Lakshman Gunasekara, in Horizons, 31 March 2019, with this title “Supremacism: harnessing myth, paranoia”
“…Before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands…” declares the mass murderer of Christchurch in his 80 plus page long ‘The Great Replacement’ political declaration which he had posted on the internet. Does this declaration by a deadly mass killer ring a bell to us, Sri Lankans?
Readers only need to refer back through our own post-colonial national discourses to come up with loads of this stuff. Our news media and other publishing archives and records will reveal the sheer volume of similar such statements expressed in political party rhetoric, nationalist activist arguments, and even in parliamentary debate over the decades since our island society won back its freedom from European colonialism.
The latest threat perception was ‘vanda pethi’. Will such slogans to get stronger as we approach a series of elections from provincial to presidential to parliamentary in the ensuing year?
One of the most strident themes in political discourse in this country, since, at least, the first quarter of the 20th century, has been on the issue of demographic composition of our national population and the claim by nationalist activists from the largest ethnic community that their community faces displacement from its position of national primacy. That the dominant Sinhala community faces a threat of being unseated from its position of ‘majority’ has been argued by a set of Sinhala ultra-nationalist politicians and intellectuals since the Anagarika Dharmapala, other contemporaries and, subsequent intellectual heirs to that discourse. Rival ethnic fertility rates continue to be mis-interpreted as ethnic ‘replacement’.
As he argued repeatedly – in a sense, hysterically – in his internet statement, the Christchurch killer fears that the ‘White (European) civilisation’ that currently dominates the world is being demographically unseated from its supremacy by a rising tide of Muslims.
In addition to the threat of community extinction, a second highlighted ‘threat’ faced by the dominant ethnic community, according to this ultra-nationalist discourse, is that of a ‘degeneration’ of the culture of that community. This ‘degeneration’ too, is seen as part of the trend towards community extinction.
This logic of threat to race survival as the argument for enhanced racial/ethnic militancy can be seen in both the Christchurch killer’s manifesto and in the discourse of not just Sinhala ethno-supremacism but also of Thamil secessionist nationalism. The short-lived Thamil Eelam state that was ruled by the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam from Kilinochchi also envisaged the dominance of that state by the Thamil Eelam (i.e. the Thamil ‘Hela’) ethnic community and its Saivite Hindu culture.
As part of the ferocious logic of secessionist insurgency, the Muslim community that was a scattered minority within that ‘Thamil Eelam’ had to be physically driven out in the early 1990s. Thus our own ‘paradise isle’ became the site of ethnic cleansing, ethnic pogroms and forced expulsions over the decades of ethnic conflict, a conflict that still continues today as we saw in Aluthgama and Digana.
Just as much as Sinhala ultra-nationalists are now looking for their own modern super-hero Ravana, after the initial success of his Tiger insurgency, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was also celebrated as a ‘Ravan’ coming to the rescue of the (genuinely) oppressed Thamils. There are Dravida supremacists in South India (and possibly some here) who claim to be the “true” descendants of the original homo sapiens who apparently inhabited one of the proto-continents that later broke up into the several continents that comprise the Earth today.
There is an irony in that the same Dravidian mythic God-King is now being sought after by the Sinhala community who’s first and second generation ultra-nationalist ideologues once claimed ‘Aryan’ race kinship. With ‘Aryan race’ now scientifically rubbished, nationalist ideologues in South Asia are redefining their founding myths.
An even bigger irony is that that ‘Aryan race’ pseudo-myth continues to be embraced by some of the European White supremacist movements now reviving in Europe and North America having derived it from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi cult. In its early stages, India’s Hindu nationalist ‘Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh’ (RSS) liked to pretend that Hitler learnt his ‘Aryan race’ story line from the RSS discourse. In recent decades, the interest in Nazi racial superiority ideology has been such among Indians that one can easily buy reprints of ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle) from pavement book sellers in central Delhi.
South Asia reverberates with such supremacist discourse ranging from the Hindutva to Sihalatthva to Dravidian to Sunni Islamist to Christian fundamentalist. The deadly inner logic of these supremacisms is, firstly, that the subject community (whether religious or ethnic) is, through Divine selection, the privileged one and deserves dominance in their inhabited territory and its resources. Secondly, there is the belief of demonstrated superiority – an evident, substantive, superiority in terms of civilizational attributes (culture, technology). Thirdly, many of these religio-centric and ethno-centric ideologies also assume major threats to the community’s physical existence and justify any actions, however, violent, to ensure the threatened community’s survival. The Chosen Ones are always threatened by bad guys all around.
This siege mentality thread can be seen in Sinhala ultra-nationalism (“we have nowhere else to go”). Israeli Zionist discourse constantly reiterates that ‘Eretz Israel’ is the not just the only place left for Jews to live freely but that that piece of territory at the most eastern edge of the Mediterranean is the ‘true’ location as awarded by Jahweh (Elohim) to the Jews, who are God’s ‘chosen people’.
Last month, as a build-up to the forthcoming Israeli general elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu pushed through a new basic law that defines Israel as an exclusively Jewish state with the implication that only Jews (as defined by Israeli Judaism) are the sole, full, citizens of Israel.
The new basic law, by implication render other communities in Israel, namely, Arab (Muslim, Christian), Druze, and Syriac-Aramaic, as second class citizens. Israeli Zionism’s overt expansionism and ethnic hegemonism long pre-dates Netanyahu and even the founding of Israel in the late 1940s. That is why, officially speaking, ‘Israel’ is not defined by its currently existing legal boundaries nor by its militarily expanded illegal boundaries but, rather, has remained a loose term that is deliberately vague in order that its territory includes the imagined extent of an ancient Israeli ‘empire’ that extended over modern Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian territory.
Coupled with its Apartheid-style measures against the people of Occupied Palestine and its inexorable, systematic, eviction of non-Jews from their homes and neighbourhoods in Israel and Palestine, the state of Israel today, quite paradoxically, resembles Nazi Germany.
Not long ago we had a religious prelate declare publicly that Sri Lanka needs a ‘Hitler’ to rule it. Does our ‘Dharma Dveepa’ need someone comparable to the Hitler persona? I would argue that a genuinely dharmic society would be the perfect place in which to detain/restrain and rehabilitate such evil personas – not to be ruled by them!
Israel’s programme of forcible acquisition of living space for Jews by evicting non-Jews is yet another paradoxical similarity with Hitler’s notorious Lebensraum policy of aggressive territorial expansion. Nazi Germany never enjoyed superpower sponsorship for its ethnic cleansing!
Just as much as ethno-religious supremacisms justify genocide and socio-political dominance and exclusion, the prevailing religious fundamentalisms also inform ideologies of genocide and exclusion.
The best known such ideology in world history was that of Euro-Christian colonial theology. The ‘spreading of Christianity’ was the moral justification for colonialism and genocide across the world. Entire ethnic groups were deliberately wiped out by means of military campaigns, long term deprivation of resources including food and water sources (the current siege of Gaza?), administrative population transfers or dispersals and, cultural, religious and linguistic emasculation.
When Kashmiris get targeted in social violence across India as a reaction to a Kashmiri insurgent strike, or Thamils get targeted for similar reasons in Sri Lanka, or Ahmaddiyas and Yazidis get massacred by Sunni fascist groups, or, Muslim New Zealanders get massacred, what we see is the dynamic of supremacism.
The logic of such fundamentalist believers can be chilling. A recent opinion survey among ‘Conservative’ Christians in the USA found that over half of them were willing to support Israel’s ethnic dominance over the whole of Palestine. This is because American Conservative Christians, like many other fundamentalist Christians across the world, believe Israel-in-Palestine is the site of Jesus’ expected return to ‘save’ the ‘chosen’ Christians (the fundamentalists, of course).
Thus, American Conservative Christians believe, the United States should use all its powers, with the help of the (vassal) state of Israel, to hold and preserve this ‘Holy Land’ at all costs to enable the proper second coming of Christ and God’s final judgement. A cruel irony of all this is that the Israelis, themselves, unless fundamentalist Christian, will not be among those chosen to be taken into Heaven. There are some Christian fundamentalist crazies who actually hope that a nuclear war centred on Israel (the only West Asian state with nuclear arms) will trigger God’s ‘Judgement Day’!
When President George Bush Sr. launched his first invasion of Iraq, he told a gathering of Conservative Christian leaders that that military venture was a fulfilment of America’s God-given task to spread ‘Christendom’ across the world. In many newer liberal democracies – including in South Asia – such overt ethnic imperialism is not part of official discourse but is increasingly getting there. But in Washington, it is. In more secular Europe, such ethnic supremacism is on the fringes but increasingly getting close to the political mainstream.
The Christchurch killer’s political declaration deserves to be read by all Sri Lankans so that they can note the direct resonance with similar discourses in our own country.
Even as the power of the internet presents us with a view of a rising tide of evil, at the same time, there is much to be seen across the world of civic and governmental endeavours to counter it.
In New Zealand, citizens and the government seem largely ready to respond to the tragedy in positive and inspiring ways. Strong political statements have been made by all leaders rejecting the killer’s supremacist ideology. Rapid administrative and cultural measures are being taken to avoid future such weapons usage and to ensure socio-cultural unity.
We ignore such chilling challenges to human civilisation at our peril. Surely, the nearly forty years of ethnic war in our land should keep us alert and responsive to future such barbarism that masquerades as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘supremacism’.
AN EXTENDED COMMENT from JANE RUSSELL in UK, 27 March 2019
Renee Camus, the French philosopher/alt-right ideologue, was interviewed on BBC’s Radio 4 last week. He was delighted to be the centre of global attention after being quoted by the Christchurch terrorist. A tranche of Marie le Pen’s followers are under his influence.
Camus claims he is not racist: he said he is simply stating the facts. His argument is that just as white people (men) from Europe colonised Africa, the Middle East, large parts of Asia and South America , so Europe itself is now being colonised in turn by persons from those erstwhile colonised regions.
In France, it is the Arabic speaking people of North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia etc) plus black Africans from West Africa (Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire etc), many, if not most, of whom are Muslims who are now’ colonising’ the former colonisers’ land and culture. He claims that autochthonous French architecture, cuisine, dance, music, literature, art , lifestyle and even language are being “replaced” by a hybrid Islamist/Arab/Black African culture – to the detriment of the original, pure , superior French culture. He stated this is happening throughout Europe: for example, Britain, he claims, is also being ‘colonised’ by Black Africans, Afro-Caribbean peoples and South Asians, many of whom are Muslims. He described modern Paris and London as “slums” : according to him, the architecture, lifestyle and culture of these two historic cities have been disastrously undermined by an inferior, non-white, largely Muslim, culture of the ‘colonisers’.
This is therefore the “great replacement” that the white racist alt-right supposedly fears, which the Christchurch killer referenced. A recent white supremacist march in the USA used the slogan “We will not be replaced” as its main message.
It strikes me that this is a final backlash from a decaying white imperialist culture that is running out of steam. With the economic and political rise of China plus the economic power of Japan and the Asian nations, the politico-economic resurgence of India, the financial influence of oil-rich states in the middle East and the developing clout of some parts of Africa and south America, European culture is now just one of many competing cultures. While the USA was the sole hegemon, (from 1987-2004 approx, ie post-Iraq war), global white supremacism was still the norm. But now we live in a multi-polar world. Caucasians, who were top dogs from the 16th century onwards, are now just part of the pack.
It is perhaps relevant that the earliest European explorers/imperialists/ colonisers were Genoese/Portuguese sailors and navigators in the pay of a Spanish crown that prided itself on having finally obliterated the highly sophisticated, artistic and scientific culture of Islamic Grenada and Al-Andalus. The Spanish/Portuguese (Iberian) Empire that was created from these maritime forays was at first just pay-back for an Islamic culture, “the Caliphate”, that had spread westwards from the Near East/Levant into Spain. Now a new ‘pay-back’ is occurring . Islam is on the rise. Cultural domination, like history, goes round in cycles.
(In the case of Sri Lanka, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a young Sinhalese karava Buddhist doctor, a paediatrician, in 1973 in the Mount Lavinian home of my Ramanathan Hall, Peradeniya University ‘rooma’, Oliny Fernando. The young medic. had served part of his compulsory government service in a hospital in a majority Muslim area in the Eastern Province, He told me with great earnestness that Sinhalese Buddhists were in grave danger of “being replaced” as a majority/dominant community by Muslims as Muslim families had 8 to 12 children whereas Buddhist Sinhalese had only 2 to 4 kids per family. He solemnly predicted that by the year 2020, Tamil speaking Muslims would outnumber Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. “The Sinhalese Buddhists are sleepwalking into disaster,” he told me. I listened politely but was secretly horrified at this open display of xenophobia by an educated and supposedly compassionate young man. Not that I can claim any higher higher ethical standard here: being British, I was more stunned by the overt expression of his xenophobia than by the racism itself……. The British have learned to express their racism in silence, through a cold abruptness of manner that makes it clear they want nothing to do with you, a non-white/non-British person, so it was probably his different cultural approach to xenophobia which appalled me most).
Although horrifying in many ways, these culture wars are very small beer compared to the toxicification of the planet. That is happening at such an alarming rate, if humankind cannot curb his/her appetite for throwaway consumption (ie modern capitalism), we shall very soon all be in the s..t, regardless of identity politics.