By Izeth Hussain –
Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads – XXIV; Conclusions (continued)
I have sought an explanation for the anti-Muslim campaign, and I will now conclude this series of articles with some observations on the corrective action that might be taken over it. But first I must make a clarification of my metaphor of the cross roads. Traditionally our Muslims played a marginal role in politics, focusing on their religious and business interests, and their strategy was one of political quietism. That was appropriate in a period when the center of gravity of their interests was in religion and business. That situation changed radically with mass education of the Muslims leading to aspirations to upward mobility outside as well as within the field of business. The Muslim response to that change led to the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in the ‘eighties. It was a frank and realistic avowal of the importance that identitarian politics had come to assume in Sri Lanka.
I believe that we are coming to a new stage in our politics with the anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS and other Islamophobic groups. The crucial fact about this campaign is that it has had Government backing. Whatever the government may say to the contrary there are two facts that cannot be blinked away: one is that the State, incarnated by the Police and the STF as at Aluthgama, has usually played the role of passive spectator even when the BBS demonstration turned violent; and the other is that the BBS leadership has enjoyed blatant impunity from the law. It must seem to many Sri Lankans that the drive towards division and hierarchy that has been a characteristic of the Sri Lankan State since 1948 is now taking Sri Lanka to a self-destructive extreme, and it must seem to them also that we need a desperate counter-thrust towards unity. It might seem that this requires as a pre-condition the abandonment of identitarian politics. But the ground realities won’t permit that and besides, as I hope to show, identitarian politics could be consistent with moves towards national unity. At this cross roads the Sri Lankan Muslims must in their own interest choose the road going away from their self-marginalization in politics, and their tendency to withdraw into an Islamic ghetto that has been a marked proclivity of Islamic civilization in its phases of decadence. They, and others, must see their struggle to be allowed to live in peace and dignity as part of a process of nation-building in Sri Lanka.
What should the Muslims now do to safeguard and promote their legitimate interests? I would suggest three-dimensional action, at the level of the political realm, the civil society, and the international community. In the political realm the main actor is of course the Government. It knows after the Uva Provincial Council elections that it has lost Muslim support, and it knows also that the minority votes could prove to be decisive at the forthcoming Presidential and parliamentary elections. Common sense suggests that the Government could be prepared for a reversal of policy towards the Muslims in order to recoup the lost votes. The motivation of trying to gather Muslim votes would apply to the Opposition political parties also. All of them should be requested to declare their positions on the following: a) Powerful and absolutely convincing arguments can be adduced to show that the two supposed problems posing an existential threat to the Sinhalese – namely Muslim extremism and Muslim population increase – are really non-problems. Would the political parties be prepared to acknowledge that fact and proclaim their positions in public? b) The other issues which have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations, such as cattle slaughter, are really irritants, not major almost intractable problems, and as such are susceptible without much difficulty to corrective action by the Government, if necessary through legislative measures and punitive action. Would the political parties commit themselves to addressing those issues and taking corrective action where necessary? C) The Police and when necessary the STF must play an active role in dealing with anti-Muslim demonstrations instead of being passive spectators, and legal action must be taken against hate speech and other transgressions of the law, including against the BBS leaders. Will the political parties make commitments about taking such action?
Action along the lines suggested above would demolish the ground for the anti-Muslim campaign, and set the stage for harmonious Sinhalese-Muslim relations. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is contrary to the national interest in what I have suggested. Furthermore, action along those lines would show that identitarian politics can be fully consistent with a drive towards national unity. But of course, particularly in pre-election periods, politicians can be expected to make promises which will be quickly forgotten after the elections. The only corrective for that would be a really active civil society. The Sri Lankan civil society collapsed after 1977 and for many years was not much more animate than a door mat. It is now reasonably active again and could possibly play a very useful role in promoting Sinhalese-Muslim harmony. On the Muslim side, two civil society institutions, namely the Muslim Council and the National Shoora Council, can now claim to represent a broad spectrum of Muslim opinion. Furthermore, they have been courageously outspoken, even to the extent of provoking the ire of the BBS. I would like to see the Muslim civil society institutions build bridges with the non-Muslim ones so that the Muslim struggle to be allowed to live in peace and dignity is seen not as a manifestation of divisive identitarian politics but as part of a struggle towards national unity.
I come now to the question of action at the level of the international community to safeguard the legitimate interests of the Muslims. Obviously this is something about which the Muslims have to be wary and circumspect for at least two reasons. One is that the intrusion of the foreign into our internal affairs can complicate problems to a serious extent. The other is that our Muslims turning to the wider Islamic world might be seen as having anti-national implications. But there are certain things that must always be borne in mind. One is that in the contemporary world the internationalization of serious internal problems can hardly be avoided. Today the Muslim ethnic problem figures in the UNHRC agenda in Geneva, the Organization of Islamic countries is concerned about it, and foreign leaders invariably refer to it in their pronouncements. This is the consequence of modern electronics and a world that is in the process of becoming a global village. It is not the consequence of the wishes and will of our Muslims. To those who demur, I will point out that the Dalai Lama has expressed serious concern about our Muslims. As far as I know they have no traction with the Dalai Lama.
The other thing to be borne in mind is that BBS charges against the Muslims have, at their very core, genocidal implications. The charges of Muslim extremism and exponential population increase must prompt the thought that the Sinhalese might have only the alternatives of becoming a minority or of somehow reducing the Muslim population. It is arguable that if not for the economic importance of the Middle East for Sri Lanka the fate of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar would already have befallen the Sri Lanka Muslims. The crucial point is this: the international community will never blame any beleaguered minority for resorting to any practical measure to avoid being subjected to mass massacre. But if the Muslims have to turn to the wider Islamic world to save themselves, they have to be prudent about it and also open about it, first establishing beyond doubt that they simply have no alternative whatever.