By Izeth Hussain –
It is evident that after the anti-Muslim action in Aluthgama and Beruwela on June 15 and the days following, the Sri Lankan Muslim problem has entered a new phase. There is no need for me to recapitulate the well-known details pointing to the Government’s complicity in the anti-Muslim action. Indeed it is more than complicity, and what happened should be properly regarded as a Governmental anti-Muslim racist pogrom. What happened is not novel because it is the kind of thing that has been going on for the last couple of years or so. What is novel are the sustained and meticulously planned attacks on Muslim business establishments. This fits into the racist paradigm to which I have referred in earlier articles. According to this paradigm the Sinhalese, more particularly the Sinhalese Buddhists, should be at the apex of a hierarchical structure, a program that required the kicking down of the Tamils. It is now the turn of the Muslims to be kicked down.
Admittedly, what I have written above could be a simplification of the prevailing situation, because I have not taken into account what might be called the existential fears of the Sinhalese people, fears that go well beyond the supporters of the BBS. That is true, but it is not germane to my present purpose, which is to point the finger directly at the Government as playing the crucial role in a racist anti-Muslim project. My point is that those existential fears are themselves the product of anti-Muslim racist propaganda. It should have been recognized as the duty of the Government to counter that propaganda. Of course it did nothing of the sort because – just like our earlier Governments – it has in effect acknowledged as its only duty in the ethnic field as that of establishing and maintaining the supremacy of the Lion Race.
What should the Muslims do to safeguard their legitimate interests, to live in peace and dignity with their Sinhalese compatriots, as the majority of the Sinhalese themselves would wish? First of all we must recognize that their present options are far wider than they would have been in 1983. The Government seems to be proceeding in its anti-Muslim project on the assumption that it can degrade the Muslims to second or third class status – the Tamils being already reduced to second class status – by stages, avoiding the provocation of a July ’83 holocaust. The Government today gives permission to the BBS to hold a rally in Aluthgama – a decision deplored by no less than the BBS President himself – and the police look on while the racist mob torches Muslim business premises. Tomorrow and the day after the process can be replicated in Colombo and elsewhere until all major Muslim business is taken over by the Lion Race. But the international community has reacted in a way that would have been unimaginable in 1983, and so has the civil society in Sri Lanka – I need not go into details. These reactions seem to signify that the peoples of the world are making themselves heard, that the wretched of the earth are arising. It could be that the racist neo-Fascists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are not going to have an easy time.
One development in the civil society, still at an inchoate stage, could hold out much hope for the future. There seems to be a growing realization that society is something like a seamless web in which what happens in one part impacts on the others. It means that what is done to the minorities today could be done to the majority tomorrow. In July ’83 the Sinhalese power elite and its henchmen sank into the reptilian and the bestial. The holocaust against the defenseless Tamils was organized meticulously in a cold-blooded way – hence my term “reptilian” – by and with the knowledge of the top racists of the Jay Gang. Thereafter the racist mobs were given the license to sink into bestiality. The JVP, which was utterly racist at that time, enjoyed it all thoroughly. But towards the end of that same decade the JVP were ruthlessly butchering their fellow Sinhalese and were ruthlessly butchered in return. In several areas of Sri Lanka the youths were subjected to indiscriminate butchery on a horrifying scale. The paradise isle was drenched in blood and the greater part of it was transformed into a cemetery. An atrophy of the moral sensibility was shown by the Sinhalese power elite towards the Tamil minority in July ’83, and thereafter the Sinhalese majority itself paid a terrible price for that. Today the Muslim minority is being systematically denied the rule of law, and the Sinhalese majority is being denied it sporadically. Tomorrow – as the Bar Association of Sri Lanka seems to understand quite well – the Sinhalese majority will also be denied it systematically. It does seem that society is a seamless web.
What specifically should the Sri Lankan Muslims do to safeguard their legitimate interests? I used to be against our Muslims internationalizing their internal ethnic problem but today, unlike in 1983, internationalization is impossible to avoid. The Organization of Islamic Countries comprising 57 member states – the largest international organization outside the UN – has made its statement on the recent anti-Muslim action, and the UN has spoken through the voice of Navy Pillat. The leader of the SLMC, Rauf Hakeem, has urged the Government to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues to take action on the present situation in Sri Lanka. Every Muslim political Party and every Muslim politician should back Hakeem’s highly commendable move.
Internally, the Muslims should focus on two areas, the ongoing national struggle to make the Government respect the rule of law, and secondly the issues that have been bedeviling Muslim-Sinhalese relations for decades. I believe that it is crucially important to make Muslim action in these two areas part of a national struggle to bring about a better Sri Lanka. The campaign to make the Government respect the rule of law is already under way, and the Muslims should support that campaign in every way possible. As for the issues bedeviling Muslim-Sinhalese relations, individual Muslims such as myself can write articles on them – and that certainly is necessary – but their usefulness will be limited as individual Muslims may not be seen as having much of a representative capacity. What really is required is a group consisting mainly of Muslims and Sinhalese to put together papers on those issues in a readable form, aimed mainly at opinion-makers and decision-makers. That could be followed by translations into the vernaculars to reach a wider audience.
The project that I have in mind will take some time to mature. In the meanwhile I propose writing some articles on some of those issues, focusing initially – if I can get sufficient data on them – on those that seem to be seen as posing an existential threat to the Sinhalese. One is the spread of Wahabism, or what might more appropriately be called “political Islam”. The second is the supposed demographic threat according to which the Muslims are multiplying so fast that before long Sri Lanka will become a predominantly Muslim country. The third is the alleged economically privileged position of the Muslims. All three issues, I believe, are nonsensical, but I believe also that it will be irresponsible and stupid to dismiss them as unworthy of serious consideration because they are nonsensical. The point is that the nonsensical could have behind it irrational fears, but those irrational fears could be very real, and besides irrational fears could carry a high incendiary potential. The Government will not address those irrational fears because they accord nicely with its own anti-Muslim project. It is up to the civil society to address them.