By Lukman Harees –
“The dangerous enemies of your species are fundamentalism, intolerance, separatism, extremism, hostility and prejudicial fear, be it religious, atheistic or political.” ― Abhijit Naskar
The hate filled events which Sri Lanka has been witnessing these days are both shameful and dramatic belying the grandiose promise of promoting national reconciliation and denying oxygen to the destructive forces of hate and racism. Tell-tale signs are obvious and their slogans are just hollow pretensions. The extremist Sinhala Buddhist forces led by rogue elements among the Maha Sangha, appeared to have joined hands and on a united spree to demonise, stigmatize and hurt the Muslims on all fronts – socially, politically and economically. These vicious forces of hate still continues to enjoy a near free reign despite a change of government which came to power by promising tough action against them and on a platform of promoting National Reconciliation and equal treatment to all communities. BBS and their likes with their new found cousins Sinhaley have begun to re-enact many episodes which the country saw in the MR era. –street protests, boycott calls, attacking Muslim places of worship and businesses. Nay, they have even found a patron saint in this government too, who speak their language; then it was the Defence Secretary and now it is the Justice Minister.
It is however not surprising that the well –orchestrated anti-Muslim hate campaign in Sri Lanka which had a upward swing during the MR Regime, has once again begun to surface in full ferocity, having had a illusionary dip during the early stages of the Yahapalana rule. Firstly, the climate of fear and cultural mistrust, which has becomes one of the grim aspects of our present day society did not happen by accident. Secondly, it is also a grim reality that at a time when Muslim bashing has become a cottage industry on a global plane, it needs no rocket science to discern that many vested interests and highly organized networks as part of a million dollar industry which preach the virulent Islamophobia, have their local agents too in this country.
Video – Yesterday’s anti-Muslim campaign in Kandy
It should be kept in mind that extremist Buddhist monks who are thankfully still a minority, are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Myanmar, these Sri Lankan hard-liner post-war hate movements reserve special ire for Muslims. In the last decade, activism by Buddhist monks has grown more overtly political, consolidating their political power to lobby for a majoritarian state ,thus placing minorities in a dependent and a subservient situation. As Analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda argued, many tragic events that transpired in post-independence Sri Lanka could be attributed to Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigning for policies that exacerbated ethnoreligious violence. It was a matter of shame that the successive governments do not seem to learn lessons from history of the dangerous consequences of pampering to these hate lobbies for political gains, which are hell-bent on making a bogeyman of Muslims – a community which has had a rich history of over 10 centuries of standing up for territorial integrity and unity of this country .
As stated, it should also not be forgotten that the many global events which have made headlines especially in the last decade has also begun to create anxiety and a climate of fear and insecurity for the Muslims within Sri Lanka. The much maligned obnoxious xenophobic Brexit campaign in UK and the Trump’s divisive racist Presidential campaign and his subsequent win in US have served in no small measure in reinforcing the Islamophobic narrative especially seen in the Media actively promoted by the far right groups. Resultantly, this has led to not only an unprecedented increase in hate attacks and fear mongering but also gagging and silencing moderate Muslim opinion in the West. The local agents naturally therefore feel comfortable in mainstreaming the anti-Muslim hate among the grass-root level people specially through the social media without attracting much social public disapproval.
It is in this context that Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe too started tuning into this stereotype Islamophobic narrative and playing to the anti-Muslim hate lobby, during his address in the Parliament by attempting to brand all religious movements as extreme and making a misplaced statement about “ISIS infiltration” in Sri Lanka. As Muslim Council of Sri Lanka rightly stated, ‘“Hon Wijedasa Rajapakshe’s statement comes at a very opportune time to certain extremist elements bent on tarnishing the image of the Muslim community for reasons only best known to them. Certain parts of his statement are verbatim of the hate speech spewed by the extremist priest Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero”.
It is therefore time opportune if not overdue, to bring in hate speech laws without delay to bring to book the reactionary forces who are abusing the right to free speech and critique to create communal and religious tension both on the streets and in the social media, of course ensuring that such laws are not used to oppress political opponents and to silence reasonable political criticism. Otherwise, these undercurrent forces have the potency to bring their hate campaign to mainstream, which thankfully has not been the case (hopefully) as we saw how they were routed at the last polls.
Further, the law enforcement authorities did lose their credibility at the time of MR Rule who allowed BBS and their goons to operate without fear or sanction and act as ‘unofficial policemen’ and make the Muslims feel as aliens in the land of their birth. Still, it is a matter of disappointment that the Police have not done enough to reclaim their credibility. The Police should not therefore drag their heels to identify and act without fear or favour under the existing laws, against initially the main ‘champions’ of this extremely damaging campaign to divide communities along racial and religious lines by hate speech.
As CPA once stated, the need of the hour is to ensure that religious and communal tension and violence do not engulf the country. The full weight of the law without fear or favour should be brought to bear on anyone who incites violence or engenders religious and communal enmity. The deeply corrosive culture of impunity in respect of human rights violations, and indeed, in respect of the incitement of religious and communal hatred, must be reversed as a matter of the utmost national priority. The widespread perception that the purveyors of religious intolerance and violence enjoy patronage and support from quarters within the government needs to be comprehensively dispelled. The minorities should perceive to be living as dignified citizens with equal rights.
Furthermore, there should be a multi faith approach to defeat this unpatriotic hate mongering campaign which ultimately will ruin the chances of realizing the Post-war dream of the Sri Lankan people to create an inclusive, peaceful nation. This united approach will also help in clearing the country’s name, which has long been tarnished internationally specially after the 1983 Anti-Tamil pogrom which was allowed to continue by the then JR government for undue political gains. No numerically minority community, whether Tamil or Muslims should feel as second class citizens (which they unfortunately feel as present) if the country is to move forward.
At the same time, it is also important for the government to starve off the extremist lobby’s ability to access the grass-root levels by exploiting sensitive issues, by looking into the genuine grievances of the majority community. The unfounded rhetoric about minorities, specially the Muslims for example attempting to become the majority and destroying the Buddhist heritage, among other things, has led to the monks and opportunistic politicians to justify anti-minority practices. In the end, unless this prevailing ‘minority mindset’ which the vested political interests have instilled in the psyche of the majority Sinhala community is challenged and their genuine grievances are redressed, this mindset will eventually pose a far greater danger to Sri Lanka than the blows of these hard-line thugs which we see on our streets.