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Sri Lankan peacebuilders break from country’s history of violence


When religious tensions in her city sparked and flared to breaking point, local peacebuilder Maziyya Hilmi knew she had to act quickly. As angry mobs gathered, youth mobs clashed in the streets and police struggled to maintain order in the fractured community, she reached out across religious lines hoping to find a solution. Pushing back against stereotypes and unwilling to be talked down, she remained adamant – one woman determined not to see her people repeat the mistakes of the past.

  • Published

    26 July 2013
  • Written by

    Quinn Zimmerman

Maziyya Hilmi is a determined woman, especially when the stakes are high. A Muslim from Galle in post-war Sri Lanka, she is all too aware of the violence that can spark when tensions between the region’s Buddhists and Muslims arise. Alongside her responsibilities as wife, mother and primary caretaker of her household, Maziyya recently joined the Centre for Peace Building and Reconciliation (CPBR) – our local partner in Sri Lanka – to get more involved in preventing conflict in her community. This July she got her chance.


In the police department where she volunteers, Maziyya heard that three officers had delivered a report predicting widespread violence in Galle city. A visiting Islamic scholar, broadcasting a sermon in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, had offended the Sinhalese Buddhist population. Angry crowds had formed and were throwing stones at the gathered Muslims. Gangs of young people from each side were starting to clash as tempers flared. The police tried to control the situation in the streets. Maziyya felt she had to act. She recalls:

“I immediately called the Inter-Faith Dialogue Centre at CPBR and spoke with colleagues from all faiths. Then I called one of the most influential figures in Galle’s Muslim community, Awun Hajjiar, and explained the situation. He came at once to my home with six moulovies (Muslim scholars) to discuss it further.

“When they arrived, all of them asked me, ‘You are a female - why do you want to intervene in this?’ I explained to them that I cannot expect others to intervene, I cannot turn a blind eye and wait until someone gets hurt. I suggested that the next day, being a Friday, they could use the Friday sermons to spread a strong message through mosques asking people to avoid clashes with Buddhists, and to not deliberately seek to take this incident further. Though Awun Hajjiayr was not very keen at first, when I insisted he called six mosques in the area and requested them to pass the message.

“On Friday, to ensure the instructions were being followed, I sent five of my male relatives - who usually visit the same mosque for prayers - to different mosques. They all confirmed to me that the message was given at all the mosques they attended. Later the moulovies had called the young moulovie who stirred up this tension to make a public announcement and apologise to the Buddhist community.

“The day the incident happened, I had also called a leading Buddhist monk in the area from our Inter-Faith Dialogue Centre to tell him about it and to discuss how we could prevent violence. A few days later I called the monk, Sarana Thero, to check on progress. He informed me that he had telephoned the two temples in the vicinity of the mosque and advised the chief monks to take steps to restrain any violent retaliation by the Sinhala Buddhist community.

“A few days after that, he had also gone to the police with 15 others - including four monks from temples around the village, some Muslim clergy, and the young moulovie - to withdraw the police complaint that was made on the day of the incident. He informed me that the group had vouched to the police that they will take responsibility for avoiding events like this in the future.

“This entire process took about two weeks, during which tension among the community was highly charged. Muslim parents stopped sending their children to the village pre-school because it is attended by both Muslim and Buddhist children. After the incident was settled, they again started sending their children to the pre-school.

“Another good thing has happened after this, Sarana Thero and Awun Hajjiar have developed a very good personal relationship. They have attended several events together and are working closely. I’m very happy to have been able to bring them together.”

By acting quickly, collaborating across religious lines, and refusing to accept anything less than committed action to quell the rising anger in Galle, Maziyya Hilmi stopped conflict in its tracks – and, crucially, she built new alliances between Buddhist and Muslim leaders dedicated to peace. In a meeting of 26 moulovies last week in Galle, Mazziya was commended for her bravery, commitment and actions.

Without her prompt action, tensions in Galle could have hit tipping point, opening the door to bloodshed and deepening the Buddhist-Muslim divide. In 1985 a similar situation had caused widespread violence in the city and long-lasting animosity amongst its people.

History did not repeat itself in Galle this month because one woman,defying gender stereotypes and pressuring local leaders to act, made certain it wouldn’t. Maziyya’s story is proof that violence is not inevitable. Most promising of all, it reveals a desire amongst both Muslims and Buddhists to collaborate for tolerance and acceptance, against extremism and ignorance.

These peace advocates are the mechanisms through which fractured societies mend, and the bedrock upon which they rebuild. They are the carriers of a better future. They are the agents of change.

We here at Peace Direct can’t help but smile when stories like Maziyya’s find their way to our office. They reaffirm for us the value of what we champion, and our belief that peace is best built by local people. They make us proud in the work that we do, and in the partnerships we have with organisations like Maziyya’s, which make peace stick. They are reminders that real people make a real difference in a real way. They are worth celebrating.

So this July we celebrate you Maziyya. You’re the reason we do what we do.

If you would like to celebrate Maziyya and other peacebuilders like her, please consider supporting their work.


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