By Mohamed Harees –
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
COVID-19 has already reported to have killed more than 2000 lives, more in China, but its tentacles have gone way beyond its borders. With its potent mix of characteristics, this virus is unlike most that capture popular attention: It is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways. Most countries are heightening their vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside of mainland China. The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern but has stopped short of calling it a pandemic. A significant jump in the number of cases outside China has raised fears that the coronavirus could become a pandemic.
The world has responded with unprecedented speed and mobilization of resources. The new virus was identified extremely quickly. Its genome was sequenced by Chinese scientists and shared around the world within weeks. The global scientific community has shared genomic and clinical data at unprecedented rates. Work on a vaccine is well under way. The Chinese government enacted dramatic containment measures. All of this happened in a fraction of the time it took to even identify H5N1 in 1997. And yet the outbreak continues to spread. All aspects of normal life patterns have been adversely affected as a result with people getting panicky, with people trying to avoid mutual contacts and interaction. A world thus which boasted of modernity and advanced medical systems is today stands orphaned as a result of multitude of disasters – near pandemic caused by a new strain of coronavirus and many other natural disasters like hurricanes, massive floods, and bushfires. In the process, we are forgetting an elephant in the room- the hate virus which has engulfed the human soul, even in the midst of this corona crisis.
As officials work to contain the corona disease, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have continued unabated in manty parts of the world. Many Twitter and Facebook posts blame Chinese people (or people presumed to be Chinese, like Dong and Nguyen) for creating and spreading the virus. If others challenge their statements, many users defend their statements as “jokes.”. Chinese people in Asia and Asian people around the world say they’ve been treated with suspicion since the virus made international headlines.
Roger Keil, a professor in the environmental studies department at York University, studied the impact of SARS on the city of Toronto. He says, ‘Neither H1N1, which emerged in North America, nor mad cow disease, which primarily affected the United Kingdom, generated a racial or ethnic backlash of this magnitude. Yet, diseases that originate in China, like SARS and the new coronavirus, or in Africa — remember the fears about Ebola? — consistently correlate with xenophobia. “With this new virus, something was triggered that is always latently there, under the surface, which is this fear of the other and the idea that bad things come from elsewhere,” Keil says. It also echoes old prejudices. In the 19th century, Europeans feared a so-called “yellow peril,” brought about by “primitive” people with emerging global power’. For now, Keil says, “there are two things to remember every morning when you get up: wash your hands and don’t be racist.”
Racism! Hate of the ‘Other’! While Corona has been threatening our lives, the hate virus has been destroying our souls. We have heard the phrase so often that it has become a cliché: weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons, biological warfare, nuclear devices and dirty bombs have become the nightmare of the 21st century. There is, though, one agent of mass destruction about which almost nothing is said, yet its power exceeds all the others combined. Its name is hate. The greatest danger to the future of the world is not weapons but those who wield them. The problem is not “out there” in laboratories and weapon caches but “in here”, in the human heart. What makes the difference between good and evil is not our technological capacity to destroy but what Freud regarded as our psychological urge to destroy. The ultimate weapon of mass destruction is called mankind armed with hate and racism of all forms.
While in the non-democratic systems like that of China or Russia, nobody could deny existence of hate but it does not find expression rather it is not reported and does not come into open as fear of the mighty State suppresses any visible demonstration with an iron hand. Story is no different either in countries of America, Africa or the Arab world where hate does not only find expression in words and gestures but often ends in violence spilling blood on streets. Thousands of miles apart from each other, hate lines on graph of the Indian political system too have been rising upwards for quite some time under a racist BJP/RSS government. Particularly, what happens in India and US, two known ‘democracies’ on the earth is truly revealing about the adverse impact on politics of hate on human life in the modern world. Basic gene of the hate seem to be the same despite the two being continents apart which only demonstrates the universality of the phenomenon. Europe, where democracy in different forms is older than in the US or India, is no different and politics of hate is on the rise. In India, the principle of purity of means that was advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, today, has gone out of fashion becoming redundant and it has been replaced by ‘end justify the means.’
Recently the Titans of hate politics- Modi and Trump met in India. The joke was that Trump praised Modi for religious tolerance. Not only do Modi and Trump lead movements anchored in hate, but they also appeal to an old-fashioned form of nationalism. There was a great deal of back-slapping, mutual praise and displays of machismo. There was a great deal of bragging and making big promises. This is something that Modi and Trump share, apart from the ‘elephant in the room- the Islamophobia.
Among these PR stunts in New Delhi,. pictures of gunshot wounds, bloodshed and fire elsewhere in India were ignored. Several of Trump’s photo ops occurred just miles from the violent protests, where reportedly many people have died and hundreds more have been injured. And in Gujarat, where Trump and Modi attended a massive rally together, a wall hastily constructed by the Indian government represented a dystopian albeit transparent effort to hide slums from America’s view.
Modi’s and Trump’s kinship makes sense in this context. During a Houston rally sometime back, Modi said he supported Trump’s efforts to “Make America Great Again.” Trump and Modi pledged to support each other’s efforts to “protect innocent civilians from radical Islamic terrorism.” From enacting a “Muslim ban” during his first days in office to speech that far too often denigrates minorities, Trump has encouraged the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that dovetails with the Islamophobic atmosphere in India right now — and indeed is increasingly spreading around the world. The consequences of this atmosphere can be seen in the language used by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which threatens to denaturalize Muslims across the country. Modi, like Trump, was also the victor in an election campaign that has used fearmongering and anti-Muslim rhetoric to consolidate support. Modi has been potentially and clearly promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda after his election triumph, revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state,
His racist government recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), granting a track to Indian citizenship for undocumented immigrants from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain and Parsi backgrounds. The stated goal was to protect refugees coming from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. That is, refugees who are not Muslim. Muslim identities were conveniently left out of the amendment, but these three countries are Muslim majority nations. These same Muslim identities are also some of the most persecuted in the world, notably the Rohingya, who are fleeing to Bangladesh following ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Showing the good side of India, the people of India across racist and religious divides rose up against this arbitrary piece of legislation; but the evil side won- the iron boots of the Modi’s racist government trampled on fairplay and justice.
Few days ago, India’s capital was hit by the worst religious violence in decades, which was triggered after Muslims protesting against this discriminatory citizenship law were attacked. At least 24 people have been killed , and nearly 200 people injured during three days of violence in Muslim populated areas of northeast Delhi, with police accused of looking the other way as a mob went on the rampage, killing people and damaging properties, including mosques. “Hindutva mobs are committing an anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi,” tweeted human rights lawyer Arjun Sethi. Modi finally spoke up about the situation in Delhi, delivering a vague plea for “calm” and “normalcy.” In neighbouring Pakistan, Imran Khan made clear his government would not tolerate violence against the country’s religious minorities. There has been a continuing impunity crisis in India where those responsible for public lynchings and other hate crimes against Muslims in several states have gone unpunished as Amnesty International says.
Can Sri Lanka learn lessons? In Sri Lanka too, there were clear examples of anti-minority hate movements taking the law into their own hands. Since Independence in 1948, the institutionalization of majoritarianism, has been the bane of Sri Lanka which led to ethnocentric policies rooted in linguistic nationalism and political opportunism, and the resultant ethnic tensions transmogrified into terrorism, ending in nearly three decade long Civil War. It is a fact of history that much of Sri Lanka’s Post-Independent history has been marred by sectarian tensions. While political parties and leaders have alternated in power in post-independence Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has consistently triumphed, and this at the expense of pluralism and democracy.
Good news is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,(GR) after his decisive victory based on a substantial Sinhala Buddhist vote bank, has promised to create an inclusive Sri Lanka. However four months after the victory, the government has become unpopular among both the majority Sinhalese for not doing enough for their cause and minorities feeling the punch of the Sinhala nationalism led by monks and politicians, around GR, falling heavily upon their religious and cultural rights. With elections around the corner, anti- Muslim hatred is once again coming into the public arena with fake stories and ghosts of Easter Sunday being rekindled. The Parliamentary Report of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National security primarily focusses on the so-called Muslim threat with many partial recommendations which shows unilaterality with no inputs from the community. It is important that the politics of development is pursued with humility, fair-play and compassion which would prove to be an alternate model but hatred deliver fast while development is an arduous path.
Muslims too as part of Sri Lanka’s common heritage should begin to think as sons of the soil, without falling victims to hate peddlers assertions that the land belongs to Sinhalese alone- they also should look inwards without assuming a victimhood mentality, in the wake of Post-Easter Sunday challenges. The way forward is to explore ways and means and promote inclusivism and plurality without both majority community and minority communities taking ghetto approaches. Even FM Dinesh Gunawardena in Geneva referred to Sri Lanka as a multi- ethnic, multi lingual nation without referring to Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist state. This is a realism which all communities should teach their children.
Hate virus is fast becoming a latent pandemic. Many questions have been asked in the wake of 09/11 in the US and 21/04 in Sri Lanka. Was there an intelligence failure? Was there disinformation? Were they politically engineered ?The air has been thick with charges and counter-charges, accusations and denials. Yet the big questions have not been asked, or if they have, they have failed to capture public attention. Hate has never solved any problems ;but created many . What are we teaching our children? How do we confront hate? How can we ensure that those who come after us will understand that violence is the worst form of conflict resolution? As UN Charter/ UDHR advocates, there are internationally agreed set of standards for resolving human conflicts. We must teach our children that diversity is a strength. Never before or since has homo sapiens been invested with greater dignity. Life is sacrosanct. Murder, therefore, is a form of blasphemy. It neither has nor can have religious justification. These questions are burningly urgent. Civilisations fail when they address the symptoms but not the cause. The cause is fear mutated to hate, then translated into deed. Asking the real questions will take great courage, but right now, nothing less will do.