Secularism is the only way out - Defy racial and religious bigotry

July 14, 2012, 4:41 pm

Kumar David


ECS Fernando has an interesting piece on the 1946-47 strike wave in the Sunday Island of 24 June and in the concluding paragraph he adds: "A makeshift Kandasamy memorial was erected at the roundabout at Dematagoda. But during the violent incidents in the mid-1950s the monument was destroyed by miscreants". This is not correct; it is the kind of apology that must not be repeated by a gentleman of the calibre of the person who wrote the rest of that piece. What I already knew in 1957, or maybe a little later, when the incident occurred is as follows. It was the worst of times, the height of anti-Tamil feeling in the wake of the Sinhala Only mood was on the boil, not only was Kandasamy a para Demala he was also a balu Samasamajakaraya hated by the monks (actually Kandasamy was a GCSU not an LSSP member). It was a race mob led by monks that destroyed the memorial and in its place was erected a Buddha statue to make sure that no one would dare remove it and re-erect a memorial to Kandasamy. The time has come to say these things openly; hiding the truth about who the miscreants were is retrogressive and sets back the liberation of a people from their mental taboos. The "miscreants" were monks; the "violent incidents" were racial pogroms.

This brings me to my topic of the day; a threat that has grown into a civilizational plague. Where does identity end and bigotry begin? Are they always intermingled and only the degree variable? Since patriotic, religious, racial and ethnic particularisms are all corrosive, how should we deal with them? It is simply not true that patriotism is good. Why on earth should an Indian or a Pakistani emote national fervour for his side and hatred of the other simply because their parents copulated on two opposite banks of the Indus? Assume two children were switched in a maternity ward, depending on circumstances and upbringing, one may become a Tamil tiger the other a Sinhala racist. Had the switch not occurred it is entirely feasible that the roles were reversed since there is no genetic coding for LTTE and JHU.

Identity as a hedge

Browsing the web, on a site called ‘All About Popular Issues’ I came across this stern comment: "Racial prejudice is an insidious moral and social disease affecting peoples and populations all over the world. It is diagnosed by the cataloguing of its various manifestations which include fear, intolerance, separation, segregation, discrimination, and hatred. While all of these symptoms of racial prejudice may be manifest, the single underlying cause of racial prejudice is ignorance". I would say much the same of religious intolerance. What prompted many newspapers to attribute the murder of 77 Norwegians to Islamic extremists, until it became evident that a right-wing white Norwegian terrorist was the psychopath? Why did Switzerland, a country of four minarets, vote to ban them? How did a mosque that has stood for many decades in Dambulla become the object of intolerance and hatred for a platoon of monks led by the chief incumbent of the adjoining temple?

Identity is not always a negative; an oppressed people struggling for survival may have nothing but identity to cling to; vide the Jews crushed for two thousand years in the darkness of the Diaspora. In the modern world the nationalism (more precisely, identity, since the source of oppression may be religion or colour) of an oppressed people is progressive even when led by privileged classes of the community. The quest of Palestinians, Kashmiris, Tibetans, Tamils in Lanka, and indigenous and tribal people in every corner of the globe for rights and recognition is just, and finds its foundation in their sense of identity. Paradoxically, the dialectic of identity is capricious; hounded during the last millennium, the children of the Diaspora, the people and state of Israel, are now the mighty oppressor of the Palestinian ‘other’ amongst them. The goodness of identity, even the just identity of an oppressed people, is only a relative good; with an oppressed people it is an intermediate step towards true human liberation. Culturally, in literature and the arts, it is always a real god good; this however is much obscured by the glorification of conquering heroes or patronising attitudes.

The delicate case of Islam

The case of Islam is delicate and difficult. Delicate, because political propriety says that thou shalt not criticise, much less condemn a faith, especially so with Islam in these times. One achievement of the Enlightenment is that it made it safe to ridicule Christianity, reject the Gospels as a bunch of folk tales, and rubbish Genesis. To parody, ridicule or criticise Islam today is to invite peril to life and limb. Holding a faith up to public ridicule, I readily agree, is in bad taste and foolish. You win no converts that way, but the right to criticise and to parody is a right and responding with a fatwah is wrong.

I have no desire to criticise Islam any more or less than any other religion, but if I do wish to so I must be free to do it without fear. Were I to publicly voice my true opinion of the conduct and practices of the majority of the Buddhist clergy in Lanka, my editor and I will have to spend some years in the cooler. Do it about Islam in a Muslim country and we would be dead meat. One way or the other, it’s all bigotry and intolerance.

The problem with Islam however is its greater intolerance of other faiths, the harshness of its laws and punishments, and its proclivity to statist theocracy. Let us take intolerance first. The website refuting the notion that Islam is intolerant of other religions summarises its position as follows:

"In short, Islam is intolerant of false ideas, however it is tolerant of the people who hold to those ideas. One historical example of Muslims living up to the standard of Islam can be found from the time of the Spanish Inquisition. During that disaster sprung by misguided Catholics, some Spanish Jews fled to Muslim Turkey and to this day, there is a community of Spanish-speaking Jews in Turkey. Another example may be found during one of the Crusader invasions from Western Europe. Some of the Catholic Western European knights were so likely to rape, murder, and pillage the Jews and Orthodox Christians, that when the Muslims won, they were treated as a liberating force by those non-Muslims".

The first sentence is equivalent to my position as a Marxist: I am not prepared to intellectually concede loads of garbage from religious, liberal or bourgeois quarters. However, if some among you really believe the b-s, go ahead that’s your privilege and your misfortune. The historical remarks in the quote are well known and borne out by the facts. So the issue does not lie in the theory, which as adumbrated here is aligned with my own attitude; the problem is that the practice is different. In truth in modern times Islamic states are not in reality even remotely as tolerant of people of other faiths as said here. Just what happens to someone who wishes to preach another faith, or an Islamic person who wishes to convert to another faith, or heaven forbid, refutes Islam’s tenets in the open? And what is one to make of the wanton destruction of religious or cultural monuments belonging to other creeds or even other branches of Islam itself?

The second problem is the barbarity of laws and punishments practised in certain Islamic states and societies. Chopping off children’s (or anyone’s) hands for theft, stoning women taken in adultery, enforced dress codes, restrictions on women’s education, religious police on the streets, this is barbarous! Some Islamic scholars say it’s all in the good books, others say that’s rubbish; I am outsider and don’t know the theology of it. What I do know is that in my view such practices are primitive and barbarian. But no one from the outside can ever defeat these customs, least of all Christians and the Americans. The only people who can bring about change are Muslims themselves. The sad thing is that it does not seem that internal resistance is strong enough.

Then there is the problem of the theocratic state. The worst state-form next to the military state is the theocratic, and modern theocracies are not only Islamic. Many Christian states enshrine special privileges (the British monarch is also the defender of the faith and cannot be a Catholic let alone a heathen). Israel to my mind is a theocracy, and even in Lanka Article 2 of the Constitution is a retrograde provision. But in general Muslim countries are the worst theocracies – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, putative Taliban Afghanistan and many in North Africa.

Necessity the midwife of change

There are several important Muslim majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey) where a balance has been struck between the emotions of the majority and democratic rights, sometimes because the population is ethnically mixed and sometimes historical antecedents. A hopeful example is post-revolutionary Egypt. The 2011 revolution caught the Muslim Brotherhood flatfooted and side-lined; in the 2012 elections it needed secular support to win the presidency.

Mohamed Mursi, previously of the Muslim Brotherhood (he has resigned so as to be the president of "all Egyptians") and the first Islamist head of the Arab world’s most populous nation, has pledged to be inclusive and courted secular and Christian support. He reiterated his pledge to "include all forces, presidential candidates, women, Salafis and our Coptic Christians". He pledged to end "discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or gender." Mursi holds an engineering degree from Cairo University and an engineering PhD from the University of Southern California; that’s helpful.

Necessity will induce change, even in Lanka, but for the moment the battle for secularism remains an uphill one.