Today the talk is not about the Easter Sunday attacks but ‘the politics of distraction’. The word has been used by the US Ambassador, Alaina B Teplitz (‘The focus should be on the victims and their loved ones,’ she said and not conspiracies about her country striking while the iron is hot, so to speak). Shaahima Raashid, writing in the website Groundviews also uses the word (‘The niqab ban and the politics of distraction’). She points out correctly that none of the terrorist suspects was wearing the ‘niqab/burqa/chador’ and claims that the focus on attire is a distraction. More on that later.
We’ve had not just distraction but outright idiocy from many quarters. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe virtually handed out an open invitation to international terror groups by saying Sri Lanka lacks the laws to deal with citizens who are members of such groups. As usual, we had the BBC in the immediate aftermath of the attacks casting aspersions on the Sinhala Buddhists. The BBC, let us remember, made much noice when the Mannar mass graves were discovered but went silent when the results of the carbon dating tests came out.
Then we have ‘the focus’ of the New York Times: ‘Sri Lanka’s Muslims face an angry backlash after Easter Sunday Attacks.’ As one would expect, the extrapolation follows a single incident where a mob attacked a house where a family of Pakistani refugees were resident. Typically, again, following tokenist allusion to the attacks, we find broad brushstrokes vilifying Sinhala Buddhists.
Nothing of in-your-face assertion of religious identity by significant sections of the Muslim community, a significant section of them inspired by Wahabism causing existentialist anxieties among people, who are well informed about how predominantly Buddhist nations were violently destroyed by groups similarly predisposed and thereafter turned into Islamic States. Forget all that; the NYT is yet to give us a comprehensive feature about the rise of extremism borrowing extensively (and of course selectively) from the Quran in Sri Lanka. Patali Champika Ranawaka, a senior minister of this government, revealed that there were some 800 ‘Islamic’ clerics illegally teaching in schools run by fundamentalists. Apparently they are here on tourist visas!
Who is against the niqab and why, though? If you want a one-story example to extrapolate NYT style, there are tonnes to pick from in social media, even during the ban imposed on Facebook and WhatsApp (courtesy VPN). Dozens of Muslims decried both the terrorists and the outward trappings of fundamentalism, including the niqab. The objection to the objection, in fact, is the distraction here. It’s a simple matter of identification. We are suspicious of unattended parcels, bags, vehicles and such. We are suspicious of those who cannot be identified, the faceless to be precise. And rightly so. It is an existentialist issue.
The question is, why didn’t they come out and make public statements?
Another distraction is religious freedom. Sure thing. Shihara Farook’s Facebook post on April 24, 2019 talks about it not in the preferred black-white terms used by ‘liberals’ but in ways that address the complexities. She speaks of the kind of tolerance and celebration of other faiths evident in Sri Lanka that the terrorists just do not profess or practice. She does not deny inter-religious tensions nor intolerance, but does not indulge in the kind of extremist (yes!) vilification as do the BBC, NYT, many ‘liberals’ and supposedly dispassionate commentators.
The truth is that privileges accorded to religious minorities in this country far exceed those extended to counterparts in ‘Islamic States’. Indeed freedoms denied their own in such countries are enjoyed in full and in excess by Muslims in Sri Lanka. That’s another article and this is not the moment for it. Needs to be flagged though.
We hear more, however, of the rise of Wahabism as being a response to ‘Sinhala Buddhist extremism’. Ven Gangodawila Soma Thera’s expositions in the early days of this century and of course the antics of Rev Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thera of the Bodu Bala Sena are mentioned frequently. It’s as though the ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ have been making inroads in Europe and even in Syria. It’s as if they had such a reach that they spurred Muslims in the UK and Australia to study the Quran (as per Wahhabist dictates). No. That’s simplistic and a distraction. Ranga Jayasuriya’s piece (How Wahhabism was fostered until it’s too late) paints a more realistic, sober and therefore frightening picture. Speaking of religious freedom in this context, it would not be out of place to mention that perpetrators were exercising precisely that! The same goes for stockpiling swords and other weapons, bombs and ammunition. THEY WERE AFFIRMING THEIR FAITH! They were praying and preying on those who were praying to a different god, as per their faith.
The time for pussyfooting around it is long past. The time to be dismissive or ostrich-like is long gone. A lot of veils have come off. The liberal and even leftist veil has come off the anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist veil hordes. Some of them are showing that their Islamophobia is more pronounced than their so-far-privileged religious and ethnic antipathies. Sinhala Buddhist extremists have removed their ‘moderate’ niqab in ways that cannot be justified by the real and obvious existentialist threat.
Muslim political parties and even ‘mainstream’ Muslim organizations have been exposed. They’ve said that they had informed authorities about the rise of extremist groups. The question is, why did they go out of the way to pooh-pooh concerns raised by other religious communities and indeed vilify them as religious intolerants? The question is, how come Rishad Bathiudeen’s close associates and so many second-rung politicians in Muslim parties being arrested following discovery of weapons and/or revelation of close relationships/friendships with the terrorists? The question is, why didn’t they come out and make public statements? That would have clearly pushed those who see the Muslim community as a monolith to question assumptions.
I was in Kandy on Easter Sunday and travelled back and forth twice in the same week. I saw white flags in mosques and predominantly Muslim areas in Kandy, Mawanella and Kegalle. I saw banners decrying the violence. I did not see one banner or poster naming the perpetrators. Genuine grief, insurance or just more tokenism? I suspect that the anxiety over the rise of Wahhabism as far as these groups are concerned was itself an existentialist issue; loss of flock and money. I will give the benefit of the doubt, but I would not drop my guard. No siree.
The liberals. The peace-lovers. The Yahapalanists. The advocates of co-existence and tolerance. Let’s talk about them again. Why aren’t they (for example Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council) not urging the government to ‘redress grievances,’ enter into negotiations with the terrorists to obtain a dignified ‘solution’? Why aren’t they, in light of these developments, revisiting the much-trumpeted ‘worth’ of devolution and the abolition of the executive presidency? As for the nondescript good dudes and dudettes (candlelight ladies, born-again democrats and such), when Hafeel Farisz first broke the story in the Daily Mirror, they ranted and raved, demanding proof. Looks like they’ve been soundly asleep for years and have crawled into their shells again! Some veils have been lifted here too, one feels.
There is a call from all quarters (including people with dubious agendas and suspect political practices) for the affirmation of humanity. It must be heeded. There’s a call for the exercise of compassion. We have to be compassionate. We have been asked not to be emotional. We should dial down emotion, most certainly. In some cases, however, these recommendations have the following subtext: suspend reason! No can do. There’s a terrorist at large. Sorry, there’s a terrorist organization at large. It is abusing the noble notion of religious freedom. It is preying on tolerance. It has caused a serious existentialist threat to the entire nation and people of all communities. Quite apart from a serious re-haul of the security apparatus, we need to know more about the dimensions of the problem. The veil must come off the (mis)educational institutions which are clearly being used as breeding grounds for the terrorists. Who set them up? Who teaches in them? Who funds them? Are ‘customary laws’ being abused? Is religious freedom being abused? Is the penal code adequate? Answers and action are required. Swiftly. We could also take a cue from Pakistan where over 30,000 Madrasas are to be taken over by the Government and modern education introduced while banning hate-speech.
The niqab is coming off, metaphorically speaking. It is a good thing. Distraction never helps. Neither does Denial.