By Raashid Riza –
There is that scene from Schindler’s List which had a profound impact on me. I had forgotten about it, I never knew it existed, except that it has lain somewhere in the fibre of my brain, dormant, latent, waiting for the opportune moment for it to be of use. The state of Muslims in Sri Lanka is changing, it is perilous, getting graver with each rising of the sun, and suddenly this scene makes a lot of sense. It draws lessons from the attitudes of races and ethnicities and the chemistry between religious communities in Sri Lanka, a chemistry which is at threat of losing its equilibrium.
In the film Ralph Fiennes, playing the character of Amon Goeth, an SS officer, is in his bedroom with a girl. He rises to use the bathroom from where he sees an inmate in the concentration camp taking a break from the heavy painful labour he is being subjected to. As Goeth sees it, he is wasting time, being disobedient. So with the girl still teasing him in the background, he picks up the rifle and shoots him. He then surveys the working landscape from the balcony and walks the few feet back to the room where he and the girl continue to laugh and argue, as if they never had an interlude in which misery was wreaked on another.
For all the details in this scene, it is the image of the girl that recurs – she didn’t kill anyone, she was only an onlooker.
Except she wasn’t. There are no mere onlookers or observers under such circumstances. Inadvertently or not, you are a participant. You contribute to a crime, to someone else’s suffering by inaction, by a silence that spells out consent.
Were the Nazis, the Serbs, the Hutus or Tutsis, the monk-led groups in Myanmar or ironically the Israelis, who are largely descendants of those killed in concentration camps, able to go on the rampage with their killings because of Ralph’s character? No, it was because of people like the girl, the silent majority, who in their silence precipitated the suffering of others.
What then of the situations that we aren’t privy to? That we aren’t as contiguous to, like the girl was contiguous to in that crime?
As a human being, and as a Muslim, my conscience prickles to the murder waiting to happen, of the girl denied her hijab or sari, her jeans or her skirt, being calculated and honed-in for an imminent rape. Of a father fearing for the security of his daughters, bereft of his sons who in distant places toil away for the collective comforts of themselves, their families and their communities. Of the mothers who have lost their sons when they were incarcerated, tortured or killed. Of the numerous wives widowed – or worse, not knowing if they are widowed or not, some only daring to hope.
But do I heed my pricking conscience? Do I do something? No, I choose to be an onlooker, a bystander. Why? In doing something, there is a risk, a risk that my interests may be harmed. I am shackled in a world that entraps me in a suffocating embrace, seducing me with a culture that I cannot liberate myself from, a participant of a club I have to be a member of, spending needlessly and forcing upon me vacations that I justify as mandatory.
I too am aiding to a crime, I let it happen.
There is a fine line here – this is not a call to arms or a veiled threat, nor is it a subscription to the vile Bush-esque dictum “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”. But this is a conscience call, to me, as much as it is to you.
This history of Muslims in Sri Lanka is not just another story of a minority community. Sadly and very inaccurately, the term ‘minority’ is used to describe Sri Lankan Muslims in the same vein as European Muslims are described as minorities. This history of Muslims in Sri Lanka is as old as Islam itself.
Geographically, Sri Lanka previously held a central location in ancient trade routes, and was the traditional resting spot of sailors and merchants who were travelling from the east to the west. Therefore, Arab merchants had been frequenting Sri Lanka long before the advent of Islam in Arabia. With the ideological transformation of Arabia, the same Arabs coming to Sri Lanka were now Muslims, and in addition to marrying local Sinhalese and Tamil women, helped create the Sri Lankan Muslim population on the island.
Unlike their other Muslim ‘minority’ counterparts, the Sri Lankan Muslims bear the exact same physical resemblance to the rest of the Sri Lankan communities and speak the same local tongue. Traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have had the best of relationships with the two other communities in Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – and have a history spanning well over a millennium.
The Muslims in Sri Lanka are now in a perilous state, a state which they aren’t used to being in following their long history in Sri Lanka. Their shops are being attacked or looted; girls have been harassed on account of wearing the hijab. Racist Buddhist monks in their religious garb, with no regard to the pristine beauty of the teachings of the Gautama Buddha, yawp in derogatory terms, hurling abuse and damaging Muslim-owned properties as the police stand by doing nothing to uphold law and order. The rancid inaction of the police has been attributed by many commentators to be in deference to orders from the highest echelons of the state. A state contaminated by politicians of the most nefarious ilk, who would benefit from ethnic disturbances just right now to conceal their misgivings, corruption, extra judicial killings, daylight robberies of the state coffers, mass unemployment and the rising costs of living.
The Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are suffering the traumas of a corrupt government and an insipid and emasculated opposition. But the Sinhalese are a cultured people, armed by the virtues of Buddhism, a proud people with a celebrated history of close to three millennia, except that in their midst, like almost every other nation on earth, they have a minority of extremists who would kill, rape and steal, like they did to the Sri Lankan Tamils in July 1983.
Should the situation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka deteriorate, like that of the girl in Schindler’s List, it will be the nonchalance and silence of the decent majority of Sinhalese, imbibed by the salience of Buddhism, be it religious or cultural, that will scream the loudest. By their silence, and by virtue of their inaction, they will incontestably be contributing to a crime. They have a power, a power greater than that of the racist monks that feed the Bodu Bala Sena or the Sinhala Ravaya. They must use it, and they must use it now.
A peaceful vigil conducted a few days ago was hijacked by the Bodu Bala Sena with the connivance of the police. The collective voice of the Sinhalese majority, aided by like-minded Muslims and Tamils, has to make itself heard. Until then, there will be a deathly and eerie silence in which Sri Lanka will be engulfed, much to its peril.