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Lessons Learnt: Passionate Intensity from the Best is Overdue

by Shanie

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

(August 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Nearly nine years ago, many of us watched in horror as TV screens all over the world showed two 767 jets ramming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. These suicide attacks caused both towers, built thirty years earlier as the world’s tallest buildings, to collapse in spectacular fashion resulting in the deaths of nearly 3000 people. The site is now being re-built with a new World Trade Center Tower and a number of smaller office towers. But controversy has now arisen by planning permission being given for the building of an Islamic Centre (including a Mosque) near but not at the site of the destroyed original World Trade Center. All over the world, there is latent Islamaphobia, particularly in the US after the 9/11 attacks. It is this that is being whipped up in the US over the planned Islamic Centre. Ground Zero (as the destroyed site is called) is hallowed ground, we are told, and no Mosque should be built near it (how near we are not told). All over the world, including Sri Lanka, it seems easy for obscurantist elements to stir up feelings against a whole community by ethno-religious bigotry.

This is what is happening now in the US over the planned building of the Islamic Centre. Many leaders across the Democratic-Republican political divide, including the New York Mayor, supported the building of the new faith centre. Even President Obama courageously waded into the controversy by making a stirring call for religious tolerance and saying he supported the decision to build the Islamic Centre. But within days, possibly with the November mid-term elections in his mind, he seemed to back-track when he stated that his comments were only in support of the building but not about its location. This is typical of many fair-minded liberals who, when faced with aggressive rhetoric from obscurantists who whip up communal frenzy, go on the defensive or choose to withdraw into silence. We have seen this happening in Sri Lanka and we see it happening in the US now.

Richard Cohen is a columnist in the Washington Post, one of the more liberal newspapers in the US. This week, he wrote what is perhaps the most enlightened comment on the controversy over the building of the Islamic Centre. He said: "This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack — just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.

If, on the other hand, you do not believe that the attack was launched by an entire religion, you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic Center. Lots of people fall into this category — or say they do — and still protest the mosque……They indulge in a kind of pornography of analogy — a bit of demagogic buffoonery that is becoming more and more obvious. They pretend that they have a solemn obligation to defend the (powerful) majority from the demands of the (powerless) minority and champion people whose emotions are based on a misreading of the facts…….

"It’s not merely that unscrupulous politicians are demagoguing the mosque issue, it is also that most others have kept their mouths shut….The Archbishop, instead of urging compromise, should have urged his congregants to show tolerance. He’s not a labour mediator. He’s a moral leader.

"We know the difference between the acts of individuals — even many of them — and the dogma or beliefs of an entire religion. I am a Jew, but do not judge me by Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron.

Appearing on ABC’s "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," Daisy Khan, a founder of the mosque (and the wife of the imam), rejected any compromise. She was right to do so because to compromise is to accede, even a bit, to the arguments of bigots, demagogues or the merely uninformed. This is no longer her fight. The fight is now all of ours.

It has become something of a cliche, I know, but no one ever put this sort of thing better than William Butler Yeats in his poem ‘The Second Coming’ (quoted above): The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Some passionate intensity from the best is past due."

The Appalling Silence of the Good

Cohen in his column was echoing the oft-quoted words of King: "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." And in another occasion, King said: who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." King was also a strong opponent of opponent of the Vietnam War and was critical of the spending of billions in the conduct of the war. "A nation", he declared, "that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death". For this King was condemned by both the political establishment as well as the mainstream media. The Life magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi" and even the liberal Washington Post wrote that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." It took many years for the political establishment and the mainstream media to acknowledge that King was right. We have a similar situation now in Sri Lanka. Despite the end of the war, there is a huge gap between budgetary allocation for defence and that for social welfare, for education and health care, for the alleviation of poverty. Yet, any criticism is deemed ‘unpatriotic’ and the bogey of the LTTE is still trotted out and meekly accepted by the mainstream media and civil society. Even if not ‘accepted’, it is complicity, as King said.

In his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace, King stated: "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centred men have torn down, men other-centred can build up." Sadly, we seem to have few other-centred men and women in our society, particularly in the mainstream media, who are willing to stand up and speak up. This week, however, this columnist had the good fortune to read a piece in the internet by a journalist who is now part of the Sri Lankan diaspora. This journalist, Dushy Ranatunge, has written perceptively before and it is a pity that our mainstream media has yet to pick his article.

Ranatunge visited the North recently in the company of friends, who all happened to be from the majority community in our country. This columnist has also visited the North on a number of occasions after the A9 Kandy-Jaffna road was reopened, and shares the observations of Ranatunge and his friends. Many who have visited the North from outside speak superficially that the local population say that they are happy that the war is over and that everything is fine. But Ranatunge writes: Scratch the surface and once they realise they can trust you, they come up with a different perspective.

Once the Omanthai check-point is crossed, any perceptive observer will realise the heavy military presence. The military presence is seen on all roads, at checkpoints and bunkers. The Tamil perspective is that this is a prelude to the Sinhalisation of the North; that army camps are being set up in many places to provide security to planned settlement of Sinhala families in the area. If this perception is wrong, then the Government must publicly declare that there would not be any state-sponsored colonisation of the North by people from outside. There can be no objection to anyone from any ethnic community purchasing land in any part of the country and wishing to settle there. Bit planned state-sponsored colonisation assumes a different agenda.

To revert back to Ranatunge’s observations, one final point is worth mentioning. Two impressive monuments have been erected at Kilinochchi and at Elephant Pass as war memorials. The inscription on the monuments mentions the names of Mahinda Rajapakse and Gotabaya Rajapakse but there is no reference to Sarath Fonseka who as Army Commander led the military to victory. Ranatunge refers to this as lack of common decency. But to this columnist’s mind, this is symbolic of the mindset and political petulance of the political establishment that is attempting to re-write history by erasing the contribution made to peace and development of our country by any leader, past and present, critical of the present establishment.

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