Image courtesy Huffington Post taken by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images
I recently read this article “Disarming the juggernaut of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka” on Groundviews by Dynalogue – who consider themselves a non partisan, apolitical youth discussion group who have organised themselves to discuss political, social and economic issues burgeoning in our country. It is a welcome sight to see young people mobilising together in such a manner to comment and criticise policies and practices, and one can only hope that such discussion groups will then pave the way for youth action groups who will provide the impetus for social change. The statement by this group is highly critical of the recent violent expressions of religious intolerance taking place in our country. And while I am glad for this effort, I have to disagree with some of their opinions in the article. And I would like to suggest that their argument is actually revealing of why such a climate permeates in our country.
The article states emphatically at the beginning that while the incidents of religious violence is neither “isolated” nor “random”, the incidents are prevalent because the “driving force” behind these attacks are the hate campaigns carried out by certain religious groups via online and social media platforms. While I do see the internet as one way in which groups such as the BBS (Bodu Bala Sena- dubbed with precision as “saffron-thugs” by an eminent journalist) have been able to publicise themselves, it is surely not the only way. The hate campaigns have found expression in public and clandestine meetings and in our country’s print media. A headquarters at the Buddhist Cultural Centre comes with many privileges. And I am sure our readers need no reminding that it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who presided over the opening of the centre.
The group asserts that it is not “impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators” that leads to more of such attacks. And yet we see members of the ruling brass patronise these groups and provide them with headquarters in the heart of Colombo. After the Grandpass Mosque attack there was no condemnation from the top most leadership in a strong way. If our leadership really wanted to deal with the tensions of religious extremism then why have they delayed in action? Is it perhaps because they have something to benefit from a divided polity at a time when Sri Lanka has seen limited improvements economically after the war? Sinhala- Buddhist supremacist ideologies are a convenient way to entrench the continued rule of the Rajapaksa regime. Enough journalists have written into the hidden motives of this support and I don’t wish to repeat those arguments. But the article by Dynalogue shows naivety on the part of this youth group not to directly identify the issue before us.
The article goes on to say that rule of law is crucial in mitigating such violence and encourages law enforcers to act on the perpetrators. But the monks and people who participated in the Grandpass attack are not in prisons. And media reports indicated that many senior officers had been present. And this is because we have an inefficient police force? When we can send our army in to squash a protest by the public for clean water- we are unable to stop a few rioting monks and their followers? That is pretty hard to believe. If the army followed orders, however ruthless, then so did our police. So what does this mean for us?
The article reminds our media not to be “naive” in falling prey to the agendas of such groups. The last time I checked our media was ethnically polarised, crushed by draconian policies and our journalists have to constantly risk their lives to report the truth. But they were not naive. The article suggests that there is a need to address responsible journalistic reporting. Which is quite true. Our media need reminding that they owe some responsibility to the society they report to. The article asks them to refrain from providing extremist religious groups significant publicity- which can afford them legitimacy, they warn. But what is evident is that the reason our vernacular media continue to publish such articles spouting anti- Muslim views is to provide legitimacy to such groups. If that is the purpose then how do we counter it? The indicated vernacular media is part of the hate campaign that has support from our top leadership. Why would they not be in such a media climate?
The article speaks for the majority and defends them. “The majority are Not intolerant” a sub heading reads. It is quite unfortunate that the majority get represented by these minority groups. And the article uses the example of campaigns that suggest radical increases in the Muslims population as misleading the public.
“To correct the ‘peace-loving’ groups behind these sentiments, the Muslim community constitute a mere 8%(approximately) of the total population, a fact that the followers of our forum need little reminder of. Consequently it is obvious that assertions such as those highlighted above are nothing more than a farce, as any reasonable mind would comprehend.”
And this is where our prejudices are revealed. If I woke up tomorrow and found that overnight suddenly the population of a religious group had increased what can it do to me? So what if Muslim birth rate growth hits an 80%? Doesn’t that just mean the Sri Lankan population is faring quite well after years of death and forced migration due to the war?
But what does this defence above imply? That Muslims are not taking over, so don’t worry. Perhaps it’s time to wake up and admit that when we have an ethnically polarised politics it’s not too hard to see any increases in minority populations as threatening to the majority- on whose votes the current regime relies on solely.
Defences such as these to protect the Muslim community reveal how we aren’t a united Sri Lanka. Even the defenders harbour these notions of division. We weren’t united during the war and we aren’t now. Campaigns for One-Sri Lanka are shallow rhetoric during such instances. If every Muslim child had been seen as a Sri Lankan before we see them as Muslim we may not have been in such a place.
Perhaps because I am not Muslim, people feel comfortable in telling me their opinions about them. In countless social occasions I have heard people say how Muslim families are really too big and one cannot go to restaurants patronised by them because it is so “crowded”. They are dirty, they steal our money and they are too defensive about the Quran. The money they make for our economy- which needs all the help it can get- is money they take from the rest of “us”.
“I can’t have a single conversation about women’s rights without a Muslim interrupting me to tell how their religion speaks otherwise” a friend tells me. And it is true that while we campaign for the right of Muslims to wear the burqa, as it is their religious freedom, women who dress in sleeveless in the town of Kathankudy are harassed.
So this “us” and “them” isn’t something groups such as the BBS had to create. It is something that is already present in the very political and social landscape we have to negotiate. And it’s time to have an honest conversation about it. Wherever it may be; in youth forums, public meetings or in the privacy of our homes. It’s time we dealt with our politics.
At a recent event on 1983 Black July organised by GroundViews, some speakers at the panel discussion suggested that it was unfortunate a few mobs around the country had tarnished the image of the majority. What we say now about the persecution of Muslims sounds sinisterly similar. And then one observer had the presence of mind to point out that when it came to street action not everyone goes on the street. Only some do. And they execute the will of the majority. When later police and government officers tried to retrieve the goods stolen from the countless Tamil houses during that fateful week, the mobs asked “Why are you asking us to return the things that you asked us to steal in the first place?”. When the mob came to Grandpass mosque did neighbouring Sinhala settlements defend their Muslim neighbourhood? Why didn’t they throw stones and send them away? Why did they join them instead? And that is the crux of our problem.
What happens today to the Muslims is most of all in danger of legitimising why the Tamils went to war thirty years ago. Now saying that takes some honesty.