On the Question of Muslims II: state, security and the subject

We are confronted with a sea change on the question who we are as nation of Sri Lankan people

by Sivamohan Sumathy

All changed, changed utterly  
A terrible beauty is born
                                                 from Easter 1916 by WB Yeats

Everybody today has her or his post Easter Sunday tale, theory and rumination. Many of us are agonizing over what is to be done in the wake of one of the gravest political failures of the state post-2009. At the ideological front, we are confronted with the renewed vigour in which the nation becomes formed, firstly around the security state and secondly, placing ourselves on the cusp of a paradigmatic shift (not change),onthe subject of the nation.

We are confronted with a sea change on the question who we are as nation of Sri Lankan people. Every question on the well-being of the nation, the Sri Lankan nation seems to pivot on who the Muslim is. There is growing anti-Muslim rhetoric, spreading at an alarming rate and with impunity, and Muslims have become doubly burdened with responding to a frightening backlash and their own and various analyses of what happened, what went wrong, and why in my name?

We have a new language, a new discursive apparatus to speak of the state and its subjects; an outburst of intellectual labour expended on recuperating for our understanding of who the Muslim is, the good Muslim, the bad Muslim, the cosmopolitan Muslim, the terrible isolationist Muslim, the praying Muslim, the short skirt wearing Muslim and so many other versions of the Muslim. Ameena Hussein speaks of the typical Muslim, the urban woman, the cosmopolitan in “Fighting for the Soul of Islam in Sri Lanka” Others speak of ISIS, Islamic extremism, the niqab and burqa, words that were unfamiliar even to a majority of Muslims before the Easter bombings, as part of our everyday lingo.  TV channels are “hysterical” over the purported Sharia university. Everybody is an expert on Wahabism today, while the vast “majority” just loves Sufism.  Words like Arabisation easily slide off our tongues, as if we have spent a lifetime burning hard earned midnight oil on studying it. Our very existence in this country seems to hinge precariously on the face cover, the veiled figure of the Muslim woman, and the secrets she may carry; the terrorist in her womb? Tasneem Hamead’s poignant words  of a facebook post of May 22 will explain further:

The niqab ban was not just a veil ban (I refuse to use the word burka because Sri Lankan Muslims don’t use it; if used and rarely so, it refers to a prayer garb), it was also an abaya, headscarf, shawl, Muslim name, Muslim woman, man and child ban. A Muslim travel ban. A Muslim ban. So for everyone who propagated it and continue to do so, thank you. We have no hate in our hearts, only insurmountable fear about leaving our homes

The state of terror and the security state

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, practitioner and educationist, identified the work of culture in civil society as the agent of hegemony. For Louis Althusser, the state is an active and aggressive ideological formation, which reserves its arms of repression, like the army and the police for certain functions. Today in our country, the repressive arm of the state,though not exactly setting itself within the cultural field,enables and emboldens hegemonic forms. Culture, education, the everyday and securitymesh as a network of state cum civil society-ideological sphere, and the country is on Terror Alert!

Terrorists bombed three Churches and three hotels on April 21. The state quickly turned itself into a state of high security. Last year we were deliberating the Counter Terrorism Act, (CTA), the act that is slated to replace PTA. We had a remarkable critical mass that raised its voice against its establishment. When the bombings happened this year, the state apparatus went into safe (security) mode: While door to door raids are conducted and swords, knives, books and leaflets are being apprehended, checkpoints adorn the high ways, like 10 years ago.  Security also becomes the hall mark of the good citizen, the law-abiding citizen and the good Muslim.  Some security measures are, alas, inevitable, but we are facing the prospect of the growth of a securitized surveillance state at an alarming rate.

An obviouscase in point is schools. Schools have been turned into check points, with anxious parents acting as cheer leaders. The repressive arm of the state is long. But deep penetration is not about strikes and pitched battle, but about surveillance and censor, thatturn children not into good citizens, but terrorized subjects.

Soon after the Easter bombings, senior and well respected journalist NaminiWijedagaswrites of the menace of Arabisation in “Unravelling growing Arabisation”. She provides details on the number of madarasas in the country and points out the seemingly growing distance between mainstream non-Muslims and Muslims. This leaves me in distress and discomfort. We may count the number of madarasas, but who does the counting. Further, who wants it counted?  I have uncomfortable questions: who is accountable for all the counting that goes on?

Just a little over a year before April 21, 2019, in early March, 2018, the country was witness to the worst incidence of ethnic riots in Digana, in the Kandy district, post-2009. In response I wrote On the Question of Muslims in The Island which appeared on April 11 and 12, 2018. Today, I write “On the question of Muslims II,” for isn’t there a continuity here that we need to construct? Iknow little about madarasas but Wijedasa’s article triggers in my memory a madarasa story that I have stowed away.
Asifa (not her real name) is in her late ‘40s. She has been a manager of a garment factory for 20 years, and at present oversees the work of 25 workers, all women, 12 of them Muslim and 13 Sinhala. 

On the day the rioters came to their village, the Sinhala workers had wanted to go home early, by 10 o’clock. The previous two days they had worked, while there was rioting and fear in neighbouring towns. She knew of the troubles, but she did not know that the peace of their little hamlet, set amidst Sinhala dominated villages, would also be shattered. They had neverbefore experienced any particular form of hostility, nothing that made them fear for their lives. The Muslim community had been there for over 50-60 years like the Sinhala community. It was a plantation of cloves and cardamoms and other spices that had transformed itself into a village or a set of villages. The Muslim community of roughly 700-800 persons relied on manual labour, some middle-class jobs, spice cultivation, which is sold in the market individually, and some middle east migration. And there was this one garment factory. We did not come across any other factories.

Immediately after the Easter Sunday bombings and the regenerated FB and media frenzy, there was heavy insistence on the part of a large number of commentators, in mainstream and social media, and in other forums, that the Muslim community distance itself from fanatic extremist religious observations and teachings.  What do I hear from Asifa? Asifa mentions religion or religion related figures twice in her 20-minute narrative. First, she mentions the Buddhist monk who had stood against the mob encroaching the village on one side;  in the second instance,  the mosque in which they stayed for about 10 days after the riots, afraid to go to their houses, some of which had been badly torched or smashed up. Asifa herself had lost furniture and stuff, which had been thrown out in the yard and burnt or broken. 

As we continue to chat, Asifa’s niece, Haniya (not her real name), joins in. She has a son in primary school, doing well in his studies. Post-Digana riots, he cannot be sentback to the school he had been going to. They are scared. They do not walk along the path they used to take earlier. They get together with other women and take a three-wheeler. If he were to go to a regular school located some distance from where they were now, transport costs and other costs would place an additional burden on her financial resources. Haniya was wondering what to do. Her husband works in West Asia and she seems to be the sole decision maker where her son is concerned.  Should she enrol the son in a Madarasa, located far away, and I presume, culturally very different from the one Asifa endures today?  He would be safe, thinks Haniya, and financially, less of a burden on her. She may or may not have pursued that line of action, but the question remains unanswered.

I had put away her words as not amounting to much, and too trivial at the time of our conversation. But, in the mind-numbing pain following the Easter bombings, I switched on the recording and listened to her voice once again. It was reassuring to listen to a woman’s voice, a voice that has not had any representation in all the recent pontifications, a voice that carries the truth for me. 

Madarasas, Arabisation and the LongueDurée of Vesak Kooduwa

Vesak lights are generally a pretty sight, a pleasant sight. When I first came to live in Colombo, long years ago, I roamed the streets to watch the many stage dramas that were performed, during and after Vesak. I hung lanterns on the balcony. Today, in the growing discursive paranoia surrounding Arabisation--Vesak Pandals, lanterns and Buddhist flags are no longer charming and exotic. Like Arabisation and Wahabism, Vesak Kooduwahave also accrued a meaning that defeats mere counting. I may notask the question, how many Vesak kooduwasare there on the Colombo-Kandy road (although I am tempted), yet we can account for them. It’s Althusser’s big S, the state or it’s not? En. Aathmaain his Easter Poem II (Facebook post, May 25writes movingly of the swirling Vesak Koodusof his young days, which hethought were the cause of wind; he moves from the fantasy  of childhood to the terror of being an adult, especially in Kathankudy today, and the lanterns newly hanging from the trees:
Forty years later,
In my town that became a house of death
on Easter Sunday,
I see, with new eyes, agog with amazement,
along the date-tree-lined thoroughfare, Vesak koodu,
not one, but many.

Unlike me, he has counted. I don’t know what has happened to Asifa and her niece Haniya, and how they have survived Easter Sunday 2019. When Yeats was confronted with the carnage of Easter 1916, he was hopeful of a new beginning, a new state, a new republicand a second coming. I have no such hope. But I know that I long to hang Vesak lanterns again on the balcony, and I long to go watch Vesak plays in the streets, and I long to switch on the TV for the Easter Sunday mass, and long to breakfast during Nōnbu; but all that has to wait, for the pleasures of yesteryear are awakened in thesharp pain of recall today.Easter 2019 is no longer about the niqab, Arabisation, madarasas, or even the state. It is about my own refusal. And,

i can write only
of my own otherness and
the survival of a song, drafting
words of fleeting fancy on the
canvas of my thought.
i refuse to sing any requiem
for me and my own.
extractfrom easter 2009, by sumathy (2009)

Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Department of English, University of Peradeniya. This essay originally printed in The Island, a Colombo based daily newspaper.


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