Hate Speech Laws : The Unshackled Thoughts of a Muslim Sri Lankan

The mind is everything. The way one thinks, one becomes” : The Buddha

The Dimensions of Speech

Should the proposed Hate Speech Laws (in it’s present or amended form) be incorporated into our Penal Code or should it not be so ? Opponents and proponents of these new laws have raised various arguments in support of their respective points of view on this subject, demonstrating clearly that although freedom of expression is alive and well in Sri Lanka, adversity does indeed make strange bed-fellows.

Speech is a form of communication. According to Allan Pease, author of the book Body Language, 8% of any communication is accounted for by it’s vocal component (i.e. what is said), 37% is accounted for by it’s tonal component (i.e. how it is said) while the balance 55% is accounted for by the accompanying body language ( i.e. gestures and facial expressions).

Therefore any laws enacted for the explicit purpose of curbing Hate Speech would make it incumbent upon the people to ensure that when expressing their opinions, the form and content of their statements adhere strictly to specific norms, that the tone and pitch of their voices are within respectable boundaries and that at the moments of delivery of such statements their facial expressions and bodily gestures are not perceived as being of a threatening or offensive nature. Is this practically possible under any and all circumstances ? If the law-enforcement Authorities are perceived as being selective in their implementation of this new law, it may lead to accusations of discrimination.

Is it then a realistic solution to ban Hate Speech in a bid to prevent the deterioration of inter-communal harmony ? Should we not examine the possibility of introducing more holistic measures that will not just curb this degenerative behaviour, but will also simultaneously contribute towards re-establishing and rejuvenating ethnic harmony ?

Hate Speech or Hate Thoughts ?

The possible introduction of Hate Speech Laws raises a few troubling questions in my mind.

Will the new laws adversely affect the right of every Sri Lankan to free speech ? Should we not be fighting against the imposition of such laws which may be interpreted and implemented selectively to suit various political agendas ?

Will the suppression of this aspect of free speech cause some members of every ethnic group to become more bigoted, prejudiced and paranoid in their thoughts and deeds ?

And the most important question : can the mere banning of Hate Speech prevent or destroy the development of Hate Thoughts ? After all it is a truism that ‘Thoughts’ drive ‘Speech’ and shape ‘Behaviour’. Moreover, a problem should always be resolved by addressing it’s root cause, not it’s symptoms. As long as the factors that create and shape Hate Thoughts exist, there can never be a long-lasting, harmonious relationship between two religious groups. Can legislation be introduced to prevent the germination and growth of Hate Thoughts ?

Perceived Muslim Issues

The words and deeds of the various anti-Muslim groups that were active during the period 2012 – 2014 revealed that the major complaints levelled at the Muslim Community at that time were the Halal issue, the Population issue, the Black Abaya issue, the Azan issue and the Proliferation of Mosques issue. Rightly or wrongly, these issues were causing immense concern, apprehension and fear among members of the Majority Community, some of whom chose to give voice such concerns – in accordance with their right to do so. Is it proper on the part of the Muslim Community to insist that these individuals be prevented by law from expressing their perceived apprehensions and fears just so that the Muslims may continue to live their lives peacefully ? Doesn’t it strike the Muslim Community that their behaviour and attitude in this regard is reminiscent of a ‘Minority with a majority complex’ ? Banning Hate Speech is at best a temporary, short-term measure. What is required is a long-term strategy that will effectively discourage Hate Thoughts against the Muslim Community.

Proactive Empathy

I believe that a much more pragmatic, inclusive approach towards the resolution of any ‘Muslim Issue’ is the need of the hour. For this purpose, the Muslim Community has to consider the feasibility of adopting a strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ by taking the steps necessary to identify, negate and neutralize the concerns of the Majority Community before it becomes a serious issue like the Halaal problem. We need to voluntarily examine the issues critically and dispassionately and ask ourselves such soul-searching questions as “Why are we continuing with a ritual that causes our non-Muslim brothers and sisters to curse our religion 5 times a day ?” (in the case of the Azan Loudspeaker issue). Would it not be perceived as a wonderful gesture and a significant contribution on the part of the Muslim Community towards ethnic harmony, if we decide of our own volition to confine the use of Loudspeakers to only Friday Jummah Prayers except maybe in Mosques located in areas such as Kattankudy which are predominantly (99%) Muslim ? A truly pious Muslim after all will definitely not rely on a public address system to remind him of his religious obligations. Rather than blindly following the practices of Muslims in a Muslim-majority country, we should as Muslims in a Muslim-minority country, engage in lateral thinking when seeking solutions to such social issues.

Addressing the above and other related issues voluntarily will only help our Community to be perceived as being sensitive to the concerns and apprehensions of the Majority Community and more importantly, that we are willing to walk-the-talk. This will moreover empower the more liberal members of the Majority Community to speak-up on behalf of the Muslims if and when required. The effective implementation of a strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ would inhibit or definitely diminish the possibility of Hate Thoughts taking root among members of the Majority Community.

Council for Buddhist – Muslim Relations

The implementation of the proposed strategy of ‘Proactive Empathy’ requires persons with strong leadership skills and who are ready, willing and able to think out-of-the-box. We need a Leadership, consisting not of Politicians or of the Ulemas, but of respected Members of Muslim Civil Society who are capable of winning the trust and confidence of the Ummah because of their standing in the Community. We need a Leadership that can persuade the Ummah to look not just at the ‘dots’, but rather at the Big Picture obtained by connecting the dots. We need to take the initiative to establish a Council for Buddhist – Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka, consisting of even-tempered, level-headed men and women of standing from both sides of the religious divide, who are ready, willing and able to listen, to consult and to arrive at consensual decisions in seeking solutions towards establishing ethnic harmony in our Motherland.

Are the Muslims of Sri Lanka able to put aside their differences and to focus on the urgent need to introduce measures to ensure the physical and mental well-being of the members of their Community in the years ahead ?  Are the Muslims able to empathize with their Buddhist brothers and sisters to the extent that they of their own volition change patterns of their behavior which cause concern and apprehension to the Majority Community ? Or do the Muslims feel that they alone are entitled to the right of being angry and offended ? We should bear in mind at all times that the tolerance of our Buddhist brothers and sisters should not be misconstrued as acquiescence on their part.

Addressing the Concerns & Apprehensions of the Majority Community : The Black Abaya

The last three decades have witnessed a growing sense of religiosity among members of the Sri Lanka Muslim community resulting primarily from a heightened awareness and better understanding of correct Islamic rituals and practices. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that the potential to impose a specific brand of Islam among Sri Lankan Muslims was identified by certain Islamic Nations, which used (and are continuing to use) their enormous wealth to achieve such objectives. Their efforts, inter alia, led to the growing visibility of black abaya and black burqa  wearing women in Sri Lanka. It should be mentioned here in passing that there is even a popular rumour to the effect that a certain Islamic Country has sent and is continuing to send container-loads of black burqas to be distributed free-of-charge to Muslims females. It would appear that this specific Country is attempting to impose their cultural dress-codes on the local Muslims.

Nobody will contest the fact that the members of the Majority Community do not give two hoots as to what the SL Muslims choose to eat, drink or wear. It is therefore an utter waste of time and effort on the part of Muslims to explain and justify their lifestyle habits based on Quranic instructions  to non-Muslims. Why then are the members of the Majority Community so perturbed at the sight of black abayas ? It cannot be the abaya itself, after all the female members of the local Borah Community have been wearing similar attire long before the other Muslims. So then we must conclude that the hostility and antagonism generated by the abaya is not caused by the abaya per se, but rather by what is conjured in their minds by the black abaya.

Based on extensive discussions with members of the majority community, it appears that the increasing visibility of black abaya-clad females has created a deep sense of concern and apprehension among such persons based on two prejudice-driven perceptions.

Firstly, it appears to confirm the belief that the Muslim population is growing rapidly and is well and truly on it’s way towards emerging as the majority community at some future date.

Secondly, it signals the emergence of extremism / terrorism among the Muslim Community – based on the simple argument :

Black Abaya                       = Saudi / Wahabis / Salafis
Saudi                                   = Islamic Extremism / Terrorism
Therefore, Black Abaya   = Islamic Extremism / Terrorism

Since it is an accepted fact that perception is stronger than reality, any attempt to allay the concerns and apprehensions of the majority community by simply denying the possibility of the above phenomena is bound to fail and is therefore an absolute waste of time.

Empathy is the need of the hour. If the shoe was on the other foot, how would the majority Muslims feel if they perceived the minority Buddhists overtaking them in terms of population size and becoming more extremist in their religious outlook. Not a nice feeling, is it ?

If the Muslim Community wishes to address the concerns and apprehensions that the Majority Community may have regarding the growing visibility of black abayas, then all it has to do as a first step is to make a collective effort to advocate a switch from the color black to other acceptable colors among abaya-wearers. Islam does not require women to wear only black abayas to project modesty. Such a voluntary move would have the effect of demonstrating the ability and willingness on the part of the Muslim Community to empathize with the Majority Community. Moreover, there will be absolutely no reason thereafter for abaya-wearers in Sri Lanka to be referred to rather derisively as ‘Goni Billas’. Local Muslim women should be encouraged to dress modestly in accordance with Sri Lanka’s culture and ‘hot & wet’ climatic conditions (with an average relative humidity of 80%) – not in accordance with the cultural patterns and ‘hot & dry’ climatic conditions of some distant Middle Eastern country (with an average relative humidity of 30%).

Furthermore, what measures have the Muslim intelligentsia taken to address the issue of population growth ? Other than issuing feeble statements denying the possibility of the Muslims exceeding the Buddhist population at some distant future date, would it not be more effective for the Community to appoint a Group of Professionals to study this problem to determine the accuracy of such predictions ? Or, are the Muslims waiting for the SL Government to produce such a Report ?

Unfortunately, the leadership required to give direction to such collective efforts is seriously lacking. Self-proclaimed ‘Muslim civil society’ groups like the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema and the National Shoora Council are far too busy to bother about such trivial matters. Continuing to turn a blind eye to such critical issues which adversely affects Buddhist – Muslim relations only lends credence to the oft-levelled accusation that the Muslim Leadership in Sri Lanka is influenced by ‘petro-dollars’.