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violence

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.

81

image from the Colombo Gazette

Tonight’s protest against the BBS (well, actually a vigil to promote the ‘true values’ of Buddhism which the BBS are going against) was an eye opener in many ways.

Number one, injustice

And this MUST be mentioned first and foremost. It was an eye opener to be on the wrong side of injustice, assuming there is a right side to it of course.

The protesters turned up for a peaceful vigil. They had candles and were preparing to light them. However the police, based on some trumped up claim that the gathering was to promote a change to the national anthem, promptly arrested two of them. Later, around four more were arrested. All were subsequently released. Apparently they merely got a free tour of a couple of police stations and got to see what it looked like inside a police jeep; prisoner’s perspective.

The point though is that the cops appeared to be completely on the side of the Bodu Bala Sena on this. They dispersed the protest, claiming that it was to ‘avoid a kalabala (problems, trouble)’ but it was only the BBS that were causing the problems. Yelling, screaming and making false accusations. False accusations which the police, and apparently Swarnawahini, seem to have had no problem propagating with complete lack of evidence.

This video shows the appalling site of a poor protester being manhandled by cops for lighting a candle. While a BBS  guy, clearly trying to instigate some sort of violence from those present, was only being gently and respectfully shoved aside.

Number two, the media.

I think Swarnawahini is the best example, the footage of their protest coverage (linked above) showed a clear bias to the BBS, on no occasion did the supposedly objective news broadcaster think to show BOTH sides of the story, because that would completely defeat their purpose of being a vehicle for the BBS to propagate their extremist ideology. Sirasa/MTV gave an unbiased coverage, and so did Hiru News, in the ten seconds or so they dedicated to it. Kudos to them.

It is a concern that media sources that actually reach the people at large, the Sinhala newspapers, the state TV channels appear to still have a clear bias against showing the anti-BBS view. For example, by entertaining BBS claims that average Sri Lankans that turned up for a peaceful candle lit vigil were ‘NGO funded’, while ignoring clear evidence to the fact that the BBS could have far more substantiatable links with foreign funding. A case can easily be made that they are a disruptive mechanism funded by foreign sources given their alleged unscrupulus-to the-patriotic-eye involvement with Norway, Israel and its latest proselytising in the US, if anything, ‘patriotic’ media should be investigating this.

Number three, the protesters themselves.

I expected the vigil to be left alone, ignored and typecast as an elitist operation that deserved to be merely humored, as these things usually are. But the angry reaction by the BBS and belligerence of police changed all that. You could tell that many were perturbed.

Still others left as soon as they turned up, perhaps alarmed at the news of the arrests, and perhaps disillusioned. The BBS can, and will fight dirty, they will intimidate, and as was so clearly demonstrated, will use state apparatus like law enforcement for added effect. In light of this, how should protests continue and how will they reconcile their significant interests (jobs, family backgrounds, social standing) with the danger of getting arrested, beaten up and losing it all? (BBS agents, presumably, were busy taking pictures of all present).

Everyone present tonight acted admirably today. And I am proud to have been among them. Question is, will we come back, and risk really getting arrested again next time? How many of us have family connections that will bust us out? The movement needs lawyers (there were few on hand today btw, thankfully), funding and more organization.

The crowd was diverse; academics, theater and arts, media, civil society, corporate, intellectual and just young people concerned with the state of affairs. But excuse me for saying this, it was also homogeneous. Privileged, mostly English speaking and well off compared to average Sri Lanka. This is where the BBS has the advantage.

First they’ve got the ear of the people via the media. Second, they LOOK like and SPEAK like the people, while being nothing like them and having interests that are completely contrary to theirs. They are here to con the people, and as far as confidence trickery goes, the BBS is very effective.

How do you mobilize ‘the rest’ to participate? how do you turn this into a ‘people’s movement’? Tonight, many who were there were there because their interests were directly threatened. To ‘the rest; it must still seem like the BBS is fighting against someone else, that their interests are safe. That ‘someone else’ right now are minorities such as Muslims, ‘Night Club’ Buddhists, the NGO and peacenik crowd and the list goes on. All of these elements have been at some point or the other the traditional enemy of the standard-model Sri Lankan patriot. It seems to me that propaganda has created complexes deep in the public psyche that will not be easy to break through.

I don’t have answers, just questions. And in the meanwhile I am wholly in support of acting within the range of what we know. Kudos to those who organized tonight’s event and those who supported it. The challenge now is to keep going. A few of us have organized a petition, and some others are organizing a peace rally soon. Numerous other efforts are going on in social media. Whatever your capacity, there is always some way in which you can contribute.

Part 1 of News First footage. Continued below.

After stewing about it for more than two days ‘Team Mobitel’ appears to have finally come up with a response.

Mobitel response

It’s actually quite ridiculous. They apologize for any ‘inconvenience or pain of mind’ caused but reiterate that the racist ringtone will remain on their site on a ‘revenue share basis’. Apparently they still care about upholding the ‘true values of unity and ethnic harmony’ by allowing an organization that stands for just the opposite to make money off its site, and on a revenue sharing basis too.

The image is accompanied by an expanding thread of comments of largely unimpressed people. Mobitel’s social media team and at least one fake account is also feebly attempting to respond, but are only succeeding in digging itself deeper into this hole.

Many are asking if Mobitel would allow an LTTE song to be put up to fund the terrorist group on a ‘revenue sharing’ basis too. The answer, even though it has not been articulated yet, is obviously no. Why in the world would Mobitel do that? Therefore Mobitel definitely does NOT consider the Bodu Bala Sena to be a hate group or a group with any negative social connotations at all.

The utter chutzpah of this response is rather hard to digest, I will say that at my next tea party. The lyrics of the BBS song call for a “Holy War” to destroy the “rallying cry of the unrighteous” and “the heathens” “who have all united into one camp”. Yup, practically dripping with peace and harmony there.

Actually if this song came from any other group, or was just a song released by an individual artist. Its message could have been construed as one meant purely to inspire and provoke steadfastness on a personal level or whatever (the lyrics are actually quite well written). But the BBS has made its intentions clear through its actions, they possibly really do want a holy war. In denouncing imaginary Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka and countless other made up threats, the BBS is fast mirroring its non-existent worst enemy.

Therefore by allowing the BBS to make money from its ring back tone services (and sharing in the moolah no less) Mobitel is sending a strong message that they support, or at least are indifferent, to its extremist standpoint.

Here’s a poster being shared around on Facebook, which carries the full lyrics of the song and calls for a boycott of all Mobitel products.

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.

SAMSUNG

Shamrock, Nawalapitiya. Nawalapitiya came up in colonial times as a town built around a British railway hub, as far as I can tell.

My grandmother grew up in tough times. She was born in 1926, whence ignorance was rife and widespread. Women died of childbirth because their families did not want them exposed to doctors who were invariably ‘strange men’. Babies were delivered by midwives who would walk straight in from the tea estates, and wouldn’t really bother with washing their hands. Umbilical cords would be cut with anything handy; yes that rusty old scissors will do fine. Unsurprisingly, infant mortality was high.

My great grandmother died of childbirth; her immune system was weakened and welcomed a fatal attack of malaria, which overtook her newborn as well. They remained at home until they died. Never seeing a doctor. My great grandfather was rich, but money had nothing to do with it. She was a woman, and in those times there were certain things women weren’t eligible for. He married again and his second wife suffered the same fate. (Nonplussed, my great grandfather married for the third time, but thankfully she survived. He had altogether 18 or 20 surviving children.)

A newborn came into a wild place. For every family sporting ten healthy children, there were two or three that died; still births, disease; people just took it in their stride. My grandmother delivered seven of her six children at home, but by her time she access to qualified midwives.

Of a keen intelligence is my grandmother. And she has a PhD, in the school of life. But in those days girls were not educated. Muslim girls, especially, were not exposed to strange eyes and they were mostly kept at home; one reason why she enjoyed school so much.

Because even though her father refused to educate her, her grandmother, who was another rock a linchpin just like my grandmother would become, would not stand for it. My great-great grandmother took over the care of her son’s first flock after their mother died, and with her the rules were somewhat different.

They were sent to school; the car and by extension wealth, enabled them to remain secluded. A cloth separated the rear and front so that the driver could not see them. But in those days they used to say; ‘girls need only be educated until they have learned to sign their name’ and eventually this saying came back to haunt my grandma as it did thousands of other girls at the time, and many girls to this day. She was taken out of school when she was fourteen, and at sixteen she was married.

This is slightly unbelievable now, but back then the bride and groom really weren’t allowed to see each other before marriage. The parents would close the deal, and my grandparents only met on the day of their wedding.

My grandmother didn’t mind, marriage offered the only way out of her secluded, pampered existence. It was only after marriage that she saw the world, spoke to people at large, and took a train ride. My granddad was in the Police, and they traveled far and wide for his work. My uncles, mother and aunt were born in places as diverse as Jaffna, Kalutara, Colombo and Nawalapitiya (which is where, decades later, I was born as well).

I like hearing stories from that time. Most of it makes me nostalgic, but some of it shocks, like the denial of basic rights of education and health to women, and the acceptance of this as a part of the cultural identity of being Muslim, carried out by people with good intentions. I guess its a testament to how far corruption can spread so as to seem normal, a lesson for today perhaps.

This ignorance was a sad reality of the community back then. But it is not a reality of Islam. Ignorance started to disappear as religious knowledge spread. And cultural practices long adhered to in an age where colonial invasion had all but destroyed active religious life (many would not attend Friday prayers, let alone pray five times daily), were slowly abandoned as the community gradually modernized. Back then going against customs so set in stone would have called upon the wrath of society, today Sri Lankan Muslim society accepts most of those customs as relics of an age of ignorance.

That is not to say though, that we are completely rid of faults. Muslims continue to do things in the name of religion that would make the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) raise his eyebrows at the very least. We bicker and fight among ourselves, and we fail to stand up for justice. And yes some of our women still face abuse, even though that abuse may not always be in the same form the outside world paints it out to be.

These are not the faults of Islam, but they are the faults of Muslims, and not all Muslims either. We are much better than we used to be, but there are long ways yet to go. But there is hope for me in the story of my grandmother. Let’s have patience, and persevere.

Not in the name of Buddhism

The plight of the Rohingya has been exacerbating while the world was caught up with the Olympics. Scores have already died gruesome deaths and tens of thousands have been internally displaced. Aan Sun Suu Kyi has been silent, contributing to the violence by actually saying that she ‘doesn’t know’ if the Rohingya are Burmese, and continues a trip around Europe hob nobbing with the equally silent elites of the West that recently effectively dropped all sanctions against the military junta that controls Burma.

To give some context from the AJStream video above, the Rohingya have been around since before the state of Burma itself. Like many other people in the region they repeatedly came under the rule of invading forces. The Persians, the Mughals, the British. The argument that the junta uses, and what Suu Kyi has also used, that they are effectively stateless is built on the racially prejudiced law known as the ‘black law’ by Rohingya activists, passed in the sixties when the junta took over. A time when Burma, in its newfound independence from the British, embarked on a national vision defined by the lofty ideals of ethnic purity and economic independence. Sound familiar? I see strange parallels with Sri Lanka’s own anti-Tamil stance in early independence years. Though our historical fling with ultra racism brought us entirely different results. None of them good.

The Rohingya were officially stripped of their citizenship in 1982  and have lived a life of pain, squalor and effective misery since. The recent spate of violence erupted in June when 3 mulisms were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

Prior to the Junta, the Rohingya enjoyed full citizenship and rights. I am assuming this was mostly in the British time. But the hate and prejudice against them increased over the sixty post independence years and has ironically culminated just when Burma should have been on the path to international acceptance. The Junta recently released Suu Kyi and some political prisoners and opened up the country to US and European businesses prompting those governments to virtually abolish the sanctions regime. And now that the West thinks it has turned Burma into a poster child for democracy, the Junta is carrying out one of the worst atrocities we have seen in this century. The West is silent. Seemingly hating to admit that its most recent success story is a jarring failure.

The news reports carry some horrific accounts (see video above). Neighbors and thugs aided and/or unstopped by armed forces storming Muslim villages; burning people alive, engaging in mass murder, rape and torture. One account tells of a group of children who were tied up and tortured until they lost consciousness, another was an eyewitness account of attackers who planted swords blade up on the ground and skewered babies alive. A group of escapees recount how a military helicopter swooped down and attacked escaping boats killing about fifty in the process.

The burmese president has reportedly stated that the Rohingya must be deported. But deported where? Aside from Burma these people have no home. No foreign country is willing to accept them. This is racism at its uglist, most deplorable and most violent. What we’re seeing is an emerging genocide. And if so, its probably the most ignored news item in the world today.

International media has largely been silent. The Twittersphere and Facebook has largely been ignoring it. Remember when Aang San Suu Kyi was a prisoner? Being a Suu Kyi activist was fashionable, Saving Tibet was in-the thing to be seen doing in 2008, KONY 2012 went nuts until everyone realized the truth, and the guy who made the video turned to be a little deranged. All of these issues got airtime and the global industrial media complex got behind, graphics were made in pastel shades, celebrities endorsed, and people the world over made them go viral. Causes have become brands, people take them up if they like the packaging and the advertising. The personal kickbacks and ego boosts.

The Rohingya though, are not fashionable, not yet. They have no voice, no power. Right now Bangladesh, the neighboring country and a Muslim state to boot, is turning them away guiltless. Makes me sick. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been throwing money at the problem, offering no permanent solutions. Sri Lanka, as a Buddhist nation, faced with a fellow Buddhist country committing atrocities under a false guise of Buddhism has said nothing. Everywhere mum’s the word. The UN isn’t even in the picture. And the Rohingya are caught increasingly between a rock and a hard place both of which are closing in for the crush.

-the truth may hurt, but Jack Baur hurts more

The Economist ran a piece recently on how people are taking Jack Baur seriously. I mean seriously, this is Jack Baur we’re talking about. An excerpt;

During a televised debate in 2007, Tom Tancredo, a Republican presidential candidate, was asked what methods he would authorise to extract information from a terrorist suspect in a “ticking bomb” scenario. “I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you,” he said. Bauer routinely tortures terrorists in disgusting ways to save innocent lives. Being a fictional character, he never tortures the wrong guy or extracts false information. Real life is not like that. Yet a Pew poll last year found that half of Americans think that torturing terrorist suspects can “sometimes” or “often” be justified. Only a quarter said “never”.

The amount of ‘terrorists’ tortured by the Bush administration was no small number. Maybe Jack Baur helped constrain public opinion to the level of what it was. Maybe he convinced Obama not to prosecute Bush. Whatever.

The movie industry trying to belittle atrocities created by wars their home country’s are engaged in are nothing new. I don’t know if this is done on purpose. If i was in more conspiratorial mood, i would tell you it was all the fault of the Jewish Lobby. But it comes down to a question of what impresses people about the movies they see. Its how the people see it that matters and not for what purpose the movies are made.

Batman, in last year’s The Dark Night, went completely batshit on international regulations and the rule of law. The message was clear; you fight fire with fire, and when fighting the lawless, you can’t let little things like laws get in your way.

Mot people, on the surface would probably like to think that movies don’t really influence the way they think. But most people really don’t know what influences the way they think. We think through ideas, through mental constructs we have built up that help us see the world in a particular light. And i assume that the foundations of these constructions are located in the subconscious. They build up beased on externalities that influence them. This is probably where Jack Baur comes in; he creeps into our subconscious and fucks with it.