By Mohamed Harees –
Listening to a recent venomous speech by the hate monk Ven Ratana mouthing many inaccuracies and canards about everything Muslim, it needs no rocket science to predict the nearing of an explosion of a social volcano and an impending disaster, in the likes of Aluthgama or Digana. Ever since the Easter Sunday, unbecoming of the very rob he dons, he has been on a mission to demonise the Muslim community from leading the anti-Dr Shafi tirade as well as going around the country to propagate bigotry and animosity, without fear or sanction from the law enforcement authorities.. His partner in crime Ven Gnanasara made a similar extremely demonising speech after a minor incident in Aluthgama, which led to the disastrous anti Muslim violence in Aluthgama in 2014. Amidst ‘professional jealousies’, ironically, both have now come together politically once again , to propagate their evil racist designs in the guise of ‘saving’ the Sinhala race and Buddhism. What tenets of Buddhism allows them to do so is anyone’s guess!
But then in Sri Lanka, although according to the Constitution all are equal; it is well known that some are more equal than others, unfortunately. The law enforcement authorities seems disinterested either when those connected to the ruling clique or those who can swing the public mood to their favour such as some rogue but influential sections of the Maha Sangha, are involved. Racism as a political tool appears to work at least in winning elections in Sri Lanka, going by its Post-Independence history.
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
The darker side of human nature still troubles us, though nowadays we tend to seek more naturalistic explanations. This was never more true than after the second world war, which offered an unflinching and deeply distressing view of the depravity to which humans can sink. One influential product of the research – or perhaps soul-searching – that followed was the concept of the “banality of evil”. Coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt after watching the 1961 trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, this spare phrase captures the idea that evil acts are not necessarily perpetrated by evil people. Instead, they can simply be the result of bureaucrats dutifully obeying orders. Eichmann was not only obeying the laws of the land, he was also doing what appeared lawful then and righteous for himself and for his family. It was this inability to think beyond orders and directives that led to the mass genocide of people which led her to coin the term. Yet the term can be slightly amended to read as the ‘banality of hatred‘ which underlies evil and it seems to fit the open bigotry which some show to others just because they are different.
It was this inability to think beyond orders and directives that led to the mass genocide of people which led her to coin the term. The epitome of Arendt’s idea of banality of evil [is] the state of thoughtlessness. It means that the individual becomes indifferent enough to himself as human being and to his fellow people [that he can] take part in any wickedness that functionality, or ideologies of his group of interests or belonging can produce. With the enormous power wielded by those in saffron clothes within the Sri Lankan polity, their harsh words carrying racist venom can turn ordinary peace loving people into hate mobs and raging armies. Unless those who calls the shots in Sri Lanka realize the dynamics of “this danger game” for political gains, the nation will never be able to counteract the powerful forces that can transform ordinary people into evil perpetrators.”
We see that all around us—for instance, in genocides on different scales in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and in Syria, done by people who are locked in ideologies and racism, which become their legitimate, normal, and victorious world. They will usually be demonized by other [people], also penetrated by counter-racism and ideologies, that wishes as well to distance itself from any thinking, understanding, and responsibility for the world we create together. [But] demonization is evil itself: By demonization one can also easily and logically justify expulsion, building walls, transfer, nullifying masses of people, libel them, etc.
It can be recalled that the Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya (MD), in March 2018 in a speech referred to the mainstreaming of Muslim hate among Sinhala people, on the heels of the communal attacks on Muslims in Digana.(Daily Mirror of 20th March 2018 carried a rather alarming and distressing news-item on its’ front page). MD also reportedly added that a majority of Sinhalese were happy to see the Tamils too being attacked in 1983, only to regret it a few years later, thus demonising the Sinhala people. It may well have been media sensationalising to say the least or being misquoted or even expressing his personal view. However, in the overall context, viewed in retrospect, two years after the disastrous Easter attacks in 2019, MD’s statement raises an all-important question in the minds of all Sri Lankans; not just the Muslims: Has anti-Muslim hate gone mainstream in this Dharma Dweepa?
These anti-Muslim hate campaigns are all well- planned borrowing from global Islamophobia hell-bent on making Sri Lanka a hell-hole for the Muslims for various socio-political reasons. Indi Samarajiva wrote in ‘Medium’ blog that as long as the core ingredients of (some) excuses (or ruses) +racists+ people standing by, are there, another race riot (against the Muslims in this instance) cannot be prevented.
It was unfortunate that Sri Lanka has become a tinder box of sectarian and ethnic tensions. In fact, in the backdrop of the country’s pogrom-filled history, and in the context of a difficult transition from war to peace in 2009, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism and identity politics produced fresh tensions and fault lines. Islamophobia has already fostered an environment which led to violent attacks on the Muslims with impunity. Anti-Muslim hate has been on the rise, and came to the forefront of Sri Lankan politics after a series of suicide attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, by a fringe radical Muslim group, which became a game changer for Muslims in Sri Lanka. The well-orchestrated yet subtle Islamophobia machinery began to work overtime vindicating anti-Muslim bigotry, demonising the entire Muslim community, which continues to date. Amidst the Corona pandemic, we are seeing the same machinery do its work again.
Racist hatred and intolerance in multicultural society like Sri Lanka is not novel. Nonetheless, it has real effects on Muslims’ lives creating a climate of fear and insecurity with hate incidents and hate speeches having risen to an all-time high in the Post-Easter period. There have been reports of Sri Lankan Muslims afraid to display religious markers in the public sphere, specially the Muslim women. Minority representation in government has dipped to all-time low as well. The two Task Forces appointed by the HE the President recently were sans minority representatives which is a dangerous precedent. Routine portrayals of Islam as a religion of hatred, violence and inherent intolerance in some sections of the media have become key planks for the emergence of extremist nationalist, anti-Muslim politics in the Island – planks which seek to exploit populist fears and which bears the potential to lead to Muslim disempowerment in the country.
It is a fact of history that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has been making in the past and continuing to make important contributions to the local communities and broader Sri Lankan society in which they live. Yet for the last decade, the community, and Islam more broadly, are often the subject of misunderstanding and vilification, based on personal crimes and the vile acts of fringe groups. While such portrayals are unjust and empirically untrue, they still appear to academically, politically and popularly inform perceptions of Islam in Sri Lanka. This insidious phenomenon runs the very real risk of driving deep divisions through local communities, and of alienating friends, neighbours and political partners.
On the other hand, the Muslims should also look inwards and rectify areas which are reported to be causing annoyance or raising fears among other communities as they feel that present day Muslims are alienating themselves from the mainstream society due to their changed lifestyles being more Arab rather than indigenous. The issue of religious extremist groups though fringe, is prevalent among the community and sooner they address it, the better for building more amicable relationships with the other communities. Therefore fighting hate in society should be the joint responsibility of all communities to prevent hate going mainstream. Let the hate mongers be assigned to the fringes. Regardless of party affiliations or where they emerge from, racist rhetoric is unacceptable. Not only are such negative stereotypes harmful, they are wrong too. Impunity for racist crimes should stop for Sri Lanka to improve its shattered international image.
More than ten years after the war ended in 2009, it is clear that Sri Lanka remains in a state of conflict. This is the time for national reckoning. We need to rise above the narrow nationalistic and extremist positions held by all ethnic and religious groups, and build a peace premised on justice and equality for all. We have to look inwardly and all of us must find release from the cyclical force of racism and hate and tackle this period of chaos, with a sense of maturity without falling prey to the political opportunists in both sides of the divide.
As oft repeated, hate speech is however but a symptom, the external manifestation of something much more profound which is intolerance and bigotry. Therefore, legal responses, such as restrictions on freedom of expression alone, are far from sufficient to bring about real changes in mind-sets, perceptions and discourse. To tackle the root causes of intolerance, a much broader set of policy measures are necessary, for example in the areas of intercultural dialogue or education for tolerance and diversity. In addition, this set of policy measures should include strengthening freedom of expression’. This should attract the attention of our policy makers, religious leaders, intellectuals to work out a comprehensive program of action to make Sri Lanka a country where all communities can live in peace and harmony.