Archive

Journalism

islamophobia1

In this Daily News article penned by one Shenali Waduge on Muslims in Sri Lanka and why Buddhists should be scared of their ‘encroachment’, she displays a high level of confusion, connecting disparate events in the Muslim world (fabricating where it suits her), taking them out of context and then applying them to Sri Lanka.

Particularly absurd is her apparently iron clad statistical theory of Muslim’s 4 phased strategic and collective effort to ‘take over’ the locality, wherever they are, and install an Islamic ‘theocracy’ whatever that may mean.

Ms. Waduge, I WISH the Muslim community was as united as you appear to think it is. Even if you appear to think that such unity is always used for nefarious aims. I WISH our leaders were half as focused on the problems affecting the community as you appear to allude. At least you seem to have more faith in their selflessness that I.

While she appears to think that Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States are synonymous with Muslims everywhere in the world, as if they are the ideal representation of what Sharia law and collective Muslim life is like, when it suits her, she likes to equate all of us with ‘extremist terrorists’, taking an about turn, since most of these ‘extremists’ are extremely anti-Saud. I wish she’d make up her mind.

She also doesn’t seem to have heard of a little event they call the Arab Spring where millions of Muslims stood up to depose tyrannical rulers, oppressing them since their so-called independence from the West. There’s a lot of dissent against existing rule in Gulf States too, but this writer doesn’t seem too interested in specifics, sweeping generalizations are her forte.

Around 1400 people have liked it on Facebook. And at least two of them are people I actually know. This is almost as hard to stomach as the fact that this bit of rubbish journalism was actually published in the Daily News. Which, while not exactly a journalistic stalwart, is significant in its position as the closest thing we have to a state sanctioned English language newspaper; are we to assume that this anti-Muslim vitriol is also state sanctioned? Or at the very least published with the assurance that no one up there is going to seriously mind?

The Daily News is legitimizing this garbage by publishing it. Is this is a glimpse of the next wave of erosion in Sri Lanka’s print media, heralding the advent of anti-Muslim sentiment from the underground world of pithy Facebook groups and into the edges of the mainstream? Stuff like this is dangerous, when you have a climate of growing social unrest. People susceptible to hate are not going to verify things that confirm their bias, especially when it’s published in a leading newspaper.

Conspiracy theories that gain a widespread following don’t just pop out of nowhere. If anti-Muslim sentiment finds an ever broadening audience it’s because it actually perceives what it takes to be a very real indication of ‘Muslim supremacy’ happening in society. But this can be based on misinformation and bias.

I was chatting to Indi about this, and he talks about this a little in his post as well. He thinks Muslims have increasingly appeared to distance themselves from the rest of Sri Lanka. Case in point the niqab or the veil.

While I sympathize with his argument; I do think that without the veil’s modern connotations (a misconceived notion that it symbolizes gender abuse, repression and Islamic extremism) it would have been much easier for people to accept it as a personal choice of consenting individuals in society. Indi to his credit, doesn’t think this warrants racism against Muslims.

Halal food does not mean that some secret chemical compound is inserted into all items certified Halal in some underground plant in the Empty Quarter (although admittedly this would make for excellent dystopic fiction). Halal just applies to the way food is prepared, according to certain standards of religious guidelines which include hygene and ethics.

Paying to obtain the Halal certificate is a decision purely based on choice and the profit motive. No one is compelling anyone to eat Halal. There’s plenty of non-Halal choice out there. No one is shoving Halal meat down feebly protesting throats.

Quite the contrary to what Ms. Waduge states, non-Muslims have full legal rights in Sharia courts by Islamic law. In fact, just consider that in the UK, non-Muslims are also turning to Sharia courts to settle some disputes in certain cases. If anything, it is a parallel system of law, and does not contradict the integrity of the country’s main legal system in any way.

In Sri Lanka, Sharia courts are merely a legal support structure for the Muslim community. There are no widespread plans to convert everyone to Islam and forcibly make them accept sharia law. And neither is here any such thing happening in France, England or anywhere else with a minority Muslim population.

To dissect the full scale of half truths, convolutions, blatant fabrications and outright lies in Ms Waduge’s article would take reams of text, and the question arises if it is actually worth refuting, as most of what she says in my eyes reeks of hate-speech and blatant fabrication, hardly the sign of a person looking openly for honest feedback. But if anything, it’s a good place to go for to get a gist of the prevalent misconceptions that are driving this new wave of Sri Lankan Islamophobia.

Advertisements

Frederica Janz was a controversial figure in the local media, and working with her as my editor was an educational experience. Here she is talking to Al-Jazeera on what is probably her first media appearance after being fired from The Sunday Leader and leaving the country. 

The Sunday Leader may not have been perfect, I only joined after the war and was spared the trauma of Lasantha’s death, from which i am given to understand that the paper never recovered. But the Leader continued to be one big pain in the behind of the establishment.

It crossed lines that were only located on the distant, unvisited borders of other papers. It was kicked out of the country’s primary journalistic association. The Sunday Leader had its faults, it had a tendency to sensationalize things and its vitriol was often perceived as lacking in taste, but it asked the right questions, even thought it may not have always come up with the complete answers to those questions, these were questions that no one else dared to even think about.

The Leader was fearless but also a little reckless about the way it approached things. And I supposed its fast living finally caught up to it. Today the Leader is a shadow of its former self, though still trying to come out with hard hitting stories, thanks to a few reporters who are holding on, despite its ownership’s supposed vested interests to the contrary.

Journalistic stalwarts i know like to decry the Leader as being a ‘rag’.  But in an age where most other papers are good for little else than wrapping your lunch packet after catching up with your daily dose of directly-observed reportage and classified ads (so_many classified ads), it offered excitement and a hint at what was really going down behind the scenes. Not that it mattered really.

It didn’t matter because the means for free expression were steadily closing down. The institutions by which free expression could be made use and put into action like the judiciary and the opposition had long since shut down. Free expression and the freedom of press was fast losing its currency, and its value to the general public has all but dissipated, replaced with state owned propaganda machines at one extreme, and sensational reports of crimes-and-other-shocking-goings-on to keep the public’s appetite for gore satiated at the other.

Investigative journalism that looks at the essence of what goes on behind the inner workings of the country has disappeared, along with many of the journalists who actually did the investigating. Today the press here has given up trying to be free. Like a caged animal finally come to terms with the boundaries of the rest of its life, it doesn’t even try to rebel, not even like an angry teenager, in a slightly immature way. In fact, it hardly pouts.

Water Is Life is carrying out a play on a twitter hashtag that is usually considered to be satirical. #firstworldproblems tweets are usually self effacing guilty admissions of how people have it so good but they still complain.

Water is Life however have voted to take it seriously. I don’t whether on purpose or not. Their campaign features poor kids complaining of how much they hate it when their leather seats don’t heat up, when they leave their dirty clothes lying around for so long that they stink, or when they say no pickles but they still get pickles.

The whole effect is quite jarring. I don’t know how many first worlders would donate after seeing it though, especially those first worlders who might have at some point tweeted something with the hash #firstworldproblems, who might be a little too guilt tripped to look at it with any favor. Apparently some think it in bad taste. But perhaps not as bad as the tweets themselves, which, taken in context of what people have to go through in Haiti and other places like it, can seem downright cruel.

A while ago I went to Thailand. I pretended it was for work, but really it was a paid holiday. Wrote these for the Leader. Now I’ll reproduce this in the blog to fill space/ keep a record/ get hits,but not to be a general prick about getting a free holiday to Thailand.

1. Experiencing ‘Thainess’

Where our protagonist is introduced to the horrors of a famous war monument after developing an affinity for Business Class travel, and wherein he finally confronts mortality itself at the hands of a belligerent masseur.

The feeling of “Thai-ness” is apparently a verb here. Sounds like something one teeny bopper would say to another, but the brochures don’t lie. It encapsulates everything about being Thai; the culture, politics, food and people. Most Thais claim that an outsider can never realize what true ‘Thai-ness’ is because it’s such a multi-faceted concept, but they can come close. After five days there, I have only a vague idea.

I arrived in seats that actually reclined more than those in your average second class train. Business class is something a man can get used to. The stewardesses even know your name. And they also give unlimited refills of mixed nuts. I’m on a Cathay Pacific flight, and sleep comes easy in the three hours it takes to get from Colombo to Thailand.*

The bridge on the river Kwai is in the West of Thailand. Yes I know, you always thought it was in Kithulgala. But that was just a replica made for the movie. The real one is here, in a place called Kanchanaburi, which incidentally, has nothing to do with navels.

The bridge was a part of a railway that was built by the Japanese during the Second World War. They basically enslaved hundreds of thousands of Asian men, and used tens of thousands of Prisoners of War (PoWs). They needed the bridge and a massive 400km long rail track to supply their forces in Burma, which neighbours Thailand and was a key strategic location in the theater of war.

The Japanese lived up to their wartime image of merciless brutality. By the end of the railway’s construction, over a hundred thousand Asians were dead. But more importantly for conventional historians, about 12000 PoWs (mostly Brits and Aussies) also perished. Their killers were brutal labor, diseases like malaria and cholera and probably sheer hopelessness. Sadly, it is only the names of the PoWs that are remembered to this day. This grates the sentiments of many Thais. The city has five massive burial grounds that house the dead. They are kept spick and span with their names forever interred in marble headstones.

I suppose native Thai’s are a bit peeved about their own not being remembered. Our guide certainly seemed to be. But it hasn’t stopped them from marketing the bridge and the Death Railway (creative brilliance there) as an emerging historical site for tourism.

We stayed at the Felix Kwai Hotel. It’s a large complex by the river and very comfortable. I decided on a massage. The masseur was a beady eyed strong woman whom I’ll call the iron lady. She twisted me this way and that. And I discovered I owned various new muscle groups when they revealed themselves by screaming in response to her merciless tweaking. I had no idea my legs were so knotted. Half the time I was in pain and the other half I was unsure whether to scream in pain or laugh ‘cause I was being tickled. I imagined myself being tortured “you can do whatever you want to me but you’ll never get the truth outta me!” I kept saying to myself over and over and over. When she started on my back, head and shoulders though, it was utter bliss. Especially my head, I’ve had too much on the old mind lately. Massages can take between 60-90 minutes and leave you feeling utterly relaxed.

Later it was a cruise down the river Kwai on a barge. We had dinner on the said same barge. The river is quiet in the night. And the barge passes along Kanchanaburi’s empty waterside market. The bridge is all lit up in changing colors. David (the hotel manager) and his staff joined us for dinner and everyone ended up singing karaoke. I contributed to the fun by singing many songs in my toneless voice, which needless to say made everyone’s night.
After we disembarked from the barge, we lit some sky lanterns. These lanterns are supposed to drive away all embarrassing moments that happen at a lively night out. So I made sure to join in lighting one after my attempts at singing. Mine refused to fly until I had made a wish on it. So I wished for it to hurry up and fly. They are like mini hot air balloons and floated away into the night. They speckled the sky with glowing yellow dots as they flew upwards. I imagine they kept burning right up until they got stuck in some clouds.

Tomorrow we visit the Tiger Temple, we are expressly forewarned not to wear red and other bright colors. Apparently tigers take after Spanish bulls in these parts, and like to pounce on garish t-shirts. More on that next week.

*If you’re feeling more economical, Cathay also offers  weekend packages to Thailand and back, call them up for more information.

(And obviously they are paying for my trip).

(..Next week)

2. Through the Tiger Temple

Where our protagonist steps lightly around fully grown tigers, rides elephants and cools down with a tranquil bamboo raft ride in the continuation of his adventures in Thailand.

The road is dusty and a strange smell of dung permeates the air. The very stench of the striped pelts of tigers, I realized only later. Souvenir shops dotted the road to the entrance. A ticket here costs about Rs. 1,800.

The tiger temple, as the story goes, was a regular Theravada Buddhist temple back in the day. One day, a wounded tiger was found inside the complex and was cared for by the monks. The tiger left, then came back and decided to stay. It also brought some  friends along. And soon the temple was functioning as a refuge for tigers from the area. Somewhat implausibly, the temple also attracted boars, deer and other traditional tiger prey. And now it is a veritable zoo.

With one difference; visitors can get up close and personal with the tigers. You can pet them, take pictures with them and walk with them. Volunteers and workers will warn you to take precautions however, the tiger is still a wild beast and if you crouch down in front of it, you become the size of prey. It will then pounce on you and, if you are within the range of the chains that bind it to the ground, you are dead meat. Otherwise, you get a terrible fright, and the tiger gets a terribly sore neck.

The tigers aren’t drugged, but they are tame beasts. They frolic with the volunteers and the cubs are fed for and cared by the temple priests. Visitors sit behind the beasts and pat them on the rump while they get their pictures taken by temple workers. They can later walk the tigers to the feeding grounds.

The priests themselves are quite intriguing. Complex tattoos mark the visible parts of their skin. They are in whorls of colour and mystic designs and are drawn with bamboo needles. The tattoos are called Sak Yant (Sak means tattoo and Yant means sacred prayers), a cross between art and mysticism, they are supposed to render the wearer with magical powers of protection.

The Tiger Temple is also in Kanchanaburi Province, in the same location as the Bridge on the River Kwai. Visitors to the temple are only allowed in the afternoon. When the tigers have been fed and are sated enough not to make goggle eyes at the nearest piece of walking meat i.e., you.

In the morning before we visited the temple, we headed for a quiet boat ride on the river Kwai. We were transported on bamboo craft with a thatched roof that were pushed along by oars. Elephants bathe along the river and the water is shallow enough for penetrating sunlight to show silvery fish running along beside the boat. I trail my feet in the water and relax, thinking of the elephant I was riding not half an hour ago.

In the evening we take off to Hua Hin. A beachside district that was a favorite retreat of the Thai Royal Family. Thailand was never colonized, a source of pride for Thais, and their monarch is regarded with respect. The current king of Thailand is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Await more on Hua Hin and the teeming city of Bangkok in weeks to come.

___________________

In reality the Tiger Temple stank a bit, and not only of tiger dung.  The tigers are tigers only in appearance and are so meek that your average kitten shows more life when confronting a dead fish. I found out later that the place has faced a lot of controversy and is accused of some serious tiger abuse. Thanks Naren.

Full set of pictures can be found here.

%d bloggers like this: