By Izeth Hussain –
Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads – IX – Islamophobic Racism
In the preceding sections of this series of articles on the Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads, I have dealt with ‘Muslim extremism’ so-called and with the Muslim population problem. In this article I will argue that both of those supposed problems are really non-problems, which can be explained only on the basis of Islamophobic racism among some segments of the Sri Lankan people. Thereafter I will – in situating these seemingly purely local problems in an international context – make some observations on Islamophobic racism on the global scale.
In these articles I have consistently held to the position that Muslim extremism is an aberration and not the mainstream in the Islamic world. Recent developments have provided, in my view, a striking substantiation of my argument. Any reading of Islamic history, even the most cursory one, will show that anything comparable to the contemporary jihad movements were far, very far indeed, from being the norm. Contemporary Muslim extremism, as distinct from earlier varieties which have occasionally prevailed in parts of the Islamic world, should be explained in terms of the pressures set off by the transition to modernity – according to the thesis of Emmanuel Todd which I have briefly set out earlier. The transition is usually accompanied by ideological extremism and violence. That could provide an explanation for the very curious fact that Burma, a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, has witnessed the emergence of the Ven. Wirathu who reportedly styles himself the Buddhist Osama Ben Laden, and who is discredited with unleashing the horrific violence against the Rohingya Muslims. It could explain also the very curious emergence of the BBS which has an ideology of Buddhist supremacism in an extreme form and is also discredited with unleashing violence against the Muslims. Most Buddhists, I am told, will agree that the Ven. Wirathu and the BBS are exponents of Buddhist extremism, not of mainstream Buddhism which will continue its sway as it has for over two thousand years.
Likewise most Muslims will hold that mainstream Islam will continue to hold the sway that it has had for one thousand four hundred years. But I would be disingenuous if I stop at that without confronting certain awkward questions that arise. Most of the Christian world went through the transition to modernity long ago. The question that has now to be confronted is this: Why is it that there has been far more ideological extremism and violence among Muslims making the transition than among Hindus and Buddhists? Some would claim that there has in fact been even more extremism and violence among Hindus than among Muslims. But the general impression is to the contrary and we have to seek an explanation. The ignorant and the prejudiced will jump to the conclusion that violence is inherent in Islam, which was why the Prophet himself was a warrior. But the historical record shows that the adherents of all the great world religions have had horrific records of violence in the past.
I believe that the explanation is to be found in the fact that Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars, over several decades, in propagating the Wahabi-Salafi-Hanbali version of militant Islam, which has been interpreted in ways that promote ideological extremism and violence. There has been nothing comparable by way of financial and other backing in the case of Hindus and Buddhists. It all began with the promotion of the Taliban by the US and Saudi Arabia to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the success of which left the Taliban with the notion that it alone had destroyed the mighty Soviet Empire. That was the beginning of the proliferation of militant Islam in some horrible forms, which has climaxed in the Islamic State. Its spectacular success has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with Saudi oil billions, American weaponry, and Western expertise in the form of training for its fighters. The IS has the potential, unless it is successfully combated, to bring about regime change in Saudi Arabia and other pro-American Arab countries. They have therefore turned against the IS, and so have practically the entirety of the Islamic world. It amounts to a spectacular substantiation of the argument that ‘Muslim extremism’ is an aberration and not the mainstream in the Islamic world.
Sri Lanka has nothing to fear from ‘Muslim extremism’ abroad, which is indisputably no more than a transitional phenomenon. Most of the Islamic countries are in a parlous state militarily and quite simply don’t have the capacity to harm Sri Lanka. Besides, none of them have the slightest motive to want to do anything that might be deleterious to Sri Lankan interests. On the contrary, our interaction with the wider Islamic world has been immensely beneficial to Sri Lanka, in ways that are understood even by most of our schoolboys. Internally, ‘Muslim extremism’ is a fact within a purely religious dimension in which Wahabism is in contention with orthodox Islam. We Muslims are a pragmatic people who can be trusted to deal with this problem through a strategy of practical accommodation. The charge that ‘Muslim extremism’ poses an existential threat to the Sinhalese people makes no sense at all. Or rather it makes sense only on one ground: Islamophobic racism.
The alleged Muslim demographic threat to the Sinhalese is also nonsensical. I have already provided the reader with the necessary statistical data to reach an informed judgment, but unfortunately they are quite confusing. Between 1881 and 1981 the Muslim population remained virtually static: 7.17% in 1881 and 7.56% in 1981. On the other hand the Buddhist population increased very appreciably: from 61.53% in 1881 to 69.30% in 1981. The confusion arise because the statistics for the period 1981 to 2012 shows a reversal of the trend established over the 100-year period from 1881 to 1981. The Buddhist population increased from 69.30% to 70.19%, which was only a marginal increase. On the other hand the Muslim population shot up from 7.56% to 9.71%.
I have sought explanations for that surprising reversal of trend and found none that is even remotely definitive. I have stopped making further inquiries because there is an argument that seems to me absolutely irrefutable to show that the Muslims will never become the dominant majority in Sri Lanka. The BBS’ charge that the Muslims will become the dominant majority by 2050 seems to have behind it the assumption that the percentage of Muslim population increase will keep on going up and up. But that is an assumption that does not square with the known facts of demography which has been a specialist field of study since the time of Malthus in the nineteenth century. The crucially important fact is that demographic studies have shown that populations don’t keep on growing indefinitely but they tend to reduce, finally stabilizing at two children per family. Courbage and Todd have shown that Muslims across the globe are no exception to that rule, and there is no earthly reason to suppose that the Sri Lankan Muslims will prove to be an exception either. The charge that they will outnumber the Buddhists is nonsense that might be explicable on the ground of ignorance, which if it proves to be invincible has to have behind it Islamophobic racism.
I will now conclude with a few observations, no more than a few jottings, on the huge subject of Islamophobic racism in an international perspective. The Sinhalese racists are not altogether peculiar in seeing in our Muslims a terrible existential threat. D.W.Griffiths, one of the innovative geniuses of early American cinema, built one of his two masterpieces, The Birth of a Nation, on the existential dread that the American blacks would wrest power from the American whites. When I saw a DVD of that film some years ago I was utterly shocked because the animating idea behind it seemed so unrealistic, so bizarre. Since then I have come across other examples of thoroughly unreasonable majoritarian dread of inoffensive and powerless minorities, a dread that can find expression in oblique forms. For instance Cole Porter’s memorable song Love for Sale, which gives a sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute was unacceptable to American audiences until it was made out that she was black. There we have a racist drive to see female degradation as essentially a black phenomenon. Another instance was provided by the travails of the legendary song Strange Fruit, about black lynchings in the American South, in finding American acceptance. When in 1939 Billie Holiday sang it at an American radio station, the white staff did everything possible to spoil the transmission. The moral that I have to draw at this point is that Sinhalese Islamophobia is not just a freakish phenomenon that can be expected to fade away if it is ignored.
Present-day Islamophobic racism, with its central emphasis on Muslims proliferating so prolifically that Islam will before long become dominant over the globe, reminds one of the ‘yellow peril’ which obsessed Westerners over many decades. The idea was that the Chinese would proliferate like cockroaches and insects and take over the globe. It seems to have arisen in 19th century America and persisted until Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. In the meanwhile something extremely odd in international relations took place. Usually the two greatest powers in the world compete with each other to get the allegiance of the third emerging power. But we had the strange spectacle of the two leading powers of the time, the US and the Soviet Union, getting together in utter demented murderous hatred of China, the third emerging great power. How murderous was that hatred was shown by the revelation in the Kissinger memoirs that the Brezhnev-Kosygin duo was egging on the Americans to subject the Chinese to a nuclear bomb-whacking. I take that as an example of racism in action in international relations.
Another example was the setting up of Israel. The voting on the UN Resolution on that enormity showed a stark division along colour lines. Even the Philippines – servant of the Americans at that time and for many decades thereafter – balked at the idea of supporting that racist Resolution. There was a hidden ideology behind the setting up of Israel, which was much earlier stated forthrightly by Theodor Herzl, the father-figure of political Zionism, when he declared that an Israel would be Europe’s vanguard fortress to withstand the advancing Asiatic hordes. It was no accident that Israel and apartheid South Africa were bosom-buddies, and that today’s Israel is so racist that even Carter used the term “apartheid” in his book on Israel.
The strange and deep and otherwise mystifying commitment of the US to Israel should also be seen as an example of racism in action in international relations. The conventional wisdom on that commitment is that it flows from the power of the Zionist lobby. We know that Israel would, above all, want the US to bomb out Iran’s nuclear installations or give Israel the green light to do so. Why has the supposedly omnipotent Zionist lobby failed to bring that about? I believe that the reason is the American realization that bombing out Iran would eventually strengthen the Asiatic hordes. The US commitment to Israel is a racist commitment to Israel as the fortress against advancing Asiatic hordes. The West is sensing that the Islamic hordes could be advancing, and that could be the reason for Western Islamophobic racism.