By Rajan Philips –
In the old story of the New Testament, Easter was the end of agony. It marked the glory of resurrection, yet another fable in humankind’s vain attempt to get past death. In Post- Easter Sri Lanka, on the other hand, there is no glory, only agony; endless questions and loads of blame. Who is to blame? That is the question. There are indeed too many to blame, but too few to offer credible answers and even fewer, if any, to put anything right. This is not the fault of any Sri Lankan community, but the failure of the Sri Lankan State. The blame game targeting Muslims is a global pastime and effective political fodder in every country with a minority Muslim population. This is understandable given the global reach of Islamic messianism emanating in the Middle East and encroaching Muslim communities in every country. But there is no global solution to this problem. Each country has to fashion its own solution, but not in an exclusionary way as Donald Trump ham-handedly tried to impose in the US and was stymied by his own legal system. Thanks to Trump, more Muslim Americans have been elected to the US Congress than ever before. The solution in Muslim-minority countries has to be inclusionary of Muslims, and not exclusionary.
In Sri Lanka, as was alluded to editorially and otherwise in the Sunday Island last week, the solution is best advanced through moderate Muslims. But the Muslim community can only provide the best medium; the task of advancing the solution of accommodating Muslims and preventing further acts of terrorism is the responsibility of the State. The Muslim community has a role to play, indeed a vital role, in repairing the damage done on Easter Sunday to the country’s social and political fabric. That role has been made considerably easier by the heroic restraint shown by Sri Lankans of all communities in the wake of perhaps the largest coordinated terrorist attack on civilian targets not only in Sri Lanka but anywhere else since 2001.
This is truly commendable considering the earlier backlashes of historic proportions in less than comparable situations. The State that had orchestrates backlashes on earlier occasions was too ineffective to organize even a backlash, and that after failing miserably to prevent what was a very preventable tragedy. By all accounts, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith rose to the occasion and literally cast a shepherding influence not only on his faithful flock but on all Sri Lankans. Religious and community leaders, civil society activists, and communities at large have roles to play, but not all of them combined can replace the State or substitute for the role that only the State can and must play.
State and civil society
There is a division of labour between the State and civil society and there should not be any confusion about it. If communities can self-manage and self-correct themselves without a State, then why have a State? When the State overplays its hand and abuses its powers, then there is reason for civil society and communities to step in and push back on the excesses of the State, but not to carry out the basic role and function of the State that are the very reason for its (coming into) being. In the present context, confusion over this division of labour leaves the Muslim community on tenterhooks and lets the State and the government and political leaders off the hook.
The confusion manifests in multiple assertions and questions: The Muslim community must take responsibility. Why are rich Muslim youth getting involved in terrorism? Why have Muslim leaders been allowing the Arabization of Sri Lankan Muslims? How did so many madrasas, Mosques and even a university in Batticaola come to be established without anyone doing anything about it? Who is to blame for the caches of weapons that the police are reportedly discovering on a daily basis? Who is to blame for the alleged failure to apprehend suspects, and the failure to ensure the remanding of those who have been taken in? Is the government’s failure to enforce the law a result of whatever commitments it may or may not have given to the UNHRC in Geneva? And finally, the political coup de grace: as a result of Easter Sunday bombings, no mainstream political party can afford to form a common alliance or appear on common platforms with Muslim political parties.
In these and other questions, it is the Muslim community that becomes the exclusive target of scrutiny, while the State – its leaders, institutions and agents are spared of the stronger strictures they deserve. The questions are also expressions of inter-communal stereotyping. Stereotyping is a fact of Sri Lankan social life, and different communities exchange stereotypes of one another in ways that range from the humorous to the odious. In times of tension, stereotypes can turn nasty and hurtful.
The Muslim community cannot be collectively blamed or held accountable for what happened on Easter Sunday, any more than we can collectively blame – the Sangha for the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike by a misguided Soma Rama Thero; the Sinhalese for the JVP insurrection; or, the Tamils for the LTTE war. The perplexity over young rich men turning into suicide bombers is an inadvertent accusation of the poor – predicated on the presumption that only the poor and the deprived must be prone to political violence.
No one can conclusively diagnose what motivates the rich or the poor to take to political violence, let alone suicide bombing. Talal Assad, the American Anthropologist of Euro-Arab origins, in his monograph On Suicide Bombing, debunked the notion that suicide bombing is integral to Islam or Islamic civilization. Sri Lankans know that experientially. In his The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), Eric Hobsbawm recounts how, out of Europe’s small provincial towns, “ardent and ambitious young men came to make revolutions or their first million; or both.” After more than two centuries of revolutions and wars, people are generally sick of violence. And ambition nowadays covets only millions and not revolutions. The ISIS and its followers are aberrative hangovers and that Sri Lanka got in its violent crosshairs has more to do with government ineptitude than any laxity on the part of the Muslim community.
The current theocratic domination of Arab world should not blind us to the progressive possibilities that Arabs not long ago presented for the region and the world. The political forces unleashed by Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution and Ba’ath socialism wanted the Arab world to break free of foreign domination and its traditional ruling houses predicated on religion. Egypt’s Nasser played a founding role with India’s Nehru and the then Yugoslavia’s Tito in the launching of the Non-Aligned Movement. These movements were thwarted by superpower intervention and oil wealth in the hands of traditional ruling houses. It is a very different Arab world now from what seemed to be emerging during the 1950s and 1960s. Even Sri Lanka has changed after those decades. These changes have cumulatively brought about “A calamity of Constitutional Crises”, according to veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake.
State failure, not a failed State
Seemingly taking a break from his hilariously biting genre, Mr. Rajakarunanayake has written a seriously formal article linking Lanka’s Easter calamity to Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis that has been brewing over the last four decades. Easter Sunday has exposed the many failures of the Sri Lankan State, although Sri Lanka is not a failed State. But post-Easter, no politician wants to talk about the constitution fearing a backlash from an angry people. In that respect, Lucien Rajakarunanayake (LR) has done a great service to the media and the country by drawing attention to the constitutional elephant in the room, namely, the Presidential system and its infighting incumbents, as well as other aspirants to the presidency. He has exposed both the structural rigidities of the system and the incompetence of individual incumbents. He sees no quick fixes to the breakdown of government short of a thorough overhaul.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has got into political hot water as usual by asserting that changes to the law are needed if Sri Lanka is to deal effectively with terrorists. The Daily Mirror ‘fact checked’ the Prime Minister and proved him wrong, for apparently the old Penal Code provides for the police to deal with not only domestic but even foreign acts of terrorism. Much has been made of about thirty or forty Muslim youth leaving Sri Lanka to join the ISIS in Syria. In western countries, the numbers of such voluntary conscripts are in their hundreds, and governments there keep a tab on them instead of making speeches in parliament.
It is a red herring to suggest that whatever commitments that Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera made to the UNHRC in Geneva may have prevented the police from going after those who plotted the Easter Sunday bombings. How does that explain the police actions after the bombings? Is it the UNHRC that also stymied the police and the prosecutors from arresting and charging those responsible for Sri Lanka’s ‘emblematic’ killings of journalists and a rugger player during the tenure of the previous government? Is it because of the UNHRC that no serious charges have been brought by the present government against those from the former government accused of corruption and abuse of power?
The truth of the matter is that corruption of and political interference in police work and preventing indictment of well-connected perpetrators of crime have been going on for decades. Once law enforcement is compromised, it is impossible for enforcement agencies to pick and choose the beneficiaries of corruption – as to who will be prosecuted and who will be left alone. On the contrary, those who commit crimes now have the option of picking and choosing their ‘contacts’ in the government and administration to stop police work in its tracks. The ‘contacts’ that apparently protected Easter Sunday’s suicide bombers are all reportedly known. What is also known is that the government gave into these ‘contacts’ and ignored the complaints from the larger Muslim community.
Lucien Rajakarunananyake offers a potent insight that the collective failure of political leadership began with the elimination of the direct election of MPs (under the much maligned first-past-the post system), and its replacement by the impersonal proportional representation system and, within it, the insidious preferential voting. These changes ended the nurturing of political succession that was seen under the parliamentary system. Now only the President is directly elected by the people, and that system has spawned a coterie of permanent and irremovable political leaders, who want to be perpetual presidential contenders.
The UNP has no alterative candidate other than Ranil Wickremesinghe. The SLFP always picks its incumbent. And for the newly minted SLPP, the permanent Supreme Leader is Mahinda Rajapaksa, and only another Rajapaksa can be a presidential candidate. Sri Lanka apparently has no alternative but to elect its next President from this short list of deadwood people. The three of them, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Miathripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa are old enough to apply to themselves the age of retirement that is enforced on Sri Lanka’s public servants, and take a collective bow out of politics. As their last parting act, they would do well to overhaul the constitutional order as they have always undertaken to do. There can never be a more pressing time than now for these three men to keep just one promise and get out.