By Kumar David –
“Methinks the world is oddly made and everything’s amiss”
It’s a very strange decade, globally. All manner of religious extremisms, racial and nationalist excesses, and political irrationalities have taken control of the human drama. First on the scene this Century was Islamist terrorism’s infamous 9/11 carnage. Then Al Qaeda festered into IS, Boko Haram and a host of avatars; demons of torture, beheading, abductions, enslavement of women, and intolerance on a scale not seen for centuries. Early 20-th Century movements to cast off colonialism reached a highpoint in India in the 1940s and shifted gear to national-liberation and anti-imperialist struggles in the next 50 years. But by the turn of the Century conflict metastasized into ethnic, racial, tribal and religious civil wars, sometimes of unspeakable horror. More recently it was Alt-right obscenities such as Trump, right-extremism in France and Austria and proto-fascism in Hungary. A variant is Brexit madness in England dragging along a horrified Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Even lawful Hong Kong is afflicted by temporary insanity as anarchistic young people spearhead a drive to disrupt law and order and compel the Chinese central government to intervene militarily. They evoke the madness-of-crowds syndrome that psychologists talk about.
The scene at home has followed suit. Subjugation and alienation of Upcountry Tamils after independence was followed by discriminatory treatment of Ceylon Tamils. The 1983 butchery ignited a civil-war and the birth of LTTE terrorism. The Sinhala State used terrorism earlier from before JR’s time and followed it up in the Mahinda-Gota chapter. The total defeat of the LTTE closed that saga. Thereafter Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) chauvinism took a different turn; Muslims were the new target and the offensive was spearheaded by sections of the Buddhist clergy. This is the point at which we have now arrived and prospects are disturbing partly because in the view of many and much to my chagrin, Gota is thought to be the front runner in the Dec-Jan presidential race.
Let me say a few words about the importance hegemonic ideologies or belief systems such as religions in stabilising society. During, for example, the early-medieval period in Europe the bedrock material foundation of society was feudal-agrarian production and medieval social class stratification. Catholicism was the ideological construct that permeated men’s minds and stabilised this order. In the usual inversion of reality and imagination, folks thought God organised the universe and put bread on the table. In earlier times, say ancient Egypt, agriculture and the bounty of the Nile was the foundation without which life would have been impossible but myths about godlike Pharaohs, the afterlife and a load of mumbo-jumbo in men’s minds did ensure order, stability and continuity of state and society.
Two examples, nearer home in more ways than one from antiquity are the Maurya Emperor Asoka (reigned 274-232 BC) and the Empress Wu Zetian (reigned supreme 690-705 BC and consort 655-683) the only female Empress of China. Both reigns are renowned for material prosperity and peace most of the time. Ideological harmony in both was grounded in the spread and acceptance of Buddhism. I need to say no more about Asoka, but many readers may not be aware that Empress Wu, deemed a great ruler, bonded with her people by identifying with and supporting Buddhism which was then gaining ground. Her reign was the golden age of Buddhism in China before the Confusion elite fought back and restored the older hegemony.
Sadly, now is not a prosperous or peaceful time in Lanka. The slice of the clergy that this essay reflects upon invokes no esteem. Though nominally Buddhists, name is all it has in common with Asoka and Wu Zetian. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that in all societies ancient or modern, Pharaonic Egypt, Medieval Europe, Maurya India or Tsang Dynasty China, society is defined by both its stomach and its sometimes-dysfunctional brain. At times what’s good for the stomach and what goes on in the brain are at odds. To stop being infuriatingly roundabout for fear of offending the faithful, I will be forthright: Politically aggressive Buddhism is at this time a regressive and socially divisive force. A thuggish monk caged for contempt of court was pardoned by Sirisena who thought the monk may be useful in advancing his political ambitions. A large convocation of monks in Kandy pressed for the formation of a “Sinhala Parliament”; it was not clear if the plan was to terminate the current one which contains heretics, non-believers and filthy vermin of other races. And so on.
In a perversion of democracy such strategies are paying dividends. An extremist monk fasted demanding the removal of a Muslim cabinet minister. Had he conked Buddhist mobs would have massacred Muslims up and down the country. For fear of rabble rousers all Muslim ministers in government resigned. The country slid one more step towards a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Don’t get me wrong; I expect nothing different from these champions of aggressive race and faith; my issue is that neither President nor Prime Minister nor any political party called out and condemned aggressive political-Buddhism. No one will dare do it, not only for fear of a political backlash which is certain, but also for fear of physical harm. What I underline is this: Religious extremism has gone far and gained strength and it is the most powerful ideological narrative in Lanka today. This state of mind is what Antonio Gramsci well described as the ‘hegemonic ideology of society’. All societies have one or more hegemonic myths and bogus chronicles but when one becomes dominant, aggressive and its supremacy dare not be challenged, it becomes the starting point of neo-fascism.
The older narrative that the intellect had become accustomed to post-Enlightenment, reason, rationalism, liberalism, socialism and Marxism are in retreat in the face of this assault. Liberals, socialists and the secular-minded basked in the glory of reason, science and the pluralist state for a long time. Quite suddenly and within two decades it has inverted. Out of dark recesses of the human soul a new mass hysteria has erupted. For long it was thought that unreason had been banished. Not so, the battle has to be joined again if humanity is not to pass into another Dark Age.
Old fashioned atheism and materialism said that religion and ideology (presumed irrational as opposed to theory, knowledge and science) were false and deceptive. They did not examine the deeper psychological and neurological well-springs of individuals and of social collectives. Voltaire acidly remarked that if God did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him. At one level it is true that ‘religion is the opium of masses’ and persuades men to acquiesce to oppression, exploitation and domination by the state. But it is also true that it can do so only because it stirs emotional wells and provides solace from fear of the unknown and the afterlife. To rephrase the class (opium) argument in conventional terms: A shared ideology or common faith bonds together a society and promotes cohesion. For example, shared veneration of the nation is only as old as capitalism; it was needed for unification of the market and to fuse schemes of modern production and circulation. Nationalism had healthy origins, but only post capitalism, the bourgeoisie’s spiritual supplement to material ordering. The ruling ideology of cohesion in the old world was different – kings, popes, gods (Indra, Ra, Odin in Norse mythology), high priests and castes.
But it is also true that globalisation and the contradictions that modernism has laid bare, have perverted this nationalist project. If you had let the Sinhalese and the Tamils, or the blacks and the whites, inhabit different spaces with cross-boundary interaction for commerce alone, they may not have been at each other’s throats in the way that inhabiting a common space and nation state has done. But history has an arrow, you cannot wind time back. The plain truth is that the first two decades of the 21-st Century ideology has brought out the worst, the most intolerant, extreme and violent in communities be it Trump’s racist Base, European Alt-Right movements, and in our neck of the woods, aggressive political Buddhism.
We have to get accustomed to this new normal not in the sense of accepting it but recognising it as a condition that must be confronted. We must realise that we need new and appropriate tools to fight this cancer. Two things come to mind; appropriate economic strategies to address the anxieties that are deriving masses of young and even older people into the arms extremists and nationalist malcontents and secondly alliances and strategies to confront it. The first is not a subject that I can take up in the remaining portion of today’s column, but I need to say a few words about the latter.
My subtitle lamented that liberals, rationalists and leftists were in retreat all over the world in the face of extremism, racism and intolerance. There you have it; this is the alliance has to be forged if the barbarians are to be turned back at the gate. Narrow partisan differences, adherence to this or that creed, social distinction and differences of colour and tongue cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a common alliance to restore civility and civilisation. To neglect to enlist in one, or in several of these alliances as they gel for this purpose, is perilous. Agnes Heller’s remark in her outspoken hostility to hard-right elected “tyrant” Victor Oban: “The most potent poison is substantive nationalism. Whether Hungary will escape with sufficient sanity and clarity for a new start remains to be seen” is surely too pessimistic. Heller, a distinguished scholar, prominent philosopher and outspoken dissident passed away aged 90 on 19 July 2019.