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Photo of ‘World Trade Centre’ by Anuradha Henakaarachchi at the Colombo Art Biennale 2009.

Originally published in Groundviews

I was sitting in my garden, gazing at the stars listening to my Walkman, which was the only thing to do back then as you ticked off the minutes until the regulated power cuts that cursed Sri Lanka at the time wore away, every night, when I heard the absurd news. Planes hitting the twin towers and then causing them to fall down? And they say a Muslim did it, some guy in a turban and thobe with a long beard sitting in a cave in Afghanistan. I could barely place Afghanistan on a map.

Weeks became months and as more news of Bin Laden flooded the world I sunk further into my mid-teen bubble of O/Levels and school; music and movies and street cricket. This was a bubble I had always been in, but unbeknownst to me its surface had already been breached.

The breach became a gaping hole one day after an Interact Club meeting, I was walking ahead and behind me a girl, in a borrowed Fox News accent, jokingly referred to the boys she was with as ‘Funnamentahlist Muzlehms’. I had heard the term on the TV back then, but it had never struck me with so much force as it did then, overhearing it in a random conversation on a street in Maradana.

Because here was a new category of Muslim, given birth to in America and now brought to the streets of Sri Lanka. Revealed to me in its rawest form, with the original accent still coloring it; the newborn Fundamentalist Muslim. Though no one back then, and no one still, has succeeded in successfully defining what his moniker means, his invasion into my bubble began to force me to confront certain… realities.

He refused to acknowledge my own Muslimness for one. My Muslimness was a rather dormant part of my identity then, more or less a cultural marker that differentiated me from non-Muslim friends. It involved certain rituals like going to the mosque on Friday and hurriedly going through the motions of daily prayers when the inclination struck me. But this new ‘Fundamentalist Muslim’ was having none of that.

As the years passed, his voice became louder and louder. He was staring down my drab, boring Muslimness; ignoring him wouldn’t make him go away. He wanted my Muslimness to man up. “There are lines being drawn up”, he seemed to say. “Which side will you choose?” I was either with him or against him. Familiar words, back then, to those that eventually supported Bush’s War on Terror.

But I am no terrorist, I don’t believe the killing of innocent civilians is a part of Islam. So if you’re looking for an apology from me on the anniversary of 9/11, you can stop looking now. I don’t relate to the people who did the crime just because we ostensibly share the same religion. Just as much as people who believe in ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ don’t relate to the war crimes in their name that have shed the blood of hundreds of thousands before 9/11 and since.

On the other hand, there were the voices forcing me to become a ‘moderate Muslim’. A Muslim that unconditionally gives himself up to materialism, maybe has a drink on occasion, a Muslim that does not question extant global power structures, a Muslim that does not stand up for justice, compassion and equality; in short, a Muslim that is Muslim only In name.

But I am not a so-called ‘moderate Muslim’ either. I resent being on someone’s alien scale of what it means to be Muslim. Categorized as being somewhere in between a Muslim that drinks and smokes and a Muslim that kills innocent civilians. I reject the label ‘moderate Muslim’ just as much as I reject the label ‘Fundamentalist Muslim’ not only because they’re both meaningless essentializations, but because they place my faith within a worldview that presupposes its evidential guilt.

My identity as a Muslim, struggling with my refusal to be boxed into labels invented by Islamophobes and neo-khawarij alike, has evolved over the years in a continuing process. After more than a decade of soul searching, my Muslimness now definitely dominates my worldview. But 13 years on I still haven’t worked out what ‘kind’ of Muslim I am or must seek to be; I strongly suspect that I need not be any kind of Muslim other than simply a Muslim, inasmuch as it only means a slave that submits to God’s will and leads a life seeking only His pleasure.

9/11 wasn’t the trigger for a religious awakening. But it was one more event in my life, perhaps the first, which woke me up to realities that I was previously comfortable ignoring. It not only helped introduce the world to me it forced me to confront things like heritage and history, beliefs and ideology. It was so big that it refused to be ignored.

And I’ve learned a thing or two since then. I have learned that to look at the world in terms of generalizations such as ‘America’ and ‘Islam’ is to buy into the propaganda that perpetuates the violence of our times. The obscurantism via generalizations that the media and extremist propaganda alike feeds us conceals the real workings at play; the corrupt politics; the propped up oppressive regimes; the warmongering; the ruthless corporations; the proxy wars; and most importantly, the long arm of history.

Looking along the accusative finger pointing after 9/11, I began to also see the numerous fingers pointing back. Now I realize that this is a discourse between extremists on either side, and we’re all stuck in the middle. The mostly deluded, self-absorbed majority, the silent victims.

Delegates at Hambantota trying to pose for the massive group picture.

Delegates at Hambantota trying to pose for the massive group picture with the president.

I know a lot of people here are idealistic, I am too. I’m just a little cynical about the mechanisms we usually use in order to get what we want. Getting what we want (‘we’ being ‘the youth’, an over-homogenized entity that sometimes does not make sense), being the primary goal here at WCY2014 and similar conferences we attend. My frustration usually stems from the fact that no one usually looks in-the-face of the most urgent problems of our time, problems from which most of the issues we want to tackle arise from the first place.

There was very little deep discourse, for instance, on the wars and oppressions raging in the world today. Where essentially respected nations within the global community are carrying out dastardly acts with grave violations of human rights. There was next to no discussion about the corporatocracy, the military industrial complex, puppet regimes, the exploitation of resources in the name of capitalism, phenomenon that are invariably nicely packaged in boxes labelled ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ for gullible minds to consume, distorting what those original concepts should mean to us to begin with.

Take the Arab Spring, the most touted example of this century, bandied about by practically everyone trying to convert people into believing in the ‘potential of youth’. The Arab spring has completely failed in almost all the places it has ‘sprung’ up in, with Tunisia being the only possible exception. Wherever else the Arab Spring raised its head, born by the boiling frustrations of young people long oppressed by regimes backed by the global status quo, it has only been compressed again, the most blatant example of this being Egypt, where a military coup that killed nearly 700 innocents is now holding forth as the only hope for democracy in the country. A regime fast gaining support and legitimacy from around the world despite its many ongoing violations.

We talk about climate change and the carbon footprint, yet most climate problems stem from activities of large corporate entities that are simply not represented here. This literally makes it impossible to engage meaningfully with one of the main stakeholders on the issue. These same corporates, again, are supported by governments that bring legitimacy to conferences such as these, and preserved and natured in the name of capitalism and economic growth. So, I think, what kind of game are we playing here? Are conferences such as these merely put in place to pander to the enthusiasm of youth? A way of harnessing their energy? A way of diverting it away from where it would have been expended otherwise? In bloody smash-yourself-against-the-wall-revolutions born of desperate frustration perhaps?

Young people almost by definition are frustrated. I think being frustrated and concerned about problems and issues is something that ties us together as idealists, as those that are young. Because what else does? I have met many kinds of young people. Strong, weak, happy, sad, apathetic and simply downright evil. I have met young people that in my opinion should in no way be allowed anywhere near a position of power. Young people in that sense are just like old people. But young people at least, are less likely to take things lying down.

Most of the ‘old people’ that spoke to us over the last few days, like John Ashe, the president of the general assembly of the UN, indicated how the baton is now being passed, about how his generation was not as successful as he hoped it would be. How the world’s problems, decades on, are still more or less the same. This is a huge responsibility and also a burden on our shoulders. Because what guarantee do we have that our approach will yield better results? Are we, in an Einsteinian spell of madness, going to go about solving our problems in the same way as those before us, repeating their oversights and mistakes? Or are we not only going to aim for change, but also in a change in how we approach change?

From the beginning of the conference, the unofficial word on the street was that we were not to expect a revolutionary outcome document. The point is the process, changing the process here is what was important. Wangari Maathai, the famous Kenyan activist, left us with the tale of the hummingbird, who patiently travelled back and forth from the river in an attempt to douse the flames consuming her jungle home even as all other animals fled. We must all be hummingbirds for change, she said. And hummingbirds are what I see when I look at the delegates of WCY2014.

Plenty of people here believe this conference can and is contributing to change in a positive way. At least in terms of process. If this goes ahead as planned, the post-2015 development goals will essentially be influenced by actual youth input. For the first time in like, ever, young people would have actually contributed their bit into global policy formulation; having their say in how policies of countries around the world address issues such as gender, human rights, health, governance and what have you. This, even I can admit, is nothing to sneeze at.

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The Rally For Unity crew has done a pretty neat timeline and infographic (click to enlarge) of the events that took place in Grandpass between June and August this year. Accurate information is crucial if anything is to be done about the upsetting problems we’re seeing today. IMO mainstream media, due to various restrictions, is failing at providing a cohesive and honest picture, a much needed vacuum for some solid citizen journalism to fill.

Sinhala and Tamil translations are on the way according to R4U’s Facebook page, which posted the below along with the graphic.

“What Really Happened in Grandpass?” – This infographic was developed to shed light on the events that unfolded at Grandpass from June to August this year. All information has been factually verified and vetted. Sinhala and Tamil translations will be made available by the weekend.

It is regrettable that certain groups can unduly influence and divide peacefully co-existing multi-ethnic communities. We encourage all Sri Lankans to remain vigilant against such interference and to continue to preserve goodwill among all communities.

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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

With the perceived failure of its leadership to appropriately address its problems, there is an increasing vacuum for a movement that truly incorporates the Muslim community from the grassroots-up into collective decision making, the recently established Interim Shura Council is attempting to do just that.

puttlam mosquePic: Puttlam Grand Mosque

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community suffers from both internal and external issues. Externally; recent troubles with the BBS and other similar groups have witnessed Islamophobia in its worst global manifestations taking root in Sri Lankan society.

Internally the community has long grappled with rifts along fault lines of geographical differences, norms of religious practice and ideology. Although rather insignificant in nature (the various factions agree on a broad level on the basic principles of the religion but tend to squabble on minor aspects of practice), these differences have over the years developed into major conflicts that have at times torn the it apart (the 2009 clashes between two mosques in Beruwala for instance, which saw two dead). In recent years the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has attempted to restore a semblance of balance by striving to form an umbrella body that incorporates all of the various factions, with marginal success.

Leadership Losing Respect

The perceived political impotency of the vast majority of Muslim politicians, themselves as a group ferociously prone to petty squabbling, have led to mass scale disgust. There is a strong sense that Muslim politicians have long since abandoned pursuing the goals of their people, opting to enrich themselves and pursue their own agendas instead.

The lack of cohesion and unity within Sri Lankan Muslims, largely perceived as a monolithic group by the outside observer, was exposed like a raw nerve as it came under attack from hardline Sinhala Buddhist racist elements. The first major attack, on a mosque in Dambulla in North Central Sri Lanka in April 2012, was quickly followed up by a broad based hate campaign against Halal certified foods, Islamic legal support frameworks and the Hijab.

At that point the ulama (Islamic scholars) played a key role in managing the tension. Its patience and fortitude in the face of rising racism have been continuously bolstered and reinforced by preaching and messages of peace. Their exhortations for Muslims to continuously look at their own faults and errors in order to find the root causes of their troubles have turned what could have been a mood of collective belligerence that could have escalated into unwelcome reactions, into one of patience and reflection.

However, there is feeling that the ulama themselves have a share of blame in the problems afflictng the people. Many feel that the halal issue for example was an unwanted intrusion into the lives of ordinary Muslims. The Halal certification emerged as a result of demand from businesses rather than end consumers and was managed and implemented by the ACJU, the islandwide umbrella body of ulama. The case of recently executed housemaid Rizana Nafeek left the impression that local scholars did not do enough to examine the integrity of the case against her, buckling down to pressure from Saudi Arabia instead.  These incidents coupled with the inability of key members of the ACJU to appropriately defend their position of endorsing the collapsed Ceylinco investment vehicle CPSI makes a case for the establishment of an accountability framework to ensure that a two way relationship between the people at large and the religious leadership is maintained.

There is also sentiment that the current set of ulama, generally lacking ‘secular’ or worldly education in their strictly theological backgrounds, could use a support framework comprising of people from different areas of expertise to enable them to better serve the community.

The Civil Alternative

This dual failure of the political and religious apparatus of Sri Lankan Muslims has created a strong vacuum for the emergence of a civil solution to Muslim issues. Enter the Shura Council. ‘Shura’ is an Arabic term that means ‘consensus’, an idea believed to be of paramount importance in any collective action in Islam. Practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) and his companions, obtaining consensus is put forward in the qur’an itself and is meant to function as a mechanism to ensure that rulers and the ruled are accountable to each other. Modern Islamic political discourse often points to the idea of ‘Shura’ to highlight the essential compatibility of the original idea of an Islamic government with the idea of democracy.

This fledgling Shura Council in Sri Lanka, now in an interim stage, was first convened in early May, but the idea for it appears to have originated right after the Dambulla attack. It aims to work towards establishing a National Shura Council with the goal of reaching into the grassroots in order to involve them in decision making, and to achieve a broad consensus among the various factions. The movement has the full approval of the ACJU (indeed key members of the scholarly organization have encouragingly been at the forefront of endorsing it), and that of the various other powerful bodies in the community such as the tableeq jamat, tawheed jamat and tareeka organizations (that comprise of sufistic orders in the country) whose differences have caused much of the division within it.

The council, led by professionals and social activists, aims to set up sub councils at the district, town and village levels at local mosques. However the process isn’t easy. Many decisions yet remain to be made. The degree of political involvement is one. Skeptics and think that too much involvement will quickly result in the ‘politicization’ of the body; preferring to instead maintain a one way relationship with politicians, hoping that the latter would have no choice but to listen to them once the Shura Council becomes the large, national, community pressure group it intends to.

The council is currently in the process of obtaining feedback from various communities in the country as well as Muslim professional bodies and other organizations, aware that without full consensus the idea will not work. Matters such as what criteria individual members of each town Shura council should possess etc are still to be decided. There is general agreement that members must be upstanding Muslim citizens, be pious and concerned for its problems. But such a system can all too soon fall prey to opportunism, as evidenced by the sad state of many of the Trustee Boards of Muslim mosques in the country, whose members grapple and play politics simply for the social status associated with being on the board, serving their communities becoming a secondary concern.

Risks on the Horizon

Its emergence into the spotlight will also no doubt open it up to criticism from Sri Lanka’s hard right which until recently engaged in a virulent public campaign against quadi courts (small outfits that deal with Muslim family affairs) in the country, planting fears of the wide scale imposition of ‘sharia law’ among the public. The local Islamophobia machine will not stay quiet at the emergence of a large scale body aiming to bring together the whole of the Muslim community into one cohesive body.

But the biggest need of the hour will be figuring out not how to save the Shura council it from outsiders, but how to save it from itself. The integrity of the council is of paramount importance if it is to function with any credibility and that will mean coming up with an organizational system that has checks and balances to prevent corruption. This is usually nearly impossible without moral people. And as an organization built around a fundamentally religious purpose one would expect that this would not be a problem.

But the truth is that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is currently at a heightened state of awareness. It has just woken up from a decades long stupor and taken note of some of the major damage it has inflicted upon itself. It is worried and eager to set things right, and for now its disparate factions have come together in order to achieve a purpose more noble than mutual bickering. For consensus to happen, the parties convening must want it to happen. And for now at least, its recent troubles have galvanized it into placing the objective of unity above and beyond the petty differences that used to dominate its various factions. ‘The fear of God’ so to speak has been instilled within it via tribulation and trial.

Whereas previously a whole bloc would rather have walked out of the room than compromise even a little, there is sacrifice, setting aside of ego and the recognition of unity as a strong need of the hour. Indeed this is highly in line with Islamic teaching, which deplores fractionalization and internal disagreements, but given that an external enemy had to emerge to make it happen, one wonders if the natural complacency of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will eventually cause it to slip back into the dreamlike state it was in before the Bodu Bala Sena saw fit to wake it up.

Originally published for The Sunday Leader

Azath Salley was arrested yesterday. One of the allegations made against him is making comments that incite religious hatred.  Azath Salley in recent months has built a reputation of of sorts of being pretty much the only Muslim politician with the courage to go up against the BBS in public.

This affidavit penned by the General Secretary and Leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunarathne, gives a bit of broader context to what Salley was up to in the run up to his arrest. The NSSP, Salley’s NUA and several other parties were part of a “Movement for Unity with Power Sharing” with a mandate that involved tackling racism.

According to the Defense Ministry, Salley has apparently said that Muslims must start an armed struggle like the LTTE, and that they are actually ready and waiting to be armed. Salley is also suspected of having links with the LTTE. No evidence has been brought forth to prove these allegations as yet.

After some heavy drama where he was denied medical care and had to resort to a hunger strike he was admitted to hospital on Friday afternoon. Where his case will proceed is still not clear. Hopefully we will see a fair and transparent legal process. Anything else could be a serious setback to perceptions of government support for ethnic harmony.

But double standards are not nice. For instance, the Bodu Bala Sena has clearly engaged in hate speech and incitement of ethnic hatred. Yet the BBS has only been allowed to grow and prosper. They seem to have quietened down lately, and rumors of anti-BBS foreign pressure have been heard on the grapevine, but there is no telling if the BBS is now a thing of the past; a mere spike in the long line chart of public distractions giving away to the next (Duminda perhaps?); or in fact a sleeping dragon.

The BBS bias though, begins to make clear sense in the murky twilight of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy is nothing new to the country. It has always been there and maybe it always will.

What is worrying to me is not that the government is responsible for unleashing the BBS, because that would imply that it was actually capable of controlling it. What is worrying is that the government, if those that allege that it is behind the BBS are right, is only trying to appease it. Because it plainly poses fatalistic threats to near term stability in Sri Lanka.

From an economic angle, Sri Lanka has a consistent savings to investment gap, so the only way to seriously grow the economy is to attract solid foreign direct investment (or to borrow, but that way lies disaster). But foreigners are notoriously sensitive to political instability; and ethnic strife along with human rights allegations, the Chief Justice fiasco and sudden price hikes just add to the list of cons when it comes to investing in Sri Lanka, especially given enough safer options in the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

So the argument that this is merely another ‘distraction’ pre-supposes an extremely short-termist, even stupid government. Because for it to invent ethnic disharmony out of thin air as a distraction from a flagging economy, a tactic that can only worsen the economy’s prospects would be a very stupid thing indeed.

But I don’t think the Rajapakse’s are short termist, in fact, they could just be one of the most long termist entities in power we’ve had. But they are still playing a balancing act, despite their outward show of power. Mark Juergensmeyer has a few great passages on Sri Lanka in his “The New Religious State” (the whole of it is well worth read). This was written in ’95 but still sounds coldly relevant today.

The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they can not go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.

With elections approaching and Sarath Fonseka back on the campaign trail, powers are converging against the status quo. To take Juergensmeyer’s view, this rise of extremist nationalist forces could be the Rajapakse’s first ‘attack’ at the hands of  “Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists” for trying to achieve a “national entity that is both Buddhist and secular”.

I still think that the Rajapakse model of government, while far from ‘good’, is the best we can have in our current context. We can help improve it, but if it is toppled we would probably descend into disarray. From a policy and historical perspective, and in line with examples of East Asian success stories, a ‘benevolent autocracy’ is probably the only model of government capable of giving Sri Lanka the stability it needs to grow in the longer term. Maybe what John Kotelawala said in 1974 is still largely relevant.

Sri Lanka is not ready for democracy. In a country like Sri Lanka democracy becomes government by bloody mugs and idiots.

But how benevolent is this autocracy? Evidence so far has proven that it can be quite belligerent and reactionary. But is that due to this balancing act, this need to keep all sides happy? And now, how autocratic is it? With movements like the BBS emerging, the stranglehold the Rs have on power is beginning to be questioned as well.

Some of the placards attested to food being the greatest unifier. I agree.

Some of the placards attested to food being the greatest unifier. I agree.

Yesterday’s Rally For Unity, I think, was a resounding success. There was a fair bit of commotion in the run-up to it with various would be social media saboteurs attempting to close the event down. But the turnout was a testament to its reach. By my estimates, around 500-700 people were present, but I could be wrong, being notoriously bad at guessing at this sort of thing.

Some alien flyers (there’s a translation up) invaded the rally as well. Claiming that it was an NGO/foreign funded operation. Now where have we heard that story before? It certainly rings a bell. The Police soon dealt with the trouble makers however, telling them to ‘samakamiwa yanna putha’ (walk away in peace, son) before they slunk off into the inner reaches of Viharamahadevi Park. Volunteers reported being tailed by unknown vehicles after the rally ended as well, but no other disturbances were heard of.

An expanding list of politicians and dignitaries were coming out in support of it as the rally drew near, I think this helped build the credibility of the group involved, which is denying any organizational affiliations, projecting itself only as a loose group of individuals committed to fighting hate speech in Sri Lanka, unaffiliated to the BQBBS which organized the Candlelit Vigil on 12 April.

But the experience of the Vigil appears to have taught some lessons. Police permissions were obtained, and legal loopholes looked into. The role of the Police as a matter of fact, took a 180 degree turn in terms of how they reacted to peaceful protesters, I’m sure everyone appreciated this.

Endorsements by the presence of people like Dayan Jayatilleke (who was interviewed by Charles Haviland for the BBC) and others; and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Baddegama Samitha Thero who spoke at the event cemented a sense of officialism.

More than anything though, it was the people that turned up, after everything that happened after the Vigil, that made the Rally work. Families turned up with kids, students came, passers by, random uncles and aunties, clergy, activists, executives, business people, government servants, it was truly an urban motley crowd. Kudos to them.

Photos:

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The rogue leaflet

The rogue leaflet

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DSC_0195

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Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Samitha Thero

Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Samitha Thero

DSC_0215 DSC_0239 DSC_0249

Dayan Jayatilleke

Dayan Jayatilleke

Update: More pictures here and on Indi’s flickr

The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly  a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

Racist and hate groups are supposed to remain on the sidelines of society, screaming their subversive rhetoric in order to appeal to the seedier side of the collective conscience. Their funding usually comes from shadowy sources with powerful interests and money to be made from destruction and chaos. All of them invariably will remain behind the scenes, after all  who in the name of God would want to be publicly associated with hatred?

Mobitel, apparently. Mobitel the subsidiary of the publicly listed Sri Lanka Telecom. One of the country’s largest telecom services companies, and one of the most visible corporates in Sri Lanka. Mobitel has been openly funding hate groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya. Evidence of Mobitel support for extremists first emerged at a BBS rally held in Panadura when it was announced that a ringing tone available for download via Mobitel would help fund the organization’s racist activity. Images (later published on Sanjaya Senanayake’s facebook profile, who by the way i must thank for much of the research for this post) revealed Mobitel advertisements in a newsletter of the Sinhala Ravaya. Uncharacteristically, Mobitel’s Facebook group has been avoiding all contact and even deleting posts of protests against this, for now, their once dynamic social media team seems to have slunk under a rock.

Widely known for their extremist nationalism, these groups have already attacked mosques, churches and even other Buddhist temples conducted illegal raids, spread fear and paranoia and generally taken a very loud and belligerent stance toward the country’s minorities. After initially targeting the Halal certification of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (which was peacefully resolved thanks in part to the ACJU’s good sense), the BBS has now turned its attention on the Hijab an element of Muslim culture that in some form or the other has been present in this country for centuries, and always in peaceful coexistence with other communities. The emergence of apparent large scale corporate backing for their activity is worrying to say the least.

A quick look at the ownership of Sri Lanka Telecom reveals some unsurprising and surprising details. Unsurprisingly you would find that the majority of the shares (49.5%) is owned by the government, 5.5% by the general public. This is kind of well known. SLT was fully owned by the government until it was partially privatized some years ago. But surprisingly, if you’d forgotten this little detail, shares owned by the Japanese NTT Communications were then sold to Treasury and Global Telecommunication Holdings N.V. This is supposedly an entity based in Netherlands but is actually a fully owned subsidiary of Usaha Tegas Sdn. Bhd  an investment firm based in Malaysia. Usaha Tegas also owns Maxis a Malaysian telecom giant. Sandip Das and Chan Chee Beng from Usaha Tegas serve on the boards of both Maxis and SLT.

It is rather ironic that Mobitel’s second biggest shareholder and the lifeline of its management and capital is based in a Muslim country, while at the same time it funds extremist right wing organizations pursuing strong racist agendas against Muslims and other minorities in Sri Lanka. If the BBS is anything to go by, Mobitel’s senior management probably has no issue with this glaring inconsistency in its moral standpoint. Last week I heard an Australian-Sri Lankan citizen and a member of the BBS, Chanaka Perera, comment on help received from a monk based in Malaysia to the BBS whilst at the same time condemning Muslims as a whole purely based on his views on Saudi Arabia. Hate is deaf to reason they say.

Mobitel has so far shown a complete lack of responsibility in responding to the thousands of calls for it to stop funding these extremist groups. Its continued silence is a gross violation of its public accountability. Cricketers like Mahela Jayawardene are brand ambassadors for Mobitel. I respect Mahela, and as a public figure and a person of influence being sponsored by Mobitel he should step up and say something about this.

Sri Lanka just came out of a 30 year war. I’m just saying that out loud you know, in case anyone has forgotten. The government so far seems to be perfectly happy to allow the BBS and its affiliated groups to carry on with their campaign of hate, although voices of dissent have begun to emerge; you know things are getting really out of hand when Mervyn Silva himself stands up for what is right. The president has been strong worded on the racist issue, but so far all of that has been lip service and none of it directed at any specific racist organizations. The all powerful Government of Sri Lanka has failed to take any concrete steps to stop this spread of hate and violence. Meanwhile, the Police is cooperating with extremists, and now government owned companies are openly funding them.

UPDATE: Mobitel has since issued a highly inadequate response.

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This post was originally published in The Platform

I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.

Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.

The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.

But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by  the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.

This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.

And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.

This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.

And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.

But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.

This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough.  It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.

Yesterday i was ‘dragged to court’. Must to the chagrin of my family. ‘Why did you get involved?’ ‘you should have just walked away’, now you’re going to have to waste half your life there and you’re never going to be able to even leave the country, was the general surmise.

It was about this. Some three months ago i was driving down Lorenz Rd and discovered the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, he didn’t seem to have had a very comfortable death judging by the blood and wounds. I told the cops, and with one casual phone call on Sunday afternoon someone from the Bambalapitiya Police summoned me to court. Told me to come the next day. No letters sent to my house, no paperwork just ‘Hello, is this Abdul Halik? Come to court tomorrow at 9 a.m kthnksbye’.

I’m like erm.. is this some sort of prank call? So i asked my cousin who practices in Hulftsdorp, apparently this is the yoush when it comes to criminal cases. He scared me a little and asked if i needed a lawyer, i filled him in on the details and he said that i could probably make do without one. ‘Probably’? relief mixed with apprehension, what have i got myself into?

Hulftsdorp is amazing. I’d only been there once before. You have all these massive old Dutch buildings. This one was so big that it stretched for almost a kilometer down the road i went in search of a mosque. And the majority of them don’t seem to be under heavy use, and have crumbling facades invaded by weeds and rubble.

I took my phone into court. No one checked. We sat in the back row (my dad insisted on accompanying me). Soon it was so crowded that people were jostling for standing space. It was hot and sweaty, and the lawyers were in black ties and jackets. I’m glad my ten year old self got distracted from the temporary ambition of becoming a lawyer.

Above it all one man ruled. No not the judge. The mudaliyar, to whom all the lawyers were sugary sweet . My dad filled me in. The mudaliyar is the in-between between the judge and the rest of the court. Administrative staff like him and the Registrar (what the mudaliyar becomes when he gets a promotion) are powerful because they can move files up and down and presumably do wondrous things to paperwork that can make or break a case. They net in the cash from corporates, rich/desperate people eager to make something go away.

The justice system wouldn’t be complete without its own unique brand of injustice.

I hear clanking. Like a thousand little bells going off. The prisoners, manacled, are being brought to the little cage in the corner from where they’ll observe proceedings. Wait what am i saying, they’re not prisoners yet, none of them have been proven guilty. But none of them have been proven innocent either. Apparently this is enough to cage and chain them.

There were some interesting cases being heard. One drug addict (going by his sallow cheeks, shadowy skin and sunken eyes) was allowed to represent himself. He was asked to cross examine the men testifying against him and he kept directing his questions to the mudaliyar, who repeatedly barked at him to ‘ask the damn witness, not me’. The phone in question was an ancient nokia 1100. The cost of the whole court case probably cost everyone involved several times its value.

He was put back into his cage and the case was postponed. At recess i saw him with his family throwing a little baby girl up and down in his arms. I smiled, he smiled and nodded as if we were long lost friends.

I felt sorry for the thambili seller up next. He had managed to acquire the services of a lawyer, who pleased on his behalf. Apparently he’s had no income for five days since the police confiscated his cart for trading on the pavement. He was given the cart, and let off with a warning.

The woman accused of prostitution was the best. She looked half like a beggar, and didnt seem to be al there. She loudly protested her innocence for ‘ayale yama’ or ‘indecency’ (Sri Lanka apparently doesnt have direct laws against prostitution). Whereupon said the judge (always via the mudaliyar, who is used as a mouthpiece) that she could get off with a fine of Rs 100 (yes 100 Rupees!) if she pleaded guilty. She wouldn’t hear of it. And was remanded for 9 days pending trial. I was like ‘you go girl’!

My testimony was carried out in the confines of the judge’s office. A stenographer took it down as i spoke on an ancient typewriter. I signed and left. The whole thing took about 5 minutes. But I sat in court for 5 hours.

Going to court is a hassle. I don’t think i’d like to do it several days over and over and over. Probably why a lot of Sri Lankans walk away or tip annonymously and straight out avoid any involvement like the plague. Being caught up in a case might mean a major restriction on your life, the inability to leave the country for extended time periods. And cases can last for years. Even decades. But i hugely enjoyed my visit to court yesterday. Everyone should go once. You can just walk in and sit down and watch. No need of cardboard summons even.

*title changed from Why Everyone Should Go To Court (as opposed to Once)

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