By Izeth Hussain –
With his article in the Colombo Telegraph of October 28 on addressing Muslim issues through the Geneva process, Jehan Perera has put himself in the company of two other Sinhalese towards whom most Muslims would feel that they owe a debt of gratitude. The other two are Lorna Devaraj and Mervyn de Silva. I must also express my sense of gratitude, as a Muslim, to the Friday Forum for their admirable statement of October 28 on the continuing plight of the Muslim refugees. But before proceeding with the subject proper of this article I must make an observation on a matter of the greatest importance that has been touched on in JP’s article.
In a Sri Lanka that has been rent apart by racism, one of the most important questions that we have to confront is this: how do we make the racists desist from their idiocies and brutalities? An appeal to religious principles will not suffice. A religion serves two purposes: one is to put human beings in relation to the transcendental and the other is to strength social bonds. The latter purpose has been predominant in Sri Lanka where we have transformed the four great world religions into tribal religions. An appeal to ethical principles won’t do either because an ethical system without religious underpinnings may or may not have compulsive force. I believe that the only effective appeal to the racist is to his self-interest. The argument is that the treatment of the Other as sub-human will destroy the moral sense and that will impact adversely on intra-ethnic relations as well. Jehan P provides a very convincing example that substantiates my argument. Five years after the mass expulsion of the Muslims in 1990 the LTTE ordered the evacuation of Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula so that they would not be under the heel of the invading Sinhalese army. When man’s inhumanity to man really gets going, ethnic boundaries cease to matter.
It is an astounding fact that the plight of the Muslim refugees has been virtually ignored for as long as twenty five years; all the more astounding considering all the attention lavished on the plight of the Tamils both domestically and internationally. What is the explanation? I think the blame has to be cast on both the Sinhalese and the Muslims – in my view far more on the Muslims. From 1976 to around 2002 there were anti-Muslim ructions practically every year, sometimes trivial and sometimes of a very serious order such as the Hulftsdorp riots of December 1993. I covered many of them in my writings from 1990 to 1994 and from 1998 to 2002. In every case without exception there was no fighting , only rioting in which the Muslims were always the victims. But in every case the media refused to acknowledge the ethnic aspect of the riots, insisting that they were no more than fracas between thugs which somehow ignited wider incidents. As for the Government, it failed to take the kind of punitive action that would have deterred further riots.
After 2002 the pattern of annual rioting ceased, for reasons that have not been established. It might have seemed that I had been fussy in alleging racism. There followed the Grease Yaka episodes with Muslim females being harassed with virtual impunity, and thereafter there was the abduction of Muslim businessmen for ransom with the Government doing nothing about it. And then the anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS erupted in force and fury, making it impossible to deny that anti-Muslim racism was a real force in a segment of the Sinhalese people. Furthermore it was obvious that the then Government was complicit with the BBS, as shown outrageously by the fact that BBS leaders were placed above the law. It could no longer be denied that anti-Muslim racism had become a significant factor in our politics: it played a crucial role in the downfall of the Rajapakse regime. But it was not only the government that was anti-Muslim. This is what Jehan Perera writes: “Nevertheless, the unwillingness of the political parties to speak up and make a critique of the anti-Muslim propaganda at that time was an indication of the failure of post-war reconciliation”. Understandably the Muslim refugees continued to be ignored.
Arguably the state’s attitude to the Muslims might more aptly be regarded as one of benign neglect rather than one of active racism. The Tamils, whom the Sinhalese saw as over-assertive, had to be pushed down, but the Muslims who have been among the most submissive minorities in the world, could safely be allowed to rot in peace. Therefore there was no action on the anti-Muslim rioting, the Grease Yaka harassment, the abductions of Muslim businessmen, and horrendously not even on the BBS campaign, and of course hardly any or none on the Muslim refugees. Behind it all were certain important factors. There was not even an attempt at building a multi-ethnic nation because the Sinhalese power elite was satisfied with the position that the Sri Lankan nation had already been in existence down the millennia, the Sinhalese nation. Racism has to be integral to that belief. Another important factor is that the hundred years of peace preceding 1948 bred complacency and irresponsibility in the Sinhalese power elite, and that still continues.
If it is correct that the plight of the refugees is due not so much to racism as to benign neglect, the question prompts itself whether the major responsibility for the plight of the refugees has to be borne by the Muslims themselves. The failure of the Muslim politicians to speak up for the refugees is horrifying. It is a characteristic failure because for decades the Muslim politicians have been bent on serving their Sinhalese masters rather than the Muslim people. However we Muslims must acknowledge a collective failure in having virtually ignored the refugees for a quarter century, a failure that must be seen as a dereliction of Islamic duty. But changes are taking place in the Muslim community, a sign of which are the admirably outspoken articles on the refugees by Lathif Farook and the superb article by Hilmy Ahmed which appeared a few days ago.
Jehan Perera has recommended that certain institutions being set up by the Government as part of the Geneva process be used to deal with the problem of the refugees. There can be no objection to that. But if the principle is fair play for all, what about the driving out of EP Tamils from around sixteen villages by Muslim Homeguards? That too must be investigated and restitutions be made. And what about the Tamil provocations that led to all that? The process must apply to that as well. It becomes arguable that what we are suggesting will aggravate problems between Tamils and Muslims. They certainly could, but what is the alternative? If problems won’t go away, we have no alternative to confronting them. The reason why the problems won’t go away is best understood within a paradigm of racism. With mass education aspirations to upward mobility grow, with economic development upward mobility becomes possible for more and more people, and those processes can lead to ethnic rivalry and conflict. We are caught in the toils of modernity, and there is no way of evading them.