By Izeth Hussain –
I want to argue in this article that the best prospect for the Muslims to live in peace, amity, and co-operation with the Sinhalese would be to emulate the Chinese example in South East Asia, notably in the Philippines. It will be now widely acknowledged, unlike in the past, that Sinhalese -Muslim relations have become highly problematic. It is certainly true that historically the Sinhalese and the Muslims got on famously well together – there is an excellent book on the subject by Lorna Devaraj – but that alas is no longer true at certain levels of our society. I believe that this transformation can be best understood in terms of a paradigm of racism.
In the traditional societies there used to be – for the most part – harmonious inter-ethnic relations based on an ethnic division of labour. In Sri Lanka the Moors – the major Muslim ethnic group in Sri Lanka – were for many centuries essentially traders, while the Sinhalese and Tamil castes, which can be regarded as sub-ethnic groups, had their niches in the traditional ethnic division of labour. It was a relatively stable social order because there was not much socio-economic upward mobility, and therefore not much reason for economic rivalry and conflict. But that situation changed with the economic development taking place in the course of the nineteenth century. It led among other things to the 1915 anti-Muslim riots which can be taken as signaling Sri Lanka’s advent into modernity: the riots resulted from trade rivalry, the consequence of the intrusion of low-country Sinhalese traders into the Kandyan Provinces; and the Sinhalese reaction to the riots was the beginning of modern nationalism in Sri Lanka.
In the subsequent period the Muslims developed a strong fear psychosis towards the Sinhalese that has lasted to this day. They withdrew into themselves, a drive towards a mollusk-like withdrawal being a notable characteristic of Islamic societies in their phases of decadence. Most importantly they lagged behind in education mainly because of an Islamic fear of the possible secularizing impact of modern education. They came to be known as “a backward minority”. The term “backward” was certainly opprobrious, but all the same it was apposite because in the modern world it is education above all that provides opportunities for upward mobility. However, it was precisely that backwardness, I hold, that was the foundation for excellent Sinhalese-Muslim relations. Unlike the Tamils the Muslims were not serious rivals to the Sinhalese in any way. Besides, they were, and remain to a large extent, an abjectly submissive minority.
But that situation was bound to change. At least some aspects of modernity had to catch up with the Muslims. The provincial Muslims, unlike the Muslim business elites, were going in for education in a big way, which was the catalyst for many other changes, and in the course of the ‘seventies a Muslim consciousness of belonging to the wider Islamic world was catalyzed by the large Muslim presence at the 1976 Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Colombo. 1976 can be regarded as inaugurating a new, and negative, era in Sinhalese-Muslim relations as it saw the Puttalam riots, actually a massacre of Muslims inside Puttalam mosque, which too was significantly ignited by trade rivalry. Thereafter there were anti-Muslim riots practically every year until 2002.
Yet another phase, much more horrible than anything that preceded it, can be said to have begun around 2011 with the hate campaign followed by anti-Muslim action of the BBS and other extremist groups. In this phase, in my view, it has become imperative for both sides, the Sinhalese and the Muslims, to do some serious rethinking about how they can live together in peace, amity, and co-operation. For this purpose we must question the conventional wisdom about Sinhalese-Muslim relations and try to get at the fundamentals behind those relations. According to that conventional wisdom Sinhalese-Tamil relations were bedeviled by the fact that the Tamils are a minority with a majority complex while the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex. That made the Tamils, the argument goes, excessively demanding, intransigent, and brought on their heads the terrible suffering of the thirty-year war. The Muslims on the other hand, according to the conventional wisdom, showed a shrewd pragmatism and benefited greatly thereby. But the developments since 1976 that I have very briefly sketched out above have blown that conventional wisdom sky-high. Those developments can best be explained in terms of a paradigm of racism as I have argued above. I must add that, in addition to the socio-economic factor, the racists among the Sinhalese power elite have shown an essentially racist drive to kick the Muslims down.
We must note the significant features of the new phase inaugurated around 2011. The BBS clearly had the backing of the Sri Lankan State. It was initially provided space for its headquarters in a Government-owned building. One of its important meetings was given the explicit support of the Defense Secretary. The police played the role of passive spectators while the BBS openly flouted the law, but when some Buddhists held counter-demonstrations the police immediately took action against them. This kind of blatant State backing for anti-minority racist action seems to be something novel in Sri Lanka. Another significant feature is that the anti-Muslim problem has acquired an international dimension, which could come to have unforeseen fateful consequences, particularly as it is featured in the US-led UNHRC Resolution. Yet another significant feature is that the SLMC provided detailed information to the UNHRC on anti-Muslim action, and Rauf Hakeem supported that act of his Party. That represented a defiant breakaway from the traditional abjectly submissive role of the Muslim politicians. Finally, the anti-Muslim campaign and demonstrations failed to ignite Sinhalese mass action against the Muslims, on which I will make some observations later.
At present there is a prospect of governmental change, and the question arises whether a new Government will inaugurate a new era of inter-ethnic peace, amity, and co-operation, or at least go some way towards that ideal. That may be possible to a modest extent, but we have to face up to the fact that five years after the war our ethnic polarization is worse than ever before. Why? It is a relevant fact that Sri Lanka does not have even one political party that is accepted unequivocally by the minorities as an authentic national party in the way the Congress is accepted in India. The State, according to the Hegelian notion, is supposed to rise above the rivalry and conflict in the civil society and unify the people. The opposite is the truth in Sri Lanka: at the level of the people some degree of inter-ethnic peace, amity, and co-operation prevails, but since 1956 the State has been a fierce divisive force in Sri Lanka. Furthermore it has shown a fierce hierarchical drive, so that what we have in Sri Lanka today is not a Sri Lankan State but a Sinhalese State. What I am spelling out briefly in this paragraph are some of the fundamentals that underlie our ethnic problems. They won’t change in a hurry, and I can’t see that governmental or regime change will make much difference.
There is another unpleasant fact that the Muslims must take into account in determining their strategy on how to live in reasonably amicable relations with the Sinhalese. It is that democracy in Sri Lanka has been for several decades a limited and thoroughly flawed sort of democracy. Way back in the eighteenth century Rousseau wrote about the most flourishing democracy of his time – that of Britain – that on the day of the elections the British were a free people but in between elections they reverted to being slaves. In fact, however, the power of an elected Government – under a fully functioning democracy – is held in check by a vibrant and active civil society and a similar Opposition. If those two factors are absent, Rousseau’s description of democracy would be substantially correct, and that precisely is the horror that we have been experiencing in Sri Lanka.
A meretricious show of dynamism is given by our civil society because of the activities of the INGOs but the indigenous civil society is a zombie-like affair characterized more by inanition than by dynamism. This can be seen clearly in the civil society reaction to the anti-Muslim campaign. No one seems to doubt that the BBS and other extremist groups represent not much more than a tiny segment of the SL Buddhists. Yet civil society action to get the Government to restrain the extremists has been derisory. Some Buddhists organized counter-demonstrations but that quickly fizzled out. The Opposition too has shown more inanition than dynamism in getting the Government to restrain the extremists. Chandrika Kumaratunge organized an inter-faith meeting, which has been widely seen as her first salvo in a forthcoming Presidential election campaign. I expect nothing useful to come out of her initiative, though it is obviously well meant, because the dynamic behind Buddhist extremism is not religious intolerance but rather something that has to be understood in terms of a paradigm of racism.
To be continued…