Why Muslim leaders shouldn’t overplay an ‘anti-Muslim threat’

By Ranga Jayasuriya (Daily Mirror)

Last week, I argued why a fringe ethno-religious extremism articulated by the Bodu Bala Sena should be tackled forthwith with intensity and pro-actively. Now the lead monk of the BBS, Galabodaatte Gnanasarathera, who has been absconding has admitted himself to a hospital, his lawyers informed Court.

The BBS is a malign force. However though its rhetoric is disturbing and repugnant, its involvement in ‘actual violence’ is marginal. Its real danger is as an agent of radicalization and reviving of old prejudices of some segments of conservative Sinhala Buddhists. In ideal conditions, such rhetoric should either be rebuffed as rubbish or tolerated as a matter of freedom of expression. But, the world we are living in is not an ideal place, and countries like ours which are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and suffer multiple, economic, social, cultural and ethnic fault lines, cannot afford such differences to be exploited under the guise of pluralism of ideas. (Or we could well turn a blind eye, until reality sinks hard as Theresa May the British Prime Minister admitted early this week (after the third terrorist attack in two months) that there was far too much tolerance for extremism in Britain).

That is also why some sections of the Muslim community should not overplay the BBS’s rhetoric as an existential threat to their community, thereby deepening existing differences. But, that is what some people have been doing recently, meeting foreign diplomats while the rest of the country was grappling with a natural disaster; painting a gazette notification on Wilpattu in an ethnic bias as directed against the Muslim community and warning in public that Muslims are running out of patience.

Such acts could provoke a reaction or would vindicate the BBS. Equally dangerously such affected or inflated grievances would lead to radicalization within the Muslim community. The things get trickier with the influx of Gulf funds which brings with them an alien and highly doctrinaire version of Islam, which is intolerant and susceptible to violence.

The Muslim community is well integrated in all areas of public life in this country. Though there may be many explanations for that success, one of the most consequential factors was their integration with mainstream politics, which the Tamil political leaders however choose to avoid. Those different choices shaped the different legacies of the two communities during the next seven decades.

Muslim leaders contested elections from two mainstream political parties and held posts in coalition governments.That political association dampened a potential polarizing effect of ethnic politics. Also perks and rewards of being part of the government fostered that partnership. However, in this era of social media and virtual jihad, the old status quo can easily be challenged and the traditional leadership can easily be de-legitimized for not speaking up enough against perceived grievances.

Also information can be concocted, exaggerated and proliferated to advance one’s aims. An affected sense of grievance fostered by such exaggerated reportage could lead to disastrous ends. The pathways of radicalization of the Muslim community are also fast-tracked these days thanks to growing worldwide Islamization. In this context, exaggerating the BBS’s antics and creating a groundswell of mass grievance is a very dangerous ploy.

The BBS is bigoted, but its involvement in actual violence is marginal. Such culpability in violence, wherever it is, should be investigated and punished. However most attacks that were blamed on it during the past couple of weeks (and hardly reported in mainstream media) are themselves suspect. The failure to adhere to due proportionality in the campaign against ‘islamophobia’ would do more harm than good.

The BBS is a fringe phenomenon, no less peripheral than Wahabi Islam in the East. The difference is loud-mouthed Gnanasara thera prefers to spew his venom in front of television cameras while his counterparts do it in private. To confront both, Sri Lanka needs a hate speech law; and to confront extremism, Sri Lanka needs enhanced counter terrorism laws.

However, to project Gnanasara thera and BBS as a national phenomenon and a manifestation of inherent nastiness of Sinhala Buddhism has different sinister calculations. No political party that campaigned exclusively on a Sinhala Buddhist line — the Sinhala Urumaya in the past and JHU recently — have only managed to win more than a couple of seats. In comparison, Geert Wielder’s Dutch Freedom Party, which campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platform came second in the recent parliamentary elections. Marine Le Pen won 34 per cent of the popular vote in the French presidential race. British UKIP claims for around 8-10 per cent of British vote base.

This penchant to equate the Sri Lankan state with Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism was a time tested ploy of Tamil politics, which used it to justify its detachment from the Centre and subsequently its separatist agenda. That strategy proved to be a disaster both for Tamils and the country at large. Muslim community leaders should not succumb to that temptation. They can also learn a few more lessons from Tamil politics about how not to approach a problem. One obvious lesson is not to overplay grievances. Such self-interested strategies would serve in the short term (like the Vadukkodai resolution helped the TULF sweep the board in the North in the 1977 elections for the first time), however there will be a Prabhakaran lurking somewhere who will hijack the campaign to take it to the next level of intensity. That happened in the past, and there is no guarantee that it would not happen again.

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