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FeaturesNewsThe Political Economy of Anti-Muslim Attacks

The Political Economy of Anti-Muslim Attacks


Ahilan Kadirgamar
The Muslim community is under attack. There have been increasing reports of attacks on mosques and shops owned by Muslims as part of a broader hate campaign against Muslims. The attack on the Dambulla Khairya Jummah mosque in April 2012 saw a decisive shift in the scale of these attacks. This act of violence was built on anti-Muslim rhetoric and a nascent campaign that had been simmering for years. More recently, the anti-Halal campaign and the boycott of No Limit stores has mobilised much larger sections of society.
The mobilisations, together with chauvinistic public discourse, have alerted a few critical journalists, public intellectuals and activists to rightly draw parallels between these developments and the events that led up to the July 1983 pogrom against the Tamil community. Indeed, there needs to be stronger mobilisations and statements of condemnations to arrest this wave of anti-Muslim attacks. In this article, I ask a question that has not received as much attention: Why are these attacks on the Muslim community taking place now?

In this respect, what is it about the current moment, almost four years after the end of the war, at a time when claims of far-reaching economic development and prosperity are being made by the government, that an anti-Muslim project is gaining ground? How do we understand the major political shifts that have shaped Lanka’s history and does this anti-Muslim campaign reflect such a shift? The anti-Muslim mobilisations may fizzle out in the months ahead. On the other hand, they could signify something much deeper: a political shift that will lay the foundation for the emergence of a conflict that will once again tear apart the country. We cannot be certain what the future holds. Nevertheless, we must return to history to understand the dangers pregnant in the current moment and analyse the forces which are advancing this anti-Muslim project.

Political shifts cannot be explained merely by the moves of political leaders. Rather, the manoeuvres of political actors are only possible when the political economic ground is ripe to mobilise social and political forces. Some of the most destructive manoeuvres by political actors in the story of Ceylon and Sri Lanka have mobilised communalism and nationalism. That story of polarising mobilisations emerges out of our colonial history in the 19th Century and gained momentum as modern state structures developed. While recognising the colonial legacy of this problem of nationalist mobilisation and chauvinistic oppression, I begin with the failed promises of our postcolonial state and postcolonial citizenship.

Three Major Political Shifts

The original sin of postcolonial Ceylon was the disenfranchisement of close to eleven percent of the population in 1949. Over one million Up-Country Tamils, the estate labour which for decades prior to and after independence was the prime earner of the wealth of the country, were stripped of their citizenship just one year after the birth of the postcolonial state. This disenfranchisement came with efforts to marginalise the political strength of the Left with a strong base in the estates, as the Senanayake regime attempted to transform Sri Lanka’s economy towards greater integration with the global economy under the hegemony of the United States.

These economic policies promoted by the newly formed Central Bank and the first World Bank mission to Ceylon, and aggravated by the crisis in exports following the Korean war boom, culminated in cuts to the rice subsidy and the mid-day school meal. Those cuts to welfare ultimately created a massive reaction in the form of the Great Hartal of 1953. The mobilisations around the failure of the postcolonial state to deliver economically to the broader population led to the eventual victory of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956. SWRD’s “Sinhala Only” campaign sealed his parliamentary victory, but also led to the riots of 1958. This was the first major political shift in the post-colonial period that would create a social fault line between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. However, this fault line was related to the economic disaffection of the Sinhala community from both the late colonial period to the years preceding the “Sinhala Only Act” of 1956. The shift fanned the flames of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as well as a Tamil nationalism that would eventually turn separatist, redrawing the political contours in the country.

The second major political shift came after the Open Economy reforms of the Jayewardene regime in 1977. These neoliberal policies came with the global economic downturn in the 1970s and the related failure of the import substitution economic programme of the then United Front government. This major economic transformation which benefited some and impoverished others was also the economic ground on which Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism was fanned. The initial spurt of economic growth after the reforms receded in a few years and inflation and cost of living increased. The challenge by the working classes in the form the July 1980 strike was crushed repressing wages and employment. These were also times when increasing competition among traders led to the perceptions of Tamil businesses gaining from the economic reforms. Such economic woes and perceptions coupled with the active mobilisation of Government politicians led to the bouts of violence culminating in the pogrom of July 1983. The civil war that ensued and the destruction it brought to our society were shaped by the political manoeuvres of the SWRD and Jayewardene regimes.

This brings me to the third major political shift which I argue might be in the making today. The final years of the war saw the mobilisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as Sinhala society was set on a war footing. The end of the war did not lead to a change in the nationalist mindset through a political settlement; rather a triumphalist Government projected economic development as the solution to the country’s problems.
The political consolidation of the Rajapaksa regime and the stability it brought to the country after the war coupled with the global economic crisis of 2008 leading to global finance capital moving towards the “emerging markets”, saw an initial burst of inflow of capital and economic growth in Sri Lanka. This provided the ground for what I have characterised elsewhere as the second wave of neoliberalism in Sri Lanka. Such neoliberal policies are leading to the expansion of the market and financialisation of the economy, but also rising inequalities and indebtedness. While consumer items are plenty and there have been increasing avenues for consumption through debt in the form of bank loans, financing, leasing and pawning, it has led to increasing debt, and dispossession when loans are not repaid. Such a dynamic combined with rising cost of living is leading to social unrest. Given the role of sections of the Muslim community in trading and retail business, the Muslims have become the latest scapegoat for Sinhala chauvinists. In other words, my argument is that economic changes and economic disaffection combined with the war-time and post-war mobilisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism are shaping the anti-Muslim project.
Bringing in Class

Much critical discussion of the current wave of anti-Muslim attacks have only looked at the ideological and chauvinistic dimensions. Others have looked at the legal issues tied to rule of law, including the inaction of the police. Here, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism should not be seen as timeless and homogeneous, rather, as with most nationalist projects has competing strands and relates to the contemporary social formation. Furthermore, appeals to rule of law, particularly given the rising authoritarianism, may not be the solution as the state and the criminal justice system could be part of the problem. These concerns are important and require further careful and critical analysis. The points I want to make in this article are about the less discussed concerns of class as it impinges on the anti-Muslim project in Sri Lanka.

In looking at the political shifts discussed above, I am not arguing for a direct causality between economic changes and political shifts. Nor is my objective here to reduce analysis to the economic. Rather, I want to analyse how these economic changes and political turns reinforce and shape each other. There have been changes to the economy, including the expansion of the market and the related broadening of the class of shop owners, three wheeler drivers and migrant workers, consisting a rising petty-bourgeoisie as well as the emergence of new suburbs and changes to rural communities with the inflow of migrant remittances. These changes have been central both to the classes and places that are taking forward the attacks as well as the target of the attacks within the Muslim community.

But the anti-Muslim project has become one on the scale of a political shift only because of the reception of other classes and much larger sections of the population. The point here is that major economic changes, as with the second wave of neoliberalism, can reconstitute class relations and create the ground for forms of social disaffection and nationalist mobilisation
. Furthermore, in the face of rising economic discontent, nationalist mobilisation can also divert social energies and create conflicts between peoples in order for the capitalist elite and regimes in control of the state to wade through times of economic problems and even reinforce the socially devastating economic programme.

The Depth of the Anti-Muslim Campaign

I started by asking why anti-Muslim attacks are taking place today in Sri Lanka. While globally and in India, Islamophobia and a war on the Muslim world had been gaining ground for decades, particularly with the global “war on terror”, why is this anti-Muslim campaign gaining momentum in Sri Lanka only now? The answer in part lies in the fact that the war against the LTTE was the priority of the State and nationalist forces in previous years. My argument about the current anti-Muslim campaign draws on understanding the manoeuvre of the Rajapaksa regime, including the centre stage given to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism during the war, the projection of triumphalism after the war and the major push towards neoliberal development as a solution to the political and economic problems in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, this anti-Muslim campaign could not find reception among broader sections of the Sinhala population, until there was social disaffection with the post-war economy, which was meant to bring prosperity but is in fact causing misery. Sections of the Muslim community in trading and business enterprises have become the scapegoats, even as this project draws on global and local ideologies of Islamophobia. This anti-Muslim campaign may assist the Rajapaksa regime in distracting the Sinhala population from the misery and dispossession inherent to the ongoing neoliberal economic program until such time as a severe crisis confronts the economy. In the meantime, it has put Sri Lanka on the precipice, where the social and political ramifications for Muslim community and the country as a whole are deeply worrying.

Such a predicament raises many issues and questions about the modalities of the operation of this anti-Muslim project. It raises conceptual questions about religion, politics and the state. There are lessons from the history of Tamil-Muslim relations and previous bouts of Sinhala-Muslim tensions including the riots of 1915. What are its linkages with Islamophobia promoted with the global “war on terror” and Hindutva in India? What are the facets of contemporary Sinhala Buddhist nationalism including the language and rhetorical moves by which it is articulated? What are the limitations of a liberal democratic state in relation to issues of pluralism or to provide a solution for relations between communities? What are the fears and insecurities facing all the communities and how are they related to chauvinist assertions of power? I am not equipped to address all of these issues and questions, but I hope to engage some of them in the future.

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