An interview with Azath Salley
“I made a request to Basil Rajapaksa to remove the police and the STF and deploy the army. I told him that we have full confidence in the army. We met Basil at about 5.30pm on Monday. In about an hour the army was sent in. From the time the army went in till today there have been no incidents.”
Though only a provincial councillor at present, Azath Salley arguably plays a bigger role in Muslim politics than most Muslim parliamentarians. No stranger to controversy, he was in the news recently for the role he played in organising a hartal in Colombo in the wake of the Aluthgama incident. In this interview, he speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about Buddhist and Muslim extremism in this country.
Q. You live in Colombo and serve in the Central Provincial Council. What was your involvement in Aluthgama?
A. What I first heard from Aluthgama the Thursday before last was that a crowd of about 2000 people had surrounded the police station demanding the arrest of the three young fellows over an incident. I told them to hand over the three youths concerned to the police – which was done. The next morning, on Friday, I went to Aluthgmama. Some shops had been damaged by the crowd the previous day. Later we heard that a rally was to be held in Aluthgama on Sunday and we asked the police to obtain a court order banning it. I told DIG Anura Senanayake that unless the Sunday rally was stopped, the whole area would be destroyed.
Q. There was an incident where the driver of a monk in the area who had an argument with three Muslims and he got thrashed. Nobody is denying that the driver was thrashed.
A. He was assaulted, yes.
Q. The only dispute is whether the monk was also assaulted. He claims that he was pushed and two blows were struck. What I heard was that the Muslim man who had parked his motorcycle on the road obstructing traffic and caused all this, was a trouble maker in the area. Packed off to Saudi Arabia by his family he had returned to Sri Lanka just a week earlier. From what you have heard, is there the possibility that he or all three persons involved could be members of the extremist Thowheed Jamath group?
A. You know what my stand is on the Thowheed group. I checked, from the family, and from the people in the surrounding area, but from what I found out they don’t belong to any group.
Q. There has been violence in that area between the Thowheed and Sufi groups.
A. That is going on all over the country and are minor incidents.
Q. But the most serious incidents of Muslim sectarian violence between the extremist Thowheeds and the traditional Sufi Muslims have occurred in Kattankudy and in Beruwela. The Thowheed mosque was burnt in Beruwela, two people died, one was hacked to death, the other was killed inside a toilet in the mosque. It’s usually the Sufis who are at the receiving end. This was a rare occasion when the tables were turned.
A. That incident and the Aluthgama violence are two different issues.
Q. Yes, but what I want to know is whether there is a radical, intolerant strain of Islam in this country that does not tolerate even other Muslims let alone non-Muslims and whether they had anything to do with the incident that sparked off all this?
A. There are one or two groups like that among Muslims, but they are very small. I have always said that extremism in all its forms whether it be Buddhist, or Muslim has to be eradicated. All that we want is co-existence between all communities. Some Muslim extremists don’t want the present Muslim politicians to lead. They think they would make better leaders. You saw the video clip that I showed you just now. (this was a video clip of a member of the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath saying that the Muslim representatives in parliament were just ‘dead bodies’ and that these cadavers would be replaced soon by proper Muslim representatives.) So people have dreams like that. But their dreams don’t materialise because the people don’t vote for them.
Q. When it comes to the Bodu Bala Sena they have over a period of time been trying to create problems between the Muslims and the Sinhalese. The Aluthgama incident was a readymade thing which they made use of. There is now a very visible extremist trend within the Muslim community which did not exist earlier. You take what has been happening in Kattankudy – 117 Muslim houses burnt by extremist Muslims and the fugitives have not yet been allowed to return. Whenever they try to go back there are armed men on the road to obstruct their entry to the town. A Sufi prayer centre in Kattankudy was bulldozed and the minaret toppled, a Sufi spiritual leader’s body interred there was taken out, dumped on the road and burnt.
A. We organised a hartal to protest against the Auluthgama incidents last Thursday. That was only a work stoppage – people would close their shops, not go to office and schools and everybody would stay indoors. We decided not to hold any demonstrations on Friday after prayers because of the likelihood of an incident. But the Thowheed Jamath group had organised a march on Friday after prayers from Maligawatte to Fort Railway station. I had to speak to various people including Basil Rajapaksa to tell them not to give permission for that demonstration because if the SLTJ comes out onto the streets with their extremist views and just one hothead throws a stone, the whole country will burn. So we don’t support the Muslim extremists. Why is the government not investigating the connection between the BBS and the Norwegians? My view is that Mahinda Rajapaksa has a pact with the Bodu Bala Sena. He thinks that through the activities of the BBS, he will get more Sinhala votes.
Q. How can a Buddhist monk who has never in his life distinguished himself in any endeavour, and came to the notice of the public solely by speaking in uncouth language, and engaging in acts of thuggery, increase Buddhist votes for the government? Besides, this monk now refers to the president not by his name or his title but as maha-unde. Gota and Basil don’t even have names – they are referred to as ‘maha-undege parapura’. He tells the public that the Sinhalese Buddhists don’t have a leader and they should create a new leader. He expresses doubts whether Mahinda has a brain because he has appointed a Muslim as the Justice Minister. After speaking in a contemptuous, manner like that about Mahinda, how is he going to increase votes for the government?
A. When it comes to a presidential election, Gnanasara will come out and say just look at this common candidate, how can he be trusted? Let’s vote for the known devil instead.
Q. Do you think all this violence and mayhem is necessary just for that? Because you are opposed to both the BBS and the government you are trying to establish a link between your religious and political foes.
A. No, whenever the government does the right thing, I have always said so. The day after the Aluthgama violence on Sunday, I made a request to Basil Rajapaksa to remove the police and the STF and deploy the army. I told him that we have full confidence in the army. We met Basil at about 5.30pm on Monday. In about an hour the army was sent in. From the time the army went in till today there have been no incidents. I sent Basil Rajapaksa a letter of appreciation. But Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to show the Muslim community that he is against them.
Q. And that is going to help him win elections?
A. Yes, with the help of the Sinhala community.
Q. You seem to think that a popular leader like Mahinda who is a hero among the Sinhala people needs the Bodu Bala Sena to intercede with the Sinhalese voter on his behalf. During the past couple of days, the president has gone on record as saying that people are accusing the government of sponsoring these organisations but that it has no connection with these groups.
A. Then why has he not taken any action against them? This should have been nipped in the bud. If Gnanasara had been arrested early on, people wouldn’t have even known who he was. If this hate campaign had been stopped early on, Mahinda would have got more Muslim votes. Today not a single Muslim candidate gets elected to the provincial councils through the UPFA. That is because Mahinda like the Bodu Bala Sena is against the Muslims.
Q. The Bodu Bala Sena is an extremist organisation inciting violence and preaching hatred. We see the same thing among certain extremist Muslim organisations like the Thowheed Jamath.
A. There are eight different groups under the Thowheed name but seven don’t even issue statements. Only one group made those disparaging remarks about the Buddha. I was the only person who had the backbone to say that this Thowheed Jamath member must be punished. We sent a lawyer to court and said that what that man had said was wrong and that he should ask for forgiveness from the entire Buddhist community, and that he should go before the Mahanayakes and apologise. Extremist groups like the BBS and this Thowheed faction have to be banned for creating this situation.
The politicization of religion and the silence of the ‘good’