By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Most of what I see happening in this country is against the teaching of Lord Buddha… That means either the people have not understood the teaching or they are purposely insulting the teachings of Lord Buddha.” – MHM Ashraff [i]
Independent Sri Lanka experienced her first outburst of anti-Muslim violence in April 2001, in Mawanella[ii]. Police apathy and political machinations turned an ordinary difference into a mini-religious conflict. But the psychological climate, in which everyday economic disaffections, political rivalries and business competitions could be transformed into religious-divides, was, in the main, authored by Rev. Gangodawila Soma Thero.
Sri Ivor Jennings, writing in 1954, commented on an ‘undercurrent of opinion’ existing in a segment of society, which is “aggressively nationalist and aggressively Buddhist”[iii]. This undercurrent was harnessed by SWRD Bandaranaike to create the reactionary Risorgimento of 1956. Such undercurrents are not spontaneous things; they result from conscious efforts to transliterate personal and societal discontents into ethnic/religious conflicts.
Several studies have highlighted the role played by influential cultural/religious figures in exacerbating division/intolerance in crisis-ridden societies. Richard Wagner is an oft-cited example; “It has reasonably been claimed that Wagner by his own writings contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany, in particular by helping to make it culturally respectable”[iv]. Soma Thero played a comparable role in the 1990’s with his successful attempts to depict Sinhala-Buddhists as an endangered species, threatened by minority/Muslim expansionism.
The key problem with Lankan Buddhism is not its embrace of non-Buddhist rituals (including polytheism) but the axiomatic identification it makes between Sinhala race and Buddhism and its acceptance of violence as a means of protecting the Sinhala-Buddhist nature of Sri Lanka. As Prof. Tambiah pointed out, main features of Anagarika Dharmapala’s Buddhist revival included “a denigration of alleged non-Buddhist ritual practices and magical manipulations” and an “enunciation of a code for lay conduct…which emphasized a puritanical sexual morality and etiquette in family life”[v]. Soma Thero too began his public career as a reformer committed to purifying Buddhism of non-Buddhist (Hindu/animist) influences and practices. He advocated a puritanical morality and a return to a pure, orthodox form of Buddhism. From this, like Dharmapala and others of the same ilk (from Martin Luther to Al-Wahhab of Nejd), he made a seamless descent into religious-fanaticism.
Until Soma Thero began his toxic endeavour, Muslim-phobia was buried so deep in the collective Sinhala-psyche that politically it was a non-factor. Sinhalese, occupied with the very real Tiger threat, regarded Muslims as natural allies. The SLMC, under the leadership of MHM Ashraff was anti-LTTE in the best sense of the term (anti-separatist and anti-Tiger without being anti-Tamil and advocating a political solution based on power-sharing).
And 1915 seemed a very distant bad dream.
That changed with Soma Thero’s persistent anti-Muslim preaching. Suddenly many Sinhala-Buddhists began seeing in their Muslim brethren an enemy worse than even the LTTE. It was at the height of this collective descent into madness that the live TV debate between Soma Thero and Mr. Ashraff happened. The debate was much-hyped by adherents of the Thero. The general expectation was that the monk will make mincemeat of the politician. Instead Mr. Ashraff proved that the charges against Lankan Muslims and the attacks on himself were based on lies and distortions. As an agitated Soma Thero jumped from one lost argument to another, Mr. Ashraff demonstrated their mendaciousness with unfailing calm and utmost respectfulness[vi]. Apart from a diehard minority, the majority of Buddhists admitted that Mr. Ashraff won the debate.
Soma Thero replaced Muslim-phobia with Christian-phobia.
The anti-Muslim violence in Mawanella could not have happened without the poisonous work of Soma Thero. But it was containable thanks to the dose of sanity and rationality administered by Minister Ashraff. Mr. Ashraff’s untimely death and the inability of the SLMC/Muslim community to produce a leader of comparable erudition, ability and principled courage are seriously undermining Muslim security and Lankan wellbeing.
Religious-Racism and Patriotism
The JHU was a child of opportunism and power-hunger. Soma Thero died in 2003, another victim of Russian Winter. The Sihala Urumaya, which was in the doldrums due to electoral failures and acrimonious squabbles, saw in the outpouring of public grief (part-spontaneous part-orchestrated) for the dead monk, a fast-track out of the political wilderness. The SU was reincarnated as the JHU, amidst a groundswell of anti-Christian hysteria.
Champika Ranawaka, who had made a successful political career out of peddling minority phobia and hatred, reportedly raised the ‘Hakeem issue’ in the cabinet; he accused Mr. Hakeem of giving UNHRC chief Navi Pillay a 50-page document itemising “the attacks on Muslims and Christians….and the government’s failure to take action against the perpetrators.”[vii]
President Rajapaksa berated Minister Hakeem. Minister Hakeem (who represents his interests and not Muslim or Lankan interests) responded by blaming disobedient elements in the SLMC. The President did not question the veracity of the report. Mr. Hakeem did not point out that if the perpetrators of these crimes were dealt with legally and constitutionally, there would have been no need to do a report for Ms. Pillay.
Had the President cared an iota about religious amity, rule of law or Sri Lanka’s good-name, he would have summoned the Defence Secretary and the IGP and asked whether the attacks actually happened and, if so, why the perpetrators were not brought to justice. He would have demanded immediate police and legal action. Arresting some of the main culprits would be easy because they commit their hate-crimes as public spectacles with a heavy media presence. Had at least a few perpetrators been arrested, due to timely presidential-intervention, the world would have hailed Mahinda Rajapaksa for his zero-tolerance for religious-crimes.
And every single Muslim-majority country will back Colombo in Geneva (and elsewhere), even if the entire Tamil Diaspora begs them not to, on bended knees.
But President Rajapaksa was angry not at the criminals who attacked religious minorities but at the religious minorities who exposed those hate-crimes. According to the Rajapaksa creed, the real crime is not the attacking of mosques and churches, Muslims and Christians, but the public condemnation of such attacks.
President Rajapaksa reportedly accused Mr. Hakeem of “betraying the country”[viii].
After the April 2012 Dambulla mosque-attack, the mob decried a nearby kovil as an upstart-structure and tried to demolish it. A middle-aged woman respectfully informed the Buddhist monk leading the mob that the kovil is an old one and that she had worshipped there since childhood. The monk threatened to destroy her home; he told her to take her god and go elsewhere. Then he thundered, “Hell, crows are not just flying over our heads; they are trying to build nests” (“Yakko, me kakko oluwa udin yanawa witharak nevei kuudu wennath hadanawane”)[ix].
This is the ‘hosts and guests’ mindset. This is the provenance of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s anger: minority-guests do not have inalienable rights and, if they stay in Sri Lanka, must uncomplainingly accept whatever the Sinhala-hosts choose to do. If they complain, they are traitors.
That mindset spawned the ethnic problem and the long Eelam War. Are the Rajapaksas deliberately reusing it to ignite a religious conflict? Are they planning to regain their role as Sinhala-Saviours by imposing a new war on us?
[i] MHM Ashraff wrote poetry. His poem ‘Lord Buddha and the Poet’ which consists of an imagined dialogue between the Buddha and the poet caused a frenzy of anger among the extremist Buddhist fringe elements (fortunately at that time they were fringe-elements, as they were, during Martin Wickramasinghe’s Bhavatharanaya controversy, and not power-wielders as they are now). An interview given by Mr. Ashraff on this issue and a translation of the poem can be read here:
[iii] Apart from being anti-English, anti-Western, anti-capitalist and anti-socialist. Quoted in Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka – Neil De Votta
[iv] Wagner and Politics – Bernard Williams – The New York Review of Books – 2.11.2000
[v] Buddhism Betrayed
[vii] Irate President takes on SLMC – Daily Mirror – 1.3.2014