Featured image by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP, via The Jakarta Post

“And even here

Lies the other shore

Waiting to be reached.”

Tagore (My Reminiscences)

The blue, red, yellow, orange and white lights are on, as are the makeshift stalls selling lanterns. Yet few pause to see, haggle, buy. Vesak, so near chronologically, had never seemed so far away spiritually.

After the Easter Sunday Massacre, fears were raised about Vesak too being turned into a bloody spectacle by the IS, working through its local adherents. As it turned out, neither the IS nor its local adherents were necessary to turn Vesak into a season of violence. The Sinhalese managed the task on their own.

The outburst of anti-Muslims violence began on 12th Sunday in Chilaw (the inciting incident seemingly was a Facebook post by a Muslim trader with deficient English and a cavalier attitude towards punctuation; it was translated into Sinhala by a Sinhalese whose knowledge of English was even poorer). Within hours, the violence spread to other parts of the North Western Province and to Gampaha district. Undeterred by the curfew or the presence of the security forces, the mobs attacked and burnt, as they did in Digana in 2018, Aluthgama in 2014 and nationally during Black July.

As of now, the worse of the violence seems over. Even so, this is only a reprieve. If the perpetrators of this week’s riots are not brought before the law, fast, a new outburst is bound to follow.

The main suspects of the Digana anti-Muslim violence (including Amth Weerasinghe of the Mahason Balakaya) were arrested, and remanded. But they were never charged, despite the presence of ample evidence in the public domain. Three days after the anti-constitutional coup of October 26th, they were enlarged on bail. Afterwards, Amith Weerasinghe tried to ignite other religious flares. For instance, earlier this year, he attempted to fire up Buddhists by shouting about a Hindu takeover of the Sri Pada

The Mahason Balakaya and other Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics happily returned to the anti-Muslim groove after the Easter Sunday Massacre. A demonstration against ‘Islamic terrorism’ planned for 11th Saturday in Digana was banned by the courts. Responding to the ban, the Mahason Balakaya leader made no secret about his future plans. “I’m asking the leaders of this country, if in future a ten thousand Amith Weerasinghes are created can you issue ten thousand banning orders? If fifty thousand, sixty thousand monks of this country get on to the road, what will you do?”.

His threat turned into an actuality in less than 48 hours.

Had this man, and his cohorts, been charged, tried and convicted, perhaps this week’s violence might not have happened. When perpetrators of mob-violence go unpunished, it opens the door to Ochlocracy.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya stated, “There is no difference whatsoever between those extremist traitors and suicide bombers killing children.” He was right. This week’s rioters are terrorists too and the government must treat them as such. If the government fails to act with speed and firmness, if it allows the incendiaries to walk, again, another outburst of violence would be unavoidable.

A Black May might have been avoided, but 2019 has seven more months left to go. Sri Lanka’s fate lies in balance. Ten years after the end of the last war, will we be plunged into a new –religious – war?

The not-so-new spectre

Ethnic-overdetermination was the term used by Dr. Newton Gunasinghe to describe the new divide in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of Black July. Using an Althusserian concept, he argued that in both Sinhala and Tamil societies, the ethnic factor had come to the fore, submerging class contradictions. The subsequent years were to prove him right.

Today, Sri Lanka is facing an even greater danger, that of religious-overdetermination. If the government fails to rein in forces of religious extremism on all sides, the dream of a Lankan nation will be replaced by the nightmarish reality of a country plagued by violent religious fissures. Religious identity will trump every other alignment, starting with our common humanity.

Interestingly, the first signs of a nascent religious overdetermination appeared during the long interregnum created by the third and final peace process. During the 2002-2005 period, Catholics, including Sinhala Catholics, were turned into the new enemy. The conversion of Buddhists into Christianity was depicted as an even greater danger than Eelam. The old crimes of Portuguese colonists gained a new immediacy in the extremist Sinhala-Buddhist discourse. The demand for an anti-conversion bill began to dominate the political debate.

The anti-Catholic hysteria reached its moral nadir when Soma Thero died suddenly during a visit to Russia. Catholics were accused of murdering the monk, as a part of a Western conspiracy to take over Sri Lanka. Churches were attacked by the dozen. The hysteria was such that the government was forced to appoint a commission to investigate the monk’s demise.  The anti-Catholic fires were stoked by the newly formed Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to gain a considerable chunk of the electoral pie at the 2004 parliamentary polls.

The anti-Catholic hysteria vanished as suddenly as it began when the de facto Fourth Eelam War commenced. Tamils replaced Christians once again as the main enemy.

During the initial post-war years, Sinhala-Buddhist extremists targeted not Muslims but Christians. The newly minted BBS put forward five demands at its inaugural convention at the BMICH in July 2012. None of them made specific mention of Muslims. The resolutions demanded an end to family planning among Sinhalese, amending the current (Roman, Dutch and British inspired) laws to protect Buddhists, opposition to a political solution to the ethnic problem, implementing the recommendation of the Buddhasasana Commission Report of 1959 and appointing a regulatory authority to supervise Buddhist books (The Island – 29.7.2012). There was no halal demand or burqa hysteria.

Just six months later, it all changed. In January 2013, the BBS launched its anti-halal campaign. Suddenly the Muslims were the new enemy, their way of life an existential threat to everyone else.

After the Easter Sunday Massacre, many Muslim leaders came forward to denounce the carnage and the suicide bombers in unequivocal terms. And in a gesture that spoke louder than multiples tomes full of words, Lankan Islamic leaders refused to accept the bodies of the suicide bombers, thereby denying the killers a religious burial. Their purpose was to demonstrate their abhorrence towards suicide bombing and to send a clear warning to the entire Muslims community that such violence in the name of faith was unacceptable.

The leading Buddhist monks are yet to take a similar stand. They didn’t do it during Black July or the previous attacks on Tamils. They didn’t do so during Aluthgama and Digana anti-Muslim outbursts. They are still not doing it.

How hard is it to say that violence has no place in Buddhism? How hard is it to point out that no monk can advocate violence and remain a true disciple of the Buddha? How hard it is to denounce the rioting as anti-Buddhist, a disgrace to one of the greatest proponents of non-violence the world has ever known? How hard is it to tell the rioters not to desecrate Vesak with their violent orgy? How hard is it to say, Not in our name, never in our name?

Post-East Sunday Massacre, many have accused Muslims of insularity. Yet when Muslim progressives tried to lessen that insularity by abolishing such egregious practices as child marriage, they found themselves alone and defenceless. The other communities ignored their struggle, while the craven government abandoned them to the fury of their own fundamentalists. (Rajan Hoole’s Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy through the Eyes of Dissent in The Colombo Telegraph deals with this aspect at length).

In another inane and deadly repetition of the past, democratic Muslim leaders are being equated with the IS terrorists. This was exactly what happened with the Tamils; we found democratic Tamil leaders ‘too much’ and got Vellupillai Pirapaharan in their stead.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had a rare window of opportunity to work with moderates and progressives of all communities to isolate and weaken the hardliners, the radicals, the fundamentalists. The government missed that opportunity. The tragedy and the danger of today stem from that unforgivable failure.

A different path?

Sri Lanka had a secular constitution up to 1972. It was changed by a supposedly left government for no reason other than political expediency.

There was no popular demand in the 1970’s to change the secular nature of the constitution, to give a special place to Buddhism. For the majority of people, economic considerations were paramount. Yet the United Front government, and specifically Dr. Colvin R de Silva, took that fateful step, thereby creating a new minefield for Sri Lanka.

After Easter Sunday Massacre, there are demands for reforms in Muslim society. But for these reforms to be implemented successfully, without further alienating a large swathe of ordinary Muslims, they must come as a part of a general political and societal transformation. Sri Lanka as a whole needs to move away from religious politics to non-religious politics. Political leaders and religious leaders must begin to focus on their separate spheres, ending the deadly practice of fusing the two for personal and parochial gains.

Secularism is often misconceived as being anti-religious. It is not. Secularism stands for the separation of religious institutions and state institutions, for freedom of religion and for equality for all faiths and none. Secularism is also denigrated as a Western fashion. But two of history’s greatest secular rulers came from the Orient, from India: Akbar the Great, and Maharaja Ranjith Singh, known to posterity as the Lion of Punjab. They both successfully led multi-religious empires by adopting policies of religious neutrality.

Extremism is fuelled by ignorance. In Sri Lanka, every religious community has ghettoised itself. We interact less with each other and know less about each other than we did fifty years ago. This separation starts at school and continues right to the grave. We boast that Sri Lanka is home to four great religions, but our children are not taught even the basics of other religions. We know next to nothing of each other’s history. This ignorance provides a fertile ground for extremists of all varieties. It makes the task of demonising and dehumanising the religious Other easier.

How much would a non-Muslim child know about the contributions made by Islamic scholars, philosophers and scientists to our common civilisation? How much would even a Muslim child, exposed only to Salafi influences, know about those contributions? Hasn’t that ignorance enabled the creation of a dangerously false stereotype, Islam and Muslims as joyless religious fanatics?

Eric Hobsbawm uses a phrase from Karl Kraus to define religious fundamentalists, calling them the symptoms of ‘the disease of which they purport to be the cure’ (The Age of Extremes). The solution to religious fantaticism is not to enhance the marriage between politics and religion but to lessen those bonds.

The 17th Century French Philosopher Pierre Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary pointed out that given the bloody history of religious conflict and persecution, it is impossible to conclude that there is a correlation between religious faith and moral conduct. If the gory events of the last month proved anything, it did the correctness of Bayle’s argument. Absolute, uncritical, unquestioning faith in any creed, religious or political, paves the way to inhumanity and barbarity. Suicide killers or rioters are not born; they are made by a belief that killing the religious other is either no sin or opens a quick root to heaven.

When Andre Malraux asked Nehru to name his greatest challenge Nehru’s reply was “creating a just state by just means; perhaps too creating a secular state in a religious country” (Anti-Memoirs). As we stand on the brink of a new – and a worse – abyss, our challenge is no different – we need to create a Lankan nation in a country plagued by conflicting and contending tribal consciousnesses. That task can be undertaken only by a state that tries to stay above those divisions, and not immerse itself in them.