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Sri Lankan Muslims and the state racists

| by Izeth Hussain

( September 21, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Bravo Rauf Hakeem! Bravo Rishad Bathiudin! Bravo the SLMC! Bravo the Sri Lanka Muslim Council! And Bravo all the Muslims who gave vent to the widespread sense of outrage felt by most Muslims over certain statements made by the Defence Secretary! Unfortunately other Muslim politicians, who were splendidly outspoken on the anti-Muslim campaign only the other day, have again fallen silent, reverting to their traditional policy of refusing to represent Muslim interests on anything that might be controversial. Unfortunately the All Ceylon YMMA has done worse. Claiming to speak in a representative capacity, it has let fly against "certain extremist elements" – without daring to name them – that have portrayed the Defence Secretary’s message in a negative manner.

I myself regard the statements made by the Defence Secretary to be – at least in one way – positive, very positive. I believe they were meant to be an invitation to dialogue. Behind that there is probably, or almost certainly, a deep sense of unease among powerful and influential sections of the majority ethnic group about the way that the State racists have been given much latitude to wreck Sinhalese-Muslim relations. Consider, for instance, the implications of the recent formation of the Dhammadeepa Council under the patronage of the Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas and the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa. According to The Island of Sept. 11, it has called for inter-religious dialogue as "part of the measures to address racial and religious discrimination" among other things. There we have an acknowledgment that there is indeed such a thing as discrimination against the minorities, and evidently there is concern about that. The Island report states also that Ven. Sobita Thera made a statement to the effect that "some Buddhist organizations like Bodu Bala Sena had started dharma wars". The highest Buddhist dignitaries in the land advocate dialogue, and the idea of dialogue seems to be implicit also in the statements of the Defence Secretary.


We must also bear in mind the significance of a question posed by Navi Pillay during her recent visit. She asked why no legal action has been taken against persons who can be clearly identified in video footage as breaking the law. There is no record of the government’s answer. She must have been aware of other awkward facts also, though she posed no questions about them. Everyone knows that over several months the police played the role of passive spectators when anti-Muslim mobs went on the rampage. But, when there were entirely non-violent counter-demonstrations the police immediately arrested the demonstrators. It is known also that the police have given the following answer to questions about their inaction over rampaging anti-Muslim mobs: "Orders from above". The government cannot pretend that the police are beyond its control. It cannot pretend either that the top echelons of the Buddhist hierarchy want the anti-Muslim mobs to be given a free hand. The only conceivable answer the government can give to such awkward questions is this: very powerful personages In the government are also constituents of the anti-Muslim State racists. If the government finds itself arraigned over anti-Muslim racism in Geneva or elsewhere, it could find itself totally isolated. Its only support could come from the universally execrated anti-Muslim racist government of Myanmar.

Corrective actions

So, it seems that powerful and influential segments of the Sinhalese are concerned about the possible repercussions of the anti-Muslim campaign and want corrective action to be taken before further damage is done. Seen in this perspective, the Defence Secretary’s arguments certainly merit sober counter-arguments. But, he has complained that his critics, instead of meeting his arguments, have ignored them and brought in matters that are extraneous to his arguments. I will therefore, in this article, try to counter his arguments, but before doing that I must focus on a point of the greatest importance: it is not what he said that has caused outrage, but what he did not say, or rather what he seems to have assumed to be the case.

He seems to have assumed that Sinhalese extremism can be equated with alleged Muslim extremism. That should be mind-boggling for anyone who is mindful of certain well-known facts. For, about two years there has been an anti-Muslim hate campaign with nothing comparable on the Muslim side. The Bodu Bala Sena has engaged in anti-Muslim demonstrations for about a year, and several extremist Sinhalese groups have carried out attacks on Muslim business establishments and mosques with total impunity. There has been nothing comparable to any of that on the Muslim side. Sometimes the Sinhalese extremists have gone well beyond the endurable in being provocative, as for instance the public burning of an effigy of Allah portrayed as a pig. The Muslim response was one of dumb anguish and nothing more than that. The plain and indisputable fact is that there has not been even one single case of Muslim extremism and even so the Defence Secretary seems to believe that Sinhalese extremism and non-existent Muslim extremism can be equated. That is mind-boggling and certainly cause for outrage.


However, I must acknowledge that a close reading of the text suggests that he could have been misunderstood, because he was speaking of a possible hypothetical Muslim extremism of the future, not of the present. The sentence I have in mind reads: "The possibility that such extremist elements may try to promote Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern". Arguably there is an ambiguity in that sentence because the phrase "promote Muslim extremism" might be taken as referring to a Muslim extremism that is already extent and can be promoted, not something that has to be created or instituted. I suggest that in the interest of ethnic harmony he make the following clarification: he was referring only to a hypothetical Muslim extremism of the future, not of the present; the extremism up to now has only been on the Sinhalese side; the Muslims in confronting Sinhalese extremism have behaved with exemplary patience and tolerance, which virtues are requisite for nation-building.


I will now make some comments on the actual statements made by the Defence Secretary. I must say that the statements show a high degree of intellectual sophistication and merit in-depth treatment which is not possible in this article. But, I must say that at the same time they show clearly a majoritarian bias. The following seems factual and unexceptional: "It has been observed that there are some foreign groups that wish to encourage Sri Lankan Muslims to identify themselves more with the global Muslim community, thereby reducing their integration with the rest of the population". There are much to be said on the multiple identities of ethnic groups such as the SL Muslims, on the pull of the charismatic global community of the ummah, and their allegedly divided political allegiances. I will argue that all that does not constitute the major block to integration, and that the major block is the failure to give fair and equal treatment to the minority Muslims. Besides, I wonder whether we should place much value on so-called integration. As a thoroughly Westernized Muslim I was quite well integrated with the Westernized Sinhalese who have been dominant in the UNP, but under the 1977 UNP government I was subjected to grotesque discrimination, just like other senior Muslim officials.

The following, to my mind, shows a shocking majoritarian bias: "One of the consequences of the increasing insularity amongst minority ethnic groups is the emergence of hard-line groups within the majority community. This in turn causes further tensions amongst other communities, which leads to a vicious cycle of further fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity." In earlier articles I have written about a process of retribalisation that has been taking place on a global scale, a process in which ethnic identities are becoming sharper and sharper. But, that is a process which applies not just to the minorities but to the majorities as well. However, in the above formulation the blame for fragmentation is placed squarely on the minorities. I would certainly acknowledge that the SL Muslim identity has been becoming sharper and sharper over several decades, and that that could provoke a Sinhalese reaction. But, does the reaction have to take the form of a protracted hate campaign and attacks on Muslim business establishments and mosques, with the Police transformed into spectators by anti-Muslim State racists? I believe that all that can be far better explained in terms of a paradigm of racism rather than in terms of the sharpening of minority ethnic identities.


Finally, on Islamic fundamentalism I am basically in accord with the Defence Secretary and very probably I am at odds with most of my Sri Lankan co-religionists: "It is known that Muslim fundamentalism is spreading all over the world and in this region. This is a situation that our law enforcement agencies and security forces are concerned about, particularly as there have been instances where extremists have been in transit in Sri Lanka prior to arrest and handing over to appropriate authorities." Sri Lankan Muslims as well as other Sri Lankans are not sufficiently aware of a fateful development that took place after the war in Afghanistan. The US and Saudi Arabia set up the Taliban to fight the Soviet troops. The Taliban’s success made it believe not only that it drove out the Soviet troops but that it destroyed Soviet communism and the Soviet Empire. It looked for further successes and focused on Kashmir which as a consequence has become more troubled than ever before. The nexus between local fundamentalists and fundamentalists abroad could have all sorts of unforeseeable consequences. We Muslims have to show understanding about the government’s concern over the potential for trouble in the militant aspect of fundamentalism.


The subject of Islamic fundamentalism is, of course, an enormously complex one. I will conclude with a few observations on an aspect of fundamentalism that is most relevant to Sri Lankan Muslims in their present situation. I have in mind the connection between a sense of insecurity and fundamentalism. I live in Dehiwela, where there is a heavy concentration of Muslims, and it is my impression as well as that of several others that in recent months there has been a very notable increase in the number of females wearing the burqa, signifying a turning to fundamentalism. This corresponds with the period in which anti-Muslim Buddhist extremists were most active. In an earlier article I referred to a young Muslim lady who told me that she took to wearing the head-scarf not for a religious reason but because it gave her a wonderful sense of security. There is undoubtedly a nexus between a sense of insecurity and a turning to fundamentalism. This means that the Government must now give priority to allowing the Police to carry out their normal functions in regard to the Muslims. Otherwise the Muslim sense of insecurity will keep on increasing, and eventually the government could come to be seen as guilty of an almost sub-human stupidity.

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