Calm Intelligence Required, not Islamophobia — says Uyan

Jayadeva Uyangoda, in Sunday Observer, 26 May 2019, where the title runs thusFight Terrorism. Avoid Islamophobia”

Islamophobia is a term that gained currency in the 1980s in British English. It referred to prejudices against Islam and Muslim people that had begun to spread in the UK since the 1970s. As a cultural, intellectual and political phenomenon, Islamophobia also began to spread throughout the Western world after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The Christian Right in America has been the leading force that promoted Islamophobia as a new strand of political ideology in the world. It spread to the Hindu and Buddhist worlds as well amidst the rapid rise of ethnic identity politics and conflict.

In India, the BJP and Right-wing Hindu groups politically benefitted by cleverly introducing Islamophobia as a devise to divide the citizens along ‘national’ and anti-national’ –Hindu versus Muslim — binary. As a result, India’s political and cultural face has now changed beyond recognition. Contemporary India is no longer the modern, progressive, secular, and tolerant India that Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedhkar built. It is now a land of ethnic, cultural and political intolerance and hatred. Ideologies of ethno-cultural phobia against the minorities even get official sanction quite easily.

In Myanmar, Islamophobia entered Buddhist radical politics, leading to wave of violence against the Muslim Rohingiya communities. It even rocked the Aung San Suu Kyi government, forcing the human rights icon to do nothing to stop violence, carried out as organized ethnic cleansing with tacit support from state agencies. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority nation-state in the transition to democracy. There, Islamophobic violence has gained religious sanctity as well. That is why the government could not control it and Prime Minister Suu Kyi had to practice a vow of silence about grave human rights violations against the Rohingiya people.

After the 4/21 attacks in Sri Lanka, Islamophobia seems to be gaining ground as a new form of political consciousness, particularly in the Sinhalese society. We must recall these and similar instances of Islamophobia in other countries because they offer us important lessons. Leaders of the government, defence establishment and the media should reflect on those lessons to prevent the rising consciousness of Islamophobia poisoning the political life of Sri Lankan citizensIt has the potential to polarize the Sinhalese and Muslim communities in a frightening manner.

It is of course understandable why and how the government has been forced to launch the current phase of counter-insurgency operations against the Muslim militants who organized and carried out a series of such horrendous terrorist attacks on a holy day. By those attacks, the terrorist leaders, particularly those who conceptualized and organized it and did not perish in the process, seem to have achieved a distinctly sinister objective too: subjecting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community to the Islamophobia of other communities as well the state. The kind of religio-anarchist political ideology of the contemporary Islamic militancy that has swept the Muslim world and Europe has this strange and patently irrational element of provoking hatred against mainstream Muslim communities.

Western narratives blamed for demonising Muslims

Sri Lankans should unlearn the Western narratives which had taught them to believe that Muslims belonged to a civilisation not compatible with moral values, Senior Researcher at Law and Society Trust (LST) Vidura Munasinghe told a gathering in Colombo yesterday.

Launching a booklet, Islamic extremism: Clash of Civilizations or Clash Within Civilization,co-authored by him, he said that the Western view of other cultures were shaped by ideas espoused by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations. “In his book Huntington said that the most ‘important distinctions among peoples are [no longer] ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural and that the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.’ He believed that a coalition or cooperation between Islamic and Sinic cultures to work against a common enemy, the West.”

Munasinghe said that a lot of Sri Lankans who called themselves anti-western had inculcated Huntington’s idea and had ‘othered’ Muslims. “However, the real clash is not between Islam and some other civilisations but between extremism and secularism. In this clash all extremists, whether they are Islamic or Buddhist, belong in the same camp. Under these circumstances, anybody who approaches us iterating that ‘we need to do something about Muslims; I am not talking about measures to dismantle Islamist organizations and ideology but those who propose violence against our Muslim neighbours, essentially belong to the same camp as the Islamic extremists,”

Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Colombo, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri said that the clash between Sinhalese and Muslims could be traced to the change of social division of labour in the late 19th century. Before that time the Sinhalese had been essentially an agrarian community while the Muslims who lived in pockets among the Sinhalese acted as merchants.

“There was little economic tension between the two groups. So, they lived in peace. However, since the late 19th century that equilibrium collapsed as the Sinhalese changed their social division of labour and started moving into the commercial sphere. So things have changed and there is no point in talking about the good old days. We need a socipcture of extremismal strategy.”

Dr. Dewasiri said those tensions had worsened since 1977 with the opening of the economy, which led to more competition between people and encouraged a large number of Muslims to work in the Middle East. “The Arabization was manly due to this. Also we need to present the Muslims a cultural model to adopt if they are going change to certain things.”

The Island 29/5/19

Fear as Paranoia

Meanwhile, the kind of conversations taking place these days among our fellow non-Muslim citizens, irrespective of their social or educational status, point to a wave of Islamophobic consciousness. More disturbingly, the social psychology that is manifested through this consciousness borders on something like a collective paranoia. Largely fuelled by exaggerated media reporting and irresponsible statements by politicians, all communities live in everyday fear, afraid of imminent suicide attacks in schools, Buddhist temples, market places, and the neighbourhoods.

Quite paradoxically, the daily security reporting by the print and electronic media has also begun to contribute to a generalized fear about the Muslim community as an immediate source of threat to people’s life. Fear of violence and death at the hand of suicide bombers from the Muslim community has actually paralyzed not only the country’s economy and the public life, but also the capacity for rational thinking even among the well-educated.

Extreme Othering

This process of extreme othering and demonizing of the entire Muslim community, spread through rumours shared in social media, email, telephone calls as well as casual conversations with neighbours and relatives, is perhaps the most pernicious collective response generated among the civilian populace to the Easter Sunday tragedy. One does not have to be a trained sociologist to sense how the news people often share about the possibility of imminent threats to life and security is always verbalized in a language of extreme ethnic and cultural prejudice, stereo-typing and demonizing.

The rapidity and frequency with which the tales of insecurity circulate amidst the state of emergency suggest that these are not spontaneous or casual responses to constant media reports of discovering swords, knives, explosives and ‘ISIS trainees’ from urban as well as rural neighborhoods. Rather, they have the trappings of some organized efforts towards a distinct political end. It appears that creating a condition of ‘ungovernability’ in the country by further deepening and widening the trust gap between the government and the citizens has to be part of a hidden political agenda.

The leaders of the government can only ill afford to ignore the political consequences of this wave of insecurity-making, particularly among the citizens of the Sinhalese community.

If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, it has the potential to eat into the very foundations of our collective polity as Sri Lankans of several ethnic, religious and cultural communities. It will also produce a popular culture of extreme forms of ethnic and cultural intolerance towards one ethnic minority, who happen to be the Muslims.

Abyss of Violence

This dangerous possibility of Sri Lankan society falling once again deeply into the abyss of inter-community conflict and violence needs to be acknowledged without delay. The gestures of reconciliation being made by the President and the Prime Minister are probably responses arising from such a realization. But they seem to be inadequate to stem the present wave of Islamophobia. The two leaders need to re-double their efforts to manage the crisis politically and it requires unity of purpose and intent on their part. That is one way to overcome the massive trust deficit that erupted soon after Easter Sunday between the Government and the citizens.

We must not fail to recognize that the ISIS-inspired suicide bombers have already pushed Sri Lanka towards the global war between the US-led West and the radicalized Islamic groups. Our government should also aim at extricating the country from this trap of a global counter-terrorism war. It may even be the case that the location of that global war is now shifting towards some parts of South Asia.

That is why the present counter-insurgency operations, executed through emergency regulations, should not ignore the unintended political consequences of restoring security exclusively within a ‘national security’ frame. Sri Lanka’s government and security leadership should be sensitive to both meanings of that much – maligned phrase ‘intelligence failures.’ The cultural insensitivity to the Muslim community in securing state security should not be buttressed by any lapses at the level of political leadership, in the enlightened sense of the word ‘intelligence’.

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THOUGHTS from Michael Roberts, 29 May 2019

A = To say that “Contemporary India is no longer the modern, progressive, secular, and tolerant India that Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedhkar built” is to present a sweeping and far too benign review of India in the last six decades of the 20th century. It manages to erase the huge mass of killings associated with the partition of India in 1946/47 –where estimates of the death toll range post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million.  It also glides over the sporadic anti-Muslim “riots” in the last three decades –not least those at Mumbai and Bhagalpur and those associated with the assault on the Babri Masjid Mosque on 6th December 1992. These amount to amazing lapses on Uyan’s part.

B = While Uyangoda’s effort to dampen anti-Muslim sentiments from settling deeply into the psyche of Sri Lankans from other communities (whether Sinhala Buddhist or Christian Tamil Hindu or Christian, Burgher and other) is welcome and required, his historical appraisal is simply cast in some ivory tower in the clouds. Staunch community sentiments that could promote communalist clashes at the local neighbourhood level occurred from time to time from the 1880s right through to recent decades. In 1915 there was a pogrom directed against the Mohameddans (the term in use then) that was quite widespread in the south-western quadrant of the island and lasted about seven days. The Malays (ja, javun) were not attacked — so the sentiments were of chauvinist kind directed at another “community’ construed in the sense “nationality.” The several clashes at Mawanella in the past decades and the more recent contretemps and local riots at Dambulla, Mahiyangana, Aluthgama indicate strands of Sinhala chauvinism in conflict with Muslim communities that can also be aggressive and/or provocative at times. In brief, community sentiment promoting chauvinism resides on every which side.

C = The political model guiding Uyangoda, Dewasiri and others seems to rest on the clash of extremisms: Islamic jihadists and Sinhala chauvinists, with the note that this clash is being drawn into the Western strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and its confrontation with ISIS and other threats in the Middle East. Insofar as I too have recently referred to “The Clash of Civilizations” in tackling the present contretemps, I have serviced this oversimple model. It is too simple because it neglects another ideological force which has voices of extremism: I refer to those secularists whose fervency of conviction encourages oversimplified “solutions” to specific issues.  Residing in Australia I perceive this extremism every other day. I am often alienated by the obduracy and arrogance of conviction reverberating through these voices –voices that leave no space for debate.


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