What does being a Muslim actually mean?

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By Khaled Diab

In much of the world, ‘Muslim’ is often used as a marker of ethnic origin rather than of religion. This must change.

Most ‘Muslims’ are labelled as such long before they can make any kind of informed decision about their faith.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Islam is clearly a religion. People may disagree passionately about the nature of this faith, the validity of the various schools and sects, what is or is not ‘Islamic’, but there is a consensus that it is a belief system.

But does the same apply to Muslim? Is being a Muslim about faith? Is it social or political? Is it about culture? This is a question I have pondered on numerous occasions over the years.

Recently, I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter to get a taste of what people regarded as the central pillar of Muslim identity. I also canvassed Facebook friends for their opinions. I asked whether being ‘Muslim’ was founded on belief or whether it was a form of ethnic identity, or both.

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (63%) were convinced that being Muslim is exclusively or primarily a question of faith. And, indeed, this is what Islam was originally about. Muhammad’s earliest followers were all presumed to be passionate believers and conversion was presumably the main source growth in the Muslim population for generations.

Of course, there are converts today but they constitute a negligible minority of the global population we classify as “Muslim”. Only an estimated 500,000 people converted to Islam between 2010 and 2015 (0.3% of the growth in the global Muslim population), according to the Pew Research Centre – which sheds a more telling light on why Islam is the fastest-growing major religion.

Although the Quran criticises the idea of passing down the faith, the notion that religion is a hereditary identity was a pre-Islamic practice across the region that was continued into the Islamic era, according to Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, assistant professor of Islamic law at McGill University. “Most religions, especially since the Axial Age, in the context of universalist religions, have created ethnic and cultural layers of identification,” observes Ibrahim.

Today, we live in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were born into the faith, and are labelled as “Muslim” by society, long before they can make any kind of informed decision for themselves. Moreover, we have little to no information on what the world’s 1.8 billion notional Muslims actually believe and how many of them practise their faith.

If being Muslim is truly a question of faith, then it should be a top priority to find out exactly what each one believes, free of coercion, before taking a headcount (same goes for other religions).

In the absence of this, labelling all these hundreds of millions of people as Muslim is presumptuous, to say the least, even if the majority do turn out to be zealous believers. It also means that actual belief is secondary, or even irrelevant, to membership of this global “tribe” – as is the case with Christianity.

This means that “Muslim” functions, in my view, like a de facto “ethnicity”, or a super-ethnicity. At this stage, I should point out that I do not believe that Islam should form the basis for any kind of ethnic identity nor do I find this desirable. I am merely describing a reality which prevails across the world.

My assertion sparked a heated online debate. “Stop trying to Judaise Islam with this ethno-religious nonsense,” one critic asserted, in no uncertain terms.

But I fail to see any fundamental or radical difference between how Islam and Judaism are passed on from one generation to the next, except that one is believed to be largely patrilineal and the other matrilineal. The only real difference between Islam and Judaism are the issues of conversion and proselytisation – both of which are considerably less common in modern Judaism than in Islam, though far from unheard of.

Where Muslims are in the minority, the perception that their identity, like that of Jews, is primarily “ethnic” is at its strongest, such as is the case with Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘Moors’. Likewise, the secular wing of India’s pre-partition Muslim League was in little doubt that Muslim was more an ethnic than religious marker, and that South Asian Muslims shared more with each other than they did with non-Muslims from their own state, region, language or ethnic group.

“[Islam and Hinduism] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” claimed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. “Mussalmans are not a minority as it is commonly known and understood… Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory, and their state.”

Among Europe’s more-established Muslim populations, they sometimes self-identified and were formally recognised as an ethnicity, such as in the former Yugoslovia, and there has been a long-standing dispute in China as to whether its Muslim minorities were an ethnicity or religious community. Unfortunately, this ethnicisation of Islam is occurring in Western Europe and America, where Muslim is often used nowadays as a marker of origin, rather than of a religion.

But when it comes to the sum of Muslim populations around the world, the “ethnic” label becomes more ambiguous and complicated to use. “There are hundreds of ethnicities in Islam,” one friend observed, echoing others who objected to ascribing the ‘ethnic’ label to Muslims.

Some suggested that the fact that Islam is made up of many local ethnicities, referring to Muslim as a kind of ethnicity would cause considerable confusion – and argued that an alternative term was required. Mega-ethnicity, perhaps?

A couple suggested, instead, “cultural Muslim”. Cultural Muslim is a great term for those who self-identify with Islamic culture but do not practise or do not believe in the faith, as well as those who belong to a minority religion in Muslim-majority societies but feel a strong affinity to the mainstream culture. “Arab Christians are all more or less Muslims by culture rather than by faith,” observes Liliane Daoud, a prominent Lebanese TV personality who was born to Christian and Muslim parents.

In addition, the term “cultural Muslim” fails to capture the fact that the status “Muslim” is not just a cultural label. In many Islamic contexts, it is also a social, political, legal and jurisprudential category.

Moreover, a similar situation of multi-layered ethnicity afflicts other accepted ethnic markers. For example, ‘Arab’ is accepted as an ethnicity, even though under this language-based umbrella stands a multitude of ethnic, national, racial, religious and tribal communities.

In addition, the multi-ethnic argument also applies to Judaism, which is also an umbrella label for numerous ethnic groups, including Mizrahim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, all of which have numerous sub-ethnicities, not to mention Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and more. The only difference between ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’ here is one of magnitude and numbers, given the much wider spread of Islam.

Describing Muslim as an ethnicity is “likely to have negative unintended discursive consequences by reifying made-up ‘race’/’ethnic’ concepts,” in the words of Farrah, a friend and academic.

Of course, I am well aware of the dangers of conflating religion with ethnicity or race. One of the most destructive and infamous examples of this was the Nuremberg Race Laws, which defined Jewishness, not as a changeable religious allegiance, but as a fixed biological identity which could not be changed or erased, not even through conversion or total and complete assimilation.

And bad omens in this regard are appearing in the form of virulent anti-Semitism and a brand of Islamophobia that seems to regard Muslims as monolithically menacing, the kind of collective demonisation and essentialisation that informed Donald Trump’s expressed desire to impose a freeze on immigration from Muslim lands.

However, whether or not we describe Muslim as an ethnicity does not remove the fact that it too often operates like one, and this has already caused considerable harm.

Numerous Muslim-majority countries, especially those whose personal and family laws retain a modern form of the classical ‘millet’ system, have hereditary Islam codified into their laws. This means that a faith is imposed on children before they have the chance to decide for themselves, and this shapes many of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

To add injury to presumption, and to place citizens in a catch-22, quite a few countries make it difficult and often impossible for people to remove or change the religion on their identity papers – and some states even punish as “apostates” those who reject their pre-determined Muslim identity or wish to convert to another religion. Some countries also limit citizenship to “Muslims”. This is the case in most of the Gulf states, which effectively disenfranchises millions of non-Muslim residents, some of whom may have been born there, while recent Muslim immigrants stand a greater chance of being naturalised.

If being Muslim is to become truly a question of faith and conviction, not a de facto ethnic identity, then the pious cannot have their cake and eat it. They must stop counting everyone born to presumed Muslim parents as an automatic Muslim. The ‘umma’ of believers should only be as large as those who voluntarily associate themselves with it.

In addition, the ridiculous and harmful discriminatory practices common in some Muslim countries should end. Countries which do so must stop assigning a religious identity to their citizens, must not attach extra social, economic or cultural benefits to being a Muslim, must not punish Muslims who leave the faith, and must not discriminate against non-Muslims.

Ultimately, religion is a personal choice but society is for everyone.


This article first appeared in The New Arab on 11 June 2018.



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In condemnation of “spiritual” atheism

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By Ena Grozdanic

Atheists do not “pray” and are not “spiritual”. I urge my fellow non-believers to halt the creeping spiritualisation of our creed. 

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

Wednesday 9 December 2015

If religion is the opium of the masses, the phrase “but I’m spiritual” must be the e-cigarette. Let me get this straight. So you want to smoke but you don’t want to smoke? You begin to realise ours is the era of nonsense when your agnostic pal, in all seriousness, affirms their faith in “destiny” or when your non-Hindu friend imparts chakra advice. You catch a glimpse of the nonsense when God is referenced as She (give up, the Abrahamic Patriarchy club doesn’t want you) or when your Muslim pal drinks/smokes/has sex yet will not touch pork.

It’s a tough world for a non-believer to navigate when the Stop sign separating religion from non-religion seems to be in hiding. Every day, my ears are impaled by hollow statements. There are your garden-variety types:

  • “I don’t believe in heaven or hell but I believe in some kind of afterlife.” (Do you journey through the underworld to reach Osiris and plead entry?)
  • “I don’t like organised religion but there’s a divine force.” (Residing on Mount Olympus?)
  • “Something connects us all.” (Bacteria?)
  • “God is within us.”

Let us examine a little closer this last exhibit, “God is within us.” As a religious sentiment, it’s fine. It’s at the top of the heap. If I were living in a theocracy, I’d rather be ruled by “God is within us” than “God is sitting on a cloud”. However, originating in the mouth of a non-religious person, the statement transforms from religious fluff to airy-fairy nonsense – New-Age babble, intellectual sloth, idolatry of the Hollow.

And here we approach the sum of all nonsense, contained in one single statement. This sentence is the doll to my voodoo: “Pray for *insert location of latest tragedy*”

A short disclaimer: I write this not out of disbelief in the value of interdependence or in the Good of human beings (Alain Badiou, rather than Jesus, has enforced this feeling in me). However, I correspondingly believe that one should not sprout Biblical/Koranic/Veda concepts if one is not religious. This might be the great cause Dawkins has ignored, as he’s too busy prepping his gingerbread house to ensnare Muslim children, so I’ll pick up the arms. Repeat after me, non-religious friends: “I shall not utter quasi-religious nonsense!”

If you do not subscribe to one of the world’s many, many religions (Baha’ism/Islam/Christianity/Voodoo/Hinduism/Buddhism/Animism etc.) please do us all a favour and stop with the religious signifiers.

Returning to the hashtag prayer, the cynical among us might suggest that it is prayer that got us into this mess in the first place. The new atheist clique will scream, “All religions are bad, but some are worse than others” from high up in their rebel tower. (After all, only they have the courage to rail against Islam and its cohorts in the ‘regressive left’). The crux of my gripe with #prayforparis is not the statement itself, but when it is proselytised by the keyboards of those who do not pray.

Rather than a whimsical “prayer” you float across to Paris via the energy that connects us all, how about you utilise a more practical vehicle for expressing your grief/outrage?  Rather than pray why not:

  • Plant a tree? #treeforparis
  • Recognise that other tragedies have too taken place, where the victim city does not happen to be the playground of your imagination? #intersectionalityforparis

All of these acts would be much more useful to humanity than your electronic, keyboard prayer.

I mourn the days when it was easy to separate the clerical masses from the anti-clerical: the anti-clerical were usually of a very high intellectual calibre. As Abu al-Ala’ al-Maari, an atheist living in 8th century Syria, attested: “The world is divided in two: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.’ Old mate al-Maari fought the good fight of atheism into old age. Unfortunately, the line seems to have blurred just a little. Nowadays you have very Christian Cornel West sprouting very intelligent thoughts, very Muslim Waleed Aly making very much sense, and gamer boys with no religion and apparently no respect for females.

I urge my fellow non-believers to halt the creeping spiritualisation of our creed. We need to take our ‘Stop’ sign back from the hijackers.


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A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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For Buddha and country

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By Kapil Komireddi

The toxic Buddhist-Sinhala supremacism and triumphalism in Sri Lanka means the country’s fragile “peace” is just the prelude to another war.

Wednesdaw 18 September 2013

Still Counting the Dead Image“The most dangerous creation of any society,” the late American novelist James Baldwin wrote in 1963, is “a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially their sense of their own worth.”

In Still Counting the Dead, an extraordinary account of the savage denouement in 2009 of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, Frances Harrison introduces us to such people: Tamil survivors who, displaced from home, are now dispersed across the developed world’s detention centres and immigrant neighbourhoods. A former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, Harrison travelled to Australia, Britain, Norway, Germany and other undisclosed places to interview the war’s survivors. Their testimonies have no silver linings. They have escaped the fighting, but are captive to its experience. And they see in the reluctance of the world to recognise their loss an extension of the torment they endured on the battlefield.

The war itself was the culmination of a dispute that has been raging, with varying intensity, for millennia. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival in Sri Lanka, around 2,500 years ago, of Vijaya, a thuggish prince banished from his father’s kingdom in eastern India. Vijaya, the legend goes, married an indigenous ogress and established his rule over the island. This, at any rate, is the origin myth of the Sinhalese, who constitute the overwhelming ethnic majority of present-day Sri Lanka. The Tamils, emanating from the nearby peninsula of southern India, claim that their settlements predated Vijaya’s arrival. The Sinhalese embraced Buddhism, the Tamils remained largely Hindu, and there were occasional battles on the island. But on the whole the two communities cohered, if not in peace and harmony, then in cordial hostility, for more than 2,000 years. Sri Lanka generated a composite culture.

Then modernity arrived in the form of Western imperialism, overhauling ancient pluralism and exposing native elites to its most insidious ideological innovation: nationalism. Influential Sinhalese voices soon began clamouring for the creation of a “pure” homeland, rid of not just the British but also the supposedly treacherous Tamil newcomers they had brought along to work the tea plantations, banishing the ancient Tamil presence on the island to an exile beyond the popular consciousness.

In language borrowed from European demagogues of the early 20th century, Sinhalese nationalists demanded the restoration of an unadulterated past that had never truly existed. The powerful Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Sinhalese were an “ancient, historic, refined people” who had transformed Sri Lanka “into a paradise” – only to see it destroyed by the “barbaric vandals” in their midst. Invoking religious histories, and citing colonial surveys and dubious ethnographies, Sinhalese chauvinists fabricated a hierarchy of citizenship within Sri Lanka and demanded corresponding political privileges for the majority. This was self-empowerment through exclusion – a majority that sought to validate its dominant position by placing minorities directly beneath itself.

Once British rule ended in 1948, the early governments of independent Sri Lanka resisted this majoritarian impulse. But theirs was a feeble attempt. By 1972, Sinhala chauvinism was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Sinhala was made the sole official language of the state, Buddhism the favoured religion, and minorities were pushed to the margins even on the national flag: the sword-wielding lion, the Sinhala totem, occupied the centre. Bigotry was now backed by the law. Tamils could not gain admissions to universities, did not have access to the language of the law, and were erased from the symbols of the state. And yet the country’s Sinhala overlords expected them to pledge allegiance to Sri Lanka.

Politically conscious Tamils scattered into various protest forums. Their appeals for equality within Sri Lanka, however, were rapidly eclipsed by the separatist cry for Eelam – a Tamil  homeland carved out of the country’s northeast. The fight for Eelam was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a formidable Tamil guerrilla who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The LTTE heralded its arrival by slaughtering thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers in 1983. Sinhalese mobs reacted by butchering thousands of Tamils living in the country’s south. Sri Lanka’s civil war had begun in earnest.

Differences that could conceivably have been resolved through dialogue dragged on for decades on the battleground, hardening into a stalemate. India at first eagerly boosted the LTTE. Then, as if to create a balance, it engineered a brittle peace accord between Colombo and the Tamil nationalists and dispatched its own peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka to monitor it. But Indian soldiers, far from keeping the peace, engaged in hostilities with the LTTE. Tamils accused Indian soldiers of raping and murdering civilians. The Indian mission was a disaster. New Delhi pulled out. War re-erupted in Sri Lanka.

Funded mainly by expatriate Tamils, the LTTE gradually grew into a sophisticated terrorist organisation. It pioneered the use of suicide bombers, one of whom assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in retribution for his decision, as prime minister of India in 1987, to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran, an unyielding zealot, proved he was also a fool, alienating with this single move the region’s major power. For an entire decade, the LTTE became non grata in India.

Then 9/11 happened and the LTTE, listed internationally as a terrorist organisation, lost its legitimacy. Sinhalese nationalists seized the moment. Prabhakaran, a military tactician, could not comprehend the political shift that had occurred. He ordered Tamils to boycott the crucial presidential elections in 2005. Had they voted, the relatively moderate Ranil Wickremasinghe may well have won Sri Lanka’s presidency. Their boycott resulted in a narrow victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A ruthless nationalist and a fierce believer in Sinhalese supremacy, Rajapakse waited for two years before unleashing his forces on the Tamil scrublands to the country’s north. Prabhakaran had mismanaged the Tamil cause so thoroughly that as the Sri Lankan forces marched into Tamil strongholds by April 2009, pulverising everything in their sight, none of Sri Lanka’s neighbours made a noise. Echoing the indifference of the governments, the world’s leading news media stayed away. More than 60,000 people were killed in the last three months of the fighting – yet there wasn’t a single foreign reporter on the ground.

As the government forces penetrated the rebel territory, Tamil civilians retreated further north, halting only when they became trapped between the advancing soldiers and the sea. The “safe zones” designated by the government for civilians were in fact death traps. Harrison tracks down a Tamil journalist who filed reports from the scene for as long as he could before crossing over with his father in the last weeks of the war to the government side. Every step of their journey became a prolonged arbitration with death. Corpses were strewn everywhere, jets pounded the land from the skies, and soldiers fired from all angles. Finally, when they reached the government side, father and son were stripped. An old man and his young son standing naked in a long queue of displaced people, all awaiting interrogation: Harrison’s prose frequently evokes such harrowing images. They were the luckier ones.

A Tamil shopkeeper with shattered legs, currently seeking asylum in Australia, recollects being taken from a hospital and made to witness five executions, each with a single bullet to the back of the head. It’s as if Sinhalese soldiers, long accustomed to imagining Tamils as indomitable agents of mass murder, erupted with an uncontainable fury after vanquishing them. Trophy videos recorded on mobile phones show Sinhala soldiers summarily executing blindfolded Tamil men and piling up trucks with naked corpses of raped Tamil women. Harrison meets a young female refugee in London, the wife of a possible Tamil Tiger collaborator, who was picked up from her home, taken to a villa to identify a group of blindfolded men, and then locked up overnight in a room and raped by two soldiers. These are the twice-humiliated: physically defeated by war, psychologically desiccated by its winners.

Despite her sincerest efforts, Harrison can at times seem too lenient in her cross-examination of the Tamils she meets. She interviews a young Norwegian Tamil who travelled to Sri Lanka in the hope of becoming a suicide bomber. He was raised in Norway, didn’t speak any Tamil, and it’s not clear if he had any Tamil friends. What is the proper reaction to his conduct? Is it to endorse, by offering sympathy, his self-image as a freedom fighter? What of the Sinhalese children and mothers and fathers whom he would have murdered had his tender ambition of blowing himself up been realised? Is it proper then to restrain or even a kill a person who, if left untouched, would distribute death among innocent civilians? Harrison doesn’t probe such questions.

It is to her credit, however, that she acknowledges the limits of her project at the outset: the plight of the Tamils. But the question remains: if the comforts of Norway and the complete isolation from Sri Lanka couldn’t anesthetise the Norwegian to the “cause”, how, having witnessed the horrors of the war, is this young man now likely to behave? Has the dream of becoming a martyr for the “motherland” really abated?

Perhaps these are questions better left to the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese nationalists who form its support base. The current generation of Sinhala nationalists, filliped by victory, have become afflicted with triumphalism. They cannot abide any criticism of the state. The overwhelming evidence of war crimes, compiled at great personal risk by individuals like Harrison, has failed to elicit even the slightest admission of wrongdoing in Colombo. Foreign activists are barred from entering the country and domestic campaigners for accountability keep disappearing.

Democracy is almost dead in Sri Lanka. Virtually every important government post is now held by a member of the Rajapaksa family. And rather than striving to heal Tamil wounds, their government is busy scratching them. President Rajapaksa recently inaugurated a luxury hotel in the Tamil heartland for the comfort of Sinhala chauvinists touring the battlefields where their ethno-supremacist narratives were so violently confirmed.

But as Harrison hints, far from coming to a permanent end, the long conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has graduated to a new phase. The only insurance against another outbreak of fighting is to reinvent Sri Lankan nationalism in ways that will make it possible for all of its citizens to assert their identity. Sri Lanka will have to return to the political drawing board and revise the constitution to diffuse among all its inhabitants the privileges that are reserved exclusively for the Sinhalese. But Rajapaksa, busy atrophying Sri Lanka’s independent institutions, stands in the way of such a reconciliation. His immense network of executioners and torture chambers cannot, however, produce a lasting peace.

“Force”, as Baldwin wrote, “does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does.” Far from exhibiting strength, it reveals only “the weakness, even the panic” of its proponents, and “this revelation invests the victim with patience”. Ultimately, Baldwin warned, “it is fatal to create too many victims”. Rajapaksa has done exactly that. The volatile peace he presides over is only a prelude to another war.

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