By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts” – Patrick Henry (Speech at the Second Virginia Convention – 1775)
That last refuge of the persecuted might be vanishing. Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader was shot in his place of residence.
The three gunmen escaped, naturally. In Sri Lanka, some criminals never get caught.
Why was Mr. Shauketaly shot? The answer will be revealed by the manner in which his case is handled. If the crime is non-political, the culprits will be apprehended. But if Mr. Shauketaly was shot because of his journalistic investigations, the perpetrators will remain as free as the wind, as free as those who killed Lasantha Wickremetunga four years ago.
And the Shuketaly-shooting will mark a turning point. In future, Rajapaksa-enforcers will not have to lurk in some street-corner for their victims.
They will come home.
Sri Lanka is one of those fortunate countries which never had to experience the indescribable horrors of a full scale religious war.
That millennia-long run of luck might be coming to an end. If the criminally irresponsible activities of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) are not nipped in the bud, legally and democratically, Sri Lankans may soon know what it is like to be killed for a religion.
In a country where four (or five, according to unofficial reports) women are raped daily, child abuse is rampant and even Buddhist monks falling victim to violent crime, a handful of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists have managed to manufacture and enthrone a wholly artificial issue as ‘The Problem’. Ordinary Sinhala-Buddhists who should be concerned about such real-life issues as violent crimes, sky-rocketing prices and falling living standards are being hoodwinked into worry about non-existing problems, such as ‘Halal’ and the ‘Sharia Law’. The country and its people are being held to ransom by a small cabal of fanatics, while the Rajapaksa regime looks on, as benignly as a fond father.
A full fledged anti-Halal campaign is to begin at Maharagama, on February 17th. Other meetings are to follow. Eager to benefit from the rekindled fires of religious mania, the JHU too has got into the act, with the recently demoted Minister Champika Ranawaka giving time till April to ‘resolve’ the ‘Halal problem’. Afterwards these self-declared protectors of Sinhala-Buddhism are to take ‘action’.
A recent report is indicative of the way things are headed: “At least 50 Muslim shop owners in Narammala in the Kurunegala District, have received death threats by mail. They have been warned to close their shops by March 31st of face death….” (Colombo Gazette – 17.2.2013).
The JHU is a spent force, politico-electorally. It is reasonable to assume that the absolute majority of Buddhist Sinhalese are unaware the very existence of the BBS; or that ‘Halal’ is a far more important issue than the cost-of-living. The JHU and the BBS are succeeding in imposing their deranged agenda on the rest of the country not because they are strong. The main reason for the phenomenal success of the BBS and its anti-Halal mania is the benign tolerance accorded to them by the Rajapaksas.
The regime, possibly for reasons of its own, is allowing to BBS to break the law of the land with impunity. It is possible that the Rajapaksas see a considerable use value in these fanatics. They might believe that by conjuring an ‘Islamic Terrorist threat’ they can win over Washington, London and Delhi, save the Hambantota Commonwealth and enthrone themselves as the new saviours.
From the JHU to the BBS: Politics of Hatred
The JHU was a child of opportunism and intolerance. It rampaged into politico-organisational existence in order to benefit from the outpourings of public grief (part orchestrated by the media which competed with each other to turn the funeral into a bathetic circus) over the untimely demise of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero. At that time, the Sihala Urumaya (SU) was mired in electoral failure and acrimonious squabbles. In his last years Soma Thero had espoused an extremist, intolerant creed, first against Muslims and then against Christians. The SU jumped to claim his intolerant legacy, as a way to regain political relevance. The SU leaders donated their party to the Sangha and the JHU was born, on an anti-Christian wave.
The vainglorious JHU monks went to parliament promising to create a Dharma Rajya in 6 months; instead, with their ignoble conduct, they bought discredit upon the great religion they claimed to represent. Almost a decade later, the JHU has nothing positive to show for its existence. The party sank into dissension and irrelevance when its anti-Christian hysteria was rendered unaffordably irrelevant by the outbreak of the Fourth Eelam War.
Historically, enhanced identification between religion and politics has rebounded on the religion, discrediting and dishonouring it. The arrogation of political power to themselves by Buddhist monks during the Koryo dynasty led to the decline of Buddhism in Korea. Other famous examples include the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution and of the Italian Risorgimento. When religion seeks to become a secular force, secular powers tend to treat the religious in like manner, as the atrocities committed on monks and nuns by the troops of very Catholic Emperor Charles during the 1527 sacking of Rome demonstrate.
When the line of demarcation between religious and secular is breached, it endangers the basic rights of all citizens. The Catholic Church was able to cover up its child abuse problem thanks partly to its capacity to dictate to political authorities. This week, the Irish Prime Minister accepted the Irish state’s complicity in committing 10,000 women and girls to the now infamous Magdalene laundries run by nuns, where they were forced to work under inhuman conditions, without pay. It is no accident that two of the most repressive countries in the world are theocracies:Saudi Arabia and Iran. And their main victims are not foreigners but their own people.
If the BBS and the JHU have their way, they will not stop with suppressing non-Buddhists. They will dictate to Buddhists as well, telling us what and what not to eat and wear, study and think. They will seek to takeover our lives and corrupt our minds.
Racial/religious tolerance is not a permanent state of mind which, once achieved, will last forever. It is something which needs to be renewed and reaffirmed every day, not through outstanding acts of heroism but through ordinary decency, kindness and honour. The propaganda of those who advocate intolerance in the name of race/religion is so insidious that it can get at us in dark secret places we did not know existed within ourselves. We are living in a society in which the language of suspicion and fear and the teaching of contempt are thriving. Even the most anti-racist of us would not be totally immune to the resultant toxicants.
In that context, constant reminders of our common humanity cease being a cliché and become a lifeline to evade the bloody-quagmire of a religious war.