By Mohamed Harees –
“The rich ruling class has used tribalism, a primitive caveman instinct, to their advantage since the beginning of time. They use it to divide and conquer us. They drive wedges between us peasants and make us fight each other, so we won’t rise up against our rulers and fight them.” ~ Oliver Markus Malloy, Make Racism Wrong Again
In 2004, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the backdrop of America’s Post- 09/11, soberly explained that “the weight of history and the fallout of recent developments have left many Muslims around the world feeling aggravated and misunderstood, concerned about the erosion of their rights and even fearing for their physical safety.” His remarks, astonishingly, suggested that Muslims were the real victims of 9/11. Post 21/04 Sri Lanka too shows remarkable semblance to the Post 09/11 America where hate is getting mainstreamed, with Muslims being demonised and collectively held to account.
In a civilization rife with fear, it’s no wonder the word phobia has gained currency. Nathan Lean in his ground breaking book ‘Islamophobia Industry’ refers to a 1947 anti-racist documentary ‘Don’t’ be a sucker’ which examined the divisive rhetorical atmosphere that fuelled the rise of Nazi Germany. One of the rouble rouser stands atop a soapbox on an American street corner decrying the ‘truth about Negros and foreigners’. He attacks immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Freemasons and blacks. Men in the crowd nod their heads in agreement until they belong to the group included in the trash talking. A polished soft spoken man from Hungary explains to a young fellow watching the tirade that the very same thing happened before in pre-World War II Germany. Only this time, the groups under attack had changed. ‘The Nazis’, he said, ‘knew that they were not strong enough to conquer a unified country. So they split Germany into small groups. They used prejudice as a practical weapon to cripple the nation. We human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us. Made by someone who wants something’, Hitler then blamed Jew for the woes that befell on Germany and for Germany’s loss during the Great War. This fear psychosis created by him about the Jews among the people ultimately led to the systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews during WWII which Hitler called us the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’. Of course , anti-Semitism and Islamophobia fit into different historical and political frames of references. However, in both cases of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we see that religion is used as a powerful tool to create fear.
In Sri Lanka too, the latent but powerful Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate lobby which gained currency during the initial phase of the Post-war period , came out into open arena, strengthened by government’s apathy and the raw emotions of a visibly charged populace rising up against a perceived ‘Muslim enemy’. It was true that there was the emergence of the ‘Muslim extremism’ threat to the collective well being of the society which needed mending both from within and without. In fact, after the 21/04 Easter Sunday tragedy, an atmosphere full of soul searching and self-criticism was evident within the Muslim community – one in which there was a spiritual readiness to accept that something was “wrong” with its’ collective consciousness and to acknowledge that reform and renewal were necessary. People everywhere were talking about the dangers of maintaining a narrow religious parochialism that only recognizes literal interpretations of Islam to the detriment of its’ greater vision. This, was an extremely positive and welcome development.
However, unfortunately that mood began to evaporate and was replaced by fear and insecurity when the build up of obnoxious anti-Muslim hate and demonization by rogue sections of the Sinhala media and the hate lobbies led to open hate verbal assaults, attacks and harassment against a shocked Muslim community which was caught unawares in the thick of the unravelling events. In the process, the elephant in the room-the government’s culpability and the international dimensions to the tragedy – were virtually ignored. The subsequent developments only led to a demonised community being driven to a point of despair, with various canards being thrown at them at regular intervals to portray them as an alien and an unpatriotic segment of the society. Anti-Muslim canards, fake news, conspiracy theories, even in the mainstream media led to boycotts of Muslim businesses and arbitrary arrests in Post- Easter Sri Lanka. There have been cyber media campaigns too, that have a malicious intent causing negative impact on the society, which provided a certain level of comfort for online users as they began to say whatever they wanted without being known or identified by name.
Canards were woven with such professionalism and fake news presented in such a climaxing and an emotional style to make them stick in the inner psyche of the peasantry and people at the grass-roots with much power. ‘The goal of media sensationalism and ‘fake news’ canard aren’t propaganda—it’s epistemic chaos. What started as a political tactic has now evolved into a social virus. Fake news doesn’t mean hoaxes or lies. The term applies to stories that are factually wrong and also involved “how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report. Trust in the Fourth Estate is therefore in a free fall. The sharing of biased and false news has also become all too common on social media. Members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy” according to a Monmouth University poll report.
In 2014, the story of few Muslim youth assaulting a Buddhist monk became the basis of Ven Gnanasara’s venomous speech and subsequent spate of ‘Aba sarana’ hate attacks against the Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwela. This was found to be a false pretext and a canard spread to incite hatred, as the youth were released without charges after 4 years. Then in 2018, rumours of a Muslim plot to sterilize Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority led to real-life violence in February that resulted in the beating of a Muslim restaurant worker. He was falsely accused of spiking the shop’s food with sterilization pills in the small town of Ampara. Because of rumours on Facebook, a lump of flour found in the food was transformed in the mind of the patron into a sterilization pill. Language barriers between the Muslim operators and the Sinhalese patron also made it impossible to correct the falsity and a mob at the restaurant formed that beat the worker, destroyed the shop, and set fire to a local mosque. The Government Analyst and many medical professionals of various specialties then came forward to dispel the myths about the so-called “infertility pill” said to be mixed with food served in eateries. Inciting and fake posts on FB spread, and with another twisted ‘road rage story’ adding racist fuel to the fire, leading to stoking violence toward Muslims across the hill- country. This sterilization canard has been one of the famous tools in the armoury of the anti-Muslim hate peddlers. Many posts abound on FB accusing Muslim businesses of introducing sterilization drugs in foods and women underwear/ attire.
In the Post-Easter, some rogue sections of the mainstream Sinhala media such as Divaina newspaper and Hiru/Ada Derana TV) were competing with the powerful social media hate platform to spread canards and report fake news without any sense of social accountability and shame. The infamous story published by ‘Divaina’ newspaper on 23rd May that a doctor (later known to be a SHO named Shaffie) suspected to be a strong member of National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) organization had sterilized 4000 Sinhalese Buddhist mothers was proving itself to be a fake and a misleading news, with the CID reporting to such effect to the Courts. The Shafi accusations were largely “stage-managed”. The probe was flawed because the authorities did not call for evidence of sterilizations until after Shaffi’s arrest, adding that all the allegations were unsubstantiated. Both the reporter and the DIG of the areas were implicated in this ‘plot’ with political motivations , to mar the image of the Muslim doctors in the eyes of the public. Allegations a Muslim doctor might be forcibly sterilizing Buddhists are particularly incendiary in Sri Lanka where hate groups supported by political schemers within the Buddhist majority have accused Muslims of seeking to use a higher birth rate to spread their influence. Divaina was carrying on relentless in their fake news campaign by inhumanely targeting the two girl children of Dr Shafi too, by accusing them of distributing sanitary pads among their school mates. This too proved to be a false allegation.
Hiru and Ada Derana TV in many instances misrepresented the statements made by Muslim leaders, twisting the facts while engaging in media sensationalism and exaggeration with regard to ‘weapon finds’ within the mosques during raids in the aftermath of the Easter tragedy. Ven Ratana and Ven Gnanasara were vying with each other in trying to instil further anti-Muslim hatred in the people, by spreading another canard that Muslim politicians such as Rishard Bathiudeen (RB) were involved with some terror suspects. This allegation too is subsequently proving itself to be a false one as well with the Police reporting to the Speaker that they were unsubstantiated. Even ‘Sathosa drugs’ canard was vehemently denied by the Ministry Secretary at the PSC hearings. (This does not mean that RB is un-corrupt; this only refers to many unsubstantiated terror charges being brought against him which basically targeted the community at large). Now both Ratana Thero and Gnanasara Thero are going around the country insulting the CID and the Police, calling them biased. Even the recent statement by the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thero also in effect supported this so called sterilization story.
A similar canard was reported again in the Divaina that an opposition politician Gamini Lokuge has stated that a well-known charity providing free meals to the thousands of patients to few hospitals in Colombo, should be inspected as their ‘free-food project’ appeared suspicious; again making insinuations about foods served are liable to make Sinhala women sterilized. Although Lokuge later denied, this however led to the Charity suspending the operations, harming the thousands of poor patients in the process. Another Divaina report also attempted to make Muslim diaspora too another bogeyman in the Post- Easter period.
Near-identical social media rumours have also led to attacks in neighbourhood India, where lynching is increasingly being filmed and posted back to Facebook, where they go viral as grisly tutorials. In India, Facebook-based misinformation has been linked repeatedly to religious violence, including riots in 2012 that left several dead, foretelling what has since become a wider trend. Using the Wahhabi-extremism card, the unity of the Sri Lankan Muslim community is being meticulously attacked by the hate peddlers, once again through canards. Gnannasara Thero is a master of this game, using divisions within the community and prevalent anti-Muslim hysteria, to achieve his evil plans to spread anti-Muslim hate. He recently blamed few prominent Muslim businessmen too as committing acts of treason, without any evidence. The recent incident to blow a local incident in Atalugama out of proportion to imply the prevalence of a Muslim extremist plan to forcibly convert Buddhists was another case in point, Many Sinhalese villagers bore witness to the fact that there were no racial overtones to this incident.
The use of hate speech and naming and blaming religious minorities for attacks on civilians and military personnel is extremely dangerous, as in the present case of making Muslims accountable for the Easter disaster. They are resultantly facing greater persecution today than at any other time in the nation’s history. This hatred and ‘otherization’ particularly of Sri Lankan Muslims may play well to the Buddhist majority, particularly before a national election, but as the global trend shows, this approach is suicidal and damages a society’s integrity, economy, and finally its stability. After fighting a bloody war of over three decades, one hopes both Sri Lankan government as well as its’ people tone down their blame game and finds the actual culprit behind this highly sophisticated attack. Demonisation of the Muslim community through canards and fake news is a dangerous game which will bring irreparable consequences. Combating impunity therefore is a national priority in the light of the country’s global ill-reputation in not punishing culprits whether political corruption or racist violence.
As Bill Whittle. an American conservative blogger/political commentator, once said, ‘When all is said and done, Civilizations do not fall because of the barbarians at the gates. Nor does a great city fall from the death wish of bored and morally bankrupt stewards presumably sworn to its defence. Civilizations fall only because each citizen of the city comes to accept that nothing can be done to rally and rebuild broken walls; that ground lost may never be recovered’. Easter Sunday tragedy was a turning point in our country in many ways . Our nation is now at a moment where some people think they can espouse racism and anti-Muslim bias and do it in a very open way. Even through we can never stop hate entirely, it is imperative that all possible effort be undertaken through public activism to push it out of the mainstream, preventing hateful ideas to penetrate public conversation. It starts with people recognizing their own power to not just be a bystander, but an up-stander; to not just sit idly by when something happens, but to raise their hand and say, ‘Enough’, and become voices of change in their communities.