By Izeth Hussain –
To fully understand the revival of the BBS’ anti-Muslim campaign of recent weeks, I believe that we must contextualize it globally. We must view it in the context of the strength and the spread of what has come to be known as identity politics or ethno-politics. To illustrate its strength I will cite some details about the Palestine problem. Former US President Carter has just made a public request to President Obama to recognize the Palestine state, just as 137 other states have done, because doing so will facilitate a two-state solution. Carter has a special interest in this matter because it was under his aegis that the Camp David Agreement took place in 1978: Israel would vacate the territories conquered in 1967, and a Palestinian state would be set up.
There were very good reasons to believe that the Camp David Agreement would be implemented and the Palestine problem would find a definitive solution before long. The Agreement was the maturation of UN Resolution 242 of 1968, which was an achievement of British diplomacy at its best. There was behind it the 1977 visit to Tel Aviv of Anwar al- Sadat, a spectacular offer of the olive branch by the President of the most important Arab state of that time. And behind that offer was Egyptian pride in its magnificent military achievement in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, notably the crossing of the Canal by Egyptian troops against what was apparently an impregnably fortified Israeli position there. That would have made the Israelis and their American patrons recollect what Ben Gurion had said at the time of the establishment of Israel: it could win against the Arabs once, twice, but he wasn’t sure about the third war and thereafter. Yom Kippur had brought to the fore Israel’s military vulnerability in the long run. It would appear that common sense and prudence dictated a two-state solution.
But after thirty eight years a two-state solution seems very remote. The Israeli settlement policy is clearly meant to change facts on the ground, pointing the way to a one-state solution. But, as Carter points out, that will be no solution at all because the inevitable future numerical preponderance of the Palestinians will make Israel abandon democracy. It will become an apartheid state – significantly Carter used the term “apartheid” in his book on Israel – in which the white Jewish minority will keep at bay the colored Palestinians. Let us note at this point that Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that Israel’s apartheid system is worse than that of South Africa. He should know. That brings me to some astonishing facts. There is nothing like the widespread international indignation over apartheid South Africa at present over Israel’s blatant apartheid racism. The US and the West as a whole are acquiescing – while making nominal noises of dissent – in Israel’s progress towards an apartheid state. We seem to be witnessing the realization of Herzl’s advocacy of Israel as a white fortress withstanding the advancing colored hordes of Afro-Asia. What is even more astonishing is that those colored hordes are also acquiescing in Israel’s progress towards an apartheid state. Otherwise they will kick the Israeli Embassies out of their capitals.
Those facts point to the enormous power of identity politics in our time. The eruption into the summit of American power by Trump, backed by Islamophobic and other mad dog racists, shows that and so do the gathering strength of neo-Fascist parties in Europe. I need not expatiate on the power of identity politics in Sri Lanka and other third world countries. What is the common factor behind the global spread of identity politics? I believe that the common factor is that a process of transition is taking place on a global scale. In such periods when roots are wrenched apart and traditional moorings are loosened, many individuals can experience an almost irresistible drive to affirm group bonds, resulting in racism and identity politics. It has long been a commonplace that the third world countries have been experiencing the transition from tradition into modernity.
It has not been sufficiently understood that the West has also been undergoing a process of transition. The Enlightenment project, designed to build a brave new world on the basis of rationality and individualism, which was the dominant secular ideology of the West since the eighteenth century, came into question from even before the First World War. I would argue that another process of transition set in from around 1980. It came to be understood that neo-liberalism was most unlikely to lead to Fukuyama’s utopia characterized by the end of ideology. It was also coming to be understood that market-based capitalism could deliver the goods but it could not deliver equity. And, gradually, the realization has come that ideologues like Hayek and Friedman and the politicos they have spawned like Reagan and Thatcher just didn’t give a dam about equity. Societies were being rent apart by their policies. That probably is the explanation for the rise of identity politics and neo-Fascist movements in the West. It could be significant that it was from 1980 that Karen Armstrong and others date the religious revival in the West and elsewhere: a sense of insecurity made people turn to religion. The common factor therefore is transition but with the difference that the transition in the third world is from tradition to modernity while in the West it is from modernity to post-modernity. The fact that more than a million jobs have been lost in the US through automation points in that direction.
In terms of the analysis I have made above, the anti-Muslim campaign in Sri Lanka is part of a global trend. It is not something that will go away if it is ignored, a point on which we must insist because our politicians tend to ignore problems that could entail a loss of votes. Certainly the Muslim ethnic problem has been given not much more than perfunctory attention over many decades. It should be addressed and action should be taken to contain it and eliminate it. What should be done? First of all we need to find an explanation for the external dimension of the BBS’ anti-Muslim campaign. It is known that there has been very considerable Norwegian funding for it. There has been evidence suggesting that there was a common source funding the anti-Muslim campaigns both in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. I and others have noted earlier that the T-shirts worn by demonstrators in both places were identical except for the different logos, and much of the rhetoric was also the same. We must recall further that the monk Wirata, who became famous over the anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar, came here as the guest of the BBS.
Several questions arise. There are Muslim minorities practically all over the world, and the one here is relatively insignificant, hardly counting at all in the affairs of the world. Why on earth should Norwegian Islamophobes bother to focus on this Muslim minority? Who could gain by it? Certainly if there is another 1983 and Muslim business premises are torched on a vast scale, Sinhalese businessmen could become the beneficiaries. Who else could become the beneficiaries? If there is another 1983 holocaust, the Muslims would want to flee to safe areas, – that is to the Eastern Province where there is the highest concentration of Muslims. Could that lead to the Muslims making common cause with the Tamils, if not for Eelam for a very wide measure of devolution? We must also bear in mind that the Muslim minority has been abjectly submissive to the Sinhalese majority. That means that if they too are subjected to another 1983, the international community can well conclude that the Sinhalese are so racist that they are incapable of giving fair and equal treatment to the Tamils. Certain conclusions can follow there from. So, the Tamils could benefit from an anti-Muslim 1983 holocaust. Could the LTTE be the hidden paw behind the anti-Muslim campaign without the BBS and others understanding what is afoot? No conclusions can be drawn, but it would be irresponsible not to ask such questions. The Government should at least request the BBS and its clones to suspend the anti-Muslim campaign while the UNHRC sessions are on.
Former President Kumaratunga should be thanked for speaking out loudly and clearly on the imperative of action against hate speech. Even more important is that the Government should speak out on the substance behind the hate speech: the ridiculous charges against the Muslims based for the most part, though not altogether, on misconceptions. I have dealt with those misconceptions in a series of articles in the Island and elsewhere, which are easily accessible to the interested reader through the archives section of the Colombo Telegraph. But I could not deal with one important charge, the alleged inordinate wealth of the Muslims, because of the lack of appropriate statistics. At one time comparative statistics showing the economic positions of our ethnic groups were available. I used a Marga Institute study containing such statistics for a paper on the SL Muslims in the first half of the ‘nineties, showing that the economic positions of our ethnic groups were roughly the same. Such statistics are no longer available, a lacuna that the Government should fill as quickly as possible if it wants to ensure that anti-Muslim campaigns don’t get out of hand.