Against Closed Doors. For Inter-Religious Dialogue in Lanka

 Amarakeerthi Liyanage, a review article from year 2014, surveying World Literature: A Reader ed, by Prof. Cesar Domingues et al (Routledge, 2013)

Boston_marathon_bombing_22 Pic from

When I heard about the Boston explosions I had many hopes. First, I hoped that my teacher, who is at Harvard, was safe. Second, I hoped no one was killed. Third, I hoped there was no any Muslim connection to the explosion. Finally, I hoped Boston, one of my favourite American cities, liberal, left-wing, cosmopolitan and intellectually bent, was not disrupted by any fundamentalist attacks, internal or external.

I found out soon enough that my teacher was safe. Sadly, some people died, including an eight-year old boy- someone from my son’s generation. America has its own fundamentalists. When it goes to war, America (Washington) itself is fundamentalist. International terrorism is a real problem and all fundamentalists are party to that terrorism. America’s not-so-democratic acts in the past also keep following like the cart behind the oxen as it has in a Dhammapada verse. In Sri Lanka too we have to be mindful of our collective Karma.

BBS in Aluthgama

My third hope was much more Sri Lankan than personal. In Sri Lanka, Bodu Bala Sena (‘the army of Buddhist power’) – the newest and crudest version of Sinhala nationalism- is up against Sri Lankan Muslims, claiming that they are invading the social, cultural, economic spheres, pushing aside the Sinhala majority. I do not know the factual position. But the rhetoric seems to suggest something much more dangerous than the facts (even if they are correct) ever could. Some of the BBS (or of the populace attracted to the organization) accusations are really absurd: some Muslim-owned clothing store (a chain of shops in fact) is selling an incredible female underwear that makes Sinhala women barren. The argument is that this shop chain is part of a Muslim conspiracy to reduce the Sinhala population in the country.

One of my friends from Scotland wanted to buy that particular underwear so that he can control the population growth in his country. But, according to the BBS, that underwear only upsets the workings of the relevant organs of Sinhala-Buddhist women! So, he did not buy it. Apart from these absurd claims, there is a real lack of understanding between the two communities for which the civil society of both communities is responsible. It is the lack of understanding that gives rise to these absurd urban myths, which are more political than factual. America too had them: McCarthyism was a result of that and McCarthyism is not totally gone.

I do not know what kinds of myths Muslim fundamentalists in Sri Lanka are propagating against Sinhala people. There must be some equally funny ones. Fundamentalisms are fun if no one believes them; but many do. Sinhala people certainly do: look at Facebook.

Anyway, I hoped that there was nothing Muslim about the Boston bombing because the Sinhala racist BBS who would have benefited by it. (The BBS leaders were to visit the US when the explosion occurred. There is an argument that the US is happy for the BBS because they are against Muslims: I hope the argument is wrong.) They would have claimed that their fight against Sri Lankan Muslims was right and based on facts. Yes. Islamic fundamentalism is much more global than Sinhala fundamentalism and we all have to be aware of that fact while being cognizant that US imperialism actually helps Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic civilization, however, is not all about fundamentalisms or parochialisms. It has a great history of mutual understanding and sharing. Amartaya Sen’s Argumentative Indian (2005) describes some aspects of it. According to Sen, there were some Muslim kings and queens who encouraged democratic debate and participated in them. They saw themselves as Indians not as Arabs.

Scholarly work

There are a significant number of scholarly works highlighting Islamic contributions to human civilization. The Ornament of the World, by Professor Maria Rosa Menocal shows how Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities contributed to the creation of European culture in medieval Spain. Living in Spain when writing this essay, I can see even today hues and flavours of Islam and Arabic culture in an ancient city like Santiago de Compostela, even though the beautiful city is markedly Catholic.

Many Indian scholarly works on Urdu and Hindi literature show how Islamic culture contributed to the making of modern literary cultures in South Asia. The new literary genres brought to South Asia by Islamic scholars and writers made our literary culture even richer. Ghazal would be a famous example. Professor Shamur Rahman Faruqui’s excellent book Early Urdu Literary Culture and History is one of those books I studied with one of the great teachers of mine: Professor Muhammad Umar Memon. When reading Faruqui’s book I always wondered why Sri Lankan Muslim scholars could not engage in such studies. I am still to see a systematic study of Sri Lankan Muslim literature. There may be things in Tamil, I am sure. But our Muslim scholars must present such studies in a way that deepens our inter-ethnic understanding. One aim of their scholarship must be to develop a dialogue with the Sinhala community. To say that is not a pro-majority argument but a cosmopolitan one.

Only my friend, a brilliant poet and scholar, Professor M. A. Nuhman, has made such an attempt worth noting. His recent interview with the Sinhala daily Janarala was a window to the heart of a moderate and liberal Muslim intellectual. We need more like him. (There are some books by Nilar N. Casim, but they are more journalistic than scholarly).

Creating new knowledge

Three days after the Boston bombs, Professor Cesar Dominquez, a rising star in the field of Comparative Literature in Europe, showed me his copy of a brand new book that Routledge has published this year: World Literature: A Reader. It is edited by Theo D’haen, Mada Rosendhal Thomson and Dominguez himself. This collection of essays is sure to enrich our knowledge of the globally-rooted human activity called ‘literary writing.’ But the first essay of the book immediately captured my attention. I borrowed the book right away because there was something in it I want to share with Sri Lankan readers as soon as possible in this age of Bodu Bala Sena.

The essay is an excerpt from a book written by a Spanish Jesuit scholar named Juan Andres and published between 1782 and 1799. Its translator, Cesar Dominguez and the editors, widen our knowledge on the concept of world literature by presenting it as the first chapter of the book. The origin of the concept of “world literature” in the West is often attributed to Goethe. This piece shows that the concept has somewhat older antecedents in Europe. Juan Andres has undertaken to write a multi-volume literary history in Italian under the title of On the Origin, Progress and the Present State of All Literature covering Persian, Indian, Chinese and Arabic literatures, in addition literature in European languages. During the author’s lifetime alone, the book has gone into many editions.

The book is significant in more than one way. One of the features I like to highlight in this short essay is Juan Andres’ unfailing acknowledgement of the contribution of non-European people to the making of world literature. He points out that modern European literature is indebted to Arabic literature, for the latter has enriched the former by “re-establishing the belles lettres” or artistic writing.

“The Arabs”, continues Andres, “with their translations and studies, partly increased Greek science and, via Spain, introduced the natural sciences into Europe. They also, by cultivating all the branches of the belles lettres, gave rise to both a new kind of poetry in our regions and improved our culture and our vernacular languages. Literature was, therefore, reborn in Europe.”

Observe the Jesuit-priest author’s generous words in appreciating Arabic (Islamic) contribution to modern world literature. He also praises Indian and Chinese literature in words that were difficult to find in those early days of “Orientalism”.

Understanding ourselves anew

We in Sri Lanka must understand anew our shared humanity and culture rather than falling into the traps of cultural purisms. In this, the Buddhist fundamentalism of Bodu Bala Sena is not going to help us, and, in fact, they are there to destroy our collective memory of commonality. The ideological fathers of this group are still to say a word about their uncultured progeny. Having heard savagely racist speeches the leaders of BBS made in Kandy it is a euphemism to call them ‘uncultured.’ The response to this group from moderate Muslims is far from appealing and convincing. I did not see any Muslim intellectuals saying anything, in Sinhala or English, asking both Sinhala and Muslim communities to understand their shared history and culture that go back many centuries.

If the Muslim community in Sri Lanka also argues for returning to an Arabic pure-land of their identity, they are forgetting and throwing away some important Sri Lankan lessons we can learn about our differences and similarities. There is so much to learn from Arabic cultures and histories. But we must ask collectively: What does it mean to be a Sri Lankan Muslim? I think it is a rewarding question, too important to throw away for all communities in Sri Lanka. Sinhala community has to realize that our Sinhalaness is a product of many cultural sharings and borrowings. If we were to give away supposedly Muslim elements in our food, so-called Sinhala cuisine will be devoid of some its great flavours and some subtle taste buds in our ‘Sinhala’ tongues will be dried up like fish without water.

People like Samuel Huntington have set up a trap for us in South Asia. Huntington was an ideologue of the American right and of American imperialism and his Clash of Civilizations is a programmatic text for American imperialism. The way he describes the world in it is too simple, flat and one-dimensional. Just remember the way he casts the world under monolithic identities. For example, India for him, for example, is Hindu. He ignores the fact that so-called Hindu India is a fine mixture of many cultures, differences and languages. For Huntington, Sri Lanka is just Buddhist: no wonder some Buddhist nationalists are big fans of this American rightwing ideologue.

Groups like BBS are too dangerous to ignore but too parochial to take seriously. While watching what they are doing, it is better for us all communities to understand our shared history, shared everyday life. The week Bodu Bala Sena came to Kandy I started my lectures on Comparative Literature at Peradeniya, and my first reading assignment was three stories by Sri Lankan Muslim writers from the collection Asalawesi Api, edited by Professors Carmen Wickramagamage and M. A. Nuhman. In those stories, the feelings of attachment to certain villages, soil, farmland and so on in those Muslim villagers were very similar to ours. Those students who read them rejoiced in the discovery of commonness found in them.

Yet again, I heard there were so many university students at the BBS rally, cheering the racist speeches. It is very easy to instigate communal feelings and it does not take a whole lot of learning to do so. To understand how communities collectively create cultures and civilizations, one needs some effort and learning.

We can either take up that challenge or sadly observe a country that has a great cosmopolitan history and culture disintegrate into fragments from which we will never find our cultural or human wholeness and wholesomeness.

When I end this essay, I wish I could sit with the Jesuit priest Juan Andres to have a cup of tea (or coffee if he prefers,) who wanted to write a literary history in which he was to pay tribute to every human community that contributed to making of notion of literature: one of the greatest human creations. I will never have that sense of belonging to the likes of the BBS leaders, in spite of my Buddhist upbringing, even if tea or coffee is replaced with a bottle of arrack! Arrack is one of those Sri Lankan cultural products, Cumaratunga Munidasa, a great defender of arrack industry in the country, would have agreed, which is too good to share with racists!

The writer is a senior lecturer at department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya, and visiting scholar at university of Santiago, Spain


AND  LAW & SOCIETY TRUST: “Where have all the Neighbours Gone? A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama ….”

April 19, 2013 · 1:59 pm | Edit

Lone Cell Assaults: From Boston to Westmead-in-Sydney to the Unabomber. Inspirations and Enabling Conditions in Comparative Perspective

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph where the title is slightly different:

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June 22, 2014 · 1:52 pm

The Aluthgama Violence, US Embassy, BBS and Gotabhaya in Perspective

  1. A. Chandraprema, in The Island, 21 June 2014

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June 22, 2014 · 1:26 pm

Editorials of English-media newspapers criticise the BBS vehemently

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April 27, 2014 · 4:10 am

Restrain BBS Vigilantism and establish Rule of Law

The Nation 26 April 2014

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May 7, 2013 · 9:45 am

The BBS That My Mother Likes = An Emblem for the Sri Lankan Equivalent of Middle America

Darshanie Ratnawalli  courtesy of the Nation and the Colombo Telegraph

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