What precisely should the civil society do to make the Government take meaningful counter-action on the anti-Muslim campaign?
by Izeth Hussain
( December 10, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I began the first part of this article by focusing on the point that the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign should be seen in the context of the global spread of what has come to be known as identity politics ( Sri Lanka Guardian of December 3). Identity politics have such virulence and such spread today that the recrudescence of the anti-Muslim campaign, after a lull of a couple of years, is not at all surprising. These facts suggest that identity politics are not the sort of problem that can be expected to go away if it is ignored. Unfortunately, that precisely is what the Government evidently believes. No other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that it has been refusing to take adequate legal action to counter the shrill genocidal hate speech that has been becoming ever more strident. Probably the Government believes that doing so would lead to a loss of votes at the local government elections that cannot be postponed for ever.
What should be done? Obviously the civil society, which proved to be a redoubtable countervailing force during the earlier anti-Muslim campaign, should try to pressurize the Government to go beyond the making of rhetorical noises and take effective counter-action against the BBS and its clones. The starting point, I think, should be to convince the Government and the public that the present anti-Muslim campaign is potentially far more dangerous than the previous one. The latter began with the backing of Norwegian Islamophobes and possibly others, and was co-opted by the Rajapakses in the mistaken belief that it would help consolidate and maintain their power. Two facts have to be noted about that anti-Muslim campaign. It failed to ignite the masses into another 1983 holocaust. The other fact is that the Rajapakses themselves would not have wanted another 1983: they were not so stupid as not to be able to understand that it would be counter-productive to their interests.
Today I am not at all sure that the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign will again fail to ignite another 1983. One factor is that the present Government has been steadily losing credibility, so that a fairly considerable segment of the Sinhalese could be prepared to take people’s level action to topple the Government. Another factor, a more important one, is that the economic hardship of a considerable segment of the Sinhalese people can be expected to go on increasing. It is a situation in which both the generality of the Sinhalese and the Tamils can come to misperceive the Muslims as scapegoats mainly responsible for the economic and other ills of the country. It is well known that the scapegoat syndrome can be extremely dangerous because it can spread uncontrollably like wild-fire.
As for the second fact that I have mentioned above, Rajapakse backing for the BBS short of allowing another 1983, the present Government cannot be suspected of anything like that. But the Opposition in which are embedded the Rajapakses could well want another 1983 this time around. The reason for this is to be found in something that is unique in our politics. Hitherto our politicians in the Opposition have been content to bide their time until their turn comes round again to enjoy power. But today powerful members of the Opposition as well as others have to dread inculpation under the law followed by jail sentences and even death sentences, something unprecedented in our politics. They could therefore desperately want a destabilization program to overthrow the Government, for which purpose they could have powerful backing in the armed forces and elsewhere. Another 1983 could most excellently serve the purpose of destabilization. So, the present anti-Muslim campaign has the potential for becoming far more dangerous than the previous one.
What precisely should the civil society do to make the Government take meaningful counter-action on the anti-Muslim campaign? The usual idiocies about breeding terrorists for the IS or the Muslims multiplying so fast that before long Sri Lanka will become a predominantly Muslim country can all be held in abeyance for the time being. The focus should be on the economic and political consequences of the government failing to take effective counter-action. On the economic consequences I can do no better than cite a reputed professional economist since I am not one myself: “No single factor has retarded the country’s economic development than communal violence. The current communal tensions in several parts of the country could create instability and uncertainty that would destabilize the economy beyond recovery and mark the death knell of the country’s efforts to resolve the current economic crisis”. He goes on to say “Orchestrated no doubt with intent to destabilize the Government and pave the way for regime change, the roused communal feelings would aggravate the current economic crisis and cause enormous hardships to the livelihoods of the people. The containment of these communal tensions is imperative for economic growth and recovery”. That was Dr. Nimal Sanderatne in the Sunday Times of December 4.
I believe that a special emphasis should be placed on the importance of foreign direct investment for economic recovery. We have all been conscious after 1983 of the horribly deleterious consequences of the ethnic problem for the Sri Lankan economy. I believe that it is only recently that the full importance of FDI has come to be realised. Sanderatne quotes another reputed economist, Dr. Saman Kelegama, as follows: “The uncertainty created by the war was the main deterrent to foreign investment – which acted as a catalyst to the growth process. Some examples would suffice to indicate the missed opportunities”. Two major electronic multinational companies, Motorola and the Harris Corporation, which were about to start operations in Sri Lanka folded up and fled in 1983. Sanderatne mentions in addition the following multinationals as having abandoned plans to invest in Sri Lanka after 1983: Marubeni, Sony, Sanya, Bank of Tokyo, and the Chase Manhattan Bank. I must mention also that recently Prime Minister Wickremasinghe stated that Japan had plans to invest something like twenty eight billion dollars in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Sri Lanka was excluded from that capital after 1983. So, anti-Tamil racism in 1983 proved to be extremely deleterious to the economic interests of the Sinhalese, not just of the minorities. Now, anti-Muslim racism can also be extremely deleterious to Sinhalese, economic interests. That seems to me a powerful, indeed irrefutable argument to make the Government to stop shilly shallying and to take really meaningful; action against the BBS and its clones.
I can be brief on the possible political consequences of the Government failing to take such action. In the first part of this article I posed the question who benefited from the anti-Muslim campaign. Certainly the Tamils would be among the major beneficiaries. If the Islamophobic campaigners manage to bring off a 1983, which is well within the bounds of possibility as I have argued above, the Muslims who escape massacre will have no alternative but to seek safe havens somewhere. As Pakistan and Bangladesh are too far away, they will have to hook it to the Eastern Province and hope for the best. Two consequences could follow. One is that Sinhalese businessmen will gleefully take over Fashion Bug and No Limit. The other is that there could be a coming together of the Tamils and the Muslims in a unity of the Tamil-speaking peoples, which the Tamils have been advocating for decades. India could welcome that development because it could lead to a solid and enduring pro-Indian enclave in the North East, welcome because of geopolitical imperatives consequent to the rise of the yellow giant, China. The second consequence arises from the fact that the Muslims have been abjectly submissive to the Sinhalese majority, even to the extent that Muslim politicians have been for the most part the happy shoe shine boys of the Sinhalese racist politicos. The international community could well conclude that if such a minority is subjected to repeated shrill genocidal hate campaigns, the Sinhalese are incapable of giving fair and equal treatment to any of the minorities. That could lead irresistibly to the notion that the Tamils are entitled to a very wide measure of devolution, a confederal arrangement that would amount to a de facto Eelam.
I have come to believe that it is futile to plead for fair and equal treatment for the minorities on moral grounds. Racists, whether Sinhalese, Tamils, or Muslims just don’t have the moral antennae to be able to grasp such arguments. The best argument would be to establish the horribly deleterious economic and other consequences of Sinhalese racism for the Sinhalese people. That would show that the greatest enemy of the Sinhalese people is not the Tamil or the Muslim or India or the West. The greatest enemy of the Sinhalese people is the Sinhalese racist. The tiger is within the gates.