| by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description but they end up claiming exclusive prescriptive rights to them”. - Richard Holloway (New Statesman – 15.3.2012)
( June 30, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last week Myanmar banned the latest issue of ‘Time’ with its cover-story on the violent creed of Ashin Wirathu, the Burmese monk deemed the ideological leader of the country’s anti-Islamic terror campaign.
The Rajapaksas have followed suit; probably because the ‘Time’ article makes a passing reference to our own Wirathus and their political masters: “In Sri Lanka, where a conservative, pro-Buddhist government reigns, Buddhist nationalist groups are operating with apparent impunity, looting Muslim and Christian establishments and calling for restrictions to be placed on the 9% of the country that is Muslim”1.
The BBS and Sinhala Ravaya stepped up their anti-minority campaign in recent weeks, under the benign gaze of the police. The fact that the BBS/Sinhala Ravaya monks can take the law into their fanatical hands with total impunity is proof-positive of the nexus between the saffron purveyors of terror and the Ruling Siblings.
“Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent …. Because the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day, the national religion needs to be protected”: That was Ashan Wirathu2. Similar sentiments are being articulated by our own fanatics, even though facts indicate the opposite. As the Department of Census and Statistics pointed out, Sinhala population actually increased between 1982 and 2011 – from 74% to 74.9%. Indu Bandara, Director, Population Census and Demography Division of the Department of Census and Statistics, “disputed a claim being propagated in the country that the Muslim population is likely exceed that of the majority community”3.
But fanatics care nothing for facts.
Most members of the Republican Party in the US are anti-Islamic, according to a poll conducted by the Arab-American Institute in August 2012. This is no accident. “A new study published in the American Sociological Review notes that the Republican party’s tacit endorsement of its loudest anti-Islam elements – and conservative media outlets like Fox news that aired, promoted and legitimized this-fear mongering – had the effect of mainstreaming what were once fringe theories”4. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics languished in the lunatic fringe (their advent into the centre-stage, via the JHU, proved to be short-lived) until the Rajapaksas decided to use ethno-religious extremism as the perfect cover for their dynastic agenda. Thanks to the enabling environment provided by the Ruling Siblings, the Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics, in between attacking the minorities, are enshrining their perverted version of Buddhism as the only ‘correct religion’.
The following incisive observation made by Dr. Ameer Ali is relevant not just to Muslims but also to Buddhists: “Hooliganism, homicide, and even suicide have become the trademark of Muslim protests in recent times. This has seriously damaged the image of Islam and Muslims…... This unacceptable behavior has no justification in the primary sources of Islamic shariah and is contrary to the spirit of free thinking that was pioneered by Muslim thinkers of the classical era…. In conclusion, the Muslim world has to develop modes of response to blasphemy and religious vilification in the true Islamic spirit of tolerance, compassion and understanding. Those with differing views should be listened to or allowed to hold their views, just as Prophet Muhammad did with the Christians from Najran. Violent outbursts have no place in a religion like Islam that condemns compulsion in religion and says ‘To you be your Way and to me mine’ (Quran 109:6)”5.
A Land of Ignorance
Today most Sri Lankan school children are taught Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. If this tri-lingual policy was followed since Independence, there would have been no language issue, no ethnic problem and no war.
But we do not like the easy, painless way. We prefer the road lined with corpses and drenched with blood. For us wisdom comes late and at a great, almost unbearable, price.
It was so concerning language; it is likely to be so, concerning religion.
In Lankan schools, learning one’s religion is compulsory but there is no subject called ‘Comparative religion’, no effort to give all children at least a basic grounding in the country’s four main religions. Consequently, what most of us know about other religions is limited to a few derogatory remarks made by extremist elements of our own religion.
Most Sinhalese who equate Islam such joyless, colourless and anti-intellectual manifestations as Wahabism and the Ayatollahs in Iran would not know that many of the magical tales which enchanted their childhoods (Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin, for instance) originated in the Arab world. Or that the world’s greatest symbol of romantic love was built by an Islamic emperor in memory of his dead wife. Or that the most popular Buddhist songs in the Sinhala language were sung by a Lankan Muslim, Master Mohidin Beg.
Perhaps these myopic Sinhalese should take time to watch ‘Arab Idol 2013’. The sights and the sounds of that show, the music and the dancing, the confident, articulate contestants of both genders in their glamorous dresses and suits, the ecstatic response of the audience to the Arabic version of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’, the stirring revolutionary-hymn from the Les Miserables Musical would be as unwelcome to the BBS-types as they are to Islamic fanatics. The BBS types would find themselves in the company of the Hamas, which has condemned the Arab Idol for permitting “indecent clothing” and “the mixing between genders”, and banned the Palestinian winner of the show from performing in Gaza. Mohammad Assaf is probably the most compelling icon of Palestinian nationhood since Leila Khaled caught the imagination of generations of rebellious youth, from orient to occident. Hopefully his stratospheric popularity in his homeland marks the end of the deadly religious-detour which has caused irreparable harm to the Palestinian cause and provided the Zionist-hardliners with a readymade justification for everything from new settlements to the rejection of the two-state solution.
Whenever religion marries politics, darkness descends, countries regress and people suffer. When Rome became a Christian Empire, it abandoned and destroyed the intellectual achievements of the Greco-Roman world and condemned Europe to centuries of backwardness. Incidentally this enhanced identification between religion and politics has eventually, and always, rebounded on the religion, discrediting and dishonouring it. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento are cases in point; the decline of Buddhism in Korea was caused primarily by the politicisation of Buddhism during the Koryo dynasty.
As the Myanmar Times pointed out, “Neither the article nor the cover linked Buddhism and terrorism”6. The likes of Ashan Wirathu, the JHU, the BBS and the Sinhala Ravaya should not be allowed to hijack the teachings of the Gautama Buddha. If we truly care about Buddhism, what we should do is not to defend these fanatics or to use them for some short-sighted political purpose, but to put as much distance between them and Buddhism. If we allow Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics to equate their perverted message with Buddhism, a brutal religious war of all-against-all (including attacks by extremists of all creeds on their own moderates) and an eventual Balkanisation may well be our future.
3 The Island – 18.3.2013
4 Mother Jones – 3.1.2013
5 The Closing of the Muslim Mind – Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs – Vol 27 No. 3 Dec. 2007