Is a Religious War our Next Fate?


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"...the inexplicable actually happens."

Tadeusz Borowski (This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman)

When Philip Pullman’s provocatively titled book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, came out, it was greeted by the British public not with death-threats, lawsuits or mob-violence, but words. In his own response to the book, Dr. Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, neither screamed ‘heresy’ nor demanded a book-banning. His was a reasoned critique; praise and blame and, in conclusion, a reiteration of the literary superiority and the practical relevance of the New Testament.

It was not always so in England, in Europe and within Christianity. Once, and not so long ago, Mr. Pullman’s book would have been banned, and he would have faced incarceration, if not worse. The Christian West paid a heavy price for religious intolerance, in blood and devastation, in lost opportunities and retarded progress. The nadir of politicised Christianity and the theocratic experiment came with the Thirty Year War. Fought mainly along Catholic vs. Protestant lines, it claimed around nine million lives and turned Central Europe, its main battleground, into a wasteland, with survivors condemned to a life of destitution and barbarity, not excluding cannibalism.

When Christian Occident was mired in religiously-motivated bloodletting, Hindu, Buddhist and Islam Orient were places of relative tolerance. Asia, Africa or the Middle East never underwent the equivalent of a Thirty Years War or Roman/Spanish Inquisition. It was the East rather than the West which became a breeding ground for enlightened rulers whose political visions were far in advance of their times, from Ashoka to Akbar. The East did persecute the religious-other, but not universally or continuously as did Europe, and not with such unrelenting brutality. There were beheadings and incarcerations, but no systematic auto-da-fes or witch hunts. Perhaps the most potent symbol of that difference was the final Eastern outpost in the West, the city of Granada. Islamic Granada in Catholic Spain was a metropolis of mosques, synagogues and churches, gardens and libraries, Europe’s sole oasis of religious pluralism. In his lyrical drama Almansor, Heinrich Heine expressed in three short lines the transformation of Granada from a haven of tolerance into a hell of fanaticism, after it fell to Spain:

"I hear the poor old woman as she weeps –

She liked to eat roast goose on Friday, therefore

Now she herself is roasted, for God’s glory."

Europe suffered, and learned the wages of religious fanaticism, even though the learning curve was a long and uneven one. In the end, the excesses of religion led to its own downfall. The constant bloodletting in the name of God caused public weariness and cynicism, paving the way for the growth of scepticism and secularism.

We in the East, thanks to our histories of greater tolerance (or lesser intolerance), were spared of major religious wars. As a consequence, we have no real understanding of what religious conflicts can do to people, countries and civilisations. In our ignorance we are opening national and regional doors to theocratic ideas and intolerant practices, thereby risking the kind of bloody strife which convulsed Europe for centuries.

The Strange Re-advent of the BBS

What if a Sinhala-Buddhist wrote a book supportive of the Buddha’s teachings but critical of Buddhism as an organised religion? No Lankan publisher would touch such a book, even sans such a provocative title as Mr. Pullman’s; and if printed outside the country, the state would not permit its importation. Instead of reasoned debate, which incidentally was the Buddha’s way, there’ll be invective and violence. The BBS-types will try to ignite the sort of murder and mayhem which happened over the publication of Prophet Mohamed-cartoons. Politicians of all stripes will try to outdo each other in vituperative rhetoric. The extremists will drown out the moderates, within the state, in the media and on the street.

The presidential election of 2015 was a defeat not just for the Rajapaksas. It was also a defeat for Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. And for the next two years, the BBS-types skulked on the margins of polity and society, deprived of the powers and privileges they had enjoyed previously. Extremism was not dead and gone, but it had lost the ability to command the state, dictate to the government and ignore the law.

There is no official racism; yet. But increasingly a level of tolerance is being accorded to lay and ordained purveyors of Sinhala-Buddhist racism which bodes ill for the dream of a pluralist, tolerant and humane Sri Lanka. Suddenly attacks on Muslim shops and mosques, are proliferating. The attacks are not limited to any particular locality, but extremely widespread, from urban Dematagoda via suburban Maharagama to rural Mahiyangana. So far the police have been inexcusably incompetent in prevention and in detection. And Lankan police suffer such generalised and spectacular failure only when a political hand is holding them back.

The suspicion of a political-cover for anti-Muslim arsonists is bolstered by the sudden transformation of the incendiary Sinhala-Buddhist monk, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara into a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel. He is giving interviews and issuing threats, even as the police supposedly seek him ‘here, there and everywhere.’ His elusive power is clearly not his own; it cannot come from the Rajapaksas either, even though he is serving their agenda, wittingly or unwittingly. He has other patrons, power-wielders ensconced at the highest levels of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.

The resurgence of the anti-Muslim hate campaign is extremely harmful to the government. Unfortunately, the government’s response to the plague of religious racism has been slow and tepid so far, nothing more than anodyne statements. Incidentally, there is no need to bring in special laws, as the PM says he is willing to do. The problem is not the absence of laws. The problem is that the existing laws are not being implemented. Currently anti-Muslim arsonists and Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara seem to be enjoying a level of impunity not available even to most cabinet ministers.

Though religious extremism is not a charge which can be levelled against either the President or the Prime Minister, their unwillingness to openly condemn the BBS or to unleash the full force of law on the criminal attackers indicates a worrying absence of will. The government has been ceding the moral high-ground on issue after issue, from corruption to environment, from the economy to foreign relations, from devolution to justice. The lackadaisical response to renewed anti-Muslim violence is one more step down this same road of moral cowardice and political opportunism.

When progressive and moderate Muslims campaigned for reforms in the archaic Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), the government retreated into silence and inactivity. It feared to take a stand, feared to incur the wrath of Muslim extremists who demonstrated in Colombo defending child marriage and openly threatened moderate Muslims. The government is now displaying a similar inability to stand up to the blustering of the BBS. Had the government acted decisively and allowed the police to complete investigations and arrest all suspects, the situation would have returned to normal by now. By allowing the BBS to break the law with impunity, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is providing encouragement and succour to extremists.

The growth of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism cannot but lead to a reactive growth of Islamic extremism.Majoritarian extremism gave rise to minoritarian extremism in the ethnic realm. The same disaster will be repeated in the religious realm as well, if the government fails to honour the mandate of January 8 and August 19, 2015.

Will we ever learn?

When the LTTE launched the Four Four Bravo ambush, Tigers and other armed Tamil group were suffering from a dearth of money, manpower, weapons and local and international support. Black July changed all that, in a flash.

Contrary to popular myths, Black July was not unleashed by the UNP (or the JVP). The UNP’s guilt – and it is guilty – lies in different failures; it failed to prevent the seeding of the conflagration; it failed to stymie its outbreak; and it failed to crackdown on the mobs once violence started. Cyril Mathethew and Gamini Dissanayake were allowed to engage in their anti-Tamil propaganda with impunity. The former, in particular, played a crucial role in the systematic spreading of lies about a Tamil takeover of Sri Lanka. Booklets were published, articles written and speeches made about the predominance of Tamils in universities, business and civil service. The resultant Sinhala fears of Tamils taking over our jobs, our lands, our economy and our wealth, of Tamils becoming the ‘Mahajathiya’ and turning us into the ‘Sulujathiya’ paved the way for Black July.

But the UNP’s greatest sin was that its topmost leader, the man with whom the buck stopped, lost his political nerve at a crucial moment. After the Four-Four-Bravo attack, President JR Jayewardene was pressurised by hardline elements to permit the airlifting of the bodies of the 13 soldiers to Colombo, even though none of the dead men were from the city. In his biography of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sirisena Cooray reveals how Mr. Premadasa and he managed to dissuade President Jayewardene from acceding to this disastrous demand. A few hours later, Mr. Cooray met Mrs. Jayewardene at a wedding and a visibly worried First Lady informed him that the bodies would be brought to Colombo after all. "I do not know whose idea it is," Mrs. Jayewardene is quoted saying. Subsequently PM Premadasa phoned Sirisena Cooray and confirmed the news. President Jayewardene’s second mistake was putting the army in charge once violence broke out. "After the killing of the 13 soldiers, the mood in the military was a very dangerous one and they were not really motivated in stopping the violence. If the police had been given a free hand, they would have done a much better job."

Today we are living through the pre-history of an anti-Muslim riot. The demonising of all Muslims as fanatics hell-bent on taking over our land, our economy and our women is already happening. Once the kindling is ready, any spark, real or spurious, would do.

The plague is not an exclusive Lankan malaise. From Hindu India and Islamic Indonesia to Buddhist Myanmar, extremism is gaining ground and claiming victories. The Middle East is now closer than ever to the Sunni-Shia war its previous rulers had the sense to avoid. A madness has seized Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist minds, making them immune not just to pity and decency, not just to reason and logic, but also to obvious self-interest. If moderates of all nations - political and religious leaders, opinion-makers and ordinary people - do not speak louder, stand firmer and act faster, religious strife will become the norm in the East, as it was once in the West, denuding whatever development and progress we have achieved in the past.

As Martha Nussbaum points out, the real clash of civilization is "within virtually all modern nations —between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single ‘pure’ religious and ethnic tradition."ii And in that clash the BBS is on the same side as the Islamic State. The question is will the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration honour its mandate and stand with the forces of moderation or will it betray its own people by ceding the stage to extremists?

i President Premadasa and I: Our Story – B Sirisena Cooray

ii The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future

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