Wednesday, 24 March 2004  
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Timely concern

That the Muslim community in the East in particular was suffering benign neglect even under some of the community's self-proclaimed leaders was evidenced by the series of physical attacks it was called on to endure at the hands of marauding hordes over the past few years.

Accordingly, the concerns of the Muslim community cannot be allowed to languish way down in the States list of priorities and we are glad that no less a person than President Kumaratunga has taken it on herself to assure the Muslim community of her commiseration, care and support.

Security and protection is a number one concern of the North-East Muslims and the President has readily promised them that this need would be met. So be it, is our prayer, for, if at all Sri Lanka is to march into the future it should be as one man.

It will be as a united nation where all communities of the country will live in brotherly affection and love. It is our hope that our political leaders would not only speak of the need for such unity but take swift measures for the solidification of a multiethnic, plural society, by laying down the required constitutional parameters for this all important development.

Coming back to the Muslim community, it is obvious that they are an important factor in the country's peace process. This was so from the day they were chased out of their homesteads in the North by LTTE killer squads which were intent on cleansing the North-East of the Muslim presence.

The same point was chillingly underscored in the East in the early Nineties when hundreds of Muslim worshippers were brutally gunned down by rampaging Tigers in their mosques. They apparently were a thorn in the flesh of the hegemony seeking Tigers as well as other blood-thirsty mobs outside the North-East.

Nevertheless, as already mentioned, their lot was hardly enviable when peace descended on other parts of the land. They continued to be victims of ethnic-cleansing efforts in the North-East. Accordingly, the Muslim community in the North-East, is also an important party to the conflict. They too have grievances which need to be resolved as part of the ethnic conflict resolution effort.

Therefore, the President's reassurances come at a most crucial juncture when the country's future is about to be decided. Inasmuch as the essential needs of the Tamil community need to be met, the Muslims' concerns must be addressed and resolved too.

These priorities could be overlooked only at the country's own peril. Accordingly, the emerging solution should be responsive to democratic imperatives and humane considerations.

The President also did well to apologise for the Udathalawinna massacre, although evidence is yet to emerge that her partymen were involved in it. Such concern could go a long way to heal long-festering wounds. It could also lay the basis for a reconciliatory political culture.

The Arab summit

Peace looks a distant prospect in the Middle East after Monday's killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of the most shocking events in the Palestinian uprising. But even amid such turbulence, peace will be very much on the agenda as Arab leaders gather in Tunis next week.

They will focus on many issues that affect the Arab world: the volatile situation in Palestine and Israel's conduct; the war on terror; democratic reforms and relations with the West.

Many countries have condemned Israel for Yassin's assassination, which is likely to cast a shadow over the Summit. Thousands of people have marched in cities across the Arab world, denouncing Israel and Arab countries which retain diplomatic relations with it.

Arab leaders will be under intense pressure to pacify the public and deal effectively with the Palestinian question in the face of mounting violence. They can no longer be passive witnesses as the carnage continues in Israel and Palestine.

Iraq will be another litmus test for the Arab leaders, ahead of the June 30 deadline for handing over its sovereignty to an Iraqi council. The summit will have to examine the repercussions of persistent instability in Iraq and of the presence of a large number of foreign troops in the region.

Most Arab leaders are under pressure to reform their societies and governing systems. In the words of one Arab League official, "the Arab summit cannot ignore the need for change". The most likely scenario is that a compromise will be adopted, based on reforms tailored to each Arab country.

They will also have to debate the pros and cons of the United States' plan to spread democracy and implement economic liberalisation, called the Greater Middle East Initiative.

Several countries insist that it includes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab League must also consider plans for an Arab Parliament and a court of justice, which will widen the scope of democracy in the region.

The League should intensify its participation in the war on terror. Middle East countries have distanced themselves from fundamentalist groups, but the broad labelling of terrorists by Western media as 'Islamic' or 'Arab' does not help.

Arab League countries must continue to cooperate fully with global efforts to wipe out terrorism. Their unity can help the make the region, and the world, safer and more peaceful.

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