Tag Archives: Violence

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

Matthew Willman 008

One of my all time favourite songs and amongst the best written national anthems in the world, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, written in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English, was the great emblem of defiance against the Apartheid regime and eventually united all peoples of South Africa within the ambit of her melody. No better time to post this than now, when Nelson Mandela, a giant of our times and a great advocate of the struggle of the Palestinian people has died.

“God bless Africa
Let its (Africa’s) horn be raised,
Listen also to our prayers,
Lord bless us, we are the family of it (Africa).
Lord bless our nation,
Stop wars and sufferings,
Save it, save our nation,
The nation of South Africa — South Africa.
From the blue of our heavens,
From the depths of our seas,
Over our everlasting mountains,
Where the cliffs give answer,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.” (video)

Image from here.

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Lankan Muslims and Their Image Problem

ResolvingEthnicConflict

This article was first published in the print version of the Ceylon today on 24 July 2013 (view online soon) and  is in response to an interview of Dr.Ameer Ali published on the Ceylon Today on 19 July 2013 titled ‘Muslims are self-alienating’.

The state of Muslims in Sri Lanka has been closely observed over the last few years. Indeed the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims has become somewhat dire; new radical Sinhalese groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Sihala Ravaya (SR) have hijacked Buddhism and are both committing and advocating crimes against the Muslim community. It is in such a context, that Dr. Ameer Ali’s interview was published a few days ago.

When asked if he concurs with the widely asserted notion that a peaceful Muslim minority are under threat by elements representing a hegemonic Buddhist nationalism, Dr Ali opines that after more than a hundred years of ‘rationalism’, religion is once again in the ascendency. As such, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is seeing a revival.

There are multiple loopholes in this argument and if anything it is rather febrile in the face of the main structural issues at hand. While a global revival of religion has been noted, it is important to highlight that this has manifested in an increasing of religiosity amongst people who already profess a faith rather than a marked resurgence in the numerical ratio of people claiming to subscribe to a religion. Secularism too is on the rise, with atheism becoming more numerically prominent. Therefore, what is seen is not the reversal of a status quo where the numbers of atheists is diminishing to make way for the religious; rather it is the concentration of the strengths of already set religious and or other value systems.

Attributing the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sihala Ravaya to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is insulting to good decent Buddhist Sri Lankans if it isn’t farcical. For example, the BBS has been acting in contravention of law and order, embracing violent means and initiating vile, organised hate campaigns against ethnic minorities and those who have stood up against their methods. If the good Doctor sees this as the birth pangs of a revivalist Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there will be many who would spring out of a kicked bush to question his sense of reason.

Further, Dr. Ali states that since the 1970’s, there has been a spread of ‘orthodox Islam’ in Sri Lanka, supposedly brought to our shores by Sri Lankan workers returning from the middle East. This argument which has been liberally thrown about by many commentators, is fast gaining traction.

Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church which is the institution of an independent Christian denomination of its own, ‘orthodox Islam’ is a Western linguistic construct which has no definition except where the West would like to use it as it sees fit. From a Western lexicon, the rigid conservatism of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 70’s for instance was a non-issue when the Soviets had to be fought; Margaret Thatcher even reportedly celebrated with some of them in Downing Street.  The applicability of the phrase ‘orthodox Islam’ to the case of Sri Lankan Muslims therefore is in serious dispute.

Moreover, Dr Ali exhibits a rather futile sense of nostalgia for the state of the Muslims in the 1970’s which he uses to denigrate Lankan Muslims of today. Those who were born after the seventies were born to a different Sri Lanka and share a different identity and seek no avenue to revert to a time unheard of to them.

If the inference is that Muslims today will do well to revert to customs of the 70’s, it igoes against the epithets of any form of liberal or social democracy to want to impose the culture of a bygone era to a current generation who are a product of an entirely different time with different needs and issues. Incidentally, there is an interesting correlation where the allegation that the Muslims of the 70’s were different stem from those who left Sri Lanka domicile elsewhere in the 70’s, and therefore scrutinise Sri Lankan Muslims after a gap of a generation. The culture of Muslims today is a response to what is and what happens around them and it would be a synthetic intervention to modify that. If it is sentimentalism or nostalgia that is needed, then of course the interviewee would be forgiven if he limited himself to his harmless persuasions.

But if these nostalgic affirmations have serious political undertones, they are rather analogous in theory with the right wing loons in the US Tea Party who struggle to accept the US for the racial diversity it boasts of today, but yearn for times of yore when an all-white US bureaucratic hegemony trampled down the black communities and native Americans with impunity.

Therefore, that the Muslims seen in Sri Lanka in the 70’s were different remains only to be an innocent fact.

It is a basic anthropological ideal that societies, communities, faiths and belief systems evolve in response to the inevitable changes occurring around them. All religious and ethnic communities in Sri Lanka have responded to the changes around them, culturally or ideologically. The Tamils of Sri Lanka who were subjected to ostracism by sections of the Sinhalese majority for the last thirty years, are naturally different today than they were decades ago. The simplistic argument augmented by this commentator that the Muslims of the 70’s were somehow better, needs to be laid to rest. Things change and communities change around them, The once white America now has a Black President, it was a Conservative (not liberal) Prime Minister that pushed through legislation legalising gay marriage in Britain

Further, the majority of the Muslims of the 1970’s were either mono-lingual Tamil speakers, with a limited elite who were both Tamil and English speaking. Contrast this with today where the average Muslim is bi-lingual with the class of Muslims who are tri-lingual  increasingly on the rise, thus making the Sri Lankan Muslims the least polarised and most diverse Sri Lankan community when it comes to languages. This is notwithstanding the fact that there are recognisable sections of the Sri Lankan Muslim populace who speak Malay, Arabic or Urdu in addition to the three main languages. The Muslim community therefore is linguistically the least insular of all communities

Since communal conflict in Sri Lanka has more precedent to be based on ethnicity (perhaps language related) than religion, that Dr. Ali doesn’t see the receptive position of current day Lankan Muslims vis-a-vis integration is deplorable if it isn’t laughable. Therefore, to cite ideological changes in a community over a period of thirty years, a natural development that is hard to measure or quantify and to simultaneously ignore and overlook other quantifiable socio-political development indices of the Lankan Muslim community is both biased and inaccurate.

The interviewee then goes on to making some facetious claims of how Muslims should be part of the Dalada Perahera. That they don’t take part isn’t a crime and Muslims give due credence to the event as being of national significance and its purity doesn’t have to be adulterated by Muslims taking part, unless if requested to do so, I am reluctant to believe that this was the puritarian orthodoxy that he mentioned of earlier.

Other aspects raised by Dr.Ali, include the supposed banes of Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan, thereby exercising a liberty he has to express himself at the cost of opening academically irrelevant cans of worms. I myself was educated at a Christian Missionary school in Colombo and therefore never had holidays during Ramadan, but Muslim schools being closed during Ramadan has never been an impediment to social integration.

Moreover, he highlights the fact that there are funds coming into the Muslim community from Saudi Arabia which in turn helps institutionalise a Saudi brand of ‘Intolerant Islam’. The record of the Saudi’s is nothing to be proud of, reports increasingly suggest that that oppressive regime of the Saudis with a host of other Arab states connived with the US to depose the first democratically elected President of Egypt. Therefore, the Saudi’s have little virtue to extol.

However, Sri Lanka is a democratic country underpinned by a legal system; it is not anyone’s concern what comes from where, as long as it doesn’t impinge local laws and regulations. His concerns of Saudi money coming in is akin to some Sinhala extremists crying foul that the Norwegians are funding Christian groups in Sri Lanka and importing a foreign brand of Christianity that seeks to proselytise the majority Buddhists. Of course he callously neglects to calibrate his argument by failing to recognise the dangerous development in relationships between the radical monks in Myanmar who are responsible for many violent deaths of the Rohingya and local radical monks.

The dominant image Dr. Ali seems to conjure of the Lankan Muslim community is of a conclave of black burka wearing women & bearded men donning flowing white robes, He blatantly fails to recognise the image of a non-violent resilient community, brutally uprooted from their domicile in the north by the LTTE exacerbated by the indifference of successive governments to its plight, a community hounded by a fringe of Tamil terrorists in the past and hounded by a fringe Buddhist extremists in the present, a community that has overcome discriminatory bureaucratic patterns to become highly entrepreneurial.

Very regrettably, When atrocities of the LTTE stole the image of an educated and upwardly mobile Tamil community, and when violent escapades of Buddhist extremism is distorting the pristine image of the Sinhalese, it is both whimsical and flippant of the Doctor to think that Sri Lankan Muslims are plagued by an image problem.

Image from here.

NOTE: Dr Ameer Ali’s callous remarks somewhat fall in line with an older post of mine titled ‘For Muslim Critics of the Lankan Muslim Community’

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Of A Sustained Buddhist Extremism in Sri Lanka

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First published here for The Platform. 

Buddhist extremism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka and the way that Sri Lankan Muslims react in politically difficult times such as these will determine how they are perceived in the future

The last few months have seen a rapid increase in anti-Muslim sentiment amongst sections of the political class in Sri Lankan society. The situation has yet to deteriorate to the extent that the default image of a Sri Lankan Muslim is one represented by an anti-Sri Lankan or anti-Buddhist element. But the trend that is developing is truly alarming and surely points towards such an inaccurate mental image.

The rise of extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka is truly disturbing and does not bode well to the sense of national resilience that the government is trying to foster, at least in its rhetoric.

There is to be a protest march in Colombo today that is supposedly against ‘Islamic Extremism’. The leaflet however, unable to find tangible examples of Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka, instead highlights international examples. The leaflet was first tweeted by Groundviews and was then picked up by other bloggers. The language used in the leaflet is particularly confrontational and is written in jargon generously peppered with phrases such as ‘enough of being silent’ as a precursor to the more confrontational language that follows.

The leaflet speaks of numerous instances where it alleges that Islamic extremism has acted malevolently towards Buddhists and Buddhist holy sites in many parts of world, including in Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan and even the eastern parts of Sri Lanka. It is clearly designed to fuel the ignorance of the apolitical (mostly innocent) Buddhists against the Muslims and is therefore composed of materials that are innate historical inaccuracies at best and factually vacuous at worst. It specifically refers to the recent incidents in the south of Bangladesh where there have been attacks on Buddhists by groups of Muslims. Of course nowhere is the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist extremists in adjacent Burma mentioned.

The last paragraph of this leaflet quite explicitly states something on the lines of: it is time to show that this (Sri Lanka) is a Buddhist country by word and deed; many have forgotten that this is a Buddhist country, this notion should be reawakened. Extremists should be struck down as they flee. When cruel Islamic extremists prey on other innocent Buddhists, and when the entire world remains silent in the wake of it, it is time that we reawaken our race (Sinhala Buddhists) to respond to this.

The implications of the call to “reawaken” invoked in this context is particularly disturbing.

Sri Lankan Muslims have absolutely nothing to do with the alleged crimes against Buddhists or Buddhist interests in Bangladesh. Similarly Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Buddhists have absolutely nothing to do with the heinous crimes committed against the Muslims of Burma. What these Buddhist extremists seek to achieve for the alleged benefit of their Buddhist compatriots abroad remains to be seen. For Buddhists who feel that they are persecuted in other parts of the world, this exercise by minute sections of the Sri Lankan Buddhist community will be futile. Surely the Buddhist leadership in Sri Lanka is intelligent enough to grasp this fact. What exactly then does this exercise seek to achieve?

The result of these sorts of protests (yes, plural, this is to be one of a series of protests) are multiple.

Sinhala – Muslim relations have always been cordial and strong. The current generation of Sri Lankans cannot easily be buoyed into buying an argument that Sri Lankan Muslims are a bane on the nation’s social fabric. Buddhism as a faith has thus far survived the vulture-esque assault by sections of a largely secular media that paints most religious faiths as violent, something that protests such as these threaten to undo. Moreover, Sri Lanka is rebuilding itself as a nation after decades of conflict that not only curtailed and stunted growth but also damaged it. Creating an environment that will marginalise Muslims can sow the seeds of future conflict.

Yesterday, the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema (ACJU), the main decision-making theological body for Sri Lankan Muslims, released a media communiqué condemning the attacks on Bangladeshi Buddhists. The wisdom of releasing this communiqué is certainly questionable. Whether the ACJU has released statements for similar causes previously is anybody’s guess. There is no doubt that the body acted in the best interests of Sri Lankan Muslims and of Sri Lanka as a whole, yet the timing or indeed decision to make such an overture seems hasty.

The despicable acts on Bangladeshi Buddhists have absolutely nothing to do with Sri Lankan Muslims. However, such a press release can create the impression amongst wider Sri Lankans of a sense of guilt amongst Sri Lankan Muslims when there is none due to there being no grounds for guilt. Additionally, the release of such a statement can institutionalise the necessity to release communiqués almost every time a Buddhist place of worship is attacked anywhere in the World, thereby creating an undue burden of responsibility.

Elie Appelbaum of York University comments in her research paperExtremism as a Strategic Tool in Conflicts:

“as a country becomes wealthier, more powerful, or more democratic, its level of extremism decreases, but at the same time, its rival’s level of extremism increases. Similarly, higher stakes in the conflict tend to increase the level of extremism in the relatively poorer, weaker, and less democratic country, but decrease the level of extremism in the other country. The countries can use extremism as a strategic tool in the conflict. The use of extremism is a double-edged sword: extremism provides a credible threat, but it also involves a risk. Similarly, when the countries are sufficiently asymmetric, higher stakes in the conflict tend to increase extremism in the country that is relatively poorer, weaker, or less democratic.”

Now, replace the word ‘countries’ with ‘communities’ in the paragraph above and see how it reads. The roots of extremism rest in vested interests of various interest groups as much as it does on the absence of law and order and the socio-economic state of the parties in conflict. The Sri Lankan economy at the grassroots is in turmoil and the Sinhalese community, as the larger ethnic group, is the most affected. An economically weak nation with near bankrupt sections of the public can foster groups that are represented by intellectually bankrupt individuals who posture as leaders at a local or national level and exploit patriotism for their ends. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. One only need observe a group of scoundrels against a group of self-confessed patriots to realise that there is too often much in common.

The 1915 riots are commonly known as the ‘Sinhala – Muslim’ riots, not by the name of individuals. The way in which the Sri Lankan Muslims react now will determine how history will testify for or against them. In the future, no matter what the political situation in Sri Lanka, the Muslim community will continue to exist in every strata of society.

Muslims in Sri Lanka are living in politically perilous times; they reside amongst a largely accommodative Sinhalese and Tamil population, apart from the odd elements that opportunistically seeks to whip up racial tensions. In the short term the Muslims should act prudently and actively within the framework of Sri Lankan law. They would do well to deal indifferently towards bankrupt extremism and not dignify it by seeking to confront it, except with a pragmatism that respects legal and constitutional norms. In the long term they should be conscious that Sri Lankan Muslims are more tangible as a constituent element of Sri Lankan nationhood than a transient Buddhist extremism. The latter not only misrepresents Sri Lankan Buddhists at large but is against a unified vision of Sri Lankan nationhood.

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