By Radhika Coomaraswamy –
For people of my generation, as Sharika Thiranagama wrote in her recent article, news like the Easter Sunday blasts does not initiate a new fear, it ignites an old one. I do not feel scared or angry. There is just a complete paralysis of the self. A feeling of “We have been here before”. A trauma that has been lingering, hovering over these years of peace, has just been revived.
When I first heard the news, I was convinced that this was our violence, our people with grievances, our people who have become angry and frustrated because of our mistakes. I was sure that this was a product of the acrimony that coexists with our intimacy. Though there are external factors, this focus on the local is still a valid concern. How did we create young men and women capable of such hate? What did we do or not do to make them receptive to hate mongering and delusion? They may have been radicalized outside our shores but why did we, as a society, not know about their terrible hate and anger?
Now we have been also made to realize that this is something much larger than ourselves. Beyond our wildest imagination. We are caught in the global crosscurrents of events we had nothing to do with. Events that did not concern many of us in our daily lives. We have now stormed into the radar of international security concerns. This will change us in fundamental ways. As so many writers have warned us the global narrative of global terror and the war on terror may overwhelm us. At the moment we are completely lost. We are so used to clawing at each other and then appealing to the international community to take our side – whichever side that is – we do not know how to respond to this body blow that strikes at the heart of who we are as a country. We can only recover if we unite across communities, religions and politics.
Many individuals in the Muslim community are engaging in introspection. I was a little reluctant about forcing introspection on them at this vulnerable moment. Yet much of the introspection written by women has been extremely moving. They describe how they saw their culture and their civilizational ethos change within a generation. For women, especially, it has been a complex and challenging journey.
But it is not only time for Muslim introspection. If we are going to call for introspection, we must ask everyone to do the exercise. How did we Tamils produce the LTTE? How did the Buddhists produce the BBS? How do we respond to extremism in all our communities? How do we make the voices for tolerance and inclusiveness speak out? How do we convince others that this calamity does not mean that we forsake our democracy or our decency? As Ahilan Kadirgamar has noted how do we turn this moment into a moment of co-existence.
In the fog of terrorism we hear strange things that we hope is the heat of the moment. People speak about human rights supporters being responsible for the carnage, that there was too much peace and freedom and too little security and that what the country needs is a dictatorship. Human rights and national security are not mutually exclusive. There are areas of tension but years of practice and protocol have devised ways in which they can coexist. A country can be both free and secure. This is an important realization, not only because it is the humane way of looking at these problems but also because we do not want to radicalize another generation of youth who seethe with anger at the injustice and inequality they face.
The churches they attacked were some of the oldest and most beautiful of our cathedrals. Volumes have been written on the spice merchant and his rich sons. But most of those who died in these churches were not wealthy. They were ordinary people going to their Sunday mass. There is such cruelty in this act of bombing a place where families gather to seek solace. When are people more vulnerable? And yet, we cannot fight this ethos by becoming terrorists ourselves.
My mother went once a week to St Anthony’s at Kochchikade even though she was a Hindu. I think she went to pray for me, her rebellious child. That is what we were. Before extremism came to our religions and communities, we inhabited each other’s religious spaces; we celebrated each other’s festivals and holidays. Thanks to my youth in Sri Lanka and my work for the United Nations I find solace and peace in all religious spaces. I am moved by the sacred, regardless of which culture defines it. But these young people who blew themselves up come from another place where there are no sacred universal spaces and no universal values. Universality is out of fashion these days and this is the deadly trajectory of that mindset.
Sri Lankans as a whole have risen in the aftermath of this violence to reclaim our humanity. From blood donations to interfaith activities guided by religious leaders we have tried to rekindle the bonds that connect us. But we must not have a false sense of reality. There is fear, insecurity and a lot of ugliness out there that can only be defeated by our united, dedicated efforts. We have come out today in solidarity. I want to thank the organizers for their bravery and I am proud to be part of this moment. But it is only the very beginning.
I thought I would end with a poem
The Last stanza of Wilfred Owen ‘s Insensibility
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they and mean
With paucity that was never simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars.
Whatever mourns when many leave their shores
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
*Speech given by Radhika Coomaraswamy at Independence Square Vigil on 4th May 2019