South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

NOTE: The Sunday Observer has inadvertently published an erroneous version of this article in the print version of the newspaper. The following is the article as it was intended for publication both in print and online. We regret the error.

Islamophobia is a term that gained currency in the 1980s in British English. It referred to prejudices against the Islam and Muslim people that had begun to spread in the UK since the 1970s.

As a cultural, intellectual and political phenomenon, Islamophobia began to spread throughout the Western world after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The Christian Right in America has been the leading force that promoted Islamophobia as a new strand of political ideology in the world. It spread to the Hindu and Buddhists worlds as well amidst the rapid rise of ethnic identity politics and conflict.

India and Myanmar

In India, the BJP and Right-wing Hindu groups politically benefitted by cleverly introducing Islamophobia as a devise to divide the citizens along ‘national’ and anti-national’ –Hindu versus Muslim — binary. As a result, India’s political and cultural face has now changed beyond recognition.

Contemporary India is no longer the modern, progressive, secular, and tolerant India that Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedhkar built. It is now a land of ethnic, cultural and political intolerance and hatred. Ideologies of ethno-cultural phobia against the minorities even get official sanction quite easily.

In Myanmar, Islamophobia entered Buddhist radical politics, leading to wave of violence against the Muslim Rohingiya communities. It even rocked the Aung San Suu Kyi government, forcing the human rights icon to do nothing to stop violence, carried out as organized ethnic cleansing with tacit support from state agencies.

Myanmar is a Buddhist majority nation-state in the transition to democracy. There, Islamophobic violence has gained religious sanctity as well. That is why the government could not control it and Prime Minister Suu Kyi had to practice a vow of silence about grave human rights violations against the Rohingiya people.

After the 4/21 attacks in Sri Lanka, Islamophobia seems to be gaining ground as a new form of political consciousness, particularly in the Sinhalese society.

We must recall these and similar instances of Islamophobia in other countries because they offer us important lessons. Leaders of the government, defence establishment and the media should reflect on those lessons to prevent the rising consciousness of Islamophobia poisoning the political life of Sri Lankan citizens. It has the potential to polarize the Sinhalese and Muslim communities in a frightening manner.

It is of course understandable why and how the government has been forced to launch the current phase of counter-insurgency operations against the Muslim militants who organized and carried out a series of such horrendous terrorist attacks on a holy day. By those attacks, the terrorist leaders, particularly those who conceptualized and organized it and did not perish in the process, seem to have achieved a distinctly sinister objective too: subjecting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community to Islamophobia of other communities as well the state. The kind of religio-anarchist political ideology of the contemporary Islamic militancy that has swept the Muslim world and Europe has this strange and patently irrational element of provoking hatred against mainstream Muslim communities.

Fear as Paranoia

Meanwhile, the kind of conversations taking place these days among our fellow non-Muslim citizens, irrespective of their social or educational status, point to a wave of Islamophobic consciousness. More disturbingly, the social psychology that is manifested through this consciousness borders on something like a collective paranoia. Largely fuelled by exaggerated media reporting and irresponsible statements by politicians, all communities live in everyday fear, afraid of imminent suicide attacks in schools, Buddhist temples, market places, and the neighbourhoods.

Quite paradoxically, the daily security reporting by the print and electronic media has also begun to contribute to a generalized fear about the Muslim community as an immediate source of threat to people’s life. Fear of violence and death at the hand of suicide bombers from the Muslim community has actually paralyzed not only the country’s economy and the public life, but also the capacity for rational thinking even among the well-educated.

Extreme Othering

This process of extreme othering and demonizing of the entire Muslim community, spread through rumours shared in the social media, email, telephone calls as well as casual conversations with neighbours and relatives, is perhaps the most pernicious collective response generated among the civilian populace to the Easter Sunday tragedy. One does not have to be a trained sociologist to sense how the news people often share about the possibility of imminent threats to the life and security is always verbalized in a language of extreme ethnic and cultural prejudice, stereo-typing and demonizing.

The rapidity and frequency with which the tales of insecurity circulate amidst the state of emergency suggest that these are not spontaneous or casual responses to constant media reports of discovering swords, knives, explosives and ‘ISIS trainees’ from urban as well as rural neighborhoods. Rather, they have the trappings of some organized efforts towards a distinct political end. It appears that creating a condition of ‘ungovernability’ in the country by further deepening and widening the trust gap between the government and the citizens has to be part of a hidden political agenda.

The leaders of the government can only ill afford to ignore the political consequences of this wave of insecurity-making, particularly among the citizens of the Sinhalese community.

If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, it has the potential to eat into the very foundations of our collective polity as Sri Lankans of several ethnic, religious and cultural communities. It will also produce a popular culture of extreme forms of ethnic and cultural intolerance towards one ethnic minority, who happen to be the Muslims.

Abyss of Violence

This dangerous possibility of Sri Lankan society falling once again deeply into the abyss of inter-community conflict and violence needs to be acknowledged without delay. The gestures of reconciliation being made by the President and the Prime Minister are probably responses arising from such a realization. But they seem to be inadequate to stem the present wave of Islamophobia. The two leaders need to re-double their efforts to manage the crisis politically and it requires unity of purpose and intent on their part. That is one way to overcome the massive trust deficit that erupted soon after Easter Sunday between the Government and the citizens.

We must not fail to recognize that the ISIS-inspired suicide bombers have already pushed Sri Lanka towards the global war between the US-led West and the radicalized Islamic groups. Our government should also aim at extricating the country from this trap of a global counter-terrorism war. It may even be the case that the location of that global war is now shifting towards some parts of South Asia.

That is why the present counter-insurgency operations, executed through emergency regulations, should not ignore the unintended political consequences of restoring security exclusively within a ‘national security’ frame. Sri Lanka’s government and security leadership should be sensitive to both meanings of that much – maligned phrase ‘intelligence failures.’ The cultural insensitivity to the Muslim community in securing state security should not be buttressed by any lapses at the level of political leadership, in the enlightened sense of the word ‘intelligence’.


Updated On: 12 May, 2019