By Malinda Seneviratne –
Ask anyone the question ‘Are you a racist?’ and the answer would be ‘no’. You can replace racist with communalist, fundamentalist, extremist, chauvinist or any other derogatory term and you’ll get the same answer. ‘No’. You can ask ‘Are you arrogant, jealous, wicked, deceitful etc etc’ and you will still get ‘no’. No one ever does anything wrong. Act and word are generally justified to self beforehand. Arrogance tends to trump humility. And the world stays as it is apart from appearances and frills of the times.
Right here in Sri Lanka, we had what are called ethnic-tensions. That should be in the present tense. There are also tensions between followers of different faiths. There is apprehension, fear and distrust. And there is response to these; response to the real and imagined, histories and extrapolations. And it’s mostly of the ‘Us vs Them’ kind. More precisely it’s mostly ‘We are the victims, they are the aggressors’.
A few weeks ago, when ‘Aluthgama’ happened, there was not just condemnation of the Bodu Bala Sena but a tagging of all Buddhists to exercises of censure. There was absolutely no mention of Welipenna where Muslims attacked a Buddha statue and houses and establishments owned by Buddhists. There was footage of Buddhists ‘on the rampage’ but carefully edited out was footage of Muslim youth throwing stones from the roof of a building. No one asked the question, ‘how did stones get there?’ The fact is that there was premeditation on both sides, perhaps out of fear, but that’s a different story. The story is that there were stories and people chose what to pick and what to ignore.
The Buddhist response, if you want to call it that, was similar. Pick and choose is the name of the game. Footage of Welipenna and weeping Buddhist women but none of the Muslim shops and houses attacked or the associated lamentations; footage of stone-throwing Muslim youth but not of attack-mode Buddhists.
It was all overshadowed by ‘Gaza’. The condemnation of Israel was absolute. Very few Muslims criticized Hamas. There’s no question about it, the Israeli ‘response’ (bad word because it presumes innocence and victimhood and edits out known aggression on the part of Israel) is genocidal in intent and product. What’s interesting is that even those who footnoted Hamas remained absolutely silent on Muslim-Muslim violence.
Ali A Rizvi, in an article published in www.huffingtonpost.com titled ‘7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict,’ gives us some sobering facts.
‘Bashar al-Assad has killed over 180,000 Syrians, mostly Muslim, in two years — more than the number killed in Palestine in two decades. Thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Syria have been killed by ISIS in the last two months. Tens of thousands have been killed by the Taliban. Half a million black Muslims were killed by Arab Muslims in Sudan. The list goes on. But Gaza makes Muslims around the world, both Sunni and Shia, speak up in a way they never do otherwise. Up-to-date death counts and horrific pictures of the mangled corpses of Gazan children flood their social media timelines every day.’
Ali asks some pertinent questions: ‘If it was just about the numbers, wouldn’t the other conflicts take precedence? What is it about then?’
The anger of Muslims regarding Israeli aggression is understandable. That anger and solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza even prompted some people to commend the unity of Muslims. Ali’s piece shows that underneath anti-Israeli sentiment are deep fissures. If the harm done to others in the community prompts umbrage, though, what can explain the near total silence on Muslim aggression against Muslims? Is it something on the following lines: ‘outsiders need not worry about mattes within the family’? But is there any debate within ‘the family’?
On the other side, we see Israel’s allies, especially the USA and Britain showing utter disregard for the atrocities committed by Israel. The support has been absolute. Scandalous would be a kind word in this context especially since these countries are self-proclaimed champions of human rights.
What is the logic of this black-white logic? It is an inevitable outcome of a preference for Cartesian logic? Well, from that point to sweeping statement and castigating of collectives for the perceived crimes of a few is a very short distance.
Not too long ago, Prageeth Ekneligoda (‘disappeared’ they say), came up with a powerful cartoon. Now Prageeth is powerful when he uses lines, although his commentary borders on pornography and his political practice (sending human ash to perceived enemies) even laughable. But take a look at the caricature he offers. There’s a Buddhist bikkhu being ‘creative’ with the dharmachakra, subtly turning it into the Swastika, the sign that has come to represent fascism. So all of a sudden we are not talking of some fringe group but the entire Buddhist order. That’s offensive. Avantha Attygalle, another brilliant cartoonist also does himself much disservice by playing with iconography in similarly careless, crass and sweeping manner.
When an entire collective is thus vilified, one has to expect the majority to be offended. But strangely, in Sri Lanka, Buddhists are supposed to ‘grin and bear’ because Buddhism after all is about non-attachment. Non-Buddhists regularly preach Buddhism to Buddhists even as Buddhists are vilified. They do not, likewise, ask Christians to turn the other cheek or direct Muslims to non-violent, compassionate and change-cheek type of content in the Quran.
Those who share and even use Prageeth’s caricature as Facebook profile pictures do not see anything wrong in it. Would they feel offended if their faiths are subjected to similar caricature? History, after all, is full of blood-letting by Christians and Muslims, in the name of God, Allah, Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammed. US President’s bless troops thus: ‘May god bless the United States of America’. That’s just before they are sent to kill people. Non-Christians. How many Christians have the United States of America killed in the past 10 years and how many non-Christians? The ratio will tell a story. Is it correct to paint all Muslims with ISIS colors? Are all Muslims supporters of Hamas? Is objection of Zionism qualification enough for the label ‘Jihadist’? Is objection to the hate speech of Bodu Bala Sena by a Muslims good enough reason to call him/her a Jihadist?
But would it be right to paint all Christians and Muslims as fascists? Would Christians and Muslims be offended?
There are questions we don’t like to hear and are very reluctant to answer, aren’t there? But if we looked deep enough within and in the doctrines we’ve chosen to guide us, there’s ample content to provoke self-appraisal, inculcate patience and too see self in enemy and vice versa. The problem is that it’s hard work. Caricature is far easier. Mobs are attractive. Safety in numbers, unfortunately, also amounts to offering blank checks to the movers and shakers of number-aggregates and they typically are black-white creatures who perceive any self-criticism as ill-affordable weakness.
These are mob days. Collective days. Days of arrogance. These are days of treating Cartesian frames of logic to be superior to anything else, never mind the fact that they are full of holes and have functioned as justifiers and approvers of all kinds of crimes against humanity.
Debating is easy because debating points are cheap. It gives ego a fillip. Neither cause nor the greater good of humanity gets a boost, in the long run. If we stop to think about it, that is.
‘Hate speech’ is an easily tossed around term these days. It’s something ‘others’ do, everyone thinks. There’s a reason why there’s at least that kind of ‘agreement’. Human sloth. Identity-fascination. Chauvinism, disguised and undisguised. We could do better but have not. And that’s something to worry about.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com