“Please be informed”, says a notice from the Deputy Director of Customs, “that from today (05.03.2021) onwards, any Islamic religious books brought into the country should be released only on approval from Ministry of Defence”. In other words, and henceforth, only the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is under President NGR, and not any institute of scholars would decide on what to read and not to read about Islam.
This notice, when taken together with NGR’s public resolve not to allow Islamic fundamentalism to re-emerge, during his latest village circuit session in Kiribewa, Kurunegala, illustrate the regime’s preparedness to use thought control as a weapon to destroy any dissent from Muslims. This is exactly what the Chinese are doing with Uyghur Muslims. In the name of modernisation, Uyghurs are almost imprisoned inside hundreds of camps and are systematically brainwashed to eradicate any remnants of thought and practice of Islam from their memory. It is unadulterated brainwashing.
In Sri Lanka, the idea of brainwashing Muslims in the name of cleansing them of fundamentalist Islam was advocated by a few hardline Buddhist monks even before NGR came to power, and during the dying days of Yahapalana regime. Perhaps, the same monks, some of whom are now behaving like Rasputin(s) inside the Presidential House, are now urging NGR to take action along that line.
The selectively published report of the Presidential Commission on the Easter massacre has obviously prompted this action. It is also significant that this decision to control reading materials on Islam comes immediately after the defeat suffered by Buddhist supremacists over the issue of Muslim burials. It only shows that they have a stack of measures in their arsenal, which they are prepared to use one after another sadistically to harass and inflict pain on the Muslim community, and to plunder its inalienable human rights. Seeking knowledge from anywhere is an inalienable right of any human being, let alone a Muslim.
Censorship creates an underground market
Censorship creates underground markets for the censored. Is NGR going to send his soldiers to search every nook and cranny looking for contraband books and writings on Islam? Is this possible in this digital age? Even if it is possible, is that the way to develop rational thinking amongst growing generations of young men and women in this country? How can one be critical of a particular argument or philosophy on any subject, without first studying that original argument and philosophy? Ideas, however dangerous they may be, have to be countered with better ideas, and that is how knowledge grows in a society. But better ideas cannot develop if access to existing knowledge is denied. A military minded NGR has got hold of the wrong end of the stick to create his virtuous society.
Islam is a flourishing industry today. Apart from its pure religious side, there are other areas of Islam that deal with multiple branches of knowledge, such as politics, economics, medicine, science, art and architecture, and so on. In every branch there are conservative ideas and radical ideas. The number of publications on these and in various languages run into at least dozens a day. Does NGR’s MoD have a panel of scholars or experts on branches of Islamic knowledge to weed out the undesirable and allow the preferred to enter? Or is it going to be a blanket ban on any book that carries the name Islam on its cover? Even the Holy Quran for that matter is the subject of multiple interpretations. How does one carry out a comparative study of these interpretations if some of them are banned from entering the country?
In my own personal library, there are hundreds of books and journals of which some advocate very orthodox views on Islam, while others counter them. I want to donate the whole lot to one of the university libraries in Sri Lanka. Now it becomes impossible, because the receivers would be sent from pillar to post to get them cleared by MoD.
Obviously, book banning is NGR’s initial step in controlling Islamic thought and brainwashing of Muslims. This would be followed by taking control of madrasa teaching and monitoring sermons in mosques, before banning ultimately, at least sections of the Quran itself. These are items in the supremacists’ Islamophobic agenda. After the battle over burials was won, a second front has opened, and Muslim political leaders once again are caught on the hop. For decades, local Muslim intellectuals and thinkers had been crying for reforms in religious education and personal laws, and they were calling for behavioural changes in the community to avoid a clash of fundamentalisms. All Muslim political parties and the ACJU ignored their call. Today Buddhist supremacist fundamentalism is on a war path against Islam. How to confront?
Once again, the fight against NGR’s ukase to impose selective ban on Islamic books has to be confronted locally as well as internationally. Locally, Muslims must join hands with other democratic forces and make it a multi-ethnic and multi-religious protest. There are strong democratic voices amongst Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus that have to be tapped by Muslims. Muslims cannot win any battle on their own, and they should join others as citizens of this country rather than Muslims of this country. Internationally of course, their protest voice it should reach organisations like UNHCR.