Opinion: As Racial and Religious Intolerance Raises Its Ugly Head


By Sanjeewa Fernando

As the United Nations gear up to celebrate the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or Anti-racism day, as it is commonly and conveniently referred to, on 21st of March, that is today, the entire civilized world finds itself reeling from the gruesome mass murder that took place at two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand just a few days ago. Hot on the heels of that attack, another heinous crime took place, hours prior as this article was being penned down, in the Netherlands; and it has all the markings of a terror attack motivated by racial and religious hatred.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was established six years after what was known as the Sharpeville tragedy or Sharpeville massacre, sending shockwaves worldwide attention. This event involved police opening fire and killing 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa, March 21, 1960. The human race has had their darker days for sure

The UN General Assembly called on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination when it proclaimed 21st of March as a UN Day of observance in 1966. It also urged all world states and organizations to participate in a program of action in deliberating on ways to combat racism and racial discrimination in 1983. It held the World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001. The UN continues its work to fight against all forms of racial intolerance.

Quantum Leap of racial and religious violence

Of late attacks by religious and racist extremists has taken a quantum leap specially in Europe, with the cumulative death toll amounting to hundreds, wounding scores of others. Attacks by radical Islamic terrorists as well as those who use ISIS ideology and their modus operandi on a “franchise basis” have carried out attacks using knives, homemade bombs, vehicles, clubs etc. The seething hatred they express not only through the viciousness of the attacks themselves but with ‘manifestos’ distributed online leaves little doubt that they are engaged in a sort of jihad, evidently misconceived and as in the case of the Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, a crusade to ‘rid western civilization from the scourge of Islamists and immigrants.’

The far right is on the move, without a doubt, in Europe in particular, with groups that have been fringe until recently recording electoral victories as well as mustering the support of broad sections of the populace in some countries such as Germany and France, regarded, hitherto, as liberal democracies. A brazenly and openly hostile policy by the US  President Donald Trump, although not using direct violence, towards immigrants and a bitter attitude towards racial minorities seem to have emboldened others to take cue. The grievance of white supremacists is that, drastic action is necessary to stall the invasion of countries in Europe by radical Islam. The horrendous acts of murder, rape, arson, bodily mutilation of ‘non- believers’ committed by ISIS terrorists during the last half a decade specially against Christian minorities in Iraq and the Levant as well as other majority Muslim nations coupled with terror attacks in Europe, has contributed for an accumulation of intolerance and bigotry against anything to do with Islam.

Decline of Internationalism and Globalism

After the triumph of the Great October Revolution in 1917 as well as victories recorded in China and Cuba as well as in Central Europe, in the last century, for left wing and internationalist ideologies, which stood in contrast to nationalist and racist ones, the world saw the racial sentiment taking a back seat; states were built on ideologies and not on race or religions. Even the existence of dictators like Saddam Hossein of Iraq or Azad of Syria, functioned as checks on religious extremism as Christian and other non-Muslim minorities under their rule would acknowledge. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, firstly and the setbacks suffered by the concept of Globalization to be followed by the dismantling of dictatorships in the Middle East, among many other factors, has created an atmosphere permissive and conducive for the breeding of religious and racial bigotry and extremism.

Racism is no longer the spontaneous reaction from one race towards another culminating in acts of violence; rather, it now is streamlined, perpetrated and used as a comprehensive and potent weapon in gaining or remaining in state power domestically and in destabilizing and fragmentation of states internationally. Even in the absence of extremely violent and physical acts of discrimination, a general atmosphere of racial and religious hate exists, as evidenced by, although not limited to, its manifestation on cyberspace. We hardly need to look beyond our shores to see examples of this as the Aluthgama riots against Muslims amply indicates. The hate speech on social media is said to have spread hatred among different ethnic groups leading up to physical violence. Aluthgama riots as well as the Black July, the infamous pogrom in 1983, leaves little doubt that rulers are among those who seem to benefit from racially motivated violence. When everything else fails, racism serves them for a successful bid at power. It has been the story of expedient and opportunistic politics universally.

Lessons for Sri Lanka

What do these lessons hold for a country like Sri Lanka that has emerged a decade ago from a civil war based on ethnicity? Have we been able to reconcile ethnic groups who were at war and reach racial harmony. The unrest that is seething in the North in terms of the grievances of the Tamils as well as the tension between sections of the Muslim populace and the Sinhalese smoulder under our society. It has the potential to erupt any moment, even on the slightest of sparks, into a most catastrophic and riotous situation, as incidents in Digana reveal. A general aversion towards ethnic minorities has coalesced into definite political and ideological groupings, including mainstream political parties.

Therefore, the  rise of the far right is a reality that is unmistakable even domestically; the next national elections, whether it be Presidential or Parliamentary, which are to be held in the near future will see the racial sentiments and a nationalist supremacist attitude of the majority finding vent through candidates who openly brandish nationalist if not openly racist sentiments. To counter it, on the part of the minorities, it would seem counter extremism to be the antidote. The silence of the moderates, the liberals and the seeming defeatism of internationalism seem to give an unfettered freedom for these proponents of racial and religious bigotry to take the upper hand.

Racial and religious hatred in Sri Lanka does not erupt in the ‘lone gunman or assailant form’ that it does in the US or Europe or as in the latest case, New Zealand. Yet as history testifies pogroms of the Black July type or the Aluthgama riots is never out of the picture.

It is time for moderates to rise up and demand that leaders do not play nationalist and racist cards as an expedient means of gaining or remaining in political power.

Racism never delivers anything in the long run; quite the opposite, it confounds all the problems.

(– Sanjeewa is a regular writer and columnist for the English print media. He deals in areas such as Criminal Justice, Fundamental Rights, Rule of Law, Media Freedom, Accountability issues etc. Progressive and Liberal at the same time, in political ideology, he believes in Social Democracy as the most suited way forward for our nation. He holds an Attorney at Law and a Masters in Law from the University of Colombo. He can be contacted on wsbsanjeewa@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and they do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual. –)

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