30 May 2019

Reconciliation does not grow in the Valley of Lies

Negombo. May 5, 2019. Two weeks after the Jihadist attacks. Who attacked Muslims, who boycotted Muslim shops?   

Half a truth here, half a truth there
armed with half-truths onward
all in the Valley of Lies
rode the six hundred.
‘Forward the Lie Brigade!
Charge for the monks!’ he said.
Into the Valley of Lies
rode the six hundred.

Sorry, Alfie. Couldn’t resist. These are tense times and a half-chuckle here and there you would pardon, I am sure. I was reminded of the verse by a number: 300. Half, yes, but this is only half the story. Read on.

In June 2014, 300 Sri Lankans petitioned the then Government to ‘take urgent action to stop attacks on Muslims’. This was in the aftermath of incidents in Aluthgama, Beruwala, Welipenna and Dharga Town, and pointed out to inflammatory speech by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Aluthgama, Beruwala, Welipenna etc was followed a few years later by Theldeniya and Digana as names associated with violence. Anti-Muslim violence. Violence perpetrated by those who affirmed the Buddhist faith, as per their convictions and understanding. 

In both instances, the Buddhists are made out to have clapped with a single hand, the statements would have us believe. We could quibble about who cast the first stone or who cast more stones, but there are few who are blameless. Well, no one need cast stones and even if ‘the other’ did so, it does not justify retaliation (if indeed that was what it was) of the kind we saw. That said, the popular narrative among the English twitterati is that stone-throwing or rather the casting of the first stone is a Sinhala Buddhist preserve, a ‘fact’ that even  absolves suicide bombers. 

Today, however, it seems that stones have been gathered a long time before ‘Aluthgama’ with or without the knowledge of people living in these areas. ‘Without’ let’s assume. No, let’s say ‘Without!’ with conviction, for grand generalization is a curse.   

What happened to the ‘300’  worthies (and their ilk, numbering well over 600) after the Easter Sunday attack by Muslims who claim to be affirming to the letter their faith? Not all such petitioners are in the practice of issuing statements at every turn, although the Easter Sunday attack was not exactly something trivial. Still, typically, there are signature-solicitors in such exercises. What happened to them? Why was Aluthgama, Theldeniya etc., ‘hot’ and ‘Easter Sunday’ cold? How did the anti-Muslim violence in Negombo following the attack and the boycotting of Muslim business  establishments go unnoticed? Was it noticed but ignored because the perpetrators did not belong to the community such people love to hate, namely the Sinhala Buddhists? Only D.B.S. Jeyaraj talked of what happened in Poruthota, Periyamulla and Dalupotha on May 5, 2019. Is it that our anti-Buddhist anti-Sinhala mobs didn’t find a mouth-watering story to tell? 

Anyway, all of a sudden, in the name of inter-communal amity, we are told to desist from naming the religion of the terrorists, the religion in whose name they killed. So we have a nameless commentator in the state media talking about ‘the hidden hands behind the anti-Muslim riots’. This print warrior will hopefully, even belatedly, tell us about all the hidden hands behind the terrorists affirming their Islamic faith, i.e. the terrorist-spawning educational institutions, mosques and most importantly the teachings, which sadly amount to a perversion of Islam (according to Islamic scholars) but nevertheless taken to be that doctrine in its purest form.  

Jehan Perera, writing in late April believes that Sri Lanka was dragged into a global conflict with Islamic extremism. His biggest worry was that the present government would lost the Catholic vote!  As has always been the case, and evidenced by subsequent missives, Perera is upset by the inconvenience of security measures. Happily he is not in charge of the subject. Again, in a piece about engagement being the price of reconciliation, he expresses his greatest worry — the ouster of this regime. More pertinent is the this human rights warrior’s marked reluctance to engage with the reality of religion-based extremism, how religious freedom was and is being abused to churn out terrorists, and how the problem is deeper than a bunch of people itching to blow themselves up. 

Thisaranee Gunasekara, who loves to chew out Sinhala Buddhists, writing in April unequivocally lays the blame on that community for anti-Muslim violence. It was the BBS that gave birth to Wahhabism, the ISIS and the NTJ, doctrines and outfits that pre-date ‘Aluthgama,’ she would have us believe. Sinhala Buddhists created the hell that is Syria, she might even conclude one day. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is a bit cuter than Gunasekara: ‘The violence, the animosity, Sinhala Buddhist versus Muslim, certainly could have led to these people becoming much more radicalized.’ 

They haven’t gone as far as Taylor Dibbert of www.foreignpolicy.com to say ‘Buddhist anger could tear Sri Lanka apart’, but that’s exactly where they are heading.  Susan Ormiston of CBC news who interviewed Saravanamuttu and others interjects, casually, ‘Buddhism is the majority religion and has seen the rise of ultra-nationalist groups.’  Interestingly and tellingly, the CBC news item covering an inter-faith event following the terrorist attack huffs and puffs before mentioning the ISIS and even then only in relation to some uniforms being found. Until then it’s about ‘bombings’ and ‘the Easter Sunday attack’. However, CBC is determined to ‘explain how this network of homegrown terrorism grew’. 

There you have it — homegrown. Home. Sri Lankan, exclusively. So it has to be something here. And then we have ‘the experts’ who are either non-Buddhists, anti-Buddhists or feel compelled to be on the bahu jaathika - bahu aagamika (multi religious, multi ethnic) bandwagon, never mind percentages. They relate the ‘Buddhists are to blame’ story.  Terrorists have no religion, we are told, but those who attack Muslims are Buddhist extremists (if they are not Buddhists, as mentioned above, such stories are killed). 

A more sophisticated (but as pernicious) analysis has been offered by Anuk Arudpragasam (‘A state of disorientation: dispatch from Sri Lanka after the Easter Bombings’), who mentions the ‘global factors’ but insists that it is all about ‘the country’s unwillingness to see how it has inflicted wounds on minorities.’ He speaks of deeply engrained racism and unexamined history of violence. All of a sudden, we have the old, tired and pernicious text, ‘the Sinhala Buddhist are to blame!’ And the unsaid but racist, ostrich-like  corollary, ‘minorities are blameless’.  He is right, however, when he says, ‘it is easier sometimes to follow a script, after all, even when it comes at the cost of peace.’ He’s a proponent, and he’s not alone.

All this makes it impossible to address ALL THE FACTORS because few in this drama are blameless.  ‘We are all guilty therefore we are all innocent’ is also a cover, we must insist. However, a preference for half-truths or downright lies (for laudable or vile reasons) takes us to the Vale of Deceit and that is where mistrust, anxiety and hatred are spawned. Looking for root-causes is one thing, but to say, for example, that the LTTE, BBS or NTJ (and no, they are not equals for multiple reasons) gave birth to the other two (or different ‘others’) or, alternatively, they all fell from the sky, is to pass the buck (that was always with all of us) to one another.  

So we get to a point where we cannot entertain any doubts whatsoever about any non-Sinhala non-Buddhist doing wrong. That would be racist. That would be intolerant. That’s what we are being told about Dr Shafi Shihabdeen, the man accused of performing forced sterilization following Caesarian surgery.

One must wonder what happened to the women’s rights outfits that are constantly looking for a protest-op. We all know that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has not stopped them before. 

Are Sinhala Buddhist women ‘untouchables’ if they suspect someone from another community abusing professional trust (to put it mildly)? Why can’t they ask all women ‘Caesared’ by Shihabdeen and who gave birth subsequently as well to come forward, so we can get an identity-related breakdown of the numbers and thereby get to the truth of the matter? 

The tireless efforts to hang the Sinhala Buddhist as the one and only villain in this drama cannot help reconciliation. Indeed, it allows those who in the name of identity plan and execute violence of one kind or another on religious or other minorities the perfect cover. They would be, simply, just a bunch of villains in a villainous majority community. 

On the flip side, it allows (as it has allowed) the quiet rise of racist and bigoted ideologies and attendant violence. They have the cover of the classic justification: ‘in self defense!’   

The bottom line: identity should not be a cover or an excuse for infringement of the law or abuse of constitutional safeguards such as religious freedoms. The ‘600’ (or more) are not helping. Well, they are helping all extremists, one could add. Half-truths do that.