By As-Sauthul Mazlum –
In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. – George Orwell
Like the proverbial dog returning to his vomit, Rajapaksas appear to go back to racism to win elections. Racism has been a running motif of them. Many analysts believe that their strategic racism is a shrewd play. The electoral potency of racism has been tested in Post-war elections and these days, racism is seen to be energizing the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan electorate, as never before. Anti-Muslim hatred based racism thus became a litmus-test issue in the November Presidential elections, and it won the elections for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Today the same strategy is being tested out, as the country is preparing to face the next parliamentary elections. The fact that the Rajapaksas lost in 2015 due to their obnoxious racist and corrupt policies has been forgotten by the same people who voted them out, in the backdrop of a shoddy track record of the opposite Yahapalanaa camp. In this context, has anti-Muslim hate come to stay as a viable election winning strategy in majoritarian Sri Lanka?
A climate of fear a cultural mistrust does not happen by accident. Hatred sells; it can provide both money and power to those who profit from it. Anti-Muslim sentiments and hatred too does not fall from the sky. It is manufactured by a network of funders, pundits, preachers, politicians and media outlets. How deep the rabbit hole goes is anyone’s guess in a world where people purposefully nurture it use it as a political strategy. In Sri Lanka, anti-Muslim hate has already been corroding the tolerance which once characterized the Sri Lankan society. Yes! It is feared that the virulent Islamophobia has already become an effective political and election strategy in Sri Lanka, similar to Modi’s India.
Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. This is what has been happening particularly in the Post-war era, creating a climate of fear and insecurity for the minorities in general and peaceful Muslims in particular in Sri Lanka. Canards after canards as well as lies and fake stories were propagated by the politicians in Rajapakse government, as well as racist sections of the Media and some ruffians in saffron clothing to demonise the community in the eyes of the majority. Today, a decade from the end of the war, Tamils have been silenced, their political forces have been paralysed and their morale subdued. Muslims on the other hand were systematically demonised. Both these minority communities were stigmatized and marginalized as the ‘other’, and ‘guests’, There had been systematic impunity over the racist crimes committed by these racist forces from 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom to anti-Muslim communal violence in Aluthgama, Digana, Ampara and Minuwangoda (after the barbaric Easter Sunday attacks). No perpetrators were punished. Still those racist forces operate without fear or sanction and their hate speeches are tolerated, despite ICCPR and Penal Code provisions to punish them.
Today, the much elated Sinhala Buddhist electorate which voted President Gotabaya Rajapasa (GR) to power last November have begun to call him the saviour of the nation with many treating him as a deity; just the same way his brother President Mahinda (MR) was called Maha Rajaanoo (King) after his historic win over the Tamil Tigers. Like what happened in US, UK, and India, GR was elected by a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist vote base whose emotions were whipped earlier by scheming politicians in the MR Regime to show that they were marginalized by the minorities. Naturally, when the majority feels that their influence and powerbase is gradually getting eroded in the political power struggle, thanks to a well orchestrated hate campaign against the ‘other’, then such feelings and frustrations get converted into votes for the contender promising them a ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’. This is what happened when the waning support for the Rajapaksas seen in the face of the failed constitutional coup in October 2018, received a dose of adrenaline, after the infamous Easter Sunday attacks. Rajapaksas quickly exploited the explosive situation and Gotabaya immediately announced his desire to contest the Presidency to strengthen national security. Majority fell for this ploy devised by the Rajapaksas, supported by rogue sections of the media and the Maha Sangha and voted ‘Yes’ to him and the rest was history. Racist media like Hiru and Derana helped this campaign to grab power.
Muslims are facing Corona racism. While, the people and the world stood aghast about the intentions of the government of Sri Lanka in denying the right of burial to the Muslims, the cat slowly came out of the bag. One Dr Channa Perera purportedly representing the Ministry of Health, expressing his view to the BBC on the cremation vs burial controversy in Sri Lanka stated, ‘We have nothing against Muslims, but we have small fear,…unwanted persons could have access to the body and use it as a biological weapon’. Exactly, what was he referring to, here? Isn’t the innuendo obvious which laid bare the reason (however absurd and humorous it may be) that the government refused to agree to the burial request made by the Muslims supported by scientific evidence submitted both locally and internationally, was due to the lack of confidence in the community? Shame on the rulers!
Then, another strategically significant move was made, which too had an eye on the Parliamentary elections. An year after, Sri Lankan police claimed to have made two high-profile arrests in the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks by arresting a prominent HR lawyer and a Muslim political party leader’s brother who allegedly had links with one of the suicide bomber. The question was not the arrests; but the timing. The Easter Sunday bombing was a major election issue at the presidential election held in November and few more arrests made in that regard will certainly help garnish more votes for GR’s ruling party. The previous government headed by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe was blamed for ignoring prior intelligence on the attacks. There have been at least three separate probes on the attacks in addition to the police investigations. But, there seems to be no arrests of those who deliberately ignored such warnings, which led to this preventable tragedy . Cardinal Malcolm too referred to the failure of the law enforcement to prosecute big sharks responsible for ignoring the prior warnings. BASL has already raised concerns over the arrests of one of their members who was acting in his professional capacity in dealing with clients. Many observers point out that this lawyer Hijaz Hisbullah appeared for a high profile case relating to the constitutional coup in October 2018 which ended in Supreme court rendering the interim government of MR appointed by Sirisena as unconstitutional. Yes! many more dramas to come to the limelight and will be enacted before the Sinhala Buddhist voters go to the polls!
These type of Muslim-targeted racist dramas as seen in Post war Sri Lanka is neither a novel phenomenon or surprising. In Sri Lanka, after the death of DSS, almost all Heads of State from SWRD to GR (except the likes of Dudley and Dahanayake) have stooped to such cheap political game plans to come to and stay in power. Until now, there has been no national plan for development and bringing the nation together. Unfortunately, the people of Sri Lanka fell for their ploys and dubious machinations whether it was political like SWRD’s Sinhala Only policy, JRJs executive presidency, or MR/GRs Chinthanaya (vision) to establish a Sinhala Buddhist State; economically there were Chanda Gondoos like rice from the moon or JRJs ‘Eta Ata’(8 measures of cereals) or totally unrealistic economic welfare packages, all of which spelt disaster for Sri Lanka. Thus, these leaders should be called out for what they were and are: political opportunists who furthered their petty causes or fattened their pockets and/or established personal dynasties at the expense of the tax payers money. They were not statesmen. There were great politicians of course such as the likes of DSS, Dudley, Colvin, Dahanayake, CWW Kannangara, to name a few, whom the nation should be proud of. However they were few and they could only influence national politics to a little extent. However, more than 7 decades after Independence, Sri Lanka is worse off as a nation; with their so-called leaders of all party colours (Green or Blue)-corrupt to the core, and adopting all the lowest tricks under the sun for narrow and petty gains. Racism is one powerful tool these political cheap-stakes adopted, to keep the nation divided. Divisive politics has today become very popular, as seen by the extent to which the Sinhala Buddhist people believed MR and GR to ‘save’ and ‘liberate’ them from the ‘invasive’ tendencies of the minorities; especially the Muslims in the Post war era. This illusion brought GR and MR back to power, voting out another illusion –the Yahapalanaya. Today, a cursory glance of the discourses in the public fora and social media will reveal that the concept of Sinhala Buddhist State being made into a reality, courtesy GR/MR, has got into the Sinhala psyche big time. People still live in illusion. Aren’t they?
Muslims today are facing perhaps the most challenging time in Post-Independence history of Sri Lanka. With racist politics in full form and a well-orchestrated demonization being waged against them which increased in tempo after the Easter Sunday, their psyche appears to have gone into a defeatist and victim-hood mode and mentality. They should know that this is not unique to Sri Lanka;global Islamophobia is a powerful industry and a cottage industry in most countries. In the West, Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test and normalized. Thus, Sri Lankans Muslims should not get disoriented or feel depressed at all. There were many events in Islamic history where worse developments have happened and the Muslims have bounded back due to the positive influence of the faith they follow- a faith which stresses on peaceful co-existence, respect for life ,spiritual integrity, social justice and economic probity, and which inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims too lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world.
Sri Lankan Muslims can be proud of their rich past , It was unthinkable that Muslim people would have settled in then and lived for more than ten centuries in Ceylon without the hospitality and magnanimity of Sinhalese kings and people. The Muslims did not come in as invaders ,but as traders who brought innumerable economic benefits to the Island. It was mutual interests of both communities that made Muslim settlement possible in Sri Lanka. They gave crucial support to the Independence struggle and stood with the majority community to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Island against both internal and external enemies. Many still remember the leading role played by Muslims leaders such as Dr. T.B.Jayah, Sir Razik Fareed, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and Dr. Badiduddin Mahmud for their enthusiastic support for the demand for independence and never obstructed the political progress of the country. The Muslim role in intelligence and anti- Tiger operations cannot be devalued as confirmed by Karannagoda, Former Navy Commander and Major General Kamal Gunaratne, Secretary to Ministry of Defence. They were ousted from the North and massacred in the East within mosques for opposing the Tiger’s Eelam dream. Little is it known that Sri Lanka’s Muslims have made a big contribution to Sri Lanka’s cultural life. They significantly influenced local culture in matters of food, dress, jewellery and pastimes, testifying to the close relations that existed between Muslims and other communities of the island, especially the Sinhalese and Tamils. Muslim contribution in the economic field was enormous.
Thus, Muslims should not be pessimistic about their future in their own motherland. Sri Lanka is their land as much as the Sinhalese or Tamils. They should not be falling prey to the machinations of the self-centred communal politics like Hakeems and Richards. Communal politics and politicians have become a liability to Sri Lankan Muslims. Be inspired by the likes of TB Jayah, Razik Fareed, Baduideen Mahmud and Sir Mohamed Macan Markars. They showed us how our rights and out identities can be won and safeguarded through non-violent struggles. Muslims should stand tall in safeguarding their hard won rights to religion and culture. At the same time, like the past leaders, Muslims should also be conscious of their national responsibilities to build an inclusive nation. Muslims should relive those past glories and reflect where they have gone wrong and take all action to regain the lost credibility. The racist minds are still in the minority. They must join hands with the progressive majority among all nationalities and work for the common good and fight against injustice as they all have a common destiny. As Martin Luther King Jr said,“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”. Yes! Intellectuals should lead!