30 November 2016

A love note on countering hate-speech

President Maithripala Sirisena has instructed the IGP and Chiefs of Security Forces to arrest all those who incited racism.  At the Security Council meeting where these instructions were given, Minister Mano Ganeshan, it is reported, had drawn the attention of the President to a statement made by a bikkhu in Batticaloa which, he claims, hurt the Tamil people. The President is said to have inquired about enacting new laws to enable action against people who incited racism and Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had said that steps have been taken to draft the law and had also pointed out that there are existing provisions to imprison inciters of racism for a period of a year.  

It must also be mentioned that the Bodu Bala Sena held a demonstration where anti-Muslim sentiments were openly and vociferously expressed.  The Thowheed Jama’ath responded by condemning inflammatory speech.  One also observes that notwithstanding Minister Rajapakshe’s assurances, a previous attempt to ban hate speech through the ‘Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill’ and the ‘Penal Code Amendment Bill’ came to naught with both bills being withdrawn following objections by 22 ‘civil society’ organizations. At the time the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also strongly opposed the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees to every citizen the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression including publication.

It is strange that the Minister of Justice, who is said to have placed these draft amendments in the Order Paper, had not noticed the inconsistency.  Perhaps he did and was just going through the motions to keep happy those (equally ignorant) organizations that screamed their heads off wanting some kind of constitutional guarantee prohibiting ‘hate speech’.  

The problem lies perhaps in the very word ‘inciting’, which in this context is predicated on what is called ‘hatred’.  We can toss in ‘intolerance’ and frame it all in the complex context of democracy, the freedoms and limitations therein.  

The problem is that the good intentions clearly evident in the President’s directive and in proposed legislation come into serious conflict with both freedom of expression and the much celebrated notion of ‘religious freedom’, not to mention the subjective nature of the term ‘inciting’.   

Let’s start with a simple example.  Parents and children.  Parents punish children.  No child is happy to receive punishment.  They often resent and are often convinced that their parents hate them.  If you asked the parents, they would probably say ‘it is because we love them!’ And if you want a religious example, let’s take a crude one, just to illustrate the point.  In “Asterix and the Vikings’ the Vikings pacifying a Gaul they were planning to kill, claimed they were going to do the poor man a favor so he can thereafter wine and dine in Valhalla. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of love and hate.  It’s a personal thing.  Two people can view the same act (say, of punishment) differently. 

If it’s all about making illegal anything that ‘propagates war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility of violence’ (as is worded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] Act No 56 of 2007) then we don’t need such amendments.  As the TNA has argued, Sri Lanka is compliant with this Act. 

It was first mooted by Vasudeva Nanayakkara and later, when the Bodu Bala Sena was riding high, Rauff Hakeem, then the Minister of Justice picked up the baton.  It is interesting that if passed, the Act would effectively make illegal much of the Left rhetoric such as ‘Dhanapatheen Banghavewa’ (down with the capitalists)!  It can be construed as a threat, a death threat in fact!  But such details aside, the Act is not without problems notwithstanding compliance with the ICCPR Act which makes is superfluous.

Since all this is about religious communities, let’s talk religion.  Let’s talk of Christianity and Islam and the relevant texts, namely the Bible and Quran respectively.  

Now both the Bible and the Quran have wonderful explications of the notion of love.  They talk of community, solidarity, tolerance, peace, sharing and caring.  The devil, so to speak, is in the details, for amidst all this, there is a lot of content which would be objectionable in the narrative of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and such.  

These are, let us point out at the outset, are texts that many adherents swear by.  Indeed, some may argue that the ‘word’ is the foundation, king-post, edifice and roof of the particular religion.

Let us consider some of the relevant content.

In the Old Testament, we can cite Exodus 22: 22, "He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed."  It can be generally interpreted as a call for the genocide of followers of all religions other than Judaism and Christianity.  One must remember that those who consider followers of other faiths ‘infidels’, let’s say, can easily interpret to serve their purpose.    The clause ‘incitement to discrimination, hostility of violence’ is easily satisfied here.

Leviticus 20:13 would amount for the mass killing of all gay persons.  Deuteronomy 13:1-5 is particularly gruesome: ‘If there arise among you a prophet, ... saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them...And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death...So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee....’ 

There’s also Psalms 79:6: ‘Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name.’  Need we elaborate?

Matthew 27: 24-25, John 8:44 and Corinthians 10:20-21 also contain similar ‘devilment’ as does Revelation 2:9.

What does the Quran say? The list is long, but  a couple of quotes would serve our purpose:2:191-193 Fight and kill unbelievers until “religion is Allah’s” (i.e. Islamic law rules all societies).
47:4  “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads. So it shall be; and if Allah had willed, He would have avenged Himself upon them; but that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will not send their works astray.”

Let’s stop there.  Of course the overall context in which such words were uttered ought to be mentioned before rushing to judgment but these religions themselves and certainly the courts by their very existence presume that such patience and wisdom as are necessary for this is rare.  If there’s ‘bad wording,’ we can rest assured that frail human beings will take them out of context.  There’s a lot of history that can be referenced and a lot of bloodshed too.   

So if you want to talk ‘inciting’, there are lots of places to visit, unless you want to be selective and therefore racist/communalist in your practice. 

The Amendments referred to above have been withdrawn, but Minister Rajapakshe has promised ‘new laws’.  We don’t know what they are or when they will be presented to Parliament.  However, the international covenant stands.  And we are complaint, according to the TNA.  The Bible and the Quran both stand in violation of the Covenant.  Are we going to do something about it?  In other words, are we going to petition for an amendment to the ICCPR Act or are we going to ask each and every Christian and Muslims whether he or she strictly adheres to the entirety of these texts?  Would that be fair?  

The sad and vexed truth is that there are no shortcuts to handling inter-communal (especially inter-religious) antipathies.  Dialogue among communities can help, but that’s probably not going to work with fundamentalists such as the ISIS, those subscribing to Wahabism and indeed some Christian denominations or, the ‘case at hand’, the Bodu Bala Sena.  The Thowheed Jama’ath would be hard pressed to apply the morality expressed (as quoted above) to the Quran and inflammatory content therein.  

In the end it boils down to decent people from all communities, religious and otherwise, to step in, stand up and be counted because, simply, there are things that the law simply cannot deal with without relevant authorities being called out for selectivity in application and themselves charged for being racist/intolerant.

As for the legislators, they should do their homework before coming up with the kind of nonsense that was presented in Parliament and later withdrawn.  That’s basic.  They should know that interpretation that is highly subjective makes for different kinds of violations and possible exacerbation of existing tensions and antipathies.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene