The Politics of Akon

The Sri Lankan government this week has decided to deny a visa for the American rap star Akon, even before he had applied for one. The politics of this decision is obvious.

The electorate that listens to and will participate in a Akon musical is perceived as being overwhelmingly liberal, Colombo centric, affluent UNP voters. While the cabal that opposes the Akon musical, are perceived as being less affluent UPFA voters, many of whom would have not even heard of Akon.

If the government had granted permission despite the protests by the radicals, it would have antagonized a part of its electoral home turf, which consists of Sinhalese Buddhist radicals.

Although President Rajapakse himself may not be a Akon fan, there is a high possibility that his son educated in S. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia, and later at Cardiff University in Wales and drives a BMW X5 may have heard of Akon. He may have even listened to his music at that nightclub in Horton Place, Colombo 7, above the Coffee house, as he like many of his generation aspires to the lifestyle of the Colombians.

But leaving aside politics, decisions of this nature have a wider impact on Sri Lanka and Buddhism.

Buddhism is perceived in the West as being a tolerant passive religion and Buddhist statues are perceived as creating an aura of calm and tranquility. As a result, the use of Buddha statues is somewhat different in the West.

Buddha statues are commonly used as garden ornaments and are found as a part of water gardens. In the Akon Video it is near a pool. Buddha statues are also used as a part of table lamps.

Tibetan/Chinese art also depicts Buddha in an erotic pose and could be found on the World Wide Web.

Buddhism is perceived and interpreted in different societies in different ways. Even within Sri Lanka Buddhism is perceived differently by individuals.

A few years ago, a visit to the Dambulla temple by a 11-year-old girl wearing just above knee high shorts was denied entry. According to the "Taliban" style dress code guard, shorts should be below the knee and shoulders cannot be exposed and should be covered.

They will not be visiting Dambulla temple again.

This year I witnessed another 11-year-old girl wearing seriously short shorts walking into Madhu Church for a service and there was no "Taliban" style guard stopping her from entering the church.

Later she walked into Tiruketisvaram kovil near Mannar. There was no dress code Taliban present to stop her and advise her on entry requirements to one of the five great Isvarams in Sri Lanka.

Catholic Church in Madhu

It was obvious that the Catholic Church in Madhu and the great Isvaram in Mannar were more tolerant in dress code than the Buddhist temple in Dambulla. Other than the issue of tolerance, there are financial implications. Those who wear shorts tend to be from the affluent classes in Colombo, and in this instance, individuals who are generous and make four figure donations.

The use of "Taliban" style dress code will merely drive this class of individuals away from visiting these Buddhist temples and reduce revenue.

More importantly, it will alienate them from Buddhism, increasingly reducing the participation of this affluent class and their future generations from Buddhist activity as is evident today.

The dress code and other rules and regulations increasingly demanded by Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka is a new phenomena, and follows a similar trajectory to the rise of Sinhala nationalism.

At the early part of the last century a majority of men and a significant number of women in Sri Lanka were topless and was widely photographed and sketched. Other than these photographs, which are found on post cards produced at the beginning of the last century, many of the prints published by travelers to Sri Lanka, such as the Russian Prince Alexei Soltikoff in 1841, depict these scenes all over Sri Lanka.

There was no "Taliban" to stop them or demand a dress code when visiting Buddhist temples topless for most of our history. Therefore this "Talibanism" creeping into Buddhism is a new phenomenon, nothing to do with Buddhism, but recently introduced by present-day radicals and purists.

They argue it as being a present day requirement and point out that you cannot enter the Vatican or Mecca wearing such clothes, as they demand respect.

Vatican and Mecca

This argument is self-defeating as the attraction of Buddhism to the liberal and the educated is because it is different to the Vatican and Mecca. By bringing in rigid practices into Buddhism, they are in effect closing the doors to a certain segment of society, which cash strapped Buddhist temples could ill afford. It also destroys the reputation of Buddhism of being liberal and tolerant of all things.

In Buddhism we were taught that it was important to identify the thought behind the action.

Let us examine the Akon Video.

Akon has no known anti- Buddhist hostility. The film set with the Buddhist statue and pool where the Video was filmed would have been selected by the record company’s artistic director and the video itself would have been funded and produced by the record label that has contracted him and in effect owns him.

Akon would be a small cog in a bigger wheel where he would have been driven to the set by the record company, and asked to perform to record the video. To Akon, the presence of the Buddha statue would have been as natural as seeing a Buddha statue at most garden centers in the West, where Buddhism is regarded differently to Christianity and Islam.

From a Western perspective, Akon would have not had any intent, in thought or action to insult or be seen to be hostile to Buddhism.

In this light, the actions of the Sri Lankan government are high handed and it damages both Sri Lanka and Buddhism. It creates a perception of Talabanism in Sinhalese society and the government succumbing to it.

It also damages the perception of Buddhism as being tolerant and understanding and being different to Christianity and Islam.

Concept of bikini clad girls dancing around the Buddha did not originate in the West. It originated in Sri Lanka. Several decades ago, a state bank in Sri Lanka, in the cover of a magazine, published a picture of a Buddha with a computer as his heart and two bikini clad girls on either side. The person who was responsible for this is today, a champion of Sinhala nationalism and his articles are carried by a English daily in Colombo.

The situation is compounded by the fact that this same government recently invited members of the Burmese Military Junta to Colombo. The Burmese Military Junta has been responsible for the death, torture and incarceration of hundreds of Buddhist monks who have risen against their tyranny in Burma.

None of these champions protested during that visit.

It exposes the hypocrisy and raises more fundamental questions as to how the authorities intend to provide space for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, when it is incapable of providing space for the English speaking Sinhalese in the capital. In both instances, Sinhalese radicalism seems to have a veto over the cultural space of minority groups.

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