by Anura Gunasekera
Extremism is a virus. It is spreading exponentially. In most societies, extremism exists on the periphery but often inflames the center by appealing to common shibboleths. It is not uncommon, due to the indifference of liberals and moderates, public apathy, and political support both implicit and explicit when appropriate, for extremism to animate the central narrative. The sad reality is that the spread of extremist ideology is catalyzed by common cultural, religious and ethnic biases and other related cracks in multicultural and multiethnic societies. Extremism thrives under conditions of hatred, intolerance and suspicion. No society is exempt from these malignancies, but in some societies they are more evident and shamelessly expressed at regular intervals. Often extremism is confused with religious doctrine, ethnic and tribal consciousness and associated exclusivities, and then manipulated by unscrupulous politicians in search of power, mandates or effective political leverage. A cursory assessment of these incidents suggests that examples of extremism are more common in Asian and African countries than in other parts of the world.
The recent horrific public torture and murder of Sri Lankan Priyantha Diyawadana in Sialkot, Pakistan was a tragic example of extremism, in a country where public discourse is often very overtly guided by extremist ideology. Apologists may postulate that it is unfair to judge a nation by a tragic incident, but this claim must be seen in perspective. Pakistan’s penal code, the country’s main penal code, punishes blasphemy against any recognized religion, with penalties ranging from fines to the death penalty. However, there are no published statistics to indicate whether this law has been invoked in the case of alleged blasphemies against a belief other than Islam. Although it is not clear whether a person convicted of blasphemy was executed by justice, between 1987 and 2017 more than 75 people so accused were said to have been murdered by vigilante groups. Apart from that, lawyers representing those accused of blasphemy and those who speak out against the severity of blasphemy laws have also been victims.
Two infamous examples of the above mention are worth mentioning. In 2009, Aasia Bibi, a low caste Christian from a small village in Punjab, was assaulted by other women in her village for drinking water from a village well, from a cup that did not belong to her. not ; Aasia, a Christian woman had used a utensil reserved for Muslims. This act, which would have made water “Haram” (prohibited) and the ensuing quarrel, led Ms. Bibi to be found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death. After years of incarceration, she was finally released and allowed to emigrate to Canada, a rare happy ending in cases like this. However, two of his supporters, politician Shabaiz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, were less fortunate, paying with their lives for their champion of Aasia’s cause, both murdered, the latter by a member of his. own security.
In 2017, Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old Muslim student at Abdul Wali Khan University, was beaten and gunned down by his classmates for alleged blasphemy.
Pakistan – officially the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” – is a country born out of the illiberal concept of an island Islamic State, in response to the demand of Islamic nationalists as articulated by the All India Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. What followed, during the partition of British India in 1947, was a chaotic population transfer between the land declared as Pakistan and the emerging state of independent India, a process accompanied by around two million of deaths resulting from the Hindu religious differentiation against Muslim. Since its violent birth, two motives have defined the central Pakistan narrative; Islam’s position as a state religion, surpassing all other relevance, and its paranoia of India. The result has been the regressive Islamization of the country’s political discourse, its laws, its educational programs, and the conditioning of general societal attitudes; in short, an ideal breeding ground for radicalism and extremism.
Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and Sri Lanka, and researcher at the Hudson Institute, Washington, has categorically stated that the Pakistani state has empowered and ceded to extremists for years, perpetuating violence in the name of religion , instead of protecting its victims. .
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to vehemently denounce the murder of Priyantha, bestowing one of the country’s highest honors for bravery on Malik Adnan, a co-worker of the victim who had attempted to kill him. prevent aggression. More than 200 of the suspected attackers have been arrested. However, Khan’s Defense Minister Pervez Khattak trivialized the incident, suggesting that âmurders can happen when young people get emotional,â a sort of âboys will be boysâ equivalence, absolutely unforgivable in this case. circumstances. Khan’s government also recently lifted the ban on Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the extremist organization linked to the outrage. Herein lies the ambivalence of the Pakistani state towards extremism; as defined by Haqqani, a clear case of running the hare and hunting with the dogs, a ploy both openly and secretly imitated by all regimes in Pakistan since Ayub Khan.
With the tragedy of Sialkot comes a message that the dynamics of extremism unleashed by a small minority can engulf the majority in the flames it sets. While we condemn Pervez Khattak for his attempt to justify the murder of Priyantha by Islamist extremists, let us not forget the observation – “the legitimate anger of the Sinhalese” – of JR Jayewardene, a former president of this country, rationalizing the destruction suffered the Tamil communities of that country in July 1983 by largely Sinhala-Buddhist crowds. As we condemn the horrific manner of killing Priyantha in Sialkot, let us not forget the many innocent, helpless, and alive Tamils ââwho were consigned to similar funeral pyres in Colombo and its suburbs in July 1983. They were not killed. for blasphemy, or for any other crime, real or imagined, but simply because they spoke a different language and worshiped different gods. While rightly condemning the terrible murder of Priyantha by a group of Pakistani citizens, we Sri Lankans as a nation are not in a position to occupy a high moral position.
More recently in Sri Lanka, we have real scenarios of anti-Muslim violence, which were allegedly orchestrated by the âMahason Balakayaâ and the âBodu Bala Senaâ, the latter led by Galabodaatthe Gnanasara, a Buddhist priest-criminal, recently appointed by President Gotabhaya Rajapakse as Chairman of the One Country One Law Working Group. The absurdity, irrationality of this nomination defies logic, unless it is examined in the context of a devious mind in which logic is conditioned by the conviction of Sinhalo-Buddhist hegemony. Seen in this context, the appointment seems designed to provide an ecclesiastical counterpoint to Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, who has been vehement in his quest for closure for the Catholic dead from the Easter Sunday attacks.
Starting with the attack on the “Fashion Bug” store in Nugegoda in February 2013, the destruction in Aluthgama in June 2014, and continuing with violence from Gintota in November 2017, Ampara in February 2018 and Digana / Teldeniya in March 2018, we have seen a series of well-orchestrated assaults on Muslims, institutions and property. In most of these events the active participation of Buddhist priests and the involvement of the exclusivist organizations mentioned above were reported. In the aftermath of the April 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, similar attacks were carried out against Muslims and related establishments in several neighborhoods. In many of these incidents, Buddhist priests, some named, others unidentified, are said to have participated. However, no official investigation has been opened into such allegations. There is also the allegation that in all of the incidents described above, the police failed to take timely action to prevent the escalation of violence and destruction.
What is evident is a chilling similarity, between the lukewarm official response to the intermittent anti-Tamil pogroms, beginning following the enactment of the Sinhala Official Languages ââAct in 1956 and culminating with the atrocities of 1983, and the anti-Muslim actions of the past decade. The absence of a proactive response from the police in the face of racially motivated criminal violence implies complicity. When such violence is preceded by hate speech by men in yellow robes, and justified by the same individuals after the events, there is no alternative to the presumption of extremism embedded in religion. When men in yellow robes are accorded undeserved reverence for their conduct, and when such individuals are considered immune from the normal law of the land, an unacceptable social, moral and legal imbalance results.
In Pakistan and elsewhere, extremism motivated by the distortion of Islamic principles will continue, despite domestic and international condemnation, as long as the law of the land allows religious dogma to prevail over civil law, acceptance of diversity and tolerant interaction. It will continue as long as political leaders allow themselves to be dictated by religious leaders or religious extremists. It will be no different in any other country under similar circumstances, whether the majority religion is Buddhism or Christianity or any other belief. This is what we must beware of in Sri Lanka. Religion and politics make it a poisonous drink. Religion and government are two isolated propositions and cannot comfortably merge within governance.
The example of the influence of theocracy in governance as seen in Iran, and the power of fundamentalism demonstrated in Afghanistan, are compelling paradigms of the incompatibility of democratic principles, gender equality and tolerance for diversity within such regimes. In Sri Lanka, over the years, we have witnessed the many tragic consequences of the lack of tolerance between the majority ethno-religious group and the minorities. Despite the assurances of reconciliation and consensus given by our leaders, both at home and abroad, our minority communities continue to protest against marginalization. While taking into account the often unrealistic expectations of small minorities living alongside large majorities, this is still not an imaginary grievance but a response to extremist and intolerant thinking. It’s a shame that the latter is confused with the Sinhala-Buddhist state of mind, but it is also the reality.
Radical and extremist thought demands the invention of enemies to strengthen its radical mandate. In Sri Lanka, with the removal of the Tamil-LTTE military threat, Muslims have been catapulted into this empty space. This writer has said it before and will say it again. The retaliation of Islamic extremists will be a war without borders and a war we will never win. There are too many examples around the world to be worth mentioning. The carnage on Easter Sunday may have been the start of this impossible competition in Sri Lanka.