Sri Lankan Muslims at a cross-roads – 1 By Izeth Hussain
My last two articles in The Island were under the title Making sense of the Bodu Bala Sena, focusing in both of them on the anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS. There is now a view, still at the incipient stage but which can soon gain wide currency, that the BBS is on the way out. The argument is that extremist movements such as the BBS have no staying power in Sri Lanka, and that the forces of Buddhist moderation are now working to bring about the quick demise of the BBS and related extremist groups.
But I began the first of my last two articles by pointing out that the conventional wisdom for well over a year – shared by the President himself – had it that if the BBS were ignored it would evaporate after some time. It did not, and in recent times it showed a renewed virulence.
It is possible that now the BBS – as expected by some analysts – will go into a period of hibernation, for which there could be several reasons. The Government has to prepare its counter-thrust to the UNHRC Resolution, which focuses among other things on the maltreatment of the religious minorities including the Muslims. There cannot be the least doubt that the international community as a whole – with the possible singular exception of Myanmar whose anti-Muslim racism has been absolutely revolting – has utter contempt for our Government over the maltreatment of Muslims. The Muslim Governments may vote for us at the UNHRC, but that is only because they share with our Government a despotic disregard for human rights. What they really think was indicated some weeks ago by that Arab Princess – the Foreign Minister of one of the Gulf States – who asked our President in public a deliberately embarrassing question about the maltreatment of Muslims. The crucial point, of course, is the self-incriminating latitude allowed to the BBS and other extremist groups to break the law with near-total impunity. In addition to that external dimension there is also the internal one: the Government probably asks itself whether it is wise electoral strategy to alienate the Muslims and all the other ethnic and religious minorities to the extent that it has done.
So, it is possible that the BBS may fade away, as some expect, or it may be a temporary demise, a period of tactical hibernation for the reasons that I have given above. In either case I expect the Muslim problem to continue because there are reasons of a structural order behind it. First of all we must note that the Muslim problem did not arise because the BBS suddenly erupted. There were anti-Muslim ructions practically every year from 1976 to around 2002. Later there were the rousing anti-Muslim tirades of the late Rev. Soma Thera on State-owned television. That was stopped by the Government, but after that he availed of a Sunday weekly column in a leading newspaper. Over the last two years we have had the anti-Muslim action of the BBS and other extremist groups. In addition, there have been over the decades several irritants spoiling Sinhalese-Muslim relations: the mosque calls to prayer over loud-speakers, the proliferation of mosques, cattle-slaughter, and so on.
The striking thing about the negative developments that I have outlined in the preceding paragraph is that successive Governments did little or nothing by way of corrective or deterrent action. There was a failure, or rather a refusal, to take such action. I will not go into details about that refusal as it will take too much space, and instead I will put forward the possible reason for it. The reason is that there has been no serious attempt at nation-building in Sri Lanka, no attempt at all to establish stable ethnic harmony, apart of course from hollow verbiage about it, and the reason for that is that the nation is conceived of, particularly by the Sinhalese power elite, as already existing. This has been the land of the Sinhalese people from ancient times, with a special position for the Buddhists because they are the guardians of Buddhism in all its pristine purity. The minorities are no more than “visitors” to this island who should not make “undue demands”, in the felicitous phraseology of Sarath Fonseka. There was no punitive action of a deterrent order taken against anti-Muslim violence from 1976 to 2002, nor an assertion of the rule of law over the BBS monks, probably because all that serves to show to the Muslims who’s boss in this island.
The fact that there is no drive, and there never has been a drive, to build a multi-ethnic nation in Sri Lanka is the fundamental reason why we can expect the Muslim problem to continue: as long as there is no such drive there will be a resistance on the part of the Sinhalese power elite to give fair and equal treatment to the minorities, including the Muslims. We must also take into account the fact that the Sinhalese power elite has shown a fierce hierarchical drive – for cultural reasons that cannot be explored here – which leads to a resistance to giving fair and equal treatment even to the Sinhalese. It is not accidental that for the greater part of the period since 1977 Sri Lankan democracy has been deeply flawed, unlike in India where democracy broke down only for a brief period after Indira’s Emergency. Nor is it accidental that in recent years the Government has clearly shown a racist and neo-Fascist drive, which some think could lead to an anti-democratic Buddhist theocracy.
We have to face up to the fact that the BBS may go away but the Muslim problem won’t. The Muslims have now to think of what they should do to secure and promote their best interests. Before proceeding further I want to refer to the two concluding paragraphs of my article Making sense of Bodu Bala Sena in The Island of April 26. I noted that three prominent Muslim politicians, Rauf Hakeem, Azath Sally, and Rishad Bathiudin had become admirably outspoken on the BBS, which would have been unthinkable some time ago. I took that as symptomatic of the profound socio-economic changes that have been taking place in the Muslim community, catalyzed by their taking to mass secular education in a big way after the Second World War. The result is that whereas they were traditionally competitive only in the field of trade, they have become competitive in other fields as well. Kumar David has pointed out to me, quite correctly, that their knowledge of English confers a very special advantage over the other ethnic groups. Therefore, in terms of the racist paradigm to which I referred in that article, they have to be pushed down and kept down, and that is the profound meaning of the sudden eruption of the BBS and other extremist groups.
What should the Muslims do to secure and promote their legitimate interests? It is not difficult to work out the answer to that question. Obviously all the irritants that have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations for decades should be addressed by both sides and removed as far as might be possible. But if that is obvious, why on earth has that not been done over several decades? Part of the answer has been suggested earlier in this article. The Sinhalese power elite has never been interested in forging a multi-ethnic nation with a deep sense of unity, and therefore it has had no interest in establishing harmonious Sinhalese-Muslim relations. Besides, anti-Muslim violence and the anti-Muslim campaign of Buddhist extremists serve to show the Muslims who’s boss in this island.
But why is it that the Muslims have not been agitating over all these decades for effective action to remove those irritants? After all it is they, not the Sinhalese, who have been the victims. There are several reasons for their adopting what might be called a strategy of political quietism. First of all there is a continuing fear psychosis that was initially set off by the anti-Muslim riots of 1915, and there is a sense of deep vulnerability because they know that they cannot depend on the support of the Opposition or the civil society should the Muslims challenge the powers-that-be. They believe that challenging the Government of the day over Muslim interests would only make their plight worse. But their keeping quiet about anti-Muslim violence over a quarter century has led to the State-backed anti-Muslim extremism of the last two years. The strategy of political quietism has proved to be a total failure and it is time to jettison it. That is why the speaking out by Rauf Hakeem and others is to be welcomed.