Fear and the Predicament Facing Muslims in Sri Lanka

A Muslim lecturer friend some time ago described a troubling moment. The incident took place when he pulled into the parking lot of a supermarket with his wife few weeks ago. As they got out of the car, a group of men standing by first stared at his wife, who was wearing a headscarf, and then looked intently at him. In a split second, his day was disturbed; he reflected on this moment for quite some time. Was this a harmless gaze or did it reflect a change in attitude towards Muslims? My friend described his own reaction to that momentary stare as one that brought on fear. What did he fear? And why?

The Muslim community is in a state of fear in Sri Lanka. That is what many Muslim intellectuals, activists and community leaders have been saying in recent months at various forums. Do they fear the fringe groups mobilising Sinhala Buddhist nationalism against the Muslim community? Or is it the reception of anti-Muslim rhetoric by broader sections of the Sinhala community? Or is this fear rooted in the support given to such extreme forces by the ruling regime? Or is it fear of the Sri Lankan state itself, responsible for the security of its Muslim citizenry? Indeed, fear is characteristic of modern state and society. But the form that fear takes differs at different historical moments and in different societies and communities.

A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “The Political Economy of Anti-Muslim Attacks” (Sunday Island, March 3rd, 2013). There, I discussed the broad reception of the anti-Muslim hate campaign within the Sinhala community and its relationship to the economic changes taking place in Sri Lanka. I concluded by mentioning the need to rethink concepts such as the state, religion and politics, as well as the importance of reflecting on questions of fear and insecurity facing communities and their implications for relations between communities. In response to my article, at a conference, a Marxist feminist critiqued what she felt was a reductive analysis of social disaffection on my part. She argued that such political economic analysis of social disaffection also makes claims about people’s affection towards both the economy and the state. She went on to argue, that classes are not just formed, but also formulated through narratives which are predicated on the nation and produced in part by the state. Acknowledging her critique and building on it, I find questions about fear to be inextricably linked to analysis of the state. In this article, I will engage the politics of fear in the Muslim community and articulate the need to build bridges between communities through dialogue and dissent.

Fear and the State

Recent months have seen increasing attacks against the Muslim community; whether on Mosques, Muslim-owned establishments or individuals. While the attack on the Fashion Bug store, the boycott of No Limit stores and the raids on Muslim slaughterhouses have been highlighted in the press, numerous other incidents experienced daily by Muslims go unreported. These incidents, whether a stare on the street, a passing comment, a shove, or a tug at the headscarf, are just as dangerous as the attacks by chauvinist mobs, for the reason that they reflect a pervasiveness within society. Indeed, the proliferation of such incidents has engendered a climate of fear within the Muslim community. I would argue that this fear is related to the state; both the inaction of the state in the context of the attacks as well as the working of state power in relation to the Muslim citizenry.

Now, it has been argued by some political philosophers that fear is a central condition of modern social existence. From this perspective, fear is the rationale for the modern state as an entity with tremendous power. That is, people live in constant fear of their neighbours, neighbouring communities and countries. In other words, fear of your neighbour attacking you to take your things or the fear of an invading army plundering your community, legitimised the emergence of the modern state and the idea of sovereignty. They go on to argue that we need the modern state to guarantee our security both from external enemies such as foreign states as well as from our neighbours who may try to steal our property. Here, it is important to keep in mind that property is also a modern concept, which emerged along with the modern state. The point I want to make is not that fear is a natural condition, rather, the emergence of modern concepts such as the state, sovereignty and property in the 14th to the 17th Century depended on the articulation of fear.

Thus whether fear is justified or not, fear is central to the relationship of citizens to a state. At certain moments in history fear becomes more visible and instrumental. This is as true in the United States as it is in Sri Lanka. For example, in the United States, after the Sept 11th attacks in 2001, fear facilitated the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. In the context of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, fear made way for the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which continues to this day. Similarly, public fear becomes the justification for other forms of surveillance like phone tapping and check points. Such laws and surveillance are first used to repress one particular community, but in time it can be used to crush all dissent. The arrest of Muslim politician Azad Salley few months ago under the PTA was an attack on Muslim politics and a warning against dissent.

Under attack, the Muslim community finds itself powerless in the face of powerful Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist actors. The solution, some would argue, would be for the state, which wields the greatest power, to intervene. Indeed, one definition of the state is that it is an entity with a monopoly on legitimate violence. So, why is it that the Muslim community does not feel reassured by the state? Is it because they believe state power is also turned against them? Indeed, the impunity of the attacks on mosques and Muslim establishments, as the police watched on, points to such a worrying political environment. Furthermore, anti-Muslim rhetoric is seeping into statements of officials and zealous policing on the street. It is in the face of repressive state power working against them, that the Muslims – diverse by region, class and bilingual ability – find a shadow of fear over the entire community.

Paradox of Fear and Power

History tells us about the paradoxical relationship between fear and power. In order to overcome fear, there is a need for power to ensure security. But that very power in turn can create more fear. In the early stages of Tamil militancy, large sections of the Tamil community supported militancy in the face of abusive state power. However, with time, the LTTE’s usurpation of power through the decimation of all other actors within the Tamil community, led to the Tamil people fearing the LTTE. The lesson here is that states and those entities aspiring towards state power depend on instilling fear.

Some commentators claim, Sinhala fears and insecurities led to the reception of the recent anti-Muslim hate campaign. I would argue that such insecurities are constructed by nationalist assertions of power and linked to the workings of the state. Indeed, it is nationalist ideology and the workings of the state that can construct a common insecurity for the diverse Sinhala population. Thus the task of analysis is not to reify and placate such insecurities, but rather to unpack the workings of the state in confluence with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Returning to the fears of the Muslim community, the possibility of the state ensuring their security and abating fear has been denied by the moves and rhetoric of the ruling regime and high-ranking officials of state institutions. Furthermore, the abuse of state power is further increasing the fears of Muslims. The predicament facing the Muslims is that, the assertion of the Muslim community’s power alone may only meet with further repression, and calls for strategies that circumvent a direct confrontation with state power.

Isolation and Building Bridges

The fear eclipsing the Muslim community is also related to a sense of isolation. Even during the decades of the civil war in the North and East, there were bridges between the Tamil and Sinhala communities in the form of the Left movement and the Christian churches, both of which included members from both communities. In the case of the Muslim community, despite its internal diversity, social movements and institutions creating strong bonds with other communities have been limited. Furthermore, with a regime subscribing to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism at the helm of the state, the attacks by chauvinist forces against the Muslim community is bound to aggravate the isolation.

A first step towards addressing the fear of the Muslim community is the need for dialogue both within the Muslim community as well as between communities. It is through such dialogue that bridges can be built. And here, forums in universities, inter-faith dialogues, discussions in schools, activist initiatives etc. can begin to address the problem by recognising that it is the responsibility of non-Muslims as much as the Muslims to challenge the climate of fear.

Some may argue that the solution to the current predicament of the Muslims lies with strengthening a secular liberal democratic state. While sympathetic to the calls on the state to have a strong response to anti-Muslim violence, I find it hard to place faith in the ruling regime and the state to address the larger problem. I see the modern state, of which the secular liberal democratic state is one avatar, as an entity that increasingly encroaches into the lives of people through its policies, laws, surveillance, repression and more generally, state power. And modern state power, which is the cause of much fear, has also atomised individuals away from their communities, isolated communities from other communities and curtailed the ability of communities to build bridges and address social problems.

Others may argue that the recent onslaught of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the support it gets from the state calls for the more cautious approach of watchful waiting while the extremist and repressive forces play themselves out. We do not have that luxury. A couple of decades ago, as the Muslim community came under attack from the LTTE through mosque massacres and ethnic cleansing, many within the Tamil community, drunk with nationalism or paralysed by the fear of the LTTE, remained silent. The consequences were disastrous for all communities. The same could be said of the current moment, where critical thinking, dissent and dialogue between communities are the need of the hour.

When an individual is fearful or under threat, the temptation may be, for the individual, or for those of us watching on, to wish the fear away or look away. But we need to stare back at such fear, even when it is backed by state power. That is crucial for unpacking the workings of fear and to begin building bridges between the communities, so that we don’t fall deeper into the pit of ethnic polarisation.

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