17 June, 2024


A History Of Civilisational Conflict: Part II

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks the US invented a term that has stuck on since and will stick on for as long as chaos reigns in the Middle East: the “War on Terror”. Those who were with Uncle Sam were part of the “Coalition of the Willing” and those who were not were part of the “Axis of Evil”, never mind that no one really questioned the right of one country to come up with these terms and divide the world along their lines. In any case the War turned out to be a re-enactment of the Crusades, and a continuation of a conflict the Cold War had concealed for eight decades.

Samuel Huntington wrote on the possibility of such a conflict arising again, and he is considered today as the foremost expert on the subject, but he wasn’t the first one. At a time when it was more or less taken for granted that the Soviet Union needed to be pushed back, if not pushed down, US Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, in an editorial in the New York Times published on December 21, 1986, clearly and concisely attacked what was referred to as the “Reagan Doctrine”, which envisaged a policy of rollback (i.e. full military confrontation if necessary) with the Soviets. It was, as the editorial termed it, a “contentious doctrine” which, taken to its logical extreme, would replace ideological conflict (singular) with ethno-religious conflicts (plural).

The problem with the Cold War was that it propped up a form of ethnic nationalism that was hardly inclusive or accommodative. On neither side of the divide were there forces which were sympathetic or alert to rising ethnic and secessionist sentiments. In Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, for instance, the Soviet Union had its chance at reconciling the aspirations of the Islamic community with the ideology of the Party. And yet, he was put down, jailed, released, jailed again, and during the Stalinist years, executed. With that the Soviets permanently alienated their Muslims.

This does not mean that Western governments were more receptive to these ethnic aspirations. Their actions led to the deposal of democratically elected leaders in favour of unelected, fanatical, and erratic cranks: Ayub Khan for Iskander Mirza in Pakistan; a line of satraps of the Shah for Mosaddegh in Iran; Suharto for Sukarno in Indonesia; and Zia Ul-Haq for Bhutto in Pakistan. If these leaders did not encourage fanaticism, they created by their ineffectiveness an oppositional space that did: the Shah’s lack of sympathy for Shias, for instance, led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This is hardly the only reason why extreme Islamism arose, and it doesn’t seem to be the main one either. Like all forms of ethno-religious-cultural extremism its ascent can be attributed to both internal and external causes; it is by understanding these causes, and giving them their due weight, that we can think of understanding the ISIS menace and build up a defence policy and discourse around it. Until then, all other points will remain peripheral to the main debate.

The problem, however, is that Sri Lankans are battling Islamism in pretty much the same way Bush’s War on Terror did: by tackling the cosmetics of the issue. In other words, we are being distracted by things which shouldn’t distract us.

I’m not talking merely of mob attacks on Muslim shops, houses, and mosques. These have been disproportionate and they have compelled disgust. Nor am I talking about the anger of the people against Rishad Bathiudeen and Azath Salley, even though their anger is justified. I am talking instead of our inability – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, basically non-Muslims – to rationalise the opposition to Islamic extremism in terms of a criterion or an agenda that does not smack of Islamophobia.

Let me be clear here. Halal is not the issue. The burqa is not the issue. They are issues that encompass wide, general questions about the nature of citizenry in a secular State, and the role of the State in implementing one law for all, and so on. They certainly do have a bearing on the immediate priority – clamping down on extremist Islamism. But they have, at best, a cursory bearing. No one linked halal or the veil with Wahhabism, although there may be connections between the three. Even if there are, we are taking the wrong road to combating it.

An effective onslaught on Islamism (extremist Islam) requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, national security has to be given top priority, which means that the armed forces and defence establishment have to be, for better or worse, given carte blanche within the confines of constitutional limits. This is not a very popular option, and commentators are predicting the resurgence of a defence discourse which may well trump other considerations, but to those who are raising such concerns the ideal response would be what that most radical-liberal of Western politicians, Pierre Trudeau, said when a reporter asked about the ramifications of heightening security in Canada: “It is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a helmet.”

That’s just one side to it though. The other point, which also requires top priority, is a laborious, comprehensive discourse on Islamism and Islam (the one extremist, the other a product of history). It is important at the outset to divide the one from the other, because if there’s a fallacy almost every Sri Lankan is subscribing to right now, it’s the generalisation that all Muslims are complicit in what transpired in April. To dispel such a belief requires more than the usual campaigns on sanhindiyawa in our schools, universities, and offices: it requires a meticulously planned, organised, and implemented program in which myth is separated from history, lie from truth, so that the whole country – Muslim and non-Muslim – become aware of the intricacies that distinguish extremists from non-extremists.

The urgency of such a program cannot be overstated. There’s a reason for that: more than any other community, the Muslims of the country, and the world, have faced opprobrium from the non-Muslim communities for what is (wrongly) felt to be their involvement in the rise of fanaticism. Terrorism does not fall from the sky – it is born from and bred by forces which have interpreted a faith in the most fundamental, purist way possible – but we shouldn’t take this as an excuse to admonish every member of a community. To do so would be to consider all Sinhala Buddhists as BBS supporters, or all Tamils as LTTE supporters.

The Muslim community has been the hardest hit, globally, from the onslaughts of Western imperialism – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The Middle-East is the most ravaged place in the world (second to Africa), and the attacks there have mostly been on Muslims. It’s not a coincidence that these attacks have been made by the West – the US and Russia; the Palestinian death toll from the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict alone, to give just one statistic, stands at 2,251.

The tragedy is that it just didn’t have to be this way. But it is how it stands, might is right, and surviving victims, naturally, are getting more and more hardened with each drone strike. You do not have to read Noam Chomsky to understand this.

We cannot do anything about this. But there’s something we can do.

The history of Islam is richer than anything that Islamophobic commentators – whether here, in India, or in the US and Europe – can come up with. It remains one of the biggest ironies that while Western physicians were banned from dissecting bodies due to injunctions set down by the Church, the likes of Averroes and Avicenna – the two most brilliant minds to emerge from the Islamic world at the time – were writing down exhaustive treatises on medicine, translating Aristotle, and coming up with the number system, “including the all-important zero.”

In the awful though at times meaningless civilisational battle between Christianity and Islam, it was the latter that bestowed on the world a spirit of rationality and scepticism that the West would take three more centuries to imbibe. “Al-Farabi did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Avicenna did: but he did not believe in the resurrection of the body,” the great historian Fernand Braudel once noted, arguing that Islam created quite possibly “the most brilliant civilisation in the Old World.”

We need to revisit the history of that civilisation, or else we very likely will turn out to be participants in a conflict devoid of meaning, reason, and humanity. That history should be taught in our schools, but our schools are not the only place where it needs to be taught. Let me put that in another way: we need to read more. And empathise. Otherwise, we are doomed to exacerbate an already tense situation.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    “That history should be taught in our schools, but our schools are not the only place where it needs to be taught”
    The way our history is presented in our schools and the media persuades me to think that we are better off without the history that we are taught.
    Let us get the act together about our history.

    • 4

      Srilankan history taught in our schools are devoid of facts. They only speak of the Sinhala Civilization and down play the Tamil Civilization and their contributions.No wonder the Hindu Temples and other Hindu Monuments are being destroyed to make way for Lord Buddha’s, statues despite the fact that Gowdama was born to Hindu Parents and he never preached a new religion- Sadu- Sadu- Sa.

      • 2

        Gautama was not born to Hindu parents.
        There were a number of faiths in India at the time. What you called Hindu were Brahminist practices that the Buddha absolutely rejected.
        He was among the most rational of philosophical thinkers of his time.
        Making a cult figure of him was much after his demise.

      • 0

        K Anaga

        I would suggest you read up Jaffna history, say for a start the Yalpana Vaipana Malai.

        So here is a link for the YPM


      • 0

        Tamil civilization is just 20 km away from the Sinhala civilization. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are far more apart.


        • 2


          “Tamil civilization is just 20 km away from the Sinhala civilization”

          Don’t be silly.
          The sea has engulfed Tamil Civilisation many many moons ago according to Tamil Elders. What you see 20 KM away is a blend of many heritages including western culture. On the other hand many scholars believe Tamil civilisation started elsewhere. Go read Iravatham Mahadevan’s scholarly articles on Harappa.

          There is no civilisation such as Sinhala Civilisation.
          It is a mixture of North South Indian heritage blended with Western culture.
          Please stop fooling yourself.
          Therefore you just go back to South India and start tracing your civilisation.

          Stupid man, the people who lived and toiled around Nalanda University fed 10,000 students and 1100 teachers. Now do you think what the uni taught students who came from many countries the product of Sinhala Civilisation.

          There isn’t much difference between Sinhala/Buddhist civilisation and marauding plundering Kallathonies including the western ones targeting educational institutions, book depositories, places of worship, …. and no strangers to rape, murder, enslavement, ………….. and are common to both.

          In case if you believe Tamils have a civilisation 20 KM away, just go there and live happily ever after or look for Kumarik Kandam.

          How did the riot go for you, are you better off now or two months ago?

        • 0

          Soma, The southern border of the Tamil civilization is Cape Comorin and the shortest distance from the closest two points between the Sinhalese civilization to Tamil civilization is 50 km, which is measured between Dhanuskodi and Thalaimannar. The effective distance for transfer of anything from the Tamil civilization to this island is much more than 50 km, except for travelling between the said two shortest points from coast to coast. (Example: imagine a person living in Madurai in the year 100 BC, travelling to Anuradhapura – he would first have to come to the coast and take a boat and then land in our coast, and travel to Anuradhapura – the distance would be at least 400 km travelling on land and depending on where he want to enter the island, with about 50-70 km additional boat ride if they come through Rameshwaram. The whole trip would take several days in those days. Measuring this in Google, maps all in straight lines, gives a distance of 450 km, which in reality would be at least 50% more).

  • 0

    What civilisational conflict?
    There is only one civilisation in the world. The Indian-based Hindu-Buddhist-Christian civilisation. MKS Gandhi noted this in answering a question by a British newspaper man as to ‘What he (Gandhi) thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi replied, “It will indeed be a good idea”.
    So those who see issues as resulting from a civilisational conflict are ignorant of history and humanity.

    • 0

      You must be out of your mind to claim that Christian civilization is India based. And what about the Muslims? Why you left Muslim out of your definition/claim? Already by leaving out the Muslims, you prove your own self wrong, don’t you think so?

      What are issues? All cultural and political issues arise through understanding and actions of individuals, who will belong to some sort of group, which except for tribal forest dwellers is essentially a civilization. Issues do not have to be always conflicts, and thankfully most issues are not conflicts.

      A lot has been written about what Gandhi meant when he said what he said, my take on it is, that for a man who was fighting for swaraj against the British, it would be self contradicting if he meant the same as your definition and understanding of what a civilization is.

      FYI it is you who see ISSUES resulting from civilizational conflicts. Issues for you seem to be conflicts.

  • 1

    Uditha Devapriya: If you want to be a journalist, with the type of articles you write, you need to read a lot from different sides. Otherwise, the new trend is read a piece of a book at the top or quote some western writer. I think that came from a class and it helps western writers and much needed foreign exchange. Otherwise, what you write is just gibberish. I do not whether that is what you expect.
    Otherwise, you have arranged the article for the needs of your client.
    Even during the Lord Buddha’s time, books had been written to fulfill the specific needs but the content was lies. News is full of Lies.

  • 0

    We have to dermacted system of Capitalism and civilization of world are need a different approach by who are going to analysis by elites of that interpretation of history which base on dialectical out-look.
    The capitalism and Imperialism classes of people are only interest in how things affects their classes and profits of balance sheet on their account.. Eventually ongoing ruling classes of monopolies that don’t think of the benefits of millions of local and billions of People of Globe.
    With the growth and development capitalism that economic-political-social rationality began to destroy ancient civilization that lead to self- interest of big-power nation of USA,UK and European countries.
    The US leads to Western of monopoly of white-men nation which that ongoing changes is not reflected norms of ancient civilization in that modern society….through out the World.
    Ours 2600 years civilization of Sri lanka has huge potential to become a country with abundant natural resources and location is centre of Indian Ocean … Asia.
    By ours territorial water and exclusive economic zones, later continental shelves with exclusive rights for exploitation ,widely cover 3.00 million of square kilometers.Out of that many of one of the largest exclusive zones in world that behind US, France, Australia and Russia.
    Brief history of past 71 years,we are still lagging behind by liberating that Sri lanka resources unfinished task left behind by UNP current ruling classes ledas by Wickramasinghe clique.
    UNP Neoliberal out-fits has no idea of ancient civilization of Nations, by changes are not that hereditary inheritances ,but they are transmitted through culture of complex facts of reality do not realized by orthodox christian methodology by policies of Wickramasinghe’s clan. We have shifted to new era by that denied of catwalk policies exbites by UNP leads of moribund perception of politics an advocated by RW, MS and CBK?

  • 0

    Debating ‘civilization’ when the so called ‘uncivilized’ hunter-gatherers are better
    In this turf war, boarders have shifted throughout history everywhere
    ‘0’ however was an Indian ‘invention’ and is not Islamic

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