It is questionable whether there are today any purely internal problems, serious internal problems, without any external dimension to them at all. It is true that governments frequently try to explain away internal problems, for which they alone are responsible, by alleging foreign interference. It is true also that there is the human propensity to indulge in conspiracy theories. In certain situations of stress people can become paranoid and imagine that sinister foreign forces are at work behind practically every serious problem. While all that is true, it is also true that in today’s highly interdependent world foreign interference takes place on a scale never before known in human history.
A very convincing illustration of the case stated above is provided by the Arab Spring. When it began in Libya a couple of years ago, we tended to think of it mainly or even exclusively in terms of the problem of democracy. It seemed that at long last the sole surviving bastion against democracy – the Arab world – was being breached, and that democracy would come to hold sway over the entire Arab world, though with many hiccups along the way. At the same time we were uneasily aware that American imperialism would welcome democracy only to the extent that the democratic regimes were favorable to the US. Since then several other factors have come into play. Saudi Arabia will not accept democracy in certain parts of the Arab world, and can be expected to abort democracy wherever possible by encouraging fundamentalists. Above all, the Sunni-Shia schism has become a major factor in the Arab world. Instead of going into excessive detail I will merely cite the example of Syria to show the importance of the external dimension in what ought to be a purely internal problem. A fairly smooth transition to democracy in Syria could have been arranged by ensuring that the formerly privileged Alawite minority would not be subjected to genocidal massacre after a democratic regime is established. That would have been conceivable if the Syrian problem were approached as a purely internal one. But several powerful countries believe that they have legitimate stakes in what goes on in Syria: on one side there are Iran, Russia, China, and on the other there are the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Europe. The Syrian people have to bear the consequences.
It is not always easy to establish foreign interference, but it is not difficult at all to establish the external dimension in what might appear to be purely internal problems. I will now make some observations with this perspective in mind on our halal problem and the anti-Muslim hate campaign,The external dimension of the halal problem is constituted by the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council that are taking place in Geneva right now. The halal problem does not figure on the UNHRC agenda. We Sri Lankan Muslims are not so stupid as to want to internationalize our problem – though that may become inevitable at a later stage. But we can be certain, all the same, that anti-Muslim action in Sri Lanka is there, very much there, in the minds of the Ambassadors who are gathered in Geneva, and that it will be a determinant, perhaps an important determinant, in shaping the votes on the anti-Sri Lanka Resolution that is being moved by the US.
We tend to think in Sri Lanka about international developments that are unfavorable to us as resulting from the diabolical machinations of the diabolical LTTE. In doing that we are assuming that the Western powers are so stupid that they are easily taken in by the LTTE. But does that ring true? It seems to me that if they are that stupid they would not be where they are today – at the top of the world. One cannot help wondering whether, perchance, it is we and not they who are stupid. Anyway, I am certain on one point: the major determinant behind the policy of Western Governments on Sri Lanka is not the LTTE but the Western Ambassadors who are presently working in Sri Lanka. We can safely presume that none of them owe their exalted positions to political patronage, that all of them have behind them many years of proven capacity particularly in the field of political analysis, and that every one of them has reported in detail and analysed responsibly the halal problem and the anti-Muslim hate campaign.
It is not difficult to guess the trend of their analyses and their recommendations. It would be more or less along the following lines. The SL Tamils and the SL Muslims are both minorities but they are fundamentally distinct because the former can claim a homeland while the latter can’t. That is a fundamental distinction because the claim to a homeland can serve as the basis for a separatist claim. Any claim to separatism by the SL Muslims cannot therefore be taken seriously at all, and understandably they have never made that claim. Furthermore, whenever there has been controversy between the Sinhalese and the Tamils the Muslims have always taken the Sinhalese side against the Tamils, and they have done so instantly, unconditionally, and wholeheartedly. It is worth mentioning that during the July ’83 holocaust against the Tamils a top Muslim politician organized thugs in a part of Colombo to make a grand Muslim contribution to the holocaust. It is worth mentioning also that at this time last year some members of the All Ceylon Jamiath-ul Ulema were in Geneva canvassing Muslim votes for the Sri Lankan side. This year the ACJU is in the dock. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is difficult to imagine a more loyal minority than the Muslims. They have in fact been servile to the Sinhalese power elite.
And yet there has been a protracted hate campaign against the Muslims, with nineteen websites going at it, and without the Government taking the slightest notice of it. There have been attacks on mosques and Muslim business establishments, with the police playing the role of passive spectators or taking not much more than perfunctory action. There have been videos showing monks breaking the law and the police placidly looking on, but the Government has refused to take any action in such cases. It is true that around the time of the National Day on February 4 there were Governmental statements – including one by the President himself – acknowledging and deploring racism among the Sinhalese. That certainly was a significant step forward, but the requisite counter-action did not follow. Instead the halal problem was allowed to become critical.
The present writer believes that in the annals of race relations there is nothing to parallel the halal problem in Sri Lanka: it is almost certainly unique in its sheer quasi-insane irrationality. Some food items are forbidden to Muslims in the Koran. For thousand four hundred years there were no problems among Muslims about eschewing forbidden food items. But now there is a problem because there is a vast array of synthetic food items which could use forbidden components, and hence there is a need for halal certification. The ACJU started issuing such certificates to Muslims. Non-Muslims who mainly wanted to tap the huge halal market abroad also wanted halal certificates, and the ACJU obliged. It appears that the ACJU had no legal warrant for issuing halal certificates, and for charging money for them. The most important point that has to be borne in mind is that the ACJU did not, and could not have compelled non-Muslims to buy halal certificates. There was nothing in all that that could not have been sorted out by the Government without any difficulty. The fact that halal certification became so huge a problem shows that racist idiocy has been allowed to go too far in Sri Lanka.
We can be certain that foreign Ambassadors in Colombo have been reporting to their Foreign Offices more or less along the lines indicated above, and we can be certain also that the reports will impact on the thinking on how to vote on the US Resolution in Geneva. The notion will be formed – or will be strengthened having been already formed – that the Sinhalese include in their ranks some of the worst racists in the world, and that the Government allows them much latitude. There does not seem to be much of a hiatus in Sri Lanka between the centre occupied by the Government and what is sometimes called the lunatic fringe. Two conclusions can follow. One is that the notion that our troops deliberately killed Tamil civilians on a massive scale becomes more credible, strengthening the case for a strong anti-SL Resolution. The other possible conclusion is this: if the friendly and innocuous Muslim minority can be treated in this way, it becomes almost impossible to believe that the potentially militant Tamil minority will ever get fair and equal treatment, and the case becomes much stronger for a solution based on a very wide measure of devolution.
One question cannot be avoided. Were the Bodu Bala Sena and the JHU unaware of what was going on in Geneva, and that the anti-halal campaign could have very adverse consequences there? Common sense should have dictated that the campaign be postponed until the conclusion of the UNHRC meeting. Some who are over-fond of conspiracy theories would say that they are secretly serving the purposes of the US and of India. Others may say that they have been manipulated by the CIA and RAW without being aware of it. I cannot subscribe to such notions. I have the strong conviction that the valid explanation for the horrendous mistiming of the anti-halal campaign is to be found in the irrationality that goes with racism. The usual paradigm of racism does not include a recognition of the fact that racism and irrationality go together.