By Izeth Hussain –
The probable reason why Tamil anti-Muslim racism has been far worse than that of the Sinhalese is that caste consciousness goes much deeper among the Tamils. It is only recently that some of us have learnt that the traditional Tamil caste system included a caste whose members could go out only at night because the very sight of them would pollute the higher castes. We know that enlightened elements among both the Tamils and the Sinhalese have been combating caste and that the condition of the lower castes has been much ameliorated, but caste consciousness persists and I have found in the course of a lifetime of intimate interaction with Westernised Tamils that their caste consciousness goes very much deeper than that of their Sinhalese counterparts. It is not surprising therefore that a Muslim such as me should have provoked far more Tamil than Sinhalese hatred and rage – a point amply demonstrated in the Colombo Telegraph columns. There is a case for formulating a new category of racism, casteist racism, but I have to put that aside for the time being. Suffice it to say here merely that probably Sri Lankan Tamil racism is among the worst in the world.
I proceed now to make some recommendations about how to deal with the Tamil ethnic problem, taking into account the factor of intense Tamil racism which for the most part has been ignored up to now. First of all we need to have a clear understanding of what is meant by racism. According to the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss practically every ethnic group in the world believes that it is superior to every other, that its way of life incarnates all the best of which human life is capable, and that applies even to the most primitive groups that are for the most part lost in the depths of the Matto Grosso jungle. That ubiquitous belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group should be regarded as ethnocentric prejudice. However that should not be taken as racism, because if it were racism would be seen as an integral part of the human condition about which little or nothing can be done. Racism proper should be taken to mean not just the propensity to regard the Other as inferior, but also as someone who should be treated as inferior, or be excluded, or even killed. Important characteristic of the racist are the essentialising habit of mind and the tendency towards stereotypical thinking: the Other is seen as having essential characteristics that are permanent or semi-permanent, and ugly characteristics that apply to some are seen as applying to all.
That for me defines the essence of racism. In practice however there can be different kinds of racism, so that the race theorists speak of “racisms” in the plural. Racism at the time of the Renaissance when Christopher Columbus went to the New World and inaugurated the phase of Western imperialism had a very different rationale from what it has today. The theory of the genetic inferiority of the colored peoples of the world was meant to legitimize their conquest, domination, and exploitation, all of which was seen as a civilizational process designed to benefit the colored peoples. Today the notions of race and genetic inferiority are regarded as unscientific and therefore are no longer in vogue, but the notion of culture in the anthropological sense of “a way of life” has come to be seen as the equivalent of race. As Colette Guillaumin put it, today we have racism without race. The Western racist of today would see the colored peoples as having – because of their cultures – essential characteristics that make them inferior, so that it is meet and proper to discriminate against them by relegating them to lower positions, excluding then, and even killing them.
Racism in the Third World countries, in the form of majority/minority conflicts, can be seen in very different terms from Western racism. There the whites have a position of assured dominance over the colored immigrants, whereas in Sri Lanka and elsewhere there is a struggle going on for the dominant position among ethnic groups, or higher positions in an ethnic hierarchy. Two factors have to be taken into account, one of which is the nature of the nation state which tends to privilege the indigenous majority ethnic group: it believes that it has a right to a dominant position over the minorities. The other is that the opportunities for upward mobility are infinitely greater in the industrial societies, meaning the ones that have got beyond the agricultural/pastoral stage. That means that rivalry and possibly conflict over “scarce resources” might be expected between ethnic groups. Furthermore, the rivalry could increase while the economy keeps growing – which seems to be what we are witnessing in the increase of identity politics and the increasing number of majority/minority conflicts in the Third World. Is that, perhaps, the underlying reason – not just Sinhalese racist cussedness – why we have failed to really move towards a political solution of the ethnic problem after 2009?
I am proposing a new paradigm in our approach to the ethnic problem, a racism paradigm. If racism is at the core of the problem we must address that problem, something that we have not done in earnest up to now. It should be axiomatic that to solve a problem we have to address that problem, not something else. I cannot go into details about a program of action to deal with racism but we can learn from the programs adopted in the West that are clearly worthy of emulation. Action seems to be required at two levels. One is to bring about attitudinal changes, something that has to start at the school level. The other is to take concrete action against racism. In the third part of this article I cited the case of the Tamil racist who dared to write that the Muslims are multiplying “like piglets” and, what is more, actually went on to justify it. We cannot hold that we are in earnest about countering racism unless we see to it that so rabid a racist is convicted for hate speech and given a stiff jail sentence. Some would say that the punishment should be exemplary, not just condign, and therefore he should first be horse-whipped in public and then jailed!
The second point I want to emphasize in the racism paradigm arises out of what looks like a widespread perception that the majority of the members in each of our ethnic groups are not racist. It would follow according to that perception that the solution of the ethnic problem requires that the non-racists in each ethnic group bring their own racists under control. That this is possible in fact, not just in theory, was convincingly shown I believe by the fate of the BBS. It had very powerful foreign backing; it had the very powerful backing of the State which went to the extent of placing the BBS leaders above the law; and it waged an anti-Muslim hate campaign that went on for over two years. But it failed to ignite anything like the 1983 pogrom. It could be that the mass of the people have learnt, after a thirty-year war and a hundred thousand deaths, that racism can be self-destructive. According to the racism paradigm that I have set out above economic rivalries can increase and racism can increase concurrently, but we can hope that the struggle against racism will also increase. Perhaps the most important part of that struggle is for each ethnic group to bring its own racists under control. The tiger within the gates is far more dangerous than the one outside.
The third point I want to emphasize is that in trying to solve the ethnic problem we must factor in Tamil racism, jettisoning the assumption that only Sinhalese racism counts. I must make some clarifications before concluding this article. What proportion of the Tamils is racist? I believe that the earlier concerted attacks against me had behind them not just Tamils but a Zionist-Christian-Neocons nucleus. Those attacks were called off because they were obviously inimical to Tamil interests. But attacks by one or two Tamil racists who are I believe the paid agents of the Zionists have continued. One of them blurted out some months ago that he was under compulsion to read me, which was tantamount to confessing that he was functioning as a paid agent. Another attacks almost every article I write because he declares that they are not much better than verbal excrement. He knows that Tamil racists cannot stop me from being published, and therefore logically he should ignore my articles. But some time ago he corrected me on an article I wrote a quarter century ago, and now he refers to an article I wrote several months ago. He has to have institutional backing, probably that of the Zionists. I must add that I am credited with having inspired President Premadasa to kick the Israeli Interests Section out. (I can hear the Tamil howls and screeches that I am a boastful liar). In addition to those Zionist agents, there have usually been Tamils who display anti-Muslim hatred and rage in the CT columns. My guess is that a sizeable segment of the Tamils are anti-Muslim racists to a serious extent.
I have already dealt with the relevance of Tamil racism to our efforts to solve the ethnic problem, so that I can limit myself very briefly to the essentials in concluding this article. It is known that a wide measure of devolution can be very difficult to operate unless there is a spirit of mutual accommodativeness. That will be prevented or hindered when there is racism on both sides. The geopolitical factor of Sino-Indian rivalry in this region could come to be of crucial importance: it could make the Tamils believe that there might be Indian backing for a confederal arrangement amounting to a de facto Eelam. However there seems to be no alternative – for various reasons – to our trying out an improved version of 13 A. It may or may not lead to a definitive solution. The likelihood is that problems will be compounded as we go along. Therefore we should – while trying to make devolution successful – work towards the establishment of a fully functioning democracy as it is practiced in the West, with legal and other measures to secure the interests of the minorities. There is nothing inimical to legitimate Tamil interests in what I am advocating.