By Mohamed Harees –
As Hitler and Goebbels proved, the facts don’t actually matter. People repeat them so often that we believe them. Welcome to the ‘Big Lie’ or “illusory truth”effect, a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth. Modern day politicians, hate peddlers and even marketers are masters of manipulating this particular cognitive bias—which perhaps we have become more familiar with lately. Repetition is what makes fake news work. It’s also a staple of political propaganda. The effect works because when people attempt to assess truth they rely on two things: whether the information jibes with their understanding, and whether it feels familiar. The first condition is logical: People compare new information with what they already know to be true and consider the credibility of both sources. But researchers have found that familiarity can trump rationality—so much so that hearing over and over again that a certain fact is wrong can have a paradoxical effect. It’s so familiar that it starts to feel right.
This is exactly the effect the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population has been subjected to specially in the Post war era, when many canards repeatedly and in quick succession were used to vilify, demonise and stigmatize the Muslims in the Post war context, as part of a well-orchestrated hate campaign against them accusing them of pursuing an anti-Sinhala-Buddhist agenda. Some of the unfounded and unsubstantiated canards which were propagated were – destroying their relics and heritage particularly in the East, Muslims forcibly converting innocent Buddhists, Muslims are imposing their Halal requirements on others – projected as a Trojan horse and a conspiracy against the country, Muslim expansionism – the rate of population growth of the Muslims have been exponential which is likely to overtake the Sinhalese in due course and that the Muslim businesses are using many ruses to make Sinhala women barren, thus harming the interests of the majority. These canards became the appetisers in many of the campaigns led by BBS and their sisters groups during the MR regime and they continue to be attractive memes and slogans even now, in the powerful social media specially the Facebook hate pages repeated over and over again using photos and pictures of killings, massacres and incidents from other contexts and other countries.
It was therefore not surprising that the canard of Muslim ‘conspiracy’ of using various means to make the Sinhala women barren to bring their numbers down through sweets and tablets and also by introducing contaminated gel in undergarments became very popular specially in the social media which were designed to create anti-Muslim animosity within the general Sinhala-Buddhist psyche. Many diehard hate peddlers such as Amitha, Saliya, Dan Prasad, and many rogue monks and organizations such as Mahason Balakaya and Sinhaley Bala Mandalaya relished and thrived in these memes and slogans in the recent past even consequent to Yahapalana coming to power. This so-called ‘Wandha Pethi’ canard came into renewed focus during the Ampara incident where the cashier in the affected Hotel was forced to say yes to the mob’s question whether the Hotel introduced such tablets to the food served to them. The cashier who did not understand Sinhala affirmed under duress. This canard was proven to be untrue by many leading gynaecologists in the country. Thankfully, concerted campaigns were launched to counteract these claims in the mainstream media; but then, if not this, another ruse to poison Sinhala Psyche will be used by vested interests.
It is therefore important to realize that although it will be useful to consult and quote expert opinion and credible sources to dispel these types of canards whenever they come out and propagated like in this case of ‘Wandha Pethi’ brought forth to justify the attack of Muslims in Ampara, and also demand action against the immediate offenders, it is also more important to look beyond these canards surrounding Ampara attacks. These are only ruses used by the bigger networks and movements not only designed to further bolster majoritarian and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist thinking and attitudes, but by many other reactionary forces too which are hell-bent on introducing defeatist mentality into the ranks of Muslims making them think like second class citizens; perhaps helped by global Islamophobia. There was a recent post by a Tamil intellectuals in the North too, who expressed similar concern about the population growth of the Muslims in the N-E which may make them the most dominant ethnic group in those areas. Thus, to limit our vision to immediate incidents such as these canards or cat-paws such as BBS and their likes and our conversation and strategies to focus only on the symptoms will only lead to temporary patch-ups to say the least. These undercurrents go deep and pervasive and those masters who operate these puppets will have the last laugh if we miss the woods for the trees.
Further, it is also equally important for Muslims to look inwards, identify and rectify the misconceptions prevailing among the majority Sinhalese at the grass-root levels, which make them gullible enough to fall victims to many hate propaganda slogans however stupid and irrational they may be, which are barriers towards peace. There is a feeling among the Sinhalese that the Muslims are not indigenous enough and have become Muslims in Sri Lanka rather than Muslins of Sri Lanka through many practices and attire adopted within the last few decades. It will be useful to identity and tackle the underlying causes rather than merely dealing with only the symptoms in order to make the dream of a united Sri Lanka where all citizens irrespective of racial and religious differences can enjoy their rights enshrined in the Constitution, a reality. There is a problem in our hands: The goodwill and trust between the two communities have broken down and it need to be mended and rectified rather than applying balm and plasters. In doing so, it is important to look at the realities of the past.
A Small Island of many people’, wrote S.J. Thambiah, in his lucidly written book, “Sri Lanka–Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy”, ‘ whose political machinery is running down in an environment of increasing fragmentation and factionalism. The hopes of yesterday…have become fast evaporating fantasies’. Tambiah further argues in ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ that ‘this (Sinhala Buddhist nationalist) ideology is so hegemonic that it led to the inferiorisation of a minority in Sri Lanka and to the generalization of a resistant attitude among many Buddhist nationalists towards any suggestion of devolutionary authority ,let alone the division and dismemberment of the Island’ Peter Kloos in ‘Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka’, queries ‘So how does one explain the transformation from a promising democracy in the 1940s to the state of the present?’ and continues, “the introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule”. Even British author B H Farmer said that national unity is an illusion in the face of the supremacist thinking embedded in the political class.
As repeatedly stressed, it must be borne in mind that much responsibility for ethnic conflicts and socio-political ills in Post-Independence Sri Lanka could be traced not only to the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism but also the prevalence of small minds and selfish political leaders of all communities, as per many scholars of history and sociology. It has been rather ironic that our peaceful elder brothers – Sinhala Buddhist people have been taken hostage by various extremist forces acting on the fringes throughout history. A cursory glance of such forces in history will reinforce the fact that they been drawing inspiration from the Mahavamsa and Anagarika Dharmapala (who referred to Muslims as Shylocks and aliens) and not from the Dharmapada or Tripitaka. The eminent Sri Lankan historian, K.M. de Silva points out that the Sinhala Buddhist revivalists had no time for such norms such as Multi-culturalism or multi- ethnicity ..The emphasis on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhala Buddhists carried an emotional popular appeal, compared with which the concept of a multi-ethnic polity was a meaningless abstraction”, while social analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda(1996) has argued that “Sinhalese Buddhism has made no significant contribution to the evolution of a non-violent social ideology. Events that transpired in post-independence Sri Lanka when Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigned for policies that exacerbated ethno-religious violence highlight Uyangoda’s argument. Nira Wickramasinghe, another author in history (2006) says that ‘the three Constitutions of post- independence Sri Lanka, helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens pitting them against non- Buddhists and non- Sinhala speaking minority communities…(.placing) minorities in a somewhat dependent and subaltern situation’.
It was unfortunate that following independence from Britain in 1948, cracks began to appear in inter-community cohesion and mutual mistrust led to decades of ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is however inaccurate to place all blame for the ills on Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, as the Tamil leaders too did not take serious any conscious efforts to integrate with the Sinhalese. The ethical failure of Tamil nationalism, as writer Qadri Ismail (2000 223-24; 2005) has argued, is that it demands majoritarian status in response to its marginalisation rather than ethically re-configuring the discourse to re-imagine the nation as a more inclusive site based on principles of justice and equality for all communities. In the overall context, many analysts note that the dismal failure to creative an all-inclusive Sri Lanka was clearly due to the critical failure of the Post-Independence governments to act as a government for all and to bring about mechanisms to promote national reconciliation and their short sighted policies to surrender to the hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian lobby led by Maha Sangha, driven by political expediency. Many subsequent historic opportunities were also missed to promote national reconciliation, and the reality in the midst of the above ‘Mahavansa’ mentality has been that the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism ultimately triumphed, having found a safe place in the psyche of the peaceful Sinhala community. It is equally shameful about the opportunistic Muslim politicians who will not hesitate to sell the interests of the community to gain petty personal political benefits – a far cry from the elite Muslim leaders of TB Jayah’s and Razik Fareed’s stature. It will be an utter disappointment to rely on these so-called Muslim leaders to safeguard the best interests of the community. Even the present day Tamil leaders lack maturity to think beyond their community. Muslim parties have become a liability to Muslims as much as JHU and Tamil parties to Sinhalese and Tamils respectively.
The Answer therefore lies in developing a two-pronged pragmatic approach through constitutional, political, educational and social mechanisms. Firstly it is imperative to accept the reality that Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarian lobby has been relatively strong in statecraft, despite cosmetic changes. Therefore there is a need to frankly and sincerely look for solutions, taking cognizance of this inbuilt majoritarian framework. This does not mean to accept the subservience of the minorities; just finding a solution around it. As Dr Tambiah suggests in his book ‘(to explore) whether framework of current Buddhist nationalism can in the future stretch and incorporate a greater amount of pluralist tolerance in the name of Buddhist concepts of righteous rule’ and sees ‘no reason to foreclose on this possibility, for there are precedents that can be positively employed to urge a new view’. There is also the need to assure the majority Sinhalese and dispel their inner fears about their race being subjected to systemic extinction due to certain government policies. One reason why the MR is still popular as he has been projecting himself as the champion of Sinhala Buddhists. Any meaningful provisions in the proposed constitution, to promote national reconciliation will only work if these majority community’s concerns are duly addressed. Secondly, developing an intellectually mature looking civil society which will act as catalysts to re-engineer the society in the middle run and to target the university graduates and school children in the long run, to create a more inclusive and tolerant society.
Future of Sri Lanka lies not in communal politics as Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils have realized through many bitter historic lessons. The challenge for Sri Lanka will therefore be:how to promote ethno-religious tolerance and national reconciliation amidst majoritarian pressures and by allaying the reasonable concerns of the majority community. Socio political challenges in Post War Sri Lanka should be faced jointly by progressive forces drawn from all communities, specially the intellectuals and only such joint synergy will make the government of the day sit up and take the concerns seriously. Constitutional guarantees will only remain on paper without public activism. Politics is too serious matter to be left in the hands of politicians; specially the types we have in our present day Parliament.