By Izeth Hussain –
There are aspects to the BBS phenomenon, both its performance and the Governmental reactions to it, that are utterly farcical, but of course for the Muslims it is tragedy. There are reasons to believe that unless the BBS is checked by the Government, its unchecked activities will lead to tragedy not just for the Muslims but for the nation as a whole.
The tragedy that the writer has in mind is so serious a loss of sovereignty that Sri Lanka could become a country that is independent only in name, not in substance. There have of course been several countries that have been satellites of the American and Soviet Empires, with not much more than nominal independence. At this point a clarification needs to be made about sovereignty. It is wrong to think of it in terms of a spectrum at the one end of which there is total sovereignty enabling a country to do whatever it wishes in its international relations and at the other end of which is a total satellisation. The US, with power enough to blow up the world several times over, has had to face all sorts of constraints in conducting its foreign relations. The truth is that countries can be more or less sovereign, occupying varying positions in the spectrum. There are several factors that could adversely affect sovereignty, including heavy indebtedness that as in the case of Sri Lanka could make the preservation of sovereignty highly problematic.
The first farcical aspect of the BBS phenomenon was seen in the pretense that it was funded by Norwegian fundamentalist Christian groups and there was no more to it than that. Almost certainly Israel was the main force behind it, for reasons that need not be reiterated in this article. It might have been pardonable to forget that as something that had better be ignored for various (unconvincing) reasons, but there has been a vigorous recrudescence of BBS activity in recent times which has been well documented. In this novel context, the Government cannot avoid investigating the possible Israeli factor without having to face the following question: towards which end of the sovereignty spectrum should Sri Lanka be placed?
Another farcical aspect of the BBS phenomenon is that both the last and the present Governments have been very wary about taking effective counter- action against it. That is farcical because the BBS has nothing like the wide popular appeal that it was presumed to have when it first went on the rampage. The Islamophobic hate campaign has certainly been successful and there is widespread Islamophobia in Sri Lanka, but that does not necessarily spell widespread support for the BBS. The major problem is that the BBS is mainly a movement of Buddhist monks, like that of the Wirathu gang in Myanmar, and the average Sinhalese Buddhist seems to find it impossible to reconcile a hate campaign, a violent hate campaign, with Buddhism. It is a significant fact that Wirathu has been silenced by the Buddhist hierarchy in Myanmar, evidently because his preaching of violent Islamophobic hatred cannot be reconciled with Buddhism.
There are several other reasons why the substantial majority of the Sinhalese will not be supportive of the BBS. The Muslims solidly supported the Sinhalese against the Tamils from the time of the fifty-fifty campaign in pre-Independence days. They were against separatism, and their siding with the Sinhalese in the War entailed very horrible consequences for which they have not been provided redress even now – the facts are too well-known to require detailing here. Pakistan’s emergency provision of the appropriate weapons enabled reverse the tide of war at Elephant Pass in 2000, if not for which the Sri Lankan armed forces would have faced an extremely demoralizing debacle. The Islamic world has been solidly supportive of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC meetings at Geneva. And of course the remittances made by housemaids in the Middle East have been crucial in keeping the Sri Lankan economy afloat. We have to suppose that the Sinhalese people as a whole have a fair degree of political sophistication, having had the collective experience of exercising the franchise since 1931 and thinking about political issues in a democratic milieu. We can presume that they are aware of the facts set out above, and therefore that they are capable of making the following distinction: having gripes against the Muslims and sharing some degree of Islamophobia is one thing, but supporting the outrageously anti-Buddhist BBS is quite another.
What is the actual record of the Sinhalese people’s support for the BBS? The first point to note about the BBS is that it was not an indigenous movement, a spontaneous bursting out of Islamophobic hatred among the Sinhalese masses, but a blatantly foreign-backed one. Furthermore it had the obvious backing of very powerful personages in the Government, who even went to the extent of placing its leaders above the law. But it is an eloquent fact that it failed to ignite Sinhalese mass violence against the Muslims, though the main drive behind the BBS campaign was indisputably blood-lust. To cap it all, at the last General Elections the group representing the BBS got no more than a derisory 27,000 votes, showing conclusively enough that the BBS had no Sinhalese mass support worth speaking about.
We come now to the utterly farcical handling of the BBS hate campaign by the present Government. Karl Marx observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The handling of the BBS under the last Government was certainly tragic. The main reason was that it failed to make a distinction between Islamophobia which could have a significant spread among the Sinhalese and support for the BBS which most Sinhalese saw as a disgrace to Buddhism – a fact established by those derisory 27,000 votes! Another reason was that the last Government inherited a political mind-set according to which controversies arising out of religion had better be left alone. The tragic result of it all was that the Muslim vote became an important factor behind the defeat of President Rajapaksa, and the Government was seen internationally as disgustingly racist and incapable of giving fair and decent treatment to any minority.
History is now repeating itself in the surprising latitude allowed by the present Government to the BBS campaign. It is well-documented that in recent weeks mosques and other Muslim-owned buildings have come under attack with the police looking the other way, just like under the last Government, and the authorities up to now have been refusing to take appropriate counter-action, just like the last Government. But the context has changed, and what was once tragic is now farcical. The Government cannot now pretend that Sinhalese mass support for the BBS is so strong that it would be impolitic to apply the law against it. The explanation for Government inaction seems to be that the Sri Lankan power elite has become utterly hedonistic, putting the pleasure principle above all else so that global loafing takes priority over spending much time over the problems of the people.
The Muslims are now facing tragedy. It was shown under the last Government that they were not entitled as a matter of course to the protection of the law and the present Government is making the same demonstration. To whom are they to turn? The writer, as a Muslim, must record a sense of gratitude to the JVP for its reaction to the depredations of the BBS thugs. The Muslims should now cross ethnic frontiers and turn to the Sri Lankan civil society to make the Government come to its senses. Only the civil society can save this country from its politicians.