By Mohamed Harees –
The drama and media circus which surrounded the ‘fast unto death’ campaign of Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, the robed UNP MP, outside the Sri Dalada Maligawa, demanding the removal of Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, and two Governors was interesting in many counts, apart from causing grave concern for the besieged Muslim community. Interesting, because Ven. Thero has shown up after a long silence in the political field; he was in deep slumber, even when the country was engulfed in an existential (constitutional) crisis last year. Interesting that the Thero did not decide to fast unto death if the both the President and his government did not resign and/or answer for the clear lapses in security and failure to take preventive action after receiving precise prior warning of the terror attacks. Interesting, because his political project to exploit the Post-21-04 sensitivities to gain political prominence was clear as Emperor’s clothes to everyone except those who feign sleep. It was none other than his erstwhile Sangha colleague Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara who chose to expose him as such, at a subsequent BBS media conference after making a media circus earlier at the site, threatening to cause mayhem and ignite fireworks across the country if Ven. Rathana’s demands were not met. So, is it a battle for ‘Sangha Raju’ title among the grass root Sinhala population? One may ask! Interesting that Ven Gnanasara chose to make his demands on the person who pardoned him arbitrarily (Sirisena) against all legal norms and also seeking the resignation of Governor Salley who visited him regularly and agitated for his release. Interestingly, none of the main political leaders from both sides of the political divide appeared to visit the fasting monk. Interesting that the govt. did not want to use emergency regulations powers to disperse thousands of an emotionally charged crowds with a clear anti-Muslim and Islamophobia agenda in mind.
To my mind, the joint decision of the Muslim Ministers and both Governors to resign from their posts in the best interests of the country and considering the security of the Muslims, was praiseworthy and was a smart stroke taking the wind off the sails of the political conspirators. It will provide an opportunity to undertake any investigations in the light of many wild allegations being thrown at some of them. The Parliament through a NCM cannot investigate or decide on anyone’s culpability; the law enforcement can. Even Bathiurdeen in a well delivered speech in Parliament, indicated that he is prepared even to face a death sentence if proved guilty, and asked those who are calling for his blood not to kill the dignity of his community in the public domain. Although the opinion about the Muslim political parties and politicians has been by and large adverse, this joint decision earned much praise from within the community. Even the decision of the Muslim political parties to keep away from shady corrupt deals during the October 2108 Constitutional crisis too was admired. Whatever it may be, in these nasty political games, the Muslims are being used as a football, demonised and alienated for the inhuman acts of a fringe group they condemned and disowned at every turn. This approach is risky business for a country attempting to recover from the wounds of a 30-year-old war and recently from a terrible terror tragedy and hate attacks which have been posing immense challenges for national reconciliation and to build an inclusive Sri Lanka.
In the Britain’s context, Lady Warsi, a former Conservative party chairperson, in 2011 said; ‘Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” and become widely socially acceptable in Britain. Terrorist offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law. They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims. Islamophobia is Britain’s bigotry blind-spot’. Does it ring a bell in Sri Lanka too?
When the ISIS wreaked havoc on innocent people hiding behind religious labels, they had a clear plan in mind. As Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists, says,’ to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims. Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’ Extremist groups feed off of alienation, some counterterrorism experts say, and Islamist militants deliberately aim to make Muslims in the West feel isolated and turn against their own communities.’. In the Western context, Jocelyn Bélanger, a psychology professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who collaborated with Kruglanski says, ‘When people feel a loss of significance, when they are humiliated, that propels them to join a radical group. Attacks escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They already lead to some anti-Muslim activity and probably provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression. As a society if we are to move forward, we will have to stay united. If we become more self-centered, if we exclude and alienate minorities, we play right into their hands.”. Again how relevant indeed to our local scenario?; if only the rulers wake up and reflect!
Sectarian violence is not new in Sri Lanka. Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said in his book, From Third World to First: ‘In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of FAILED states. So, we knew what to avoid – racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon. SWRD Bandaranaike’s promise to make Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism the national religion was the start of the UNRAVELLING of Ceylon.I was surprised when, three years later, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I thought it ironic that a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with the country’s slow rate of progress in making Buddhism the national religion, should have done it.Over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste. Sri-Lanka has failed because it had weak or wrong leaders’.
If history is anything to go by, let’s return to Sri Lanka’s not-so-credible track records with regard to ethnic conflagrations affecting minorities; but it has never been seen to the degree that has witnessed during the communal violence of the last few decades. The first ethno nationalist communal violence was directed at not the Tamils, but against the Muslims in 1915. In 1956, the first ethnic riot that targeted Tamils took place in Gal Oya in the Eastern Province.In 1958, 1977, 1981 and in 1983, riots were organised by state patronised Sinhala goons against the Tamils(not the Sinhala community; rather agents of a State using racism as a political tool). Thousands of innocent Tamils were killed. In July 1983, President J RJ’s minister Cyril Mathew supplied armed gangs of Sinhalese with voter lists to identify Tamil homes and businesses. He incited the thugs to hack Tamils to death in their houses, offices, and places of work. Many other ministers virtually condoned these attacks as an ‘expected backlash’. In 2001, in Mawanella riots, shops and property belonging to the Muslim minority were destroyed and a number of Muslims were killed. In 2004, previous Sri-Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga gave a public apology to Tamils for Black July (1983 Riot). Not a single person has been brought to justice! Impunity at its’ worst!
In Post-war Sri Lanka, without going to too much details, Muslims became the next bogeyman. State agents in the form of hate groups exploited the toxic global Islamophobia climate and waged a well –orchestrated campaign against a community which has stood tooth and nail at all times to protect the territorial integrity of the nation. Gnanasaras, Saddhatissas, Dan Prasads, Saliyas and Amiths emerged with support from their political patron saints and their campaigns carefully promoted through dog whistles and poisonous social media hate to demonise Muslims as an unpatriotic lot among the grass root levels of the Sinhala population. What emerged in 2014 and 2108 as hate attacks against defenceless Muslims in Aluthgama and Ampara/Digana respectively under cover of a curfew was deplorable, where state sponsored mobs roamed freely while the law enforcement authorities looked on or even were complicit. Those responsible were never subjected to any ‘serious’ legal punishments-further examples of blatant impunity. Then, in the Post-21/04, there was two weeks of relative peace, thanks to the sagacious leadership of the Cardinal who calmed the Christian community saying that the Muslims are not responsible for this tragedy and that the main culprits are elsewhere, as well as the courage of the Army Commander. Then the disgruntled political schemers who were not pleased with the return to normalcy stepped in to exploit the explosive situation to wage hate attacks on innocent Muslims in many parts of the country. This showed the actual intentions of the hate groups- to drive into the Sinhalese mind to consider all Muslims as an enemy and to demonize and alienate Muslims.
Media and Saffron hate fuelling terrorism basically made the Muslim community a besieged and hated lot, and today, they are being driven against the wall, facing renewed fears and feeling a sense of insecurity, in the light of the continuing impunity crisis besetting Sri Lanka where the authorities have been showing apathy in punishing those responsible for past racist attacks and the continued failure of the authorities to reassure the community and protect their right to practice their religion and culture. It is shameful that the reality that Muslims are more determined than others to dig out the truth and also to weed out these types of extremist Muslim groups, which have brought shame and disrepute to their community, is being deliberately ignored. How they condemned and disowned these deviant groups, cooperated with the authorities to apprehend the culprits and also to bring in laws to avert any recurrences of this nature were clear to everyone. However, thus, just as the community has been rising up-to the challenge and bearing the onerous responsibility to defeat extremism and traces of terrorism which arose from among their ranks, the unpatriotic hate lobbyists and peddlers began to direct all their canons on the entire community at large, making them guilty by association , thus creating a sense of alienation and marginalization within the community. This is a dangerous trend to say the least.
Today, fear and nightmares have entered many Muslim households. It is not suggested here that searches or raids should not be undertaken. Rather, what is needed is exercise discretion, fairness and avoid double standards, unnecessary harassments, arbitrary arrests and detentions on flimsy grounds. There are innumerable instances of people being held for the minutest offences, under ICCPR while some are being taken in, on flimsy grounds like possessing religious scriptures and recital books as well as even copies of the Holy Quran. There are reportedly more than 1000 such cases languishing behind bars. Arrests happen on tips given by some members of the public (some of them are for personal rivalry) and people held without proper inquiry. The women who wore a dress with a picture of a ship wheel is one case in point. There are cases reported where the religious books held sacred by the people are even being burnt them by them for fear of being arrested for possessing ‘incriminating’ materials. Some Human Rights activists report about Police corruption too, demanding money to release or to visit those taken in. The case of Dr Shafi Siyabdeen was another classic case where he was taken in on no specific charge and then an appeal goes out to the public to file any complaints if any against the accused doctor. This is hilarious to say the least, in law. This case has taken many twists and turns since. Muslim women is being systemically harassed for reason of their attire like Hijab and Abhaya including through government circulars .These are ideal climates and mental states which provide opportunities for future Zahrans to find their next round of recruitment for their evil cause. This is what ISIS does and so will their local agents do as well, in the light of the impunity crisis besetting Sri Lanka where the culprits were given a free reign without fear of punishment to carry out hate attacks against minorities. This happened in the case of Tamil Tigers too.
Even after those disastrous Digana attacks, Election commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya in a seminar suggested that Muslim hate has gone mainstream. This raised much concern then although saner view was that it was only fringe groups which are involved. However, this view comes into focus once again in the Post 21-04 period and these type of Media sensationalism and Saffron terrorism fuelled by some rogue sections of the Maha Sangha, without any governmental controls to curtail such hate speech and media antics is aggravating the situation. It is paramount for the government to take this matter seriously and apply the laws in an equitable manner to deal with hate speech, punish the culprits and to bring about a mechanism to promote mutual understanding between communities. Presidential pardon allowed in the constitution should be withdrawn, as it became a bad joke in the case of Gnanasara Thero, whose post-release conduct shows clear political objectives behind.
It is imperative that the Muslim community be taken into confidence and considered as part of the solution without demonising their faith and culture and alienating them. As JVP’s Lal Kantha said, the Muslims should be made to feel part of this country which they really are, being inheritors of a 1000+ year old heritage, although Sinhala Buddhists are in the majority. They have proved their laurels in the past. Thus, this insane line of argument expounded by hate lobbies that Muslims are jointly responsible and answer and therefore alienate them to live in subjugation to the majoritarian and supremacist forces pressures is toxic and counter-produtive. They are equal citizens whose dignity should be treated and respected as such, as per the Constitution. Otherwise, it will be sad and pathetic if the moderate mainstream Muslim community be pushed towards extremism as a matter of necessity because of feelings of alienation, which will lead to further polarization and create more Zahrans in the process. This will be a national disaster ,much worse than the Easter Sunday tragedy.