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Sri Lankan Muslims at the cross roads – 23

By Izeth Hussain

What is the explanation for the anti-Muslim campaign? I have argued in this series of articles that no cogent explanation can possibly be found in the bilateral issues that have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations. Two of them, alleged Muslim extremism and alleged Muslim exponential population growth, are of recent vintage and supposedly constitute existential threats to the Sinhalese. I believe that I have shown satisfactorily enough that both of them are really non-problems. Some may demur on population growth because the official statistics are thoroughly confusing. I now believe that those statistics are erroneous and should be ignored. I would now focus my argument on just two facts. Youssef Courbage, a professional demographer, and Emmanuel Todd, a leading political scientist, have shown in the book I cited earlier that in accordance with the well-established facts of population dynamics the global Muslim population will stabilize at a certain point, and therefore Islam is not going to take over the whole globe. The second fact is that in Sri Lanka the average Muslim family has two to four children just like Sinhalese and Tamil families. Therefore the notion that Islam will become the predominant religion in Sri Lanka by 2050, or even later, is just too fanciful to be taken seriously.

In addition there are the issues of the call to prayer, cattle slaughter, and so on over which the Government can easily take corrective action, and further there are developments in the Islamic world abroad that can impact negatively on Sinhalese-Muslim relations. All such issues are really no more than irritants that can understandably lead to minor ructions and even serious rioting. But what we have on our hands now is a serious Muslim ethnic problem which is resonating internationally in Geneva, the West, and the Islamic world. At this point we must consider certain additional facts: the Muslims have up to now been an abjectly submissive minority, so abject that their political representatives have refused to speak up for their fellow Muslims on many vitally important issues; the Muslims have consistently sided with the Sinhalese against the Tamils ignoring all ethical norms; and the wider Islamic world has been immensely beneficial to Sri Lanka economically, militarily, and politically (at Geneva). There are therefore excellent reasons why the Sinhalese power elite should regard the Muslims – notwithstanding the irritants – as a model minority, and they did precisely that at one time. How on earth, then, has this utter monstrosity of a serious Muslim ethnic problem arisen in Sri Lanka?

Some would hold that the Muslim ethnic problem is just a hiccup that will pass away the more quickly if it is ignored. This notion accords nicely with the view that history is a realm in which the fortuitous and the contingent reign supreme, and that in the last analysis it all amounts to just one dam thing after another. So don’t delve deeply into it, don’t dwell on it, and it will go away. Another view would have it that the Muslim ethnic problem is the result of the sinister machinations of foreign devils who want to keep the Sri Lankans divided. Yet another view – probably widely current – is that President Rajapakse and his associates have conjured up the specter of a Muslim existential threat as that will boost his Dutugemunu image as the leader who is best equipped to deal with it. That will help win the next round of elections. My own view is that all those and similar views are either sincerely mistaken or are ways of evading the real underlying problem, which is the problem of Sinhalese racism, or more precisely the problem of racism among the Sinhalese power elite. The so-called Muslim ethnic problem should properly be regarded as an epiphenomenon, something of a secondary order which has issued from the primary underlying problem of the Sinhalese power elite racism.

I will substantiate my argument with some historical facts. The great historic divide in Sinhalese-Muslim relations took the form of the 1915 anti-Muslim riots. It set up a fear psychosis among the Muslims which endures to this day, and is particularly lively at present because of an expectation that 2015 might witness a commemorative holocaust against the Muslims. The next stage was Independence and the coming to power of D.S.Senanayake whom our Muslims saw as a thorough-going anti-Muslim racist – "communalist" in the parlance of that time. That impression arose as a consequence of a Muslim delegation meeting him to complain about Indian encroachments into the world of Muslim business. His response was that Sri Lanka had not won independence to enable the Muslims to make money. Fair enough, but would he have made that response if the Indian encroachments had been into the sphere of Sinhalese business interests and a Sinhalese delegation had complained about it? Surely not. I must clarify before proceeding further that there was no Muslim hatred towards DSS – there being little or no hatred in our politics in those days. It was a matter of regret, not hatred, because in spite of his racism the Muslims regarded him as essentially a decent person who wouldn’t want any great harm to befall the Muslims. I am making this clarification to emphasize something that should always be borne in mind: our Muslims are not given to demonizing the Sinhalese and therefore the possibility of sensible pragmatic accommodation on Sinhalese-Muslim issues is always there.

I will now mention just a few further details that point to Sinhalese anti-Muslim racism. From 1976 to around 2002 there were a series of anti-Muslim ructions, often of a minor order but sometimes extremely serious such as the Hulftsdorp riots of December 1993, on which I wrote a two-part article in the Lanka Guardian. The Muslims were always the victims – they never dared retaliate – suffering the consequences of being born into the wrong ethnic group. But the media resolutely refused to recognize any ethnic dimension in those riots, putting them all into the category of "fracas between thugs". As for our Governments, they resolutely refused to take the kind of punitive action that could have had a deterrent effect. I pointed out in my article on the Hulftsdorp riots that Lee Kwan-Yew would have done so, without too much scruple for the niceties of the law, and there never would have been any ethnic rioting in Singapore thereafter. The failure to take effective punitive action clearly points to anti-Muslim racism in the Sinhalese power elite. I must mention also the anti-Muslim diatribes of the late Ven.Soma Thera; the "Grease Yaka" exploits targeting Muslim females; and the kidnapping of wealthy Muslims which led to some Muslim businessmen fleeing the country temporarily.

The anti-Muslim campaign should therefore be seen in the perspective of anti-Muslim racism, particularly in the period after 1976. It is best understood in terms of a paradigm of racism, about which I will now set out what seem to me to be the essential points. In traditional societies there was little or no room for upward mobility, which became possible on a large scale with the expanding modern economy. After 1945 practically every government in the world has given importance to the spread of literacy, which has led to widespread aspirations towards upward mobility. These two facts – the possibility of upward mobility and the aspirations towards it – have led to a struggle for scarce resources among ethnic groups. This is the context for modern racism as distinct from earlier varieties of it.

We need to have a clear understanding of what is meant by racism. Practically every ethnic group in the world has a propensity to believe that its way of life incarnates all the best of which the human race is capable, and consequently that all other ethnic groups are inferior. That propensity leads to ethnocentric prejudice which seems to be practically ubiquitous all over the world. But if that amounts to racism, we will have to acknowledge that racism is integral to the human condition, something that is quite normal about which no corrective action can be taken. The important point is that racism has to issue in action, not just stop at the level of belief. The racist believes that the Other is inferior or threatening, or both, and also that he should be treated as inferior, or be excluded, or even be subjected to genocide. Sometimes the racist sees the Other as a scapegoat, as being somehow responsible for all or most of the ills of a society. We can see that very clearly in the ravings of the BBS about our Muslims.

(To be continued)

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