Colombo Telegraph

Making Sense Of The Bodu Bala Sena

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

According to the widely prevalent conventional wisdom of some time ago the Bodu Bala Sena was expected to fade away because of the internal dynamics of all such extremist organizations, and their lack of widespread appeal at the people’s level. Such, according to some reports, was the view of the President himself: don’t give it prominence, ignore it as much as possible, and it will vaporize after some time. That was the conventional wisdom even though it was known that the BBS had the backing of the second most powerful personage in the country, the Defense Secretary, and even though it was obvious that it had very powerful State backing as shown by its exceptionally privileged position in breaking the law with near total impunity. Nevertheless the conventional wisdom focused on the extremism, choosing to ignore the obviously important factor of State backing for it.

Today the BBS is widely seen as being just as virulent as ever, and as continuing to target the Muslims in particular to a very serious extent. The question of State backing for it could move to the forefront of public consciousness. An article written by a foreigner seems to assume that the President is in favour of it, and the question is posed whether the State backing for it is part of a wider political program. This question can be seen as arising, naturally enough, because the Government is seen as essentially Sinhala supremacist, racist, and quasi neo-Fascist while it is still quasi-democratic. We must also take into account the possibility that there could be a powerful nexus of forces working behind the scenes – something like Eisenhower’s military- industrial complex in the US.

In this situation we badly need to try to understand what the BBS is really all about. It is a large subject, and this article is no more than notes towards understanding the BBS. First, we must take note of its external dimension. It has been obviously very well-funded. A trip to Norway by some of its top notables suggested that there was a Norwegian connection. Islamophobes there and elsewhere could have noted the fact while Islamophobia has been rampant in the Christian and Hindu worlds, there has been none or hardly any of it in the Buddhist world. Norwegian Islamophobes could have been interested in using the BBS to fill up what they doubtless regard as a deplorable lacuna. There has been a nexus between Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, an ancient historical one of course, but at present there seems to be an Islamophobic nexus between them. It was noticed that the T-shirts worn by anti-Muslim mobs in both countries looked identical except that the logos were different, and the rhetoric of Rev. Wirathu and others in Myanmar and the BBS had striking similarities. It has been reported that Rev. Wirathu, who seems to be widely regarded as the Buddhist Osama Bin Laden after having been featured on the front cover of Time magazine, has been invited to visit Sri Lanka by the BBS. I must mention also that Israel’s able assistance for the Islamophobic program could have been forthcoming as there is mutual visceral hatred between Muslims and Zionists all over the world. Our Defense Ministry is regarded by many SL Muslims, and others as well, as a pro-Israeli bastion.

I believe that the most important factor in the external dimension is that the Buddhist extremist assault on the Muslims and certain Christian sects now features in the UNHRC Resolution.  The Resolution will make the international community focus on the SL Muslim problem in a way that otherwise could have been avoided. Conclusions might be drawn that could be extremely unfavorable to the Sri Lanka Government because there are hard horrible facts that cannot be ignored. It is difficult to imagine a more submissive,  a more abjectly submissive minority, towards the Sinhalese or any other majority than the Muslims. For decades the Muslim political representatives have refused to speak up for the Muslims as that might displease the Sinhalese Lord and Master – a situation that is now in the process of changing. They always supported the Sinhalese against the Tamils, backing them wholeheartedly in every bit of ethnolunacy that led to the 30-year war. The Muslims had no substantial presence in the armed forces, but they contributed significantly to secret service activity against the LTTE. Their Home Guards got together with the STF and drove out Tamils from more than fifteen Eastern Province villages, which really was the prelude for the genocidal expulsion of Muslims from the North. During the war Pakistan and Iran gave help to the armed forces that was of crucial importance for Sri Lanka. These few details should suffice to show that the Sinhalese Buddhist campaign against the Muslims should be regarded as mind-boggling. True, every country can produce extremists but the anti-Muslim extremists in Sri Lanka have blatant State-backing. We are led ineluctably to one question:: If the Muslims are treated in this way, how can we imagine the Sinhalese racists will ever give fair and equal treatment to the Tamils? The anti-Muslim campaign can be seen as a resounding advertisement for Eelam or a confederal political solution.

I come now to the internal dimension of the BBS problem. Many Buddhists seem to be deeply agitated by the question of what the BBS version of Buddhism portends for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This is a problem that can be resolved only by the Buddhists themselves. But I have an observation to make of a general order on the relationship between religion and the problem of coping with the pressures of modernity. No great world religion exists only in a single immutable form, and all of them have undergone variations in the course of the centuries. Probably all of them can be adapted to cope with the pressures of modernity, and it is probably wrong to assume that one or the other is better adapted to modernity. It is usually assumed – with might seem to be sound unprejudiced reasons – that Islam is of all the great world religions the most recalcitrant to modernity. But this is what Ernest Gellner – one of the brightest intellects of the last century, with a background of expertise in the sociology of Islam – had to say: “By various criteria – universalism, scripturalism, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community not one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematization of social life – Islam is, of the three great Western monotheisms, the one closest to modernity”. So we can assume that Buddhism will continue to flourish in Sri Lanka, probably under forms that we cannot envisage at present.

But I wonder whether the problem posed by the BBS and other extremist groups can be understood in terms of religion. Of the four great world religions, it is really only Christianity that had been intolerant through the centuries, while Buddhism has been much reputed for its wide ecumenical tolerance. What the BBS and other extremist groups are objecting to is not Islam but Muslims. In the case of the new Christian sects, what they are objecting to are not the new versions of the Christian belief-system, but unethical methods of conversion that can lead as in South Korea to a serious weakening of Buddhism and Buddhists in this country. In the case of Islam, they allege that there is a threat to Buddhism from Islamic fundamentalists, from the population growth rate of the Sri Lankan Muslims, and so on. These are essentially secular matters which have little or nothing to do with the religion of Islam.

I believe that the BBS and other extremist groups can best be understood in terms of a paradigm of racism. Since the military victory of 2009, a mood of Sinhala Buddhist triumphalism has taken over an important segment of the Buddhists, together with a fierce hierarchical drive to assert Sinhala Buddhist supremacy over all the others. The Tamils have been defeated though not yet subjugated, and now it is necessary to show the Muslims that they shouldn’t become uppity. As I have pointed out above, they have been an abjectly submissive minority, so that there has been no need at all to subjugate them. but the times they are a-changing. Three prominent Muslim politicians, namely Rauf Hakeem, Azad Sally, and Rishad Bathiudeen have been admirably outspoken on the subject of the BBS, which would have been unthinkable some time ago. The Sinhalese racists would regard their behavior as amounting to intolerable uppitiness, and many Muslims as amounting to dangerous foolhardiness.

But their behavior should be seen as symptomatic of the profound socio-economic changes that have been taking place in the Muslim community, catalyzed by their taking to mass secular education in a big way after the Second World War. The Muslim children of the great C.W.W. Kannangara have been coming of age. What I once wrote of as an “invisible minority” has been becoming visible and even audible. The crux of the problem is this: The Muslims who were once competitive only in trade have become competitive in practically every other field, and as they are a very substantial minority they have to be pushed down and kept down. That has to be expected in terms of the racist paradigm, and that is the profound meaning of the sudden eruption of the BBS and other extremist groups.

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