practice hegemony over anyone else. Hence, in order to further these goals, we intend to: Unite the ranks of the Muslims, and remove all divisive forces from the midst of the Muslim communities around the world. Remove obstacles in the way of establishing the Muslim world union. Support all advocates of charitable deeds. Utilize our spiritual as well as material and moral potentialities in furthering the aims of this charter. Unify efforts in order to achieve these purposes in a positive and practical way. Reject all the pretenses of ancient as well as contemporary Jahiliyah (attitudes of the pre-Islamic era). Always reaffirm the fact that Islam has no place for either regionalism or racism.”
The organization has thus an extensive global agenda with inevitable, wide ranging, religious, educational, cultural, legal, and political implications, particularly for non-Muslim countries Sri Lanka, given that the organization is committed to foster the fiercely conservative brand of Islam, Wahhabism (or Salafism), which is Saudi Arabia’s state religion. It will, among other things, include laying down plans designed to revive the role of the Mosque in the fields of guidance, education, preaching and provision of social services, conducting a comprehensive survey of the world’s Mosques and publishing the information gathered in book form and in the shape of periodical bulletins, selecting and posting groups of well qualified preachers on guidance missions throughout the Mosques of the world, formation of board of directors to supervise the affairs of each and every Mosque at the national as well as the regional levels, studying the ideas and patterns of behavior that contravene the teachings of Islam, and helping in rehabilitating and training Imams and khateebs for posting to the various Muslim areas to lead Muslims in prayers, deliver sermons and guidance lessons (a khateeb is a person who delivers a sermon during Friday prayers).
As the Wikipedia further informs us, all Saudi Arabian citizens are legally required to be Muslims. They don’t have the right to freedom of religion (as the term is understood in democratic countries); nor do the expatriate workers employed in the Saudi kingdom. The official and dominant form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism (also called Salafism) which emerged in the 18th century. Its adherents believe that its teachings “purify the practice of Islam of innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh century teachings of Muhammad and his companions”. Saudi Arabia has long been accused of being the principal exporter of Islamist extremism (WikiLeaks cables). “… Saudi Arabia arguably remains the most prolific sponsor of international Islamist terrorism, allegedly supporting groups as disparate as the Afghanistan Taliban, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Al-Nusra Front… Saudi Arabia is said to be the world’s largest source of funds and promoter of Salafist jihadism …. which forms the ideological basis of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Taliban, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and others” (‘State-sponsored terrorism’/Wikipedia/Page last edited 14 April 2021). Saudi Arabia denies these allegations, but the Wikipedia entry mentions the prevalent argument that by its very nature Wahhabism/Salafism “encourages intolerance and promotes terrorism”.
The MWL, while propagating the religion of Islam, encourages Dawah (lit. issuing summons to/euphemistically, inviting or calling non-Muslims to join, i.e., preaching to them) and conversion of non-Muslims; funds construction of mosques and provides financial relief for Muslims affected by natural disasters; finances distribution of copies of the Quran and political tracts on Muslim minority groups. Though the organization claims that “they reject all acts of violence and promote dialogue with the people of other cultures, within their understanding of Sharia”, they are not free from controversy on that point, having been the subject of several ongoing counter terrorism investigations in the US related to Hamas, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups”
However, since 2016, the Muslim World League has been claiming to be dedicated to combating extremist ideology, and to confronting hatred, disunity and violence closely associated with extremism. The US State Department, in its 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, stated that the Muslim World League’s Secretary General, Muhammad Abdul Kareem Al-Issa “pressed a message of interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence with global religious authorities, including Muslim imams outside the Arab world.” The same document said that he “conducted extensive outreach to prominent U.S. Jewish and Christian leaders”. No doubt, the MWL is on the same pious mission in Sri Lanka. We may be hopeful that the MWL leader will similarly reach out to the non-Muslim 90% of the Sri Lankan population comprising Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists.
But whether the assurances given to the powerful US will hold for a small non-Muslim country like ours is still a moot point. The MWL’s sponsor Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy without a legislature (Wikipedia), let alone an elected legislature; its state religion Sunni Islam or Wahhabism, is growing to be the majority Buddhist Sri Lanka’s scourge, unless checked in time with the help of the predominantly Sufi mainstream Muslim minority, who have peacefully coexisted with the majority Buddhist and other non-Muslim minorities for centuries. The MWL’s post-April 21, 2019 interest or involvement in Sri Lanka should be judged according to its uncompromising commitment to “serving Islam and Muslims” everywhere as explained in the foregoing account. The rich and powerful Saudi-funded, Saudi-basedl Wahhabism-inspired NGO outfit’s patronage of Sri Lanka’s approximately 10% Muslim minority is bound to have understandably important repercussions.
One could argue that the so-called National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence that introduced the MWL to the country just two months after the April 21 Islamist terror bombings, in effect, both ‘nationalised’ and ‘internationalised’ Sri lanka’s still nascent Islamic fundamentalist problem. Unless sorted out early, this is not going to do any good to the peaceful and harmonious coexistence which all Sri Lankans of different ethnicities and cultures have been enjoying to date mainly thanks to the influence of the country’s extremely accommodating, tolerant Buddhist cultural foundation, something that is today universally accepted and appreciated by all peaceful non-Buddhist minorities. Through its friendly outreach to the non-Muslim majority, the MWL can hope to further strengthen the already existing interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence in our island nation. It is heartening that the Saudis now reject extremist ideology and terrorism. However, unfortunately, this cannot be asserted without reservations.
According to The Island news report mentioned above, Secretary to former president Sirisena, Samira de Silva, told the paper that the MWL was delaying the payment because the National Peace Conference event organizers had still not responded to the following questions: “(1) the number of dead and wounded (2) their faith (religion) (3) list of the dead and the wounded (4) collateral damage to public property (5) number of widows and orphans (6) other relevant information and (7) account number of the President’s or Prime Minister’s charitable fund”.
To my mind, these are not charitable questions that we would expect a genuinely humanitarian organization to ask. Why should they demand specific information about the victims’ religion and their particular identities? The term ‘collateral damage’ refers to unintended, but unavoidable, accidentally caused, damage to civilians’ lives and their property during a military conflict. The NGO also calls for the account number of the President’s or Prime Minister’s charitable fund.
Why all this cheeseparing for the insultingly derisory sum of 5 mn US Dollars by a rich Saudi government funded NGO? For Saudi Arabia with its relatively small population of 34.2 million (2019 estimate) and its GDP at 1.9 trillion US Dollars and per capita income at 56,817 US Dollars (Wikipedia), it is peanuts. Of course, the 5 mn dollar sum (roughly the equivalent of 1 billion currently debased SL rupees) is not intended to sound like a big amount to Sri Lankans, for that would be an affront to their general knowledge.
The Island report said:“According to a missive received from Dr. Jayasundera, the Muslim World League was to directly get in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office to finalise the matter”. Dr Jayasundera is Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who seems to have transferred the ‘matter’ to the PM.