By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…it is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance Religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse or extenuation o, crimes against humanity.” – Wole Soyinka[i] (UN Conference on the Culture of Peace and Non-violence – 21.9.2012
‘Eat, Pray, Fast’ was the title of a photo-essay in the Foreign Policy magazine marking the beginning of the 2013 Ramadan season[ii]. The pictures provided a glimpse of the wide and varied spectrum of global Islam – from the hip young protestors of Turkey breaking fast in the Gezi Park to a fully-covered woman outside a mosque in India.
This rich variety is inadmissible to two sets of people – anti-Islamic extremists and Islamic extremists.
The rigid and counter-reality notion of what constitutes a Muslim is the common ground between the BBS (and its Christian/Jewish/Hindu variants) and the ISIS (or Boko Haram or Taliban etc). The BBS believes that all Muslims are fundamentalists obsessed with global domination and Jihad. The ISIS believes that only those who support its notion of Islam and its Caliphatist pretensions are Muslims. Neither set of extremists admits the existence of a vast majority of ordinary Muslims beyond their confined horizons.
In his incendiary speech at Aluthgama, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera wished the Muslims shops of the area ‘Aba Saranai’. This unfamiliar phrase is said to be a wish for destruction, a lethal curse. That an adherent of the teachings of the Buddha cannot wish destruction on any living being is a foregone conclusion. But for Buddhist-extremists, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka, heaping verbal and physical violence on enemies is a national/religious duty.
The politics of ‘Aba Saranai’ is premised on hating and working for the destruction of unbelievers. Incidentally, the category of unbelievers is not limited to those worshipping a different god or following a different religious-teacher; it also includes those who worship the same god or follow the same religious teacher, in a different way.
Sinhala-Buddhism is far more intolerant of non-Theravada variants of Buddhism than of Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. The BBS types are at their most vitriolic when it comes to monks who disagree with their twisted form of Buddhism. Medieval Christianity’s preoccupation with ‘heresy’ gave birth to the Inquisition and to the deadly confessional wars in the heart of Europe. Before the self-professed Caliph of the nascent ISIS-state gave his inaugural sermon from the historic Grand Mosque in Mosul, he ordered the execution of its Sunni Imam, Muhammad al-Mansuri – for refusing to pledge allegiance to the new ‘caliphate’. Two days later 12 other Sunni clerics were executed for the same crime, according to the UN[iii]. The ISIS has also threatened to attack Shia holy places in Iraq.
This combustive intolerance makes theocratic politics inherently destabilising, violent and destructive.
Even the most secular society has its share of religious extremists. They have always been with us and it’s possible that they will always be with us, in one form or another. So long as they vegetate in their own ideological ghettos they cannot do much harm to larger society. The danger is when a governing class, party or family adopts their ideas and slogans either out of genuine conviction, opportunism or a combination thereof. When that marriage between extreme religion and politics occurs, it brings forth devastation, including self-devastation.
There is a nexus between anti-democratic politics and religious extremism. Actual and would-be despots see in extreme versions of religion a weapon and a shield for their political projects. In Nigeria it was the encouragement accorded to extreme forms of Christianity by the country’s military rulers which paved the way for the creation of that horror, Boko Haram. In Iraq, Premier al-Maliki’s Shia-supremacism made it possible for the ISIS to grow from nothingness to the monster it is today. It is an open secret that Myanmar’s military rulers are enabling/supporting Monk Wirathu and his 969 Movement. He had openly come out against Aung Sang Suu Kyi (despite her unprincipled refusal to condemn anti-Muslim violence) warning that chaos will result if she wins the presidency[iv]. In Sri Lanka the meteoric rise of the BBS would have been impossible without overt and covert state patronage.
The BBS has already begun to create a faux nexus between ordinary rice-and-curry issues and the Muslim bogey. According to Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera, “It is Muslims businessmen who import dhal and rice to this country. There are big problems here.”[v] Once upon a time, not so long ago, Tamils were blamed for cost-of-living issues and that lie provided an added impetus to the fires of Black July. Today the BBS is insidiously cultivating the image of the rapacious ‘Muslim businessman’ who is exploiting Sinhala-Buddhists (a similar bogey-making process preceded the 1915 riots). Thus when Sinhala-Buddhists are overwhelmed by economic woes, the BBS (or its successor/s) will hold high the bogey of ‘Muslim exploiter’, diverting majoritarian anger away from the real culprits – the ruling family.
When the Muslim bogey becomes dysfunctional for some reason, there is always the Christian bogey and the Tamil/Hindu bogey. The BBS continues to highlight conversions to Christianity as a critical national issue[vi]. It is also demanding that Pope Francis apologises for the crimes of colonialists[vii]. If the Pope visits Jaffna and makes some acknowledgement of the plight of the Tamils, the BBS might replace ‘Muslim enemy’ with the ‘Christian/Catholic/Vatican enemy’, for a while.
Resisting Religious Politics
Extremists of all faiths agree that life and society should be reordered in accordance with religion, the only difference being whose religion. They oppose the secular humanist values of the Enlightenment, pluralist democracy and cultural diversity. Most of them are also against welfare capitalism.
Commenting on the unravelling of the Egyptian revolution Khaled Hroub said that “in the period just ahead of us, these two questions or logics – the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ and the discourse in the name of the religion – will, with their ideological burden, face the test of a public, mass experiment conducted in the laboratory of popular consciousness. The experiment may last a long time, devouring the lives of an entire generation.”[viii]
The BBS types too insist that ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ is the only solution to Lankan problems and the right way forward is to head backwards to a neo-feudal era. For them pluralist democracy is a curse which divides Sinhala-Buddhists and empowers the minorities. This anti-democratic version of politics in which individual and collective human rights are vitiated and replaced by Sinhala-Buddhist rights (to lord it over the minorities) works in favour of the Rajapaksas and their familial project.
We live in pluralist societies. In such societies, religious politics and politicised religions cannot but lead to alienation, civil hostility and conflict. The de facto dismemberment of Iraq (into a Sunni state, a Shia state and a Kurdish state) is a warning that the plague-bacilli of Balkanisation might infect Asian and African continents if the current trend of religion enmeshing with politics is not impeded.
In Sri Lanka the political masters and the religious pawns are cajoling and pushing the majority community into a series of conflicts with every single minority community. If we follow this Rajapaksa/BBS path, ‘Aba Saranai’ may will become the fate of Sinhala-Buddhists.
[v] Interview with Irida Lankadeepa – 6.7.2014