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Confusion on racism and chauvinism

by Izeth Hussain

(January 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Chauvinism or Racism? - In an earlier note I pointed out that the words we use show the way in which we conceptualize the world in which we live. Therefore new words, and shifts in the meanings of words, show that we are seeing the world in new ways. That could amount to a change in ideology, taking ideology not in the usual Marxist sense but in that of Louis Althusser: the ensemble of our ideas and values. I now provide a simple example of the way words indicate the different ways in which we see the world, not just at the level of ideas but of percepts, of our sense impressions of the world. The Eskimos have more than a dozen words for snow, differentiating between colours and shades of colours. That means that Eskimos relate to the snow around them in a very different way from how we would if we go towards the North Pole.

I will now provide an example of the way terminological change can relate to ethnicity. I interrupted typing the above part of my note to go for my breakfast, but just prior to my doing so, I saw an email containing exactly the example I want. A coincidence, which was most pleasing as I have long been fascinated by coincidence theory. According to that email we Muslims should say not Mosque but Masjid because mosque means mosquitoes, and we should say not Mecca 12-2but Makkah as Mecca signifies the House of Wines. The recipients of the email have been enjoined to forward it to others, if they are true Muslims. I am not doing so, but I am utilizing the services of a newspaper owned and managed by uncircumcised infidels to spread that email message far more than is possible through email - which perhaps would make me the truest of the true Muslim recipients of the email.

But, seriously, I don’t think we can determine who is a true Muslim through terminological usage. I believe that what is at issue here is really ethnicity: the need of SL Muslims who feel threatened to draw in ranks in affirmation of a strong Muslim identity, in this case through new terminological usage. It is comparable to the revival of different forms of purdah, after a long period in which it was falling into desuetude, which should also be seen as reflecting a need to affirm a strong ethnic identity, and not just in terms of so-called Islamic fundamentalism.

I come now to the problem posed by the term “chauvinism”. A friend argues that it serves the same purpose as “racism” within Sri Lanka. In the first place, it is clearly a wrong use of the term because according to the dictionary it means bellicose patriotism or foreign jingoism, a term therefore applying only to the attitudes of nationals of one country towards another, and not at all to internal relationships. I grant, however, that words can come to have new and accepted meanings through usage. But in Sri Lanka it has come to refer mainly to “Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists” as distinct from the Westernised Sinhalese. The latter used to be opprobriously called “thuppahis” by the former, a term still sometimes used in polemical writing, while recently some other opprobrious terms have also been used such as “Colombians” and “English speaking pariahs”. I recognize, of course, that the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists are pukkah racists towards the minorities. The problem that I see is that the Westernised Sinhalese also include in their ranks equally pukkah racists.

Incovenient truth

The inconvenient truth is that there has been nothing in our lexicon to designate the root cause of most ethnic problems, the majority members who discriminate against minorities. The use of the term “chauvinists” only amounts to obfuscation and leads to confused thinking about the ethnic problem. On the other hand, while operating within a paradigm of racism, the term “racism” enables more precise thinking about the ethnic problem and a surer grasp of it. I believe that the most important reason for this is that “racism” is a heavily value-loaded term provoking intensely negative reactions, whereas most Sri Lankans don’t quite know what “chauvinism” means.

I will cite some examples to show what I have in mind. When Muslims charge that Lafir got nothing like his due from the Government of the time he became billiards world champion, adducing Sinhalese racism as the reason for that, many Sri Lankans who are far from being racist will feel outraged, but some at least will be provoked into asking some probing questions which could lead to conclusions that could be very useful in handling the ethnic problem. The conclusions that I, and many others, would draw from that single case are as follows. As I pointed out in an earlier note, it was a Sinhalese businessman, Sumathipala, who spent money, time, energy, and trouble to enable Lafir to win that championship, showing a Sinhalese capacity to transcend our ethnic divisions. I believe that that is true of the majority of the Sinhalese people. The alleged failure was on the part of the Government, not of the Sinhalese people. I believe that since 1948 the Sri Lankan state has been basically racist - to varying degrees of course, and further that racism flourishes mightily among what I have elsewhere called the Sinhalese “power elite”. The fact that both Lafir and Sumathipala were “Colombians” points to the fact that all our ethnic groups have interacted very satisfactorily in Colombo. That fact points to yet another possible conclusion: racism flourishes in areas where there is only a small degree of inter-ethnic interaction, as in the Ruhuna and Jaffna. None of these questions would have risen, and none of the conclusions would have been drawn, if we thought exclusively within an ethnic paradigm because there is no such thing as an “ethnicist”, pointing to the root cause of our ethnic problems.

Galle Literary Festival - Observations - This is the first of the observations I hope to make on the GLF. The focus of public interest in it just now is not on whether it is a useful exercise and so on, but on the mystery boycott by Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai. They have made public statements graciously regretting their inability to visit Sri Lanka, but they have scrupulously refrained from giving any cogent reason, indeed any reason at all, for changing their minds on participation. Why not? There seems to be a hidden factor in operation.

The ostensible reason is supposed to be the very horrible treatment accorded to media personnel under the present Government. There are the two world-notorious cases of Lasantha Wickrematunge and Keith Noyar which clearly pointed to a shocking culture of impunity, and there is also the case of Tissanayagam which provoked a statement from no less than the American President. All that may be true, but what on earth has it got to do with the GLF which is organized not by the Government but by private parties who have done nary a thing against our media personnel? And how on earth was it that the call for boycott came from internationally eminent persons of the order of Naom Chomsky, Arundati Roy, Ken Loche, Tariq Ali etc when the case for it seems self-evidently absurd? It’s all put down to the diabolical wiles of the diaspora and other disaffected Tamils. I am afraid that may be true.

Main target

Their main target would have been Pamuk, whose participation as a Nobel Prize winner would have conferred enormous prestige on the GLF. What would have been their arguments to dissuade him from coming? He is known for his daring in speaking out on Turkish genocide against the Armenians during the First World War, and the maltreatment of Kurds in more recent years. As a result he had to flee Turkey for some years, but eventually came through after court trials. All that would be coming up at Galle, and inevitably he would be asked questions on his attitudes towards minority problems including the ones in Sri Lanka. He could well say something that puts him on the wrong side of dangerous personages here. Perhaps his persuaders apprised him in rich detail of the case of the Bollywood stars who almost died in a bomb blast in Colombo, even though they had shown no disrespect to the memory of Somarama Thero. They could also have referred to the recent killings and disappearances in Jaffna, showing that the culture of impunity is not dead. Would it be worth risking his life for the sake of the GLF? Possibly I am being fanciful, but there does seem to be a hidden factor behind the boycott.


(The writer can be reached at izethhussain@gmail.com )

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