By Mohamed Harees –
“Deep shame is reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight” – Martin Luther King
Hate is becoming mainstreamed. Walls – which tormented previous generations, and have never yielded any sustainable solution to any problem – are returning while bridges are being burnt down. Barriers of suspicion are rising, snaking through and between our societies. These trends do not make them safe: they make them weaker. Piece by piece, these mutually reinforcing trends are shearing off the protections that maintain our diversity, integrity, mutual respect, and provide the only fragile basis for peace. They are attacks on sanity. On a daily basis, we are witnesses to horrors of every kind around the world. Sri Lanka too is part of this sad story, with racism, religious hate and related violence too are undergoing revival. The past decade has been witnessing a sharp increase in promoting hate, violent sectarian as well as religious tensions, on the heels of an end of a bloody 30-year old war. When the reckoning is taken, the decision-makers in all Post-Independence governments will find their legacy being forever damaged by their failure, to take decisive action to end this terrible, and entirely preventable catastrophe of ethnic and religious divisions and conflicts and to provide courageous leadership to make this nation inclusive without playing to the gallery. But the good news is that this unfortunate trend can be reversed.
When people heard the extremely vitriolic and hateful speech made by the Chief Prelate of the Asgiri Chapter in Sri Lanka, Ven. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero, considered as one of the most influential and foremost authority of the Sinhala Buddhist community in Sri Lanka, they felt extremely sad and perturbed. It was not because, the Ven. Monk started something new; rather because the diatribes and venom of ‘stoning, alienating and boycotting Muslims based on canards’ came from no ordinary person or a rogue monk like Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero or Ratana Thero who are known hate peddlers imbibed with an anti-Muslim hate ideology. It came from one who holds the onerous position of the Chief Prelate in a highest Buddhist citadel, which prescribes rules of Vinaya(disciplinary code) to the Sangha Order of his chapter, and one who is looked upon to enjoin good, and promote peace and harmony. It should be recalled that it was the Asgiriya Chapter which once said that they agree with the (hate) ideology of Gnnasara Thero, although disagreeing with his methodology. It was regrettable that the Chief Prelate gave up Buddha’s Maithri philosophy and became a proponent of the Angulimala’s hate doctrine. In short, the fence which is supposed to guard the crops has started eating them, to the nation’s disgust. He knew too well that he can escape punishment, as ‘some are more equal’ in this Dharma Dweepa , in the backdrop of a severe impunity crisis in Sri Lanka, especially when those in saffron robes are involved in promoting hate and instigating violence against the ‘other’. Neither anti-hate laws nor ICCPR Act can touch them. One of the most respected monks Ven Galkande Dhammananda Thero rightly said that the Bikkhus today are unable to be good role models, as their souls and character are wounded and polluted too. This trend should be arrested pronto.
It was about these types of hate peddlers in sheep’s clothing that Vishaaradha Nanda Maalini warned the people of, when she sang in her inimitable style and voice : ‘Waedhi bana maedhin- muni bana thoora asanu……/ Waedhi bana dhesana sangha ghana wuwa pitudhakinu’ .(‘Be careful to choose good speech over the glib (hypocritical) talk../ Even if such talk is coming from venerable monks, deplore them …’. This advice should be taken seriously, at a time when some of those in religious authority are appealing to baser instincts of the people. It is an irony that most of those who shouted from their rooftops in the ‘Easter Terror’ aftermath, that Muslims haven’t spoken enough against religious extremism have today gone mum when one of their top clerics has shamelessly spat out hatred and gone to the religious extremes. Has the media or politicians spoken enough against this hate speech tirade?
The Easter Sunday massacre was certainly a shocking tragedy. In the Post–Easter aftermath, the people of Sri Lanka showed admirable resilience and restraint, due to the matured leadership provided by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and also by the Buddhist prelates and leading monks, which not only averted a bloodbath, but also led to many initiatives for introspection, confidence building and reconciliation among the people already in extreme distress and fear. Cardinal Ranjith rose up as a real leader at a time of national calamity, and succeeded in consoling the hearts of his flock who were charged understandably with raw emotions. He was careful in pointing his finger away from making the entire Muslim community guilty by association. Instead, he rightly saw scheming forces beyond the shores of Sri Lanka and blamed those in power who were negligent in ignoring the repeated warning about these impending attacks. Many other leading members of the Maha Sangha too, took up responsible stances and stressed the imperative need to take the Muslim community into confidence to fight the menace of extremism, without repeating the historic blunders, as was seen during the days of Tiger terror.
What ultimately happened in the Post-Easter period? Two weeks after the despicable disaster, racist ghosts of Aluthgama and Digana re-emerged with all ferociousness, to hit at an equally battered community, which not only warned the authorities about the suspicious activities behind Zahran’s networks, but also later condemned and fully cooperated with the investigators to identify and dismantle the vicious network. Throwing away the sagacious advice given by the Cardinal and many leaders and responsible sections of the Maha Sangha to avoid stereotyping the whole community, Muslims today are being made to feel besieged, demonised and alienated, due to continuous hate-bashing, Media sensationalism and failure of the government to deal with impunity effectively. Muslims were being particularly targeted with arbitrary arrests. The provisions of ICCPR Act, were blatantly abused to witch hunt and jail hundreds of innocents on flimsy charges like the infamous ‘fake Dharmachakraya’ case and the case of a pregnant women who covered her face due to nausea. The classic case of Dr Shaffie has now taken several twists and turns and likely to be thrown out as unsubstantiated; but the damage has already been done by tar-brushing all Muslim medical doctors as evil. Exactly, this is what the hate peddlers and their political backers wanted by exploiting a tragedy for their evil ends.
Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has in many occasion in the recent past strongly criticized the on-going discrimination against and harassment of Muslims and called for decisive measures to safeguard everyone’s rights and with cultural and religious sensitivity. Many international bodies like the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the Delegation of the European Union (EU), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) too issued strongly worded statements expressing extreme concern about hate attacks, harassment and political and religious pressure being directed at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community in violation of the obligations under the international law, which is undermining peace and reconciliation in the country. To-date, these pleas have by and large fallen on deaf ears.
This dangerous game of alienation and demonization in all spheres will drive the Muslim mainstream, too towards extremism, which will be a national disaster, much worse than the Easter Sunday tragedy. Today’s most vexing concerns have echoes and precedents all through history. The sooner the government take heed of historic lessons and make amends, the better for its’ people in search of a country where impunity is shunned and Rule of Law and justice governs.
History has taught us that hate speech, often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, could also serve as an important warning sign for a much more severe consequence: genocide. Increasingly virulent hate speech is often a precursor to mass violence. The world saw how hate speech led to the Holocaust and how high levels of inflammatory speech preceded Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s. Since then, the ICJ Tribunal for Rwanda has recognized the relationship between hate speech and genocide by trying the world’s first “incitement to genocide” cases, convicting radio broadcasters, a newspaper editor, and even a pop star for the crime. The world saw how the virulent anti-Muslim hate speeches and sermons of Wirathu ( branded as the ‘Face of Buddhist terror’ by the Time Magazine) led to the Rohingyan genocide. International analyst Alan Keenan saw this possibility in the abhorrent hate speech of the Asgiriya Chief Prelate as well, when he tweeted ‘ classic pre-genocidal language… the world can’t say they weren’t warned’.
In 1995 the ICC convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former Rwandan bourgmestre—or mayor—for incitement to genocide after he gave a speech that was immediately followed by massacres. Sri Lanka too saw semblance of this before the ‘Aluthgama anti-Muslim mini –Pogrom’, when the hate monk Gnanasara Thero gave an extremely hateful speech against the Muslims, which then started off a spate of hate attacks wreaking havoc on the Muslim community in the area. The hate attacks was supposedly in revenge for a so-called incident where some Muslim youths allegedly attacked a Buddhist monk Those youths were jailed while Gnanasara Thero was enjoying State protection. Four years later, Kalutara judge found there were no evidence to support that attack against that monk and discharged those youths. Even in the aftermath of the Easter tragedy, Gnanasara (who was jailed for contempt of court but later pardoned by the President) joined hands with another hate monk Ven Ratana ( who was on a ‘fast-unto death’)to intimidate and drive fear into the entire Muslim community. There was clear evidence of well-planned hate peddling backed by disgruntled political schemers; but the law enforcement did not apprehend them under any ‘hate’ laws or ICCPR against them. Neither was emergency regulations used to disperse the unruly crowds who even desecrated the holy precincts of the Dalada Maligawa. Impunity at its’ worst levels and double standards in the application of the laws!
Analysing these developments, a CPA Report (2016) states, ‘Political Buddhism has been linked to ethnic violence in both Sri Lanka’s pre and post-independence history. The end of the war in May 2009 saw the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism as a prominent force, the most patent instance of its link to violence being manifested in the June 2014 anti-Muslim riots in the country’s south-western coastal belt…Contrary to some interpretations that ethnicity has lost its power as a tool for political mobilisation, Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism remains a highly potent force. While the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists embrace rationalistic values and are amenable to sharing power‘
‘The Buddhism that is practiced in Sri Lanka today is not the same doctrine that is said to have been preached by Gautama Buddha, but one that has undergone many waves of transformation. The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Since independence, Buddhist interest lobbies have been active in politics and politicians seek the support of organised Buddhist groups as well as the clergy at elections and their presence at ceremonies. Similarly, Buddhist institutions too depend on the state, thus making the relationship a deeply symbiotic one’. This explains how racism becomes political tools.
Religious leaders are often criticized for spreading hate or not doing enough to stem religious violence. However, there are many exceptions. One of the key movers of the political changes in 2015, the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero showed how a Buddhist religious leader espousing core Buddhist values such as compassion and universalism can take Buddhist concerns seriously and yet act as a unifying force for all communities. Ven Mawarale Bhaddiya is another leading Thero who has been speaking the language of inclusiveness. In an era of turbulence and uncertainty, interfaith action can offer an important antidote to religious violence. Religious communities can and do offer a reminder of the core principles of our common humanity. The persistent calls for patience, tolerance, understanding, face-to-face dialogue and reconciliation are more important than ever, given today’s spiralling polarisation and the dangerous anonymity provided and hate peddling by the social media. Like-minded religious organizations and leaders of the stature of Rev. Cardinal, Mawarale Bhaddhiya Thero and Amhar Moulavi (of ‘Derana talk’ fame) should join hands to promote inclusiveness and inter faith understanding and help heal the wounds of war and violence, at this most challenging time faced by our nation. Sooner this initiative is undertaken, the better for the nation.