Racism in Education, Religion, and Neoliberalism: Empowering the anti-minority extremists?

By Jude Fernando

The highly-educated and hyper-religious Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is consistently failing to apply inclusive, just, and peaceful approaches to resolving the country’s violent inter-communal clashes. The unfolding narrative of recent anti-Muslim riots in six villages scattered throughout the Kandy district, and its aftermath, is remarkably like anti-minority riots since 1915. Further instances of such violence are highly likely unless sincere attempts are made to address the proliferation of racism, particularly by educational and religious institutions, in the context of nation-building under the rule of neoliberalism.

 The Unfolding Narrative

What began as a spontaneous altercation between a few individuals taking the law into their own hands to settle a road rage incident, triggered spiral of violence against the entire life, property and places of Muslims.  M.G. Kumarasinghe  (41), a Sinhalese Lorry driver, was assaulted by three Muslim youth in a spontaneous altercation over his refusal to allow a three-wheel taxi to overtake. The assailants were apprehended, released on bail as is usual in assault cases, and then rearrested following the assault victim’s death seven days later.

As a result of postcolonial racialized minority narratives, such symptomatic violence against the Muslim minority is one among many incidents where Sri Lankans use violence with impunity to settle disputes, and such incidents do not generally spark public outrage and reprisals against those not directly involved.

The funeral of Mr. Kumarasinghe, held in a remote Ambala village in the Kandy district, attracted strangers, including politicians and media personalities. Such an elaborate display of public sympathy would not have happened if the death had no meaning in the anti-Muslim identity politics. Certainly, no evidence of such sympathy was apparent at the funeral of a Muslim person killed in the riots.

The incident in Digana was virtually unknown to most of the country’s population until forces unrelated to Mr. Kumarasinghe s family resorted to anti-Muslim violence, which spread to other areas. Attacks continued despite the imposition of a curfew, until about a week after Kumarasinghe’s death. The locations of the attacks where Muslims are isolated among Sinhalese and Tamils seem to have a spatial logic that embodies intentional expressions of nation-building narratives. 

Since the 1915 riots, anti-Muslim riots have spread elsewhere from their points of origin.  A house occupied by a Sinhalese person was mistakenly attacked for being occupied by a Muslim, as per the attackers’ “list”.  Ironically, almost all Muslim businesses attacked by Sinhalese mobs sold items mostly produced and purchased by the Sinhalese. Displacement of vulnerable minorities might result in them concentrating in certain areas, and in further polarization of the country along spatial and ethnic lines. 

The popular narrative blames the riots on “outside groups from the southern parts of the country” who have no connection to Ambala village. For whatever reason, most people in these areas kept silent during the attacks on their neighbors. Many Muslims, while expressing their frustrations over the inaction of some government and security forces during the attacks, was effusively grateful for the courageous efforts of Buddhist lay, clergy, and security forces to protect them. The Muslims defended themselves by staying inside their homes or moving to safe houses (some, Muslim) while instructing their youth not to retaliate.   

The Prime Minister and media lamented the impact of a week-long curfew and state of emergency on Sri Lanka’s international image, foreign investments, and tourism following warnings about travel to Sri Lanka.  The situation provided a boon for shops with stockpiles and informal money-lenders, causing fewer hardships for fixed-income earners than daily wage earners, including Sinhalese construction workers who worked for Muslims.  Many blamed the economically impoverished for allegedly rioting in return for money and alcohol from “outsiders.”

The government banned social media, supposedly to prevent spreading violence.  Over 70 lay rioters are still in custody despite the demands by the extremists for their release.  Whether they will be tried under the criminal law or the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is uncertain. The government has appointed a three-member commission to investigate the incident, promising to expedite the victims’ compensation. NGOs and civil society groups have already begun to invest heavily in research, humanitarian, and empowerment missions, while many are certain that the violence will continue. The victims are overwhelmed by nearly thirty organizations repeatedly collecting same data, and they fear post-violence decision making processes excluding and reframing victims’ narratives.

Omissions, Prejudices and Distortions

Many aspects of this unfolding narrative of anti-Muslim riots are misleading and unhelpful in addressing the most critical issues that would prevent the recurrence of violence.

First, those blaming extremist and opportunistic politics for the violence (“the outside other,” “the failure of the government to maintain law and order,” “irresponsible social media,” and “external conspiracies against Sri Lanka”) fail to acknowledge its root cause: personal and institutional racism.  Further, while blaming social media avoids questioning the sources of anger and prejudice expressed in the media against minorities, blaming “the other” fundamentally ignores violence’s systematic nature rooted in a country’s political economy and culture. 

Second, warnings from politicians, celebrities, NGOs and religious leaders of “another civil war,” “the radicalization of Muslim youth and marginalization of Muslim moderates,” “economic devastation,” “international isolation,” and “the potential return of the Rajapaksa Regime” are mainly about fostering fear and anxiety. They detract attention from the vulnerabilities and insecurities of the Muslim community and their human and psychological costs. Within the post-riots discourse among the Muslims, alongside concerns over rebuilding are those about explaining the violence to young children who have been living among Sinhalese and Tamils and witnessed the burning of their homes, businesses, and books, and refusing to go to school. There is also the fear that both state and society might interpret acts of self-defense as acts of terror or provocation.

Third, the fact that most Sinhalese were not involved in the violence while some even protected Muslims does not necessarily mean that they do not share the same ideals as those responsible for the violence. Does it not explain their silence against the "external" perpetrators of violence? From where do the "handful" of extremists draw their power and legitimacy? Why did a sophisticated and well-worn security system fail to prevent the spread of violence and is reluctant to arrest those ideologues who incite racist violence? Why the lack of public outrage against the extremists? Why did the media, religious leaders, and politicians fail to make conscious efforts to publicly discredit the false and prejudicial claims of extremists?

The argument that racism exists in every community ignores the fact that some communities are far more vulnerable to racial conflicts than others.  We need to critically examine the social and political origins, hypocrisies, contradictions, and validity of the arguments that some minorities are culturally and spatially isolating themselves from the ‘Sri Lankan culture’.  It seems we often confuse cultural isolation with cultural expression, a fundamental right of any community.

The mainstream narrative of the riots seems to absolve society from taking responsibility for them. Their authors’ main motive seems to be self-preservation, rather than a sincere attempt to face up to the uncomfortable reality of racism in Sri Lankan society and a desire to deconstruct the personal and institutional realms of the racist society, particularly in terms of education and religion.

Education: For What Purpose?

As Charles W. Mills noted, the production and propagation of racism rely on knowledge and cognitive processes. A clear majority of Sri Lankans move from one education level to another without an opportunity to critically interrogate how their sense of nationhood, derived from an understanding of national history and culture, is complicit with racist violence against minorities. That is, they seem to be unaware of the hypocrisy and contradictions of their views of other communities, and of how propagandist education about history, economy, culture, and religion all affect race relations in the country.  Education imprisons us within our respective cultural identities, grounded in taken for granted knowledge, and makes the rich diversity of countries’ identities a source of prejudice, fear, anger, and discrimination towards the ‘other’, rather than something to celebrate as our heritage.

Despite many episodes of violent racial riots and the nation’s move in a racist direction, academic centers are yet to develop a culture of interrogating how their respective pedagogical cultures and practices produce and legitimize racism. No systemic effort has been made to address the multifaceted nature of racism, despite the wide availability of equality, diversity, and inclusion-focused pedagogical and administrative tools in higher education. Instead, we see outright or masked denial, reframing, normalization, trivialization, defensiveness, and apathy.

Professionals—brilliant in their respective practices—have yet to demonstrate an understanding of their role in racist praxis. They fail to apply the objectivity and reason common in their professional endeavors to understand racial violence. Their response to the riots is driven more by emotional factors based on assumed knowledge than on objective scientific inquiry, blinding them to their own sense of racism. It is appalling to hear the same narratives of racial violence from educated professionals and extremists.

The racism of the extremists and the political culture thrives on the country’s educational system.  Apart from a few notable exceptional individuals, one should not be surprised that a majority of university students and academics, despite being at the forefront of many struggles against societal injustices, are silent or not as enthusiastic when it comes to anti-minority violence. We must not forget that the racial violence at the University of Peradeniya, the most multiracial university in the country, was a precursor to 30 years of civil war.

Rare attempts to create spaces for a critical race dialogue were short-lived because of protests and a lack of enthusiasm among the authorities. Tellingly, the evolving educational system subservient to dictates neoliberal institutions that are only interested in grooming students for the market economy. 

By suppressing the creativity and imagination necessary for the development of counter-hegemonic ideologies, neoliberal academics are thus likely to omit or fail to pay sufficient attention to race, as compared to gender, for example.  Not engaging in racism is about a reluctance to lose privileges and/or fear.  In any case, their critical dialogue on race is constrained by time and funding and often takes place in NGO-type outfits both inside and outside the academy; they benefit only a tiny minority of academics and do not filter through to society. One major impediment to academy’s leadership in fighting racism is religious nationalism’s ideological and political hold on academic pursuits.

Religion: Race and Land above Dhamma?

Religion’s role in anti-minority violence is not spontaneous. It has been evolving since the colonial period in tandem with religion becoming a constitutive force rather than a moral deterrent to the racialization of nation-building in Sri Lanka. Since the end of the war against the LTTE, we have seen an intensification of both public religiosities of all faith groups and anti-minority violence.  Religions in Sri Lanka, in general, does not encourage dialogue on the potential role of their respective religious practices in creating fertile grounds for racism, racism that is camouflaged by the public display of religious piety.  Addressing the issue of racism requires not the replacement of a nation state’s religious ideals with secular ones; rather, it calls for religions to be self-critical of their own constitutive role in societal racism while guiding the nation towards an inclusive and egalitarian nationhood.

Racialized rhetoric of “us” and “them” (majority vs. minority), derived from religious ideas uniting nation, state and ethnicity/race, have made religion fundamentally complicit with racism. Racism is inevitable when religious perspectives of justice and equality are subservient to racialized interests of the nation state.  Challenging the use of such a religiously sanctioned majority vs. minority binary to justify racial superiority, and violence against the “other”, therefore becomes sacrilegious; as such, it is non-negotiable, and is protected by religious obligation. Religious extremists, therefore, act with impunity because they are confident in the spiritual nature of the power and legitimacy they use to justify violence against the “other” communities. In the past, the Sri Lankan state has been less hesitant to immediately arrest and detain clergy involved in anti-state dissent than in anti-minority violence.

Religion’s public condemnation of violence is symbolic and ineffective in ending racist violence when, in fact, religious teachings and rituals propagate two worldviews, one applying to spiritual matters and the other to secular affairs. Such compartmentalization of worldviews prevents constructive dialogue on how religious beliefs and practices impinge upon racial violence, and prevents religion from being a critical voice against the filtering of religious ideas of justice through presupposed secular ideas: that is, those assigning ideological legitimacy to racism in nation-building.

Religious institutions, in general, are quick to respond to minorities’ humanitarian needs with racial violence owing, ironically, to a belief that such racism begets religious blessings and merits. Simultaneously, safeguarding the justice and equality of said minorities are not seen as a religious obligation. At the same time, religious leaders fail to educate their followers and colleagues on the accuracy of extremist claims about minorities, while also failing to discipline them when they incite racial violence. Religious teachings and rituals are therefore meaningless when they fail to dispel false claims about people of other faiths and provide space for their followers to critically reflect on their prejudices and hostility toward the “other.” The anti-minority violence perpetrated with impunity makes one wonder whether there are fundamental differences between racial justice advocated by those involved in and condemning violence. 

Racism in the political arena and the religions of Sri Lankan culture are also mutually reinforcing forces. Politicians habitually seek the counsel of select religious leaders, particularly following communal violence, to give symbolic validity to dominant narratives of racial equality, rather than addressing the root causes of violence. During these consultations, religious leaders fail to criticize politicians’ failure to prevent violence and its exploitation for political gain; they also do not demand that the politicians arrest those responsible for the violence.

Today, religiously motivated racism in the country is fast taking on a life of its own defying both the country’s leaders and the state. During the recent riots, a junior monk advocated violence, challenging and ridiculing the seniors over their inaction against minority threats to the majority.

Religion legitimizes fundamentalism—imaginary or real—when it fails to offer a moral critique of employing racism in nation-building. This results in a failure to prevent incidents such as the recent riots, only serving to strengthen the power and legitimacy of extremism and extremists. Such a shift in focus towards the extremists helps politicians, religious leaders, and society achieve their racist interests without taking any responsibility for the ensuing violence.

After the defeat of the LTTE, interfaith dialogues that had existed since the late 1970s virtually disappeared, and those involved in them (i.e., the radicals, activists, and communists) were marginalized by their own leaders and the society.  Even the most radical religious responses to racism cannot, therefore, find a platform when religion is complicit with neoliberalism's appropriation of religion and its relationship with the state and society.

No Racism-Free Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism stands in the way of fighting racism, not only because its origins are racist, but also because its expansion is inconceivable without racism. It is no coincidence that the global consolidation of neoliberalism is occurring alongside the growth of racism (e.g. Islamophobia, Christaphobia, and Westaphobia) worldwide. This is not because neoliberalism generates racist outcomes; rather, neoliberalism and racism are co-constitutive, meaning that in their own reproduction, they reproduce each other.  Differently put, racism thrives in neoliberalism and nation-building projects as they are predicated on mutually reinforcing economic inequalities between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and social inequalities between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The nation state is the primary disciplinary arm of capitalism and it has been racist from the time British imposed in on Sri Lanka.

Economic growth under neoliberal conditions, according to David Harvey, is a process of accumulation by material and cultural dispossession, a process that achieves the centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few.  In other words, economic growth is predicated on inequality and deprivation. While the state ostensibly guarantees formal political and social equalities for all ethnic groups, these are superficial and unsustainable as they are undermined by substantive economic inequalities that are structurally maintained by racist hierarchies that form the basis of a capitalist economy.

Neoliberal growth policies, by the admission of their own proponents such as the IMF, continue to propagate inequality, economic volatility, economic and ecological vulnerability and displacement, in turn jeopardizing their own expansion. Neoliberalism, in response to these crises, follows two contentious policies. It attempts to free individuals from all forms of social and cultural constraints that stand in the way of its success while being sufficiently flexible to use said constraints to manage the crises emerging from the same successes.

All governments since 1977 have been committed to neoliberalism, and differences between political parties over economic policies have virtually disappeared. Their mandate is to subordinate all material and human resources, and the sovereignty of the country, to the dictates of the world market. They can promote human and ecological wellbeing only as a trickle-down effect of growth. Since 1977, economic policies in Sri Lanka have been about dispossessing the country of its own resources and wealth by “selling the country” to transnational capital and powerful nations. The results of these policies are ever-increasing political, economic and social insecurities, stresses and vulnerability, and people are desperate for explanations and solutions for these crises.

In fact, neoliberal policies mandate that individuals use any means at their disposal to maximize their self-interests, even racism. Only racism bolstered by the logic of neoliberal competitiveness explains why the mob burned the textile shop owned by a Muslim trader which was next to a similar shop owned by a Sinhalese, both of whom have been friends, neighbors and business partners for many years. 

Both state and society tolerate such destruction of minorities’ property and wealth, far more than dissent against the transnational capitalist class.  In fact, it is racism that makes the majority less concerned about the neoliberal dispossession of the entire nation, and more focused on the wealth and property owned by the minorities. The latter is insignificant when compared to what the country is losing in economic wealth to foreigners and the domestic capitalist class.

Racialized religious and cultural meanings (such as land) and power, which justify anti-minority violence, hide the fact that anti-minority riots, as a racist response to deep-seated economic crises of neoliberalism, stem from difficulties over maintaining popular legitimacy in the face of rising inequalities.

The state’s political legitimacy is threatened by such growing economic and political insecurities, especially when religious extremists give insecurities a spiritual meaning, promising to rid insecurities by cleansing the nation of external aggressions and by targeting the ostensible aggressors: vulnerable minorities.  As a result, racialized religion is pitted against the minorities, rather than radicalization of society against neoliberalism and those disproportionately benefitting from it.

Neoliberal institutions leave the state with no options other than to respond to economic crises by implementing ever more aggressive neoliberal policies and suppressing dissent against neoliberalism, even though it deprives the state, as well as most of its population, of wealth and autonomy. The state, under these conditions, follows contradictory policies: on the one hand, promoting policies that individualize the social order and atomizing the individuals to pursue their self-interest free from any social and cultural constraints, and on the other, endorsing exclusive and divisive collective identities as a means of managing the crisis resulting from neoliberal economic policies. Such depoliticization creates a vacuum to be readily filled by racism and xenophobia and mobilized in society’s competition for resources and power.

At the same time, the “nationalized” education system is also intrinsically tied to neoliberalism, as it fails to critique the neoliberal-racism nexus on the one hand, and create spaces for alternatives on the other. Education is primarily about supplying manpower to service the neoliberal economy and disciplining society to further neoliberal economic interests. Religion, in return for financial patronage and popular legitimacy, offers blessings to those who profit from neoliberal and ethno-nationalism policies.  At the same time, religion also provides tangential help (such as the transfer of charitable, obligatory, or voluntary donations and micro-credit) to help and empower the people in need to survive through active participation in neoliberal market place, and to make the best out of “disaster capitalism.”

The majority (clergy and laity) of religious and educational establishments neither advocate nor become a part of movements that espouse radical alternatives to neoliberalism and/or racialized national identities.  Both religion and education cannot be a voice against racism when they are complicit with (and dependent upon) racialized nation-building and neoliberalism, especially while the current phase of capitalism makes the market the way, the method and the end of all rational and moral behavior.

There is hope

Without a sincere commitment to addressing personal and institutional racism, social conflicts run the risk of enacting violence against society’s vulnerable members. Neoliberalism will always stand in the way of combating racism because it is a socio-economic system predicated on inequality, which is sustained by channeling any dissent against inequality away from itself. Nation-building projects will also never free themselves of racism and xenophobia so long as they are committed to neoliberalism.  Racial conflicts would be a permanent feature of the society when, education, religion and neoliberalism, kennel its’ perspectives of racial justice and equality within the confines of racist identity politics.

Racism in educational and religious practices must take their fair share of responsibility for people becoming victims of racist propaganda by social media and extremists.  A broad-based anti-racist program to build trust, empathy, and solidarity between different racial groups, which takes on the uncomfortable and potentially risky responsibility of deracializing the educational and religious establishments, is necessary to address mutually reinforcing inequalities and injustices spawned by neoliberalism and nation-building.  

Education and religion should be sites of resistance against and just solutions to racism. Anti-racism ought to be an everyday practice, a way of life, rather than a ‘project’ in response to given incidents of racial violence.

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