09 March 2020

Kandy, forums and ‘exclusionary-integrationists’

Rights. Privileges. Whines. Humbuggery.

There are all kinds of collectives. Forums are essentially gatherings about ideas, i.e. their articulation, exchange and debate. So when a formal forum issues a statement one assumes that it is an outcome of deliberation. In general, there’s a lot to be said for discussion. It’s much better than ad hoc, arbitrary and careless assertions and prescriptions. I had never heard of anything called a Kandy Forum before, pardon my ignorance, but when a missive was issued by an outfit by that name, I was curious.

Kandy. Nice town. Historic. A half century worth of personal association and therefore memories. A place where I’ve witnessed and have partaken of discussion and debate on a multiplicity of subjects. So I wondered what this ‘Kandy Forum’ had to say. 

The topic was interesting and topical: ‘Sri Lankan politics and the dilemma of Muslim Community — an appeal for a change in the political climate.’ This was first published in the website Colombo Telegraph. 

Now any dilemmas suffered by any community is cause for concern of all communities, obviously, and if any forum of citizens was committed to addressing such issues it is certainly laudable. Ideally of course such a forum would include to the extent possible as wide a range of representatives of relevant stakeholders. The signatories were all Muslims. Disappointing. All men. Doubly disappointing. 

Now there’s nothing wrong in Muslims talking about their dilemmas. Using the name ‘Kandy’ however is misleading for it’s not the case that Kandy is a 100% Muslim city or district. Let’s just say it was used as a brand name, just like the clothes store. 

Let’s move to the substance. It was, all in all, a litany of woes about how Muslims have been victimized. Nothing wrong in that. Those who perceive victimization are best positioned to talk about it, after all.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:

First of all, there is reference to the polarization of the nation in terms of communal identity, ethnic and religious, as indicated by the voting patterns in November 2019. There’s a claim (unsubstantiated) about ‘a virulent anti-Muslim campaign by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists to maximize the Sinhala votes (for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, one assumes).’ Choice is a product of multiple factors. How the KF (Kandy Forum) figured out that the Sinhala Buddhists were moved by anti-Muslim sentiments one cannot tell. The KF quickly shifts terminological gear to talk about ‘Islamaphobic Propaganda Machinery.’ A claim. Unsubstantiated.

They bring in the history-factor. Clever. So it didn’t fall from the sky, ‘it’ meaning the alleged Islamophobia and (resultant?) victimization. The emergence of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and proportional representation are cited as contributing factors. The KF explains that this gave the SLMC leverage in forming government. This enraged the Sinhala chauvinists in the polity, they claim and fault them for ‘not noting the historical contribution of the Muslim community and Muslim leaders for the development of the country.’

It’s an easy play, this: focus on extremists from the majority community, deny by being silent any kind of extremism on the part of minorities, wax eloquent about Muslim ‘contributions’ without talking numbers or ratios. You get ‘victim’ at the end of that road, naturally. The mischief is best revealed in the way the KF talks about the Easter Sunday attacks.

‘From 2012 this situation (anti-Muslim sentiment) started to change and the unfortunate outburst of Easter Sunday attack in April 2019 culminated and paved the way for resentment, animosity and hatred to reach an unprecedented level in the history of Muslims in Sri Lanka.’

Yes, the Easter Sunday attack was ‘unfortunate’ but that’s putting it mildly. No mention of which community the attackers belonged to or what their faith was. Let’s do it now. Muslims. Islamic faith. Jihadists. Led by virulently anti-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist Islamic clerics. What’s interesting is the downplay of all that and the up-play, if you will, of what happened later. Let’s re-quote: ‘animosity and hatred [reached] an unprecedented level in the history of Muslims in Sri Lanka.’ 

Now let’s get some perspective. How many were killed on Easter Sunday? What was the total damage in the aftermath of the terrorist attack? There was suspicion, yes, and that’s understandable, isn’t it? After all, identity-assertion by Muslims and an assertion that mimicked those hate/terrorist-groups spawned by Wahhabism complemented by hate-speech calling that spoke of Sharia ruled Sri Lanka and even attacking Buddhists. Why is the KF absolutely silent on this clearly discernible rise of fundamentalism within the Muslim community? Is it all attributable (in their book) to ‘a response to Sinhala Buddhist extremism,’ never mind the global dimensions of these trends and the violence and hatred they spew? All of that is left out and the act (of terrorism) called ‘unfortunate’. The response is not called ‘unfortunate’. It’s more like appalling!

Another gear-shift follows. This time it is about ‘true national political parties’. The KF is upset that major political parties are strongly biased on majority community interests. Is that surprising in a representative democracy? That’s not being communalist. If Muslims feel threatened for whatever reason, Muslims could and have come together politically and have harvested much from fears (and of course aspirations). So it’s easy: let the Muslims club together but the Sinhala-Buddhists must not! So it’s easy, ‘let there be a Sri Lankan identity asserted by Sinhalese and Buddhists, but let other communities, ethnic and religious, indulge in in-your-face identity-assertion even to the extent of promoting by omission or commission extremisms that could (as they have) unleash terrorism on other communities which, after the fact, could be labeled ‘unfortunate.’

So the KF wants everyone to put country before all other interests and ‘refrain from propagating ethnic and religious hatred and exclusive partisan politics.’ They interject, footnote-like, a light note to Muslims, asking them to ‘develop an integrated policy framework for national and community development and social harmony.’ Nice words. How honest though, considering the abject refusal to place any blame on that particular community for the state of affairs that the KF laments? How honest, indeed, considering that 'integration' within the community is a no-no when it comes to women? How honest, also, when one consider the KF says nothing about the many privileges enjoyed exclusively by the Muslims such as holidays, off-days, half-days way disproportionate to population, not forgetting special 'leave' for widows denied other communities?

The KF appears to be great at prescription but accomplished truants when it comes to affirming prescription by practice. This is evident in the composition of the KF, the exclusionary nature of their thinking and communication and in its slant in narrative, analysis, conclusion and recommendation. 

The beginning and end are nicely put. All about integration. All about co-existence. The meat is in the middle, in mid-sentence, in asides and silences. Nothing nice about it.  

That said, let the KL’s initiative (inauspicious, slanted, silent on culpabilities and complicities though it is) be seen as an opportunity. Let the KL engage in a bit of self-criticism and start practicing inclusivity, integration and integrity at home. A bit of honesty and a retiring of selective memory might also help. 

Let’s see.