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Reconciliation and Muslims in Sri Lanka

M.M. Zuhair

M.M. Zuhair

We have gathered here today on the 125th Anniversary of the founding of Zahira College. To be invited by the management of Zahira, to deliver the College Founders’ Day oration on such a milestone of an occasion as the 125th Anniversary of the College, is a great honour for me. I feel truly humbled, more so because I am an old boy of this very unique educational institution. I must therefore thank the Principal Mr. Trizviiy Marikkar, the Chairman of the Board of Governors Mr. Fouzul Hameed, Vice Principal As-Shaikh A M Mihlar and Vice Principal Mr M T A Rauf and others for extending to me this opportunity of addressing you this evening.

Let us pause for a moment to remember those wonderful personalities who dedicated themselves with great wisdom and foresight to fulfill a critical need of the Muslims of this country. Why was the need for a collegiate institute of education for Muslims so critical?

Let us see the then background very briefly. Permit me to emphasise that, by the time Zahira was founded in 1892, there were already in existence in the country, 61 Colleges of repute, 50 of which were established by the American missionaries, the Methodists, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics who appeared to be in competition with each other, while the British Empire was firmly in the saddle, in the then Ceylon. The Buddhists had by then established only 6 schools including Ananda College in 1886 and the Hindus had established a mere 4 schools including the Jaffna Hindu College in 1887.

That the Sri Lankan Muslims were being left out, in the competitive quest for quality education- pursued by others actively, almost with missionary zeal- could not have been lost on the community and its then leaders, as the country drew close to the dawn of the 20th century.

An inspiring speech was delivered in 1891 at the Maradana Mosque,next door, by that legendary Muslim activist of that time hailing from Kandy, Mr. M C Siddi Lebbe, a lawyer by profession and Editor of the monthly journal ‘Muslim Nesan’. This speech led immediately to the establishment of the Muslim Educational Society. The primary objective of this Society was to set up an English school in Colombo for boys. With miraculous speed, in the very next year in 1892, Zahira College was established, named then as the ‘Al Madhrasathul Zahira’ and renamed as Zahira College in 1913, when the College reached its 21st year.

Let me add for the benefit of the ladies here that therewas no discriminatory decision to exclude girls. That was a time when the colonial rulers did not consider their ladies playing tennis respectful! That was also the time when even an English school for boys came under criticism from sections of our theologians who genuinely feared that English education would result in Muslims getting converted to Christianity. Though the fears of the then Ulema were expressions of sincere concerns, those fears were virtually unfounded as subsequent events had demonstrated.

Viewed in that context- that is the fear of conversion to Christianity through English education- the founders of Zahira College who formed the Muslim Educational Society following Siddi Lebbe’s inspiring speech, indeed took bold decisions. They did not fear those, whose fears were unfounded. Contextually, Muslims then, were already condemned to be the last of the four communities in pursuit of educational advancement! If the founders of Zahira College did not at that time take such critical decisions what would have been the plight of our community today? Your guess is as good as mine. We would have ended up probably as tea boys but with little chance of rising up to become Prime Ministers like Narendra Modi.

In assessing the struggle of our founders, I wish to draw your pointed attention, now, to a gloomy underlying fact. That is while other communities, particularly Christians were far ahead with over 50 schools already in full swing, with the obvious support of the Empire and the Buddhists and Hindus were still struggling to catch up with 6 and 4 schools respectively, the Muslims were absolutely nowhere there, in this competitive race for modern education. That was the background in which our founders struggled to set up the first collegiate level English school for the Muslims.

What is equally noteworthy is that, while the founders toiled and established the community’s first such school, in 1892,it had sadly taken our community exactly 50 more long years to set up the second and third Colleges in 1942! Of course there were small institutes catering to teaching English which had mushroomed in Colombo, Kandy and Galle during this period and had closed down at various times thereafter. What I am referring to is the founding of College-level schools which grew up to become fully fledged permanent Colleges of repute.

Amongst those who played a key role in the initial struggle was Mr Wapiche Marikar, the best known building constructor of Sri Lanka, who served as the Founder Manager of the College for 25 years until 1917, a hundred years ago. It was also exactly a hundred years ago that the management of the College was handed over to the Maradana Mosque with Wapiche Marikar being succeeded by the Chairman of the Maradana Mosque Committee Mr N H M Abdul Cader.

We are, ladies and gentlemen, a grateful community, an appreciative group of people. We have gathered here, distinguished brothers and sisters, primarily to pay our tribute to the great founders of Zahira who sacrificed their time, their thoughts and their wealth to establish, develop and sustain, a prestigious educational institution, mainly for the Muslims of this island nation. Our founders thereby enabled us to walk in this country, to this day, with dignityas equal citizens. The thousands of students who were processed, perfected and presented to the world, through the portals of our Alma Mater, could indeed stand up to the world and declare, “Yes. I am a Zahirian” with honour, esteem and pride.

Let us remember now those great founders by name: M C Siddi Lebbe, A M Wapiche Marikar, Orabi Pasha, a war hero of Egypt branded a war criminal and banished from Egypt to our then remote island. Then we have Marhoom N D H Abdul Ghaffoor considered the greatest benefactor of this College, whose contributions include the Science block, an 18 acre estate at Maharagama, the junior hostel and this beautiful block that comprises this hall plus 16 classrooms. We also need to remember a younger brother of N D H Abdul Ghaffoor, namely Marhoom N H M Abdul Cader who managed the College for 22 years, sacrificing his profession as a lawyer. We need also to remember Marhoom I L M Abdul Azeez, trustee of the Maradana Mosque who campaigned through his journals ‘Muslim Guardian’ and ‘Muslim Pathukavalan’ encouraging educational pursuit among the Muslims. We must also remember Mr Careemji Jafferjee (1906) and Mr P B Umbichy (1923) who were early donors whose contributions of buildings, the playground and the Umbichy block of 12 classrooms were significant.

We cannot complete our tribute to the founders of Zahira without a reference to the two great Principals of the founding period of the College, Dr T B Jayah and A M A Azeez. We are well aware that Dr Jayah who was Principal from 1921 to 1948 and Azeez who was Principal from 1948 to 1961, a period of 40 years, succeeded in raising Zahira College to what is passionately described by all as the ‘Golden Era of Zahira’. The College had a healthy mixture of mainly Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils. Zahirians entered the University in significant numbers in the fields of Science, Medicine, Engineering, Law, Arts and Veterinary Science. The College performed exceptionally well in almost all fields of Sports and extra-curricular activities. Zahira also enjoyed a very high level of discipline. The founders built the beautiful edifice- Zahira College. Dr. Jayah and Mr. Azeez achieved all-round excellence.

Support for enhancing the infrastructure facilities continued from benefactors such as Muththu Wappa, Pallak Lebbe & Co., M I M Naleem Hadjiar and more recently on my initiative from Al Maktoum Foundation of Dubai while Deshamanya Professor M T A Furkhan a distinguished old boy and former Chairman of the College donated from his personal funds the Prof. Furkhan Building. The Swimming Pool project and the renovation of buildings were completed with the enthusiastic support of the old boys, parents and well-wishers, initiated by Mr. Fouzul Hameed, the present Chairman of the Board.

I must also refer to another milestone that must be remembered. In 1982 the management of Zahira College was broad-based and vested in the Board of Governors of Zahira College under the “Zahira College, Colombo, Board of Governors (Incorporation) Act” No. 18 of 1982 on the initiative of Hon. M H Mohamed, MP, then Minister of Transport and Transport Boards. A noteworthy feature in the democratization of the management of the College was the inclusion in the Board of Governors, the President and four members elected from the members of Maradana Mosque, the President and three members elected from the Old Boys Association, three members each from the Welfare Society and the Parent-Teachers Association together with three more members co-opted by the Board of Governors.

There is now a dedicated team led by the Principal Mr Trizviiy Marikkar working under the guidance of the Board of Governors struggling to restore and revert Zahira to the pristine glory of that Golden Era. This team closely supported by the old boys, the academic staff and the parents need your unstinted support, particularly to achieve academic excellence. The management team while welcoming objective criticism is fully conscious of its next great challenge- achieving sustainable academic excellence. Simply put, we need to see more Zahirians entering universities, professional colleges and higher educational institutes.

In my view Zahira needs to attract more year five scholarship students, which will enhance the performance of the present day students. Taking into consideration the requirements for the next fifty years or more, Zahira’s architects had drawn a ten floor hostel facility for the College, with residential facility for brilliant students and committed teachers. I would urge the management to give this project, top priority to achieve sustainable academic excellence. I would commend the management to revisit the Al Maktoum Foundation and seek their further support.

This historical process of establishing Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim schools over the past 150 years, undoubtedly played a major role in uplifting educationally our communities. Indeed the standards introduced by the American and British missionary schools upgraded the quality of life of all Sri Lankans. We are no doubt appreciative of these colonial time rewards.

But did this colonial process also result in undue divisions and excessive communal compartmentalization, amongst us Sri Lankans? Did it also damage even partially the prospects of establishing healthy co-existence among the different communities and unity amidst diversity? Did this process together with other factors also contribute negatively towards advancing the Sri Lankan identity and national integration? Did this communal divide at the schools level unwittingly contribute to a series of ethnic oriented conflicts and religious confrontations that post-independent Sri Lanka had undergone at regular intervals? Is the need for reconciliation mechanisms in the country today due partly to this communal system of schools? There are those who think so. There are others who do not think so. Jane Russel the British researcher in her thesis ‘Communal Politics under the Donough more Constitution’ refers to nearly a hundred years of communal politics in this country, which had distanced communities, each from the other. There are also those who argue that the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ led to the present ethnically divisive and at times confrontational politics in our country. The British may have had their own good reasons for their puckish policy of divide and rule but what reasons do we have to hang on to this poisonous snake for nearly 70 years since independence?

I do not propose to answer in this forum the questions that I have raised. There are experts in this field who need to assess the changing roles that are being expected from the schools. All I wish to say is that the present school system ought not to be changed overnight. There must be due consultation with all stakeholders before major changes to the existing character of the schools are effected.

Zahira had always accommodated a recognizable percentage of students from the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Mr S H M Jameel delivering the 121st Founders Day Oration stated that during the stewardship of A M A Azeez as Principal, of the 138 Zahirians who entered the Faculties of the then Ceylon University, 37 (or 27%) were Sinhalese while 21 (or 15%) were Tamils. Eighty or 58% were Muslims. Like Zahira, there are other schools which also accommodate a fair number of students from other communities.

But there are also leading national level schools which accommodate students virtually from a single ethno-religious group only. Such practices violate the fundamental rights provisions in the Constitution. Courts have been reluctant to make across the board decisions, apart from granting limited relief to individual petitioners before Courts. These, indeed require political decisions to pave way for reasonable integration while respecting diversity. Ethnic and religious co-existence must begin from classrooms. Respect for other beliefs and cultures must echo from schools, particularly from the level of the teachers and the school environment. It is this concept that the present government is committed to implement.

Former President Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga articulated this effectively when she addressed the Royal College and on another occasion the Ananda College staff and students at meetings organised earlier this year, by the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation under the guidance of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. She said it is not possible to achieve national integration unless every school opens its doors for admission of a reasonable percentage of children from other communities.

When I spoke at Ananda College on the same occasion I referred to the then Mr. T B Jayah and Mr C. Sundaralingam who were highly respected teachers at that time at Ananda College. I told the Anandians that when Jayah, who was your teacher, was invited to head Zahira as its Principal (by the then management, the Maradana Mosque Committee), Ananda’s teacher Mr Jayah declined the prestigious offer. He thankfully declined, unless Ananda’s Principal Mr Kularatne agreed. When Mr Kularatne heard about the offer, though Ananda was going to lose a competent teacher, Mr Kularatne readily agreed (to the Mosque authorities) to release Mr Jayah to head Zahira.

You will note the very high level of cordiality and respect the two leaders showed to each other and thereby to the two institutions- Mr Jayah not betraying the trust that Ananda had reposed on him and Mr Kularatne rewarding Zahira with the most illustrious Principal that Zahira ever had. We need to remember this as a great example of fostering national unity while respecting diversity.

I must also draw your attention, that this period when Mr P De S Kularatne was the Principal at Ananda (1918 to 1932 period), and Dr T B Jayah (1921 to 1948) was Principal at Zahira College, our country saw the revival of Buddhism as well as other religions including Islam, following five centuries of foreign rule coming to an end. During this period, according to Mr A M Nahiya a former Vice Principal of Zahira College, Mr Kularatne and Mr Jayah built up a close rapport between the students of Ananda and Zahira in both sports and literary activities. The point I wish to make here is the need for Zahira to revive closer relations between not only Zahira and Ananda but also similar warm relations with the Hindu, Catholic and Christian schools around Zahira. This will help unity and reconciliation and overcome deficiencies that compartmentalisation had brought about.

Sport is another arena which could become an effective unifying platform. Sportsmen undoubtedly etch an unforgettable aura of friendship that generally lasts a lifetime. I wish to commend a few friendly matches to be considered for inclusion in the College calendar. Four schools from the neighbourhood, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian school from each of which students join together in forming the required number of teams. Each team will have a healthy mixture from the four schools. They play against each other as Sri Lankans. The best performing teams and students are awarded rewards. The Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation tried this out in Badulla successfully earlier this year. Well known Zahirian Hon. A H M Fowzie, State Minister was the Chief Guest. A number of political leaders, school principals, teachers, parents and students of all communities participated. It was a well-received event. It may be possible for any school organizing this inclusive “Unite Sri Lanka via Sports” event to obtain required funding from the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation. Hon. Fowzie can help. I believe this as a venture that would be rewarding for peace and harmony in every multicultural neighbourhood in our country. Probably you may have more proposals.

Our duty is to create a friendly environment for sustainable security for every child. We need to overcome the forces that seek to divide us. There are serious attempts worldwide to isolate the Muslims, labeling us as fundamentalists and extremists. While we condemn all forms of terrorism and violent extremism, we need to be fully alert to the reprehensible attempts to blame the criminal acts of a few, on Islam our chosen way of life and on whole communities of Muslims. *Criminals need to be punished, irrespective of ethnic, caste, religious, regional or national persuasions. We need to be alert and cooperate with the authorities to apprehend and deal with such criminals. We need to be also alert to external elements which can create conflicts.

We need to be aware of warmongers, dealers in weapons and traffickers in narcotics. ** We owe this to every child in this country. We owe this to our motherland. Surely we are a patriotic community. Patriotism demands our positive cooperation and action to build a friendly atmosphere for everyone.

We need to be fully aware that the threat to national reconciliation could come from those attempting to blame whole communities of people for the criminal acts of a few. Such attempts to extend the blame for the acts of criminals, on any religion or community of its followers have no place in any civilized legal system. Of course one who conspires or abets the commission of an offence is also an offender. But by no means could that be extended against a whole community of people. No religion incites violence.

We need to be watchful of sinister attempts to castigate whole communities and malign a particular religion under cover of false allegations, as for example that Islam incites violence. Nothing is further from the truth. These allegations are a cover for militaristic invasions of other countries. These falsehoods are also spread to justify interference in the internal affairs of other countries. *** The fear mongering helps the sale of weapons and security equipment. Countries with high percentages of poverty are compelled thereby to waste funds, which make the poor, poorer. What I have referred to very briefly is the international perspective but of great relevance to our future. Any attempt to isolate the Muslims here based on false propaganda will adversely affect the process of national integration and reconciliation which are top priorities for development and economic advancement.

Internally the Muslims of Sri Lanka have to be mindful of current developments. Left under the carpet, some of these issues can cause serious harm not only to the community but also to the process of integration and reconciliation. During the past 8 years following the end of the war, several issues concerning our community have been raised by extremist groups in the country. These groups are a small minority. The issues raised are based on false fears, unfounded utterances, fanciful fabrications and mind-boggling myths. These issues are exceptionally similar to issues concerning the Muslims raised elsewhere in the world post 9/11. Interestingly these issues began to surface here after the visit of the main group to a European country in 2010. The Muslim community here has effectively countered every single issue. Muslim civil society including the National Shoora Council, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon Jemmiyathul Ulema, the Rapid Response Team and others as well individuals and independent media personnel have played significant roles in responding to these allegations.

However, we need to recognize two important factors. Firstly, lies and untruths repeatedly uttered by those making the allegations have created a spectrum of prejudices against us among a wider section of the people. We need to understand the feelings of this wider section, some of whom genuinely believe the allegations to be true. There is a need to address this group differently from those who spread the lies and deception. We need for instance, calm and convincing responses. Some responses in the social media are counter-productive and abusive. Secondly, we need to understand that highly respected members of the Buddhist clergy have since July 20th that is about a month ago, raised some issues that relates to our community as well, but in a very dignified manner. Regretfully, sections of the media have reported their views in an anti-minority perspective. We need to be mindful of the genuine concerns of the Buddhist clergy, even though they are based on false fears and past prejudices. Let us examine some of them.

  1. Wrongful religious conversions. Conversions based on wrongful material inducements or rewards are genuine concerns of all religious leaders. Muslims cannot support forcible conversions or the offer of any form of material inducement or reward, because it is against Surah10 Verse 99of the Holy Quran: “If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!” Belief is only on the basis of “their will to believe” and not on the basis of any material inducements or rewards or the use of force! If they commit such violations, they must be dealt with under appropriate legal provisions to be enacted.
  2. Demography. Similarly, fear mongering that Muslims will overtake demographically the Sinhala population, is another canard. Statistician Delano Uduman has demonstrated that in real terms the population lead of the Buddhists over the Muslims had been growing with an ever widening gap in numbers at each census. He has shown that it is impossible for the Muslims to overtake the Sinhala population.
  3. Narcotics. Another accusation is that Muslims are involved in bringing in narcotics into the country to inveigle the Buddhists. The law to execute by hanging dealers in narcotics is part of our law. But in Sri Lanka no one is executed, unlike in many other countries. Narcotics smuggling is certainly not confined to persons with Muslim names. Every community has its black sheep. Deal effectively and firmly upon due conviction. The greed for money involves them in these heinous crimes; not religious motives. Claims of inveigling Buddhists is an unproven charge that makes the claimants look silly.
  4. Damaging archaeological sites. Muslims, mainly in the East are accused of damaging archaeological sites. If that be true why is it that, no action is being taken against the offenders under the Antiquities Ordinance and connected laws? Deal with the criminals but do not seek to brand the community for the sins of a few black sheep, is our respectful plea.

There is an eerie feeling of insecurity within the community since the end of the war in May 2009. The initial post-war euphoria shared by all communities began to evaporate within months of the end of the war. Muslims’ contributions to the success of the Sri Lankan war on terrorism were soon overlooked. This indeed is a separate subject by itself but which needs to be documented and publicly articulated again and again. This war was certainly not against any community. It was against terrorism. It was against the division of our country. The entire country needs to be repeatedly reminded of the patriotic role of the Muslims in firstly not supporting the division of the country, secondly that Muslims of the North and the East thereby paid a heavy price, being evicted from the North, murdered in mosques in the East with extensive destruction of properties and livelihood; thirdly that Muslims particularly in the intelligence units of the armed forces played a key role in the war fronts and fourthly that Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Libya played significant roles in assisting the government in its war efforts. This war was never won by any single man. We need to demonstrate that the patriotic role of the Muslims of Sri Lanka had also contributed immensely for the victory of all the people of this country.

This I believe is vital to help cement our traditional bonds of friendship and unity with all communities. Amity is the foundation upon which national reconciliation and integration with respect for diversity could be built.

Let me conclude by thanking you for your patient hearing, the Principal and the management of Zahira College for this honour of the opportunity to address you.

Thank you.


M.M. Zuhair is a Former Member of the Parliament of Sri Lanka, former Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran and former Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation


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