Listening to stories from Kandy, how buildings, homes, and livelihoods of innocent people were looted and set on fire by “mobs” was awful. Suddenly we were all reduced to the racial categories on the birth certificate as fear and uncertainty took over. There was CCTV camera footage of homes and alleyways with burning objects hurled at them and screenshots of horrific social media comments. Videos showed army tanks rolling down the streets in the city of the Temple of the Tooth. Then, there were stories of the dead, used as accusations and justifications for the civil unrest. Al Jazeera aired a news clip of an elderly man as he stood in front of the smouldering flames and debris of what used to be his shop; he told the reporter Sri Lanka was still a beautiful country.
I cried in disbelief with my agonised friend on the phone worried about her parents as I heard myself utter desperate, powerless words, “don’t worry, you have us.” At that moment, I felt the price we were paying for tolerating years of paranoid conspiracy theories and the perpetuation of ridiculously harmful and outright racist words. These phrases and racist ideologies, left politely unchallenged, now surfaced in the form of mobs. Every instance of my silence, I felt, had been fodder to these racial flames. It seemed that most of Colombo remained oblivious.
Why do we need to take responsibility? After all, the mobs are not you and I. The mobs are the crazies, the thugs, uneducated, opportunistic looters, racist BBS loving scum who don’t know any better. No one we know took to the streets or threw stones or torched homes. No one we know actually promotes violence; after all, most people would spend a considerable amount of time trying to save the life of a drowning insect. But, that is the beauty of it — we do not have to advocate for violence, our silence is enough. Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil; of seemingly good people allowed horrible events to unfold.
The ridiculous conspiracy theories I had heard before, laughed off and thought mere ignorant hypocrisy, allows the mindset of hateful groups in various guises to thrive with impunity, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinha Le campaign, and online hate speech on social media, including those reoccurring conspiracies; snowballing in to instant cocktails of flammable racial hatred and prejudice.
What we fail to recognize are the patterns and the cycles that lie below the surface. These cycles no longer allow us the luxury of finding scapegoats so we can simply point fingers at successive governments, fault only the incompetent politicians or western plots to destabilize our country while ignoring our own silence. I can no longer ignore my complicity in contributing to these larger, systemic, intangible issues that all generations are inadvertently born in to. For example, think of normalized, derogatory speech patterns that refer to minorities as “Thambi” or “Demala” or our need to clarify a person’s religion or race, especially when referring to the owner of a restaurant or business. Where do these stereotypes come from and why do we need to clarify when the person we are referring to is not a Sinhala Buddhist?
We desperately need to ask ourselves what we, as individual people, can do to change this harmful speech patterns against minorities and challenge the narratives that perpetuate this Us vs. Them mentality?
The feel-good rhetoric of real Buddhists coming to the rescue of our Muslim brethren, as we have hoped they did in the past, during the darker periods of the 70’s and 80’s is insufficient to heal these fresh wounds. These narratives cannot by themselves stop the next wave of mob attacks, and make no mistake, they will keep happening. We must warn ourselves of falling prey to the naïve hope that sanity will somehow, magically, prevail if we do nothing. While we perpetuate this feel-good myth of the majority good vs. faceless mobs, we fail to notice that a portion of our citizenry, those identified as racial minorities, are forced back into their day-to-day lives, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. They must continue to live silently in eternal fear of these sudden mob attacks. That is no way to live, and we must not demand their silence nor should we allow our neighbors and friends to live in fear.
We have to form an inclusive Sri Lankan identity and form a multicultural patriotism that can absorb all of our people removed from any religious affiliations. These religious texts were written thousands of years ago and they cannot dictate morality to a multi-ethnic nation in the 21st century consisting of multi-religious groups. We must teach our children to consider faith a personal and private matter and continue to celebrate each other's diversity. Until we can eradicate one group’s entitlement mentality of the nation over another, we cannot progress beyond tribalism and petty judgment. Each of us can no longer sustainably live with an imagined superiority over other groups. After all, the rights of citizenship allow all of us the same freedoms to identify as patriotic Sri Lankans.
All of us collectively share different experiences of a three-decade-old war. The dark shadows of whispers of a bygone era of people burning in tires on the streets have always loomed over us. A particularly gruesome image is the fact that mobs forced people to recite Buddhist chants to identify the non-Singhalese. To even question what conditions resulted in creating a violent separatist guerrilla group in Sri Lanka is considered unpatriotic. Why did we not learn this history in our textbooks? If we are ashamed of our past, then let us also be anxious and terrified of a future that fails to acknowledge these reoccurring events.
Mostly, our response has been to scramble to the defense of all religions. Interpretation of faith, after all, is dangerously subjective. We only need to look back at the past few thousand years to see the consequences of religious violence upon the “non-believers.” Until we can remove our national identity from a religious identity, this silent war, like an active volcano will rage on for generations to come. The Beruwala and Aluthgama unrest in 2017, and Ampara and Teldeniya attacks in 2018 are merely the tip of an ugly iceberg fuelled by opportunistic politicians, economically disadvantaged and underprivileged people on all sides. These gaps in education are happily filled by religious dogma and archaic notions of morality dictated in revered holy textbooks.
I keep going back to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. I have been told, that to compare the rhetoric of Islamaphobia against the rhetoric of the Jews is an extreme analogy. I believe it is only extreme when we consider the resulting deaths of millions of people. We have learned nothing from these horrific historical events if we fail to see patterns used to dehumanize groups of people long before events such as what we now call the holocaust occurred. These conditions have, time and time again, created opportunities for governments to manipulate its citizens; mistrust and hatred of groups still exist in places where refugees flee in many parts of the world today. We must not forget Sri Lanka produced many refugees in the past few decades and it must never happen again.
Let us all take a deep breath and listen to the realities of people who have had different experiences. We must reserve our judgment and listen to their stories, listen to what it feels like to huddle inside your own home, fearing violent mobs. Listen to understand, not to speak. Remember, every conversation does not require a response. No matter how much we wish for it, no deity or politician will be able to save us unless we stand up to protect our neighbors and save ourselves.
 Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.