Photo by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The Washington Post
We hadn’t seen him in years, ever since he left to work abroad. So, on the day of his return, his mother invited the extended family to lunch. As he walked through the door we reacted collectively, gasped audibly. He wore a sharp suit but sported one of those long, unkempt, rowdy beards. Perhaps, I thought, there are no barbers in Saudi Arabia. (You never know, it’s a weird place).
Then one of my aunts, his senior by a good thirty years, got up, arms extended – to give him a hug. He clumsily sidestepped her embrace. Oh fuck. It seemed he now followed a dogmatic (a term I prefer to fundamentalist) interpretation of Islam, which forbids men from touching women they could marry. To this day, the Sri Lankan Muslims I know routinely ignore the injunction. But, once upon a time an eating-drinking person like the rest of us, he had become one of them. A son of Galle, a town with ramparts, he had circumvallated himself, literally refused to be touched by the outside.
What god would order his followers to reject love? What human would submit to such a god?
He may have been an anomaly then, but the beard and burqa are ubiquitous now. The object of scorn, sniggers from secular types like me. On the other hand, they probably console themselves with righteousness, faith, a guaranteed ticket to heaven, where real, eternal life begins.
So, Sri Lankan Muslims today fall into two camps: us and them, secular/dogmatist, those who believe and tolerate versus those who believe and dominate? (I don’t pretend to portray them fairly.) Yes and no.
We invite them to our functions. They come. Dressed to alienate, perhaps, but they come. We go to their homes – where they immediately harim the women. Behave to alienate, perhaps, but we keep going. Both sides, if they constitute two sides, say insha-allah, alhamdulillah when appropriate. Begin emails with SA. Even top recipes with 786. (Google if you don’t get it.) Both pray five times a day, fast during Ramazan, perform Haj if possible. Observe the rules of haram even as they contest its specifics. (Do I dare eat a crab?)
I do not argue a lack of distinction between fun-dos and fun-don’ts, Sufis and Salafis. Just that the delineating line keeps moving. Sometimes, like when the US invades Iraq, or the yellow-robed monsters organize carnage upon Muslims in Aluthgama and Digana, we merge with them and they, us. Fear disappears the border.
Thus the significance of the first known attack by a militant Islamist group in Sri Lanka on another religion: the defacement of Buddha statues in Mawanella last year. If tactically puerile – it achieved nothing for the cause – it identified the enemy as Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism. If ethically specious, it makes political sense, at least in the short term, for a Sri Lanka-driven radical Muslim outfit. You hit us, we’ll hurt you. A politics of reaction, revenge consolidates a Muslim we, as victim, against the Sinhala Buddhist state and its mobs.
But, reoriented by ISIS, this group – whether National Thouheed Jama’ath or a splinter – changed its target. Butchered Tamil and Sinhala Christians who, as Christians, have not displayed organized animus towards Muslims. Ethically untenable, it makes no political sense, either. At least, not within a Sri Lankan frame.
The bombings startle those who confuse events in Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan events. Its proper political frame is global. (In his latest video, ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi rants against “the savagery, brutality and ill intentions of the Christians [worldwide] towards the Muslim community.”) Nevertheless, it inevitably had national impact. Within Sri Lanka, it turned the Muslim, suddenly, shockingly, from victim to aggressor, casualty to catastrophe.
How does one react to catastrophe?
“They are broken,” said my friend from Negombo, now living in the US. Growing up, she attended St Sebastian’s church. She speaks of, weeps for her clan, classmates, still members of the congregation: “My cousins went to midnight mass, so they missed the bomb…They are not angry, they are sad…There are empty cars waiting in the church parking lot. Houses that remain closed because the entire family died. My friend lost her husband, who was carrying their child when the bomb went off. Somehow, the baby survived. It’s a miracle. But what is my friend going to do now?”
Dogmatic Islam doesn’t care. But as we condemn its ruthlessness, mourn with its survivors, let’s restrain our hyperbole. Despite the narrative of the media, the assertions of politicians, the event bears precedence. Our president-in-waiting, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds responsibility for the deaths, albeit out of sight of tv cameras, of 40,000 Tamil civilians in the last months of the war. Not to mention hand-picked targets in the south, his critics: Lasantha Wickrematunge, Prageeth Eknaligoda. Those who would call Zahran Hashim (Casim?) dastardly, barbaric, unIslamic, even animal, would be on firmer ethical ground if they posed analogous insults, questions to Rajapaksa: is it Buddhist to slaughter without discretion? Is it Buddhist to kill even a single living creature? Did the Buddha preach violence? Command an army?
How does one react to catastrophe?
In the days since the bombings, Muslims stayed indoors wherever possible. Shuddered at any knock on the door. Small Sinhalese mobs looted a Muslim-owned store here, damaged a mosque there. Subaltern Sinhalese harassed Muslims on the street, with covered women, hyper-visible, taking an unequal share of the torment. Two steps up the socio-economic ladder, Uber-drivers cancelled bookings upon seeing Muslim names. Sinhalese nationalist trolls made every Muslim check Twitter with trepidation.
The president reacted by banning: Twitter, then the NTJ, then – bizarrely enough – the burqa. Suddenly, shockingly, a single piece of cloth got transformed into a signifier, if not agent of terror. I sincerely hold this garment, and its extended family, a patriarchal, Wahhabi imposition, restriction on women. But one individual – whether president, parent, partner – or group has no authority to interfere with a woman’s right to choose her habit. (Before deciding, Sirisena consulted a single Muslim organization, the all-male ACJU, which has as one of its primary, self-appointed tasks the policing of female bodies, behavior).
In any case, burqa-wearing women have not been identified as a threat to national security. I checked and rechecked: every single bomber was male. I scoured the web, tooth-combed the papers, asked everyone who might know: they remained male. The women-in-black are a threat, solely, to the Sinhala nationalists’ belief that they, and they alone, get to arbiter the appearance of the Sri Lankan everyday. They see red when they see black.
Seeing yellow, being yellow, Rajapaksa reacted by launching his campaign for president. He promised the elimination of radical Islam. He meant the pacification – Tamilification, if you like – of Muslims.
How does one react to being a catastrophe?
In the days since the bombings, Sri Lankan Muslim intellectuals – almost universally male – contorted themselves insisting on the peacefulness of the religion. (Islam could mean peace – or submission.) Some quote a Quranic verse: “killing a single innocent person is tantamount to killing the whole of mankind.” But the Prophet led an army, a military that, from a city in the Hejaz, conquered the Arabian peninsula.
In the same period, Muslim leaders fought each other for the privilege of kissing the posteriors of Sinhala nationalist politicians with even greater passion than they’ve displayed before. This didn’t stop Aluthgama and Digana. And will only embolden Rajapaksa.
Whatever their private beliefs, none of these leaders found the courage to publicly condemn Saudi influence amongst Muslims, now going back decades. As they wouldn’t publicly condemn, for instance, the state-sanctioned murder, not too long ago, of Rizana Nafeek, in the only country on earth named after a family. Remember her?
How does one react to being a catastrophe?
Ask any Tamil who’s lived in the country since at least July 1983. We’ll now have to learn to survive like them. We might as well start training. (Put those madrasas, and Saudi funding, to more practical use.) But we haven’t demonstrated much sympathy for their predicament, have we? And yet we dare ask others to feel our pain.
There isn’t now and never has been a terrorist or national security problem in Sri Lanka. And we’ve faced just one catastrophe: Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.