The encounter I am about to describe happened long before the Dambulla mosque incident in 2012. Years later it still sits on me. The weight growing with the current decent of Sri Lankan politics. I began writing this as a way of dealing with it. It led me to realise a few things about my supposedly cynical self. Then ended up becoming a declaration of war.
What happened ?
I am out on a walk with an elderly relative of my farther’s generation. One of our rare unexpected chances to catch up. We are in the one of those (then) newly spruced up urban green spots. We are passed by a tall, fair, portly gentleman. Kurtha top. Jeans. Nikes. Skullcap on closely cropped hair. Greying beard bouncing on a prosperous stomach to diligent strides.
It starts in the vein of “look at that fat Buriyani fed Muslim” – referring to the walker. Then avalanches into a matter a fact muttered tirade. About Muslims “having all the money”. Because “they all support each other” and “stick together” unlike “our” stupid backstabbing Sinhalayas.
They are dazzling Sinhala Buddhist girls with their wealth and converting them through marriage. Newspaper notices by women announcing changes from Sinhalese Buddhist names to “Muslim” (Arabic sounding) names are cited as evidence. This leads to the topic of women.
“They” treat women like property. To illustrate – an aside on how the careers of brilliant muslim female protégés were cut short by new husbands who wanted them to stay home. Hijabed like penguins. There was more but you get the drift.
Thinking back, I realise the odd daze I went into was a type of shock. It was not due to WHAT was said (I had heard it all before) but the person saying it.
This was a person I respect deeply. The only one I know who has read the Koran (in translation) along with the texts of other religions. Who retired from a successful career in an Islamic country. A time often recollected as one of the best periods of his personal and professional life.
Early in his career he experienced first hand post independence Sri Lanka’s decent into tribalism. He resisted. Usually alone and at a personal/professional cost. Now there he was, parroting local fascists in a “reasonable” conversational tone.
What shocked me the most was realising how sad and paralysed I felt. My instinct to respond, to argue (however politely), died in my throat. For the rest of the walk and perhaps long after I was on some social auto pilot. May be I still am. The fear, aggression and overall negativity behind those words took something out of me. Possibly forever. What I lost I still don’t know.
Wasn’t that a melodramatic, cheesy theatrical paragraph? I would snort in cynical disbelief if anyone else wrote it. All I will see is a pompous act. A cheap easy strutting of liberal Sinhala anti BBS credentials without risking a beating.
Stop this silly over reacting
Any reasonable person would say so. There was no hostile confrontation. Sensible types could validly claim that people are entitled to express their prejudices privately. In our tribal society, I should not get upset at private prejudices of relatives.
Others can rationally point out that I’m getting worked up over things that have nothing to do with me.
They can validly point out that I don’t even have any Muslims in my immediate circle. Of the few I “know” peripherally, one can out Vodka Russians in Moscow. Another avoids praying due to “all the bending” (might be rugby injuries). I have interacted with more Muslims on Twitter in the past year than in my whole adult life.
On top of it all I have broad disagreements with how religious beliefs (including Islamic ones) are practiced. Any true slave of Cthulhu would.
What is your problem?
In one word: majoritarianism. Let me explain since it took me a lot of writing to realise this.
The casualness of my relative’s words implicitly assumed agreement as the normal response to such sentiments. By extension, agreement to the idea that minorities should be restrained in subservience to the majority. Otherwise “they” will “take over”.
It is not an uncommon view. Many countries are built on majoritarianism. Israel was setup as a country for Jewish people. Malaysia for the Bumiputras. Quebec has its language police so lesser tongues know their place. A commitment to religious freedom is not expected of Saudi Arabia. Even the Liberté, égalité, fraternité has less liberté, égalité and no fraternité for those open about their religious beliefs.
I now realise I find such majoritarianism disgusting. The revulsion comes from a gut level primordial feeling. Deeper than the cesspits of ethnic/cultural/linguistic/religious politics. The shock was realising the intensity and depth of this disgust.
Why react this way?
One root of my unhappiness is that someone I respect subscribes to such sentiments (however privately). Another could to be the feeling (unverified by data) that his sentiments are shared by a large percentage of Sinhala people in Sri Lanka. Particularly in more homogenous non urban areas where most of the population live. I live in the hope that I am wrong on this assumption.
None of this explains the intensity of the miserable feeling left by comments on an evening walk. I now realise the sadness comes from the fearful, pathetic pettiness at the core of all majoritarian beliefs.
I blame this reaction on a catastrophic failure of my painstakingly refined cynicism. I should be able to see such beliefs as just another fart from the human tragedy called politics. Shrug off the associated emotional stench – along with seeing another human demonised behind his back. Is the melodrama of this paragraph an attempt to show what a big bucket of human empathy I am?
No, just a realisation about my gut level reaction to certain kinds of politics. I can’t shrug it off. Its weight will eventually grind me down into fatalistic dust.
So what to do?
Nothing – or so I thought. I live in a world of “practical” people. Who survived, even thrived, despite the madness of politicians. To them worrying in writing over these sorts of things is a sign of inner frailty. Perhaps even psychiatric problems. The thought of talking to anyone about a long ago incident feels stupid. The fact is talk is unproductive.
The next futility I thought of was writing this. Pecked out in my usual clumsy way. A few stolen moments at a time over several months. Eventually to be splashed out on an irrelevant medium. No, I’m not asking for your reassurance about my writing. The selfish purpose : to clarify the mud of my thoughts and decide what to do.
Writing also compressed my inner beliefs into an uncompromising hardness. A hardness that I never thought I had. Which has become, despite my best efforts, a declaration of a quiet war against this majoritarian madness.
I lack the physical courage for candle light vigils and solidarity marches. Or the quick wit for political shouting matches. My waking hours are spent on “essentials”. Paying the bills. Worrying about roof leaks. Navigating the Kafkha’s labyrinth of school admissions. Trying to find one more moment with the newest arrival and his drooling grin. Before he grows up (into what kind of world I dare not wonder) and has “no time” for his loony thatha.
I’m not going to bother fighting fascist demagogues on social or any other media. Instead I’ll contribute to eroding the social acceptability their insane beliefs from within. All the while looking like one of the nodding loyal herd. Trustworthy. Polite. Respectful. Pious at bodhi pujas and sermons. A germ quietly slowly withering the host.
I’ll do it my way in this and future lives. If that makes me a traitor and all the usual labels, I don’t care. I am not making threats. Just making a vow to my self. The cynical part of myself is having a laugh but it knows it has lost.
This rambling word spew obviously isn’t my best output. Mixing political abstractions with gut level emotions in a blog post is a bad idea as you can see. I won’t apologise. I had to get this out of the head. If you read this far, you are a true masochist. But thank you for reading.