|BBS violence ( Vikalpa)
Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads – 7 By Izeth Hussain
The focus of the present article and of the previous one is on what the Aluthgama/Beruwela outrages really signify, and what action can be taken by our Muslims to safeguard their lives and their legitimate interests. I concluded my last one by pointing out that the anti-Muslim campaign does not have the backing of the mass of the Sinhalese people. Indeed, the indications are that the majority of the Sinhalese Buddhists view the BBS and other extremist groups with utter disgust.
The anti-Muslim campaign has the apparent backing of a segment of the Government, including the President and his brother the Defense Secretary, the most influential segments of the Sangha, and presumably of a group or groups within the armed forces.
If the anti-Muslim campaign does not have the backing of the majority of the Sinhalese people, where does the evident power of the BBS come from? It has been shown over the last two years that the BBS is above the rule of law. It is now shown that it can cause deaths and arson, and bring to the SL Government the utter contempt of the international community, with the possible exception of Myanmar, and even so the Government dare not take punitive action against the BBS. Its power does not come from the Sinhalese people. It can come only from the gun. I concluded my last article by drawing an analogy with the Kennedy assassination. That was the result of a conspiracy, not of action by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Kennedy wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, which would have meant a loss of billions of dollars for the military-industrial complex, against whose power Eisenhower had warned the American people in his valedictory speech. The reasonable hypothesis, which has wide currency in the US, is that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy to prevent that withdrawal. Kennedy was very popular, and his assassination therefore meant that the will of the people in the most powerful democracy on earth was subverted by a small group within the American power elite, which had the power of assassination. In a parallel case, what has really counted in the anti-Muslim campaign over the last two years has not been the will of the Buddhist majority. What has counted is the power of assassination.
Before proceeding further I must emphasize that I don’t want to underestimate the extent of anti-Muslim racism among segments of the Sinhalese people. It is not just a question of BBS racism. Before the BBS campaign which began about two years ago, there were the anti-Muslim tirades of Rev. Soma Thera in the latter part of the last decade. Earlier, from 1976 to 2002, there were a series of anti-Muslim ructions, part of which I covered in my articles after 1989. Before that also there were anti-Muslim ructions, for instance around Beruwela as mentioned recently by Rajitha Senaratne, one of our enlightened politicians. The important point is that successive Governments refused to take corrective action over anti-Muslim racism, in fact to even recognize the problem, because in their view there was no need to build a multi-ethnic nation: this is the land of the Lion Race, the minorities must accept its dictates, and if they don’t like it they can go back to Arabia or wherever it was that they came from. Unfortunately, the Sinhalese intellectual elite also refused to recognize the problem of anti-Muslim racism, Basically, as I see it, they wished to be left undisturbed to savour the serene joys to which they were entitled on their well-earned incomes, in anticipation of the supreme serene joy that would be theirs in the next life. The result of the failure, over many decades, to address the problem is that we now have on our hands a second major ethnic problem in addition to the Tamil one. Worse horrors than at Aluthgama/Beruwela can follow.
The above is my analysis of what the Aluthgama/Beruwela outrages really signify. I must clarify before proceeding further that I have been concerned here only with their local significance, not with their external dimension. I am now practically convinced that the BBS’ anti-Muslim campaign has behind it a foreign conspiracy. I don’t think that it is aimed at destroying Buddhism, as some political analysts believe. I suspect that it is aimed at destabilizing this country and destroying the present Government. Alas, the Government has walked right into the trap with its egregious anti-Muslim project. President MR should change track. Alternatively, he and his Government could face electoral doom next year.
I come now to the question of what options might be available to the Muslims to safeguard their legitimate interests. The prerequisite for effective action is the jettisoning of the traditional political strategies of the Muslims. Those strategies amounted to polishing the boots of the Sinhalese power elite, in exchange mainly for the personal benefit of Muslim politicians. That seemed sufficient when the Muslim elite were concerned mainly with safeguarding the religious and business interests of the community. But with the spread of mass education among the Muslims, there was clearly a need for a new politics, the harbinger of which was Ashraff and the SLMC. Today there are several Muslim politicians who speak out bravely, not in a foolhardy fashion but responsibly, in a way that would have been unimaginable some time ago. I mention the names – with Bravos for each – of Rauf Hakeem, Azath Sally, Rishad Bathiudeen, and Segu Dawood. At the civil society level the Muslim Council is performing very creditably, and the other day the newly emergent Shoora Council made a superb statement on behalf of Muslim interests. All these details betoken the emergence of a new Muslim politics.
How should the Muslims relate to the Government? Obviously it would be dishonorable for Muslims to support a Government that has been backing an anti-Muslim campaign. But we must take into account the inescapable facts of Sri Lanka’s degraded politics. For a long time Sri Lanka’s politics have had no ideology, no ideals, no principles, but only interests, and the only moral question is whether or not the interests being pursued are legitimate. We have no multi-ethnic nation in Sri Lanka – an idea which the Sinhalese racists reject with horror in favour of a monoethnic Sinhala nation – and consequently in Sri Lanka there are only ethnic parties, no national parties except in name. These inescapable facts dictate that Muslim politicians should serve primarily, or even exclusively, Muslim interests. How best can that be done? Obviously by working together with the Government. It seems paradoxical, but it is a conclusion that is both logical and practical.
The Muslims can now have recourse to the civil society in Sri Lanka in a way that was not possible for the Tamils in 1983. At that time there was no civil society worth talking about, and the Tamils had no one to turn to within Sri Lanka. After Aluthgama/Beruwela, a wide array of civil society groups has spoken out, without any equivocation, against the anti-Muslim campaign. We can take it, I believe, that the most politically conscious, the most advanced, the most modernizing segment of Sri Lanka is against both the BBS and the Government on the anti-Muslim campaign. How has this come about – something that would have been unthinkable in 1983? It is probably the consequence of the very considerable widening of the middle class following on phenomenal economic growth after 1977. This could have a crucial impact on our ethnic problems. I have to think about this more than is possible just now, but my basic idea is this. There are two ways of looking at the economy. In one, resources are seen as limited, and therefore economic gains are seen as possible only for some at the expense of others in a zero-sum game – a notion that can lead to ethnic disharmony and conflict. In the other way of looking at the economy, wealth is seen as something that can be created and that can keep on growing – notion that can obviously conduce to ethnic accommodation and harmony. I believe that it is a consciousness of what can be done for Sri Lanka through economic growth – and the beneficial impact that can have on ethnic relations – that is at the bottom of the impressive performance of our civil society over the anti-Muslim campaign.
(To be continued)