A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India


A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

by Ron Barrett of Macalester College

Taken from the American Ethnologist May 2010, vol. 37/2, pp. 380-81.

Recent years have seen an emerging literature on the sociopolitical dynamics of human tissue exchange. Most of these studies are of a critical nature, focusing on the exploitative aspects of organ trade and other high-profile controversies. Yet few studies have closely examined the apparently mundane forms of biological exchange and the remarkable contexts in which these everyday activities can occur. Jacob Copeman addresses this important gap with Veins of Devotion, a well-researched ethnography about the contributions of several North Indian devotional movements to voluntary blood donation campaigns. Critical in the classical sense, this volume traces the flows of blood, spirit, and power through expanding domains of kinship, asceticism, nationalism, purification, and gift exchange in the urban heart of neoliberal India.

Veins of Devotion begins with a poignant example of bioavailability: a spiritual leader promising to recruit his devotees for blood donation. The promise comes in the form of a traditional Indian blessing (prasad), a combination of spiritually laden substances that, in this case, includes a piece of paper with the words “Every month, one camp.” The “camp” refers to a large-scale health camp in which hundreds or thousands of devotees donate their blood, ostensibly as offerings to the guru and to Indian society at large. Not surprisingly, these stated purposes are segues into more complex dynamics with multiple agendas and rich opportunities for ethnographic analysis.

Copeman formulates the concept of “virtuous utility” as an organizing theme for this volume. Challenging the conventional dichotomy of utilitarian versus symbolic reasoning, virtuous utility describes interoperable relationships between these two modes while leaving plenty of space for conflict and criticism. Virtuous utility is aptly illustrated with populist religious movements who tout blood donation as a sign of enlightened modernity and moral superiority over their traditional counterparts, while claiming that their devotions would otherwise be wasted on idol worship.With similar claims to moral superiority, blood donation campaigns serve all manner of status contests, social protests, and nationalist agendas—especially when linked to historical events and memorials to charismatic leaders. One of the most famous of these campaigns is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for the most blood collected in a single day. A gold standard in popular Indian imagination, the Guinness Book states that the 12,000 units collected that day were “equivalent to 67 bathtubs of blood!” (in Copeman, p. 105). The author notes that these kinds of popular statistics serve to validate the mobilizing abilities of religious and political leaders.

Copeman also examines the interoperability between biomedical technologies and ever-expanding meanings of blood and kin. Blood has long been an index of kinship in India; yet with voluntary blood donation, both the sanguine and consanguineal are centrifuged to communities beyond the horizons of extended family. Until recently, people commonly donated blood to close kin through family replacement schemes. But with the rise of volunteer schemes, increasing numbers are allowing their blood to flow outside the traditional boundaries of kin to a much larger social body. Kinship also extends with the reproductive notion that donated blood will save, not just patient lives, but also the lives of patients’ families and their future offspring. This reproductive potential is further enhanced by laboratory centrifugation, in which whole blood is separated into multiple components, creating the possibility that a single donation will benefit as many as four patients, four families, future generations, and so forth. With these imagined reproductions, utility is framed as maximum beneficence to a maximally extended Indian family.

Utility meets virtue when the reproductive capacity of donated blood entails a similar capacity for spiritual merit. But merit is problematic on many levels. Copeman observes that anonymous blood donation may entail more merit than family donation because the anonymity of recipients fits better with classical notions of ritual gift-giving, or dan. However, dan is often given to priests and pandits in situations when the recipients are known but their worthiness is undetermined (Gold 2000; Parry 1986).

With rakt dan—a modern form of blood sacrifice—the recipients are unknown but nevertheless imagined to be worthy of the gift, at least in the sense of being maximally needful.

There is also the dilemma of poison in the gift: a common belief that offerings serve as media for the transmission of sin from donor to recipient (Raheja 1988).Within this belief, spiritual attainment is often a matter of transportive purification, the shedding away of bad deeds at the expense of recipients rather than the acquisition of merit for helping them (Barrett 2008). In a similar vein, one can easily give blood across caste lines, but receiving blood from lesser castes can be highly problematic. It is therefore notable that, although many of Copeman’s informants claim their donations as proof of caste transcendence, the real test is whether they would receive blood by the same methods.

In addition to issues of ritual pollution and caste, the author points to a more concrete dilemma posed by the promise of spiritual merit for blood donation. Blood banks have shifted from paid to voluntary donation largely because of concerns that remuneration would add incentives for overdonation or for unqualified donations from people with HIV or other blood-borne infections. Yet spiritual merit can be as powerful an incentive as money, therefore presenting the same kinds of medical risks as paid donation. Some devotional movements have guarded against this with personal health pledges to maintain the purity of their blood. These pledges, however, may also have the unintended consequence of linking medical qualification to spiritual worthiness. In all these cases, it is far better to give than to receive.

In summary, Veins of Devotion is a fascinating ethnography of everyday tissue exchange in urban India. For medical anthropologists, Copeman expands the dimensions of ideology, structure, and agency in bodily donation. For scholars of religion and South Asia, he provides a new venue for analyzing the shifting domains of sacred and secular in contemporary urban India. Accessibly written, this volume is eminently teachable for a graduate or upper division undergraduate course. It is an excellent work of scholarship.

References Cited

Barrett, Ron
2008 Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gold, Ann G.
2000 Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parry, Jonathan P.
1986 “The Gift, the Indian Gift, and ‘The Indian Gift’,” Man 21:453-473.
Raheja, Gloria G.
1988 The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, Chicago: University of Chicago


Review of Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

By Herman Tull of Princeton University

Taken from the Journal of Asian Studies ?? pp 300-01

Jacob Copeman’s fascinating study, Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, begins with a brief introduction to the modern medical process of blood donation, a topic that for many sits at the far edge of daily experience. Throughout the world, the success of modern health care depends on donated blood; yet because shortages are an unfortunate and predominant fact, getting blood into the system represents a central concern.

There are three routes that move blood into the health care system: paid donation, replacement donation (whereby the family of the individual who uses the blood replaces it in the system), and voluntary donation. As Copeman reports, in recent years the World Health Organization has promoted voluntary donation as the safest and most stable route. Paid donors, often from society’s lowest socioeconomic rungs, tend to be disproportionately health compromised, while replacement donation lacks surety and tends to be a one-time only affair.

Critical to Copeman’s study is the notion that voluntary donation is undergirded by an element of ethicization; that is, through the action of donating blood, individuals come to express a sense of altruism and selfless service to their communities, and these connotations can be used to compel individuals to donate blood. (According to Copeman, the relationship of utility to ethical value is a contentious subject in anthropology [p. 4], a shockingly naive position to those grounded in the study of ethics.) With this basic framework, Copeman finds in India that the culturally attuned factors of service (seva) and gift (dan), intertwined with ideas of “virtue, service, kinship, and the nation” (p. 2), center the discourse of voluntary blood donation. Along the way, Copeman looks to the broader elements of giving and exchange (as expressed in anthropological theory) to fill out the edges of his study.

As Copeman notes, Indians have not unambiguously embraced voluntary blood donation. Blood in India has long been viewed as a source of strength, and, equally, the loss of blood is understood to result in a state of long-lasting (if not permanent) weakness. In an attempt to change this perception, Copeman cites the work of donor recruiters who have reconceptualized blood donation to create a sense that giving blood leads not to blood loss but to blood gain. This has been achieved by representing blood donation as an opportunity to shed older, weaker blood cells, thereby opening the way for the production of fresh, younger blood cells.

In addition to the physical gain here, Copeman looks at how efforts to boost voluntary donation in India have benefited from an imagined spiritual component. This aspect of blood donation can be seen in the idiom developed by a number of guru-based (or satguru) reformist religious groups that have involved themselves in blood collection (Copeman attends in particular to the activities of the Sant Nirankarai Mission and the Dera Sacha Sauda [chapters 4 and 5], based on his field participation in the greater Delhi area). This idiom makes use of such conceptualizations of blood donation as that of the spreading of “spiritualized liquid love” (p. 97), as well as that of god returning what is given as a selfless gift (p. 87). Here, winning the approval of the guru for the selfless service of donation augments the spiritual element of the gift. Of course, this conceptualization is not without problems.

Copeman describes how, in their quest for service, these organizations generate a near-frenetic attitude to the gaining of voluntary blood donors; donor camps (often with more than 10,000 participants) become competitive events in which “world record” blood collections take precedent over safety and quality (pp. 89, 107). Additionally, as Copeman points out, by emphasizing the spiritual aspects of blood donation, potential donors may lose sight of the fact that voluntary blood donation is ultimately controlled by specific physical parameters; accordingly, those who are rejected from donating blood because of compromised health (and these individuals are disproportionately from the lower rungs of society) have effectively had a message of diminished spirituality delivered to them. Hence, rather than building a sense of a common spiritual bond regardless of caste (a key component of the satguru traditions), blood donation may very well reinforce India’s traditional social demarcations.

This brief review hardly touches the surface of Copeman’s richly conceptualized study, in which he nimbly moves from his underlying frame of the Indian notions of gift and service to touch on a range of related topics, from national integration (“The Nehruvian Gift,” chapter 7) to Indian notions of asceticism, sacrifice, sin, and caste. A few points, however, may be mentioned that detract from the overall high quality of this work: Copeman’s discussion of Marriott’s substance-code theory (pp. 24–25) is far too cursory given its significance for the topic of blood donation; additionally, Copeman has a tendency to use highfalutin language that in the end obfuscates rather than clarifies (e.g., “efflorescent biospritual medical creativity,” p. 147). However, these are small quibbles, and they should not deter readers from delving into Copeman’s study, which lucidly connects a range of Indian spiritual idioms to the seemingly unlikely, mundane context of voluntary blood donation.

Princeton University



Michael Roberts, 6 March 2010

One’s academic trajectories and journeys are invariably subject to vagaries and contingencies. The events and researches leading to my interest in “communal violence” and “zealotry” in the 1990s, and thereafter to what I have called ‘sacrificial devotion” (embracing the topics of “terrorism,” suicide bombers and Tamil Tigers),[i] were shaped by such contingencies. Since my web site will present some short essays on both these topics in the course of this month, let me detail some moments during my research work that resulted in the journeys that produced such outcomes.

In 1986-87 I spent about 14 months in Sri Lanka on research work during my sabbatical year. I was completing my research and writing on the history of Colombo in British times and the associated rise of a Westernized middle class-cum-bourgeoisie – work that resulted in the book People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, 1989).[ii] The island was still under the clouds cast by the attacks on Tamils in the southern parts of the island in July 1983. Following the British colonial lexicon this momentous and tragic set of events was generally described as the “1983 riots.” But such politically-aware scholars as Newton Gunasinghe and Shelton Kodikara were among those who depicted the event as a “pogrom.” This was a sensitizing revision that I accepted.

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

The lesson crystallised when a chance event, one of those “contingencies” that I spoke of in my opening sentence, cut into the lines of research that had dominated my focus in the 1980s. Neelan Tiruchelvam buttonholed me and asked me to provide a broad overview on the event known as the “1915 riots” (marakkala kolahalaya in Sinhala) for a conference that was being organised in the Maldives by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, a gathering that encompassed South Asia writ large and included several scholars from the subcontinent.

Apart from the attractions of the enterprise, the Maldives as place of meeting made the offer irresistible to a beachcomber such as me. As matters turned out, the event was held in Kathmandu in February 1987, but that location was no less attractive. In effect my research direction took a U-turn in the sense that my existing field of research now had an additional field alongside it.

This terrain of research was not entirely new. Neelan approached me because he was aware of my earlier article on the “1915 riots,” one that was initially a Ceylon Studies Seminar paper at Peradeniya in 1972 and then appeared in print after revision in 1981.[iii] Both versions were moulded by an approach directed by the British empiricist tradition of historical research, albeit leavened by some sociological threads.

When I took up this particular baton once again, however, both my reflections and my subsequent explorations of additional bodies of source material were leavened by my experiences in teaching and reading social anthropology. One of my presentations at Kathmandu was a summary overview of the 1915 pogrom directed at the Sri Lankan Mohammedans (as the Muslims were called then), with some reflections thereon. This presentation was point-form and never re-written as such. But I also presented a written draft of another paper that eventually saw print under the title “Noise as Cultural Struggle” in a book edited by Veena Das which assembled some of the papers presented at Kathmandu (Mirrors of Violence, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1990).

With People Inbetween bedded as a book, from 1989/90 my research work was now directed towards a study of communal violence as well as nationalism in the modern world. My intent was to produce a book on the anti-Moor pogrom of 1915, a work that would run alongside research on another book on Sinhalese nationalism in the British period. The latter field was informed by the literature on South Asia, notably “subaltern studies.” It was also directed by my questioning of some lines of argument within this literature that were influenced by Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”[iv]

These lines of interest were not without the impact, emotional and otherwise, of the July 1983 pogrom. During my long sojourn in Lanka in 1986/87 and other visits I had gathered anecdotal data on the 1983 pogrom that deepened my reflective thoughts, and indeed, my anger about that cluster of events.[v] This material, moreover, had led me to conjecture that in their minds the stirrers and assailants behind the atrocities in 1983 as well as 1915 were moved by a sense of ‘legitimate’ vengeance so that their awful actions were deemed righteous. They were teaching the Moors (1915) and the Tamils (1983) a lesson.

I did not, however, wish to be submerged by the local particularities of empirical detail and my local particularity as a Sri Lankan. Comparative studies of ethnic violence in Europe, USA and India seemed advisable in order to preclude tunnel-vision. Short six-month sojourns at the University of Virginia in 1991, Delhi (1995) and Leiden (1996) rendered feasible by Fellowships secured as well as Australian research grants enabled me to broaden my vision. These travels included brief visits to the library archives at the Weiner Foundation in London and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The considerable bodies of data from these fields that I collected remain on the shelves — mostly unanalysed. However, these explorations provided perspectives and raised useful questions.

Furthermore, they yielded photographs, startling photographs at times. I still have in my mind’s-eye an image of Nazi men and women clambering among a mound of Jewish bodies searching for booty – a newsprint photograph of poor quality that I saw at the Weiner Foundation. My quest for photographs had been inspired by two of the shocking scenes from the atrocious mayhem at Borella Junction, Colombo, on 24/25th July 1983 that had been reproduced in the Tamil Times.

1983 Borella rioters - burning

1983 Borella rioters - burning

Culled from the poor-quality reproductions in that periodical these images were reproduced in my literary essay, a personal statement of protest, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983” when it was reprinted in the anthology entitled Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History (Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994).

Both the limits and incisiveness of visual imagery surround the embellishments attached to these pictures. One reveals a mob of jubilant looters and assailants and indicates that ordinary people participated in the pogrom (as indeed confirmed by numerous witnesses — from Karen Roberts in her July to the research work on the July 1983 pogrom undertaken by Naren Kumarakulasingham[vi]). The other is even more shocking, but also highlights how a picture can sometimes mislead.

When I saw this picture I took it as given that (A) the naked man was a Tamil and (B) that he was subsequently killed. Both interpretations were conjectures that amounted to cultural readings, interpretations that, say, a Canadian may not have essayed. Reading the image at face-value I also called the reproduction “Dancing the Killing.” (see Roberts, 1994d, page 324).

It was not till my article had reached the bookshelves that Charles Abeysekera gave me the name of the intrepid cameraman who took these flash pictures in extremely dangerous circumstances. This was Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who had then been attached to the Communist Party newspaper, Äththa, whose offices were a stones throw from Borella Junction. This led me to contact Amarasinghe and purchase better copies of the photographs he took that night. I also gathered empirical details from his observations as a witness of the activities that night both at the Kanatte cemetery initially and then on the streets around.[vii]

1983 Borella rioters - kick boxer
1983 Borella rioters – kick boxer

He confirmed both my principal conjectures. That poor Tamil man had indeed been killed. But he also modified my third assumption. The assailant was not dancing, said Chandragupta. He was swivelling around as he administered a karate kick. So I was mistaken on this detail. The critical aspect, however, was the fact that this killer, together with others around him, was certainly enjoying this horrendous work. Yes, as Chandragupta attested, both adrenaline and ecstasy were coursing thought their veins (see also a photograph from the 1958 mini-pogrom reproduced in Ivan’s Paradise in Tears, Plate 247).

These details, then, reveal a form of zealousness that is not motivated by religious fervour, but by ethnic prejudice, that is by relational subjectivities and sentiments based on ethnic differentiation (distinct in some ways from racial differentiation based on skin colour)[viii] and reaching a climax through political processes, rumour-mongering and currents of rhetoric.

It was within this background that I penned an essay, “Understanding Zealotry,” in 1995 for the Newsletter produced by my hosts at Leiden University, namely, the International Institute of Asian Studies. This essay will be inserted in this web site soon together with some other pictures illustrating the violence emanating from zealotry and extreme forms of nationalist or communalist action directed against an Enemy Other. A broader selection can also be reviewed by visiting the website and surfing down the right panel and clicking “Photos.” This site in its turn was due to an initiative from Dan Nourry[ix] after a Workshop I organised at Adelaide University in late 2005 to discuss “Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Perspective: Tamil Tigers and Beyond.”

The projected book on the 1915 pogrom never eventuated. The reasons are two-fold: in preparing my anthology Exploring Confrontation in the years 1991-94 I distilled my work on the pogrom into two chapters. One, “The Imperialism of Silence” improved and filled out the circumstances that generated religious disputes and thus superseded my previous essay on “Noise as Cultural Struggle.” The other, “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against Moors in 1915,” summarised my main findings and arguments.

That done, I did not have the energy for a ball-by-ball coverage of the details clarifying the manner in which a section of the Sinhalese population terrorised most bodies of Mohammedans in their midst.[x] Besides, by 1994/95 I was fully immersed in my work on Sinhalese nationalism. By 1996 I even had several chapters in draft form.

Yet, these have never appeared in print. Twist, turn and contingency interrupted this book-venture. For one I was diverted to the work of editing a new set of articles on Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo, 1997 & 1998 under the Marga imprint). This endeavour in turn flowed into the interventionist project organised by Godfrey Gunatilleke on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation that involved several workshops in Sri Lanka between 1999 and 2003. Since all these ventures engaged the political processes and various currents of ideology within modern Sri Lanka, clearly, my research findings for the book remained directly pertinent to whatever I wrote under the ambit of these programmes. Indeed the draft chapters have informed all my articles within the period 1995-2009. Thus, the condensed abstracts that feature within the title “History-Making in Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese” in fact embody some of the findings destined for this unfulfilled book.

There was another reason for the delay in production, a major force in fact. While focusing on the changes arising in the period of British colonial domination, my outline for the book envisaged an initial background chapter that would condense the ideological and political circumstances preceding the advent of British control. The intention was to set up a “baseline” so that one could the better comprehend the changes emanating in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This meant a summary view of what we tend to refer to as the Kingdom of Kandy (though it is more proper to call it the Kingdom of Sinhalē). Well, then, as it turned out, this chapter ballooned out and became a book Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates, 2004).

This expansion backwards, let me assure you, was an educational experience. One could say it was a tale involving the “re-education of Roberts.” It was a lesson in humility. I discovered that one could be wholly illiterate but nevertheless highly knowledgeable about one’s society and able to transmit this knowledge by chant, poem, story and artistic expression on stone or wall. I had previously derived some experience of the power of oral transmission, and thus of oral sources for history-writing, through my anthropological teaching and research in other societies, notably Africa.[xi] But the active engagement in material on the Kandyan period and my serial conversations with such scholars as Ananda Wakkumbura, Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura, Srinath Ganewatte, Mayadunne, KBA Edmund, Ananda Tissakumara, Sandadas & Sandagomi Coperahewa and JB Disanayake inscribed the message indelibly in my consciousness and methodology.

Sinhala Consciousness is a complex book and far from easy reading. I assert here that the second chapter on the power of oral and visual means of cultural transmission is a central foundation for its findings. It is so central that Radhika Coomaraswamy understood its import and arranged for the ICES to print a re-worked version even before the book appeared in print: see Modernist Theory. Trimming the Printed Word: The Instance of Pre-modern Sinhala Society (Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2002, 46 pages, ISBN: 955-580-068-7).

As this title indicates, this essay underlines my previous criticisms[xii] of Benedict Anderson’s influence in the social science thinking. It is not that his Imagined Communities is erroneous. Print-technology in the era of capitalist market forces did revolutionise modes of transmission and heightened nationalist (and other) currents of thinking. But the alacrity with which scholars embraced this argument, deepened by some post-modernist currents of scholarship immersed in textuality,[xiii] has led to the underestimation of other modes of transmission that remained forceful in the modern era. It also meant that such scholars could not grasp the fact that people who did not possess a written script possessed the capacity to develop ideas of political community that embraced large numbers and spread over a wide area. Here, I am thinking of such African peoples as the Nuer, Dinka, Ashanti and Zulu, rather than the Mons, Lao, Burmese, Khmers, Vietnamese, Thai, Bengali and Sinhalese of Asia who had the backing of a written script as well. One did not require “concrete” local networks of kinship and interaction to develop sentiments of oneness with others who were not immediate neighbours. Anderson’s “imagined” rests on far too sharp a distinction from an unelaborated theoretical category identified as “concrete.” The latter is unelaborated and rests on the flimsy example of the aristocratic classes of early modern Europe characterised by relatively small size, “fixed political bases, and the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance.”[xiv]

Imagined Communities could also be said to have misled the scholarship on Europe. Its emphasis on print technology took readers away from the sort of data and perspectives that led Adrian Hastings to contend that England and France had national identities by the later Middle Ages or the early modern period.[xv] Thus, my work on the Sinhala material, that of Hastings and the book Thant Myint U on Burma make nonsense of Hobsbawm’s assertion that there could have been no mass linguistic uniformity in countries lacking a formal system of education.[xvi]

Here, then, we see that the tracks of scholarship are beset with contingencies and sharp turns. The dribs, drabs and twists in my trajectory did flow into each other though not always in planned manner. Thus, for example, the work that went into the central chapter in People Inbetween, one that is entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” has been of critical significance for my subsequent researches on Sinhalese nationalism. For those with access to this book let me stress that one of the principal arguments in this chapter is distilled within Chart I on page 15 which is entitled “Some Twentieth Century Ethnic Pejoratives in Sinhala and Ceylonese English.”

Indeed, I stress here that this deciphering work in “Pejorative Phrases” on the underlying semantic structure of disparaging epithets in the Sinhala language – inscribed as they are by a history of migrant encounters, devastating wars and colonial subjugations in the past – has led directly to my two signature essays, “Why Thuppahi” and “The Sinhala Mind-Set.” Both may arouse distaste in some Sinhalese minds. They are meant to generate reflection and self-examination rather than anger. If anger is aroused, then, I ask readers to pause and think “Why?”

Likewise, it was during my work among historical sources in the early twentieth century, and specifically my reading of Anagarika Dharmapala’s “A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon,” that I literally stumbled upon the ideological current involving the subsuming of whole (Ceylonese) within the part (Sinhalese) in a powerful taken-for-granted manner.[xvii] This was but one ingredient that entered my analysis in “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.” This article was drafted in 1976 and appeared in print initially in 1978; but it was influenced strongly by the pessimism that had overtaken me from 1973/74 while at Peradeniya University about the direction which ethnic relations in Sri Lanka were moving at that point of time. It provides no pleasure for me that subsequent events justified my pessimism and went beyond my forecast in the degree of severity envisaged.


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Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:  857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

Roberts, Michael, Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem 1989    People Inbetween:The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s, Vol 1 Colombo: Sarvodaya Press, with volume 1 drafted by M. Roberts, 389 pages.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1997 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol 1.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1998 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol. 2.

Rogers, John 1994 “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-Modern and Modern Political

Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 53: 10-23.

Thant Myint U 2000  The Making of Modern Burma, Cambridge University Press.

[i] See Roberts 1996a, 2005a, 2005b 2006, 2007a, 2007b, and 2008 in bibliography.

[ii] Also see Roberts, “Two Faces of the Port City,” 1989.

[iii] “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists?: Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences 1981, 4: 83-126.

[iv] This field is usefully summarized by John Rogers in his “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-modern and Modern Political Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 1994, vol. 53: 10-23.

[v] I had picked up anecdotes re the mayhem taking place in Sri Lanka in July 1983, two from Tamil friends who witnessed events first-hand. I wrote my article on the “Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom” (1994d) in a particularly pensive mood while relatively isolated on my own in a research environment in Charlottesville, Virginia. This essay is deliberately presented in a separate section of Exploring Confrontation as a counterpoint to the sanitized air of my other academic writings.

[vi] Kumarakulasingham has just finished a dissertation on the topic of July 1983 at a university in USA and has provided me with some information. The fictional background in Karen Roberts’s book is based on her experiences in Colombo, notably when she walked down the middle of Galle Road from Colpetty to her home in Dehiwala on Monday 25th July (as she clarified for me during the Galle Literary Festival in 2008). Note that Karen is no relative, but is as mixed as I am – being of Sinhalese and Burgher lineage with her Sinhala side being a mix of Navandanna and Govigama.

[vii] These photos are used for my web pages and also were deployed in the reprint of “Agony” in Nēthra. Thus the caption in Nēthra should now be read as my finalised perspective on this scene.

[viii] A clarification of the relational and experiential factors promoting ethnic differentiation and competition can be found in Roberts, “Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[ix] From Macquarie University, Nourry, is working on the Catholic Church’s conceptualizations of martyrdom, past and present.

[x] Note that at Beruwela and Maradana the Moors had sufficient numbers of men to mount a defence and indulge in street battles.

[xi] Note the earlier influence of my editorial experiences in organising the articles reprinted within Using Oral Sources: Vansina and Beyond, special issue of Social Analysis, vol. 4, Sept. 1980, edited by Kenneth Brown and Michael Roberts.

[xii] See Roberts 1993 and 1996b. Also see Kemper 1991. This criticism seems to have had little influence on scholarly research. Anderson’s felicitous prose and his location at the centres of production seem to have sustained the hegemony he has secured in academic circles.

[xiii] Some post-modernist scholars seem to dwell in a discursive world enveloped by their own erudite texts. These texts serve as source of data and argument as they address each other. The lives of ordinary people and the societal structures that mould their lives simply become irrelevant: the cumulus clouds of post-modernist discourse reign supreme. See also, Roberts,”Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[xiv] Imagined Communities, p. 74. For critical reviews, see Roberts 1993: 152-54 and Roberts 1996b.

[xv] Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood , Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[xvi] Hobsbawm, 1990: 92-130, espec. 93 and Thant Myint U, The Making of Modern Burma,2000.

[xvii] Return to Righteousness, 1965, pp. 501-18 – originally published in 1922 [but I believe it was presented earlier].

Kaplan’s Savage Orientalism


by Michael Roberts

2 January 2010

The original version of this article was drafted in September 2009. There was no response from Atlantic Monthly when I sent it to them. Nor did it pass muster with SLATE, Mother Jones, the NY Times, International Herald Tribune and Tehelka. However, HIMAL accepted it, but also made a few editorial changes and suggested some extensions. Their format did not have space for footnotes or citations. The version that is reprinted here is an amalgam of my original piece and the article that appears in Himal,

January 2010.

I here acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by the Editors of HIMAL. See for article and the Comments it drew.


The senior US journalist Robert Kaplan is well-connected and famous, a master of prose. He is versed in wrapping his international forays with word-pictures of place, person and context. His texts may ramble in places, but they are rarely ornate. The ‘word foliage’ displays are designed to be pleasing and are sometimes capped with striking titles – what could be more catchy, for instance, than the title of his Sri Lanka-focused piece in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Buddha’s Savage Peace”?[1] But these invitations to buy into his investigations of the political terrain are mixed with dubious contentions. Notably, his recent interpretations of the Sri Lankan political scene are as simplistic as they are misleading.

    Although a longtime reporter, Kaplan was first widely recognised for his striking essay from February 1994, “A Coming Anarchy,” also published in The Atlantic. This article was prefaced by the line, “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Kaplan is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his essays regularly feature in leading US newspapers. He has revealed remarkable versatility and has ventured into many battle terrains – authoring several books, including Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) and even a travel book entitled Mediterranean Winter

    Now, 15 years after “A Coming Anarchy”, Kaplan continues to depict images of anarchy by stirring up American fears of the Oriental ‘Other’. When Sri Lanka, normally an obscure place in most American eyes, re-entered the world stage with a showdown war in spring 2009, Kaplan seems to have jumped on board to continue this agenda of fear-mongering. South Asian tales of brutal wars and killings without ethical restraint have now been added to his offerings of looming anarchy. Here, the “morality of the result” (namely, suppression of the ‘terrorist’ LTTE in American eyes) has been conveniently discarded in favour of his dichotomy of the moment.
    Kaplan’s analysis of the Sri Lankan dispensation is not all dross. During his recent travels through the island, he talked at length with Bradman Weerakoon,[2] and mingled with several noted politicians and NGO representatives, such as the activist Kumar Rupesinghe. Kaplan also absorbed riveting arguments between Sinhalese and Tamils in the lounge room of the Indian diplomat who oversees the work of RAW in Sri Lanka.[3] He even dipped into the odd book, for instance one by K. M. de Silva and another by Channa Wickremasekera on Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka, 1594-1818 (Delhi, 2004).

    This image of the Sinhalese community in fear is deepened by a trip that Kaplan takes into the past with the aid of Wickremasekera and de Silva. The sturdy resistance to European invasion pursued by the Sinhalese for several centuries is highlighted. Unfortunately, this is done in ways that enable Kaplan to heighten two elements: the present-day Sinhalese political paranoia and the significance of Kandy as a “sacred city”. Thus, sacredness and serenity today are conveyed as being permeated by threads of political anarchy – juxtapositions and contrasts that are crafted into Kaplan’s increasingly Orientalist work in general. 
    These lines of emphasis dovetail neatly with the spin that Kaplan imposes on the contemporary conflict. It is a tale of “a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils” (emphasis mine). In keeping with his title, the essay drives home an associated point: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” During the brutal war, “the Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity” in order to defeat that “quasi-cult terrorist group” known as the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom Kaplan paints as a sadistic ogre. Thus, the victors in this war drew upon the same “emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.” 
    In this neat manner, Kaplan builds upon his opening travelogue in serene Kandy by depicting a ‘torso’ marked by the awesome bloodletting of a war driven by religious fuel. This is a tactical ploy that, from the time of Edward Said, we comprehend as a standard element within Orientalist strategies. From the eighteenth century, the European literati developed a picture of a static unchanging ‘East’ that served as a foil for its self-affirming construction of a progressive and dynamic ‘West’. This process, of course, admits to various twists: currently, one sees sections of the Western media deploying Sri Lanka as an arena of inhumane war crimes in ways that highlight their own ethical superiority. If one deciphers the plot organising both Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Buddha’s Savage Peace,” their striking similarity is indicative of an Orientalist framework.

Christian Lacunae

There is a major omission in this analysis, one that has Kaplan presenting a potentially dangerous quarter-truth. Either by design or out of ignorance, Kaplan does not tell his readers that Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese participated in the bloodletting on both sides. Most Christians on both sides are Catholic and the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been sharply split down the middle as a result of the war. Indeed, any journalist worth his salt would know that Catholic priests have been ardent supporters and important ideologues in the LTTE enterprise;[4] and that Christians of all faiths have been among the Tamil Tigers who have carried out suicide attacks. In 1981, Roman Catholics made up around 41 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent of the largely Tamil districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively, even outnumbering Hindus in Mannar. Several senior LTTE personnel in the 1980s (such as Victor, Rahim and Lawrence Thilakar) as well as LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham were raised Catholic.    

    If this is deliberate obfuscation on Kaplan’s part, the question obviously arises: Why such a silence? In fact, this writer would suggest that this needs to be seen as firmly in step with Kaplan’s Orientalism – a branding of the religions (and peoples) of the East as those conducive to ‘savagery’. It is reasonable to contend that any reference to Christian involvement at the heart of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle would muddy the turbulent seas of the dangerous Orient that Kaplan is carefully moulding.

    In this, Kaplan is not alone. Another American intellectual, the well-known political scientist Robert Pape, has likewise maintained a studied silence on the Christian dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict. In his book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), there is a chapter on the LTTE’s suicide bombers. In setting out the background, Pape notes:

The most prominent factor driving Tamil community support for individual self-sacrifice is fear of Buddhist extremism. Especially since the establishment of the new state constitution in 1972, prominent Tamil leaders have consistently claimed that the Sinhalese government is motivated by the goal to extend Buddhism into the Tamil regions of the island, a religious game plan that justifies treating the Tamil people harshly, which in turn justifies extreme self-sacrifice as necessary to meet the threat (emphasis mine).[5]

Pape drives this point home by relating religious inspiration to the suicide ‘cult’: “fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case” (2005: 140). Sinhala Buddhist extremism is indeed a problem, but there are also Sinhala Christian extremist voices that sharpen the confrontations. The phenomenon thus becomes far more complex, ultimately boiling down to extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalism. Further, it should be stressed that the term used locally by moderate voices to depict the extremists at both poles of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide is usually “chauvinists,” a label that captures differentiation that is not based on observable racial features.

    Robert Pape’s thesis came out earlier in 2003 as an article in the American Political Science Review.[6] On this occasion, Satchi Sri Kantha, an ardent Tamil nationalist, contacted Pape in order to correct his presentation of the LTTE as a “Marxist group”. In the course of correspondence with Pape throughout 2004, Sri Kantha supplied him with information on the suicide cadres of the Tigers, including the role of Christians within such operations (mostly, I add, battlefront naval acts[7]). But in 2005, Pape proceeded to give an interview to the rightwing journal American Conservative in which he carefully avoided any reference to such facts. He could not escape the remarkable Sri Kantha, however, who got back in contact to ask him why he had failed to include mention of Christian cadres. “Is it because this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” he asked.[8]

    Why indeed? These glaring omissions of the involvement of Christian Tamils in militant acts, omissions perpetrated by Pape as well as Kaplan, point towards prejudices and strategies of political import. They underline hidden agendas and political conservatism, as well as their unreflective Orientalism.

All that glitters
It should be noted that Kaplan’s coverage has been far better than that of some other media groups. In the tense period since the end of military action in Sri Lanka in May, some organisations have been criticised for running biased or even concocted stories critical of the Colombo government (the UK’s Channel Four being a foremost example).[9] Kaplan does not go up that path. His ‘deceit’ works instead through half-truths and oversimplifications. He is clearly not always alive to his blunders. This blindness arises not only from inadequate local knowledge and shallow spadework in certain regards, but also because Kaplan appears to be under the spell of his own wordplay.

However, deliberate tunnel vision does seem to intrude when Kaplan enters the realm of international politics. Stark evidence on this count was on display when he was reverentially interviewed in early July 2009 as an “expert” on Sri Lanka by Michael Totten, a high-profile conservative journalist and blogger, for the benefit of an American audience. [10]

Totten: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government ……

Kaplan then tells us that, by supplying Sri Lanka with arms, China has secured permission to build a deep water port at Hambantota as part of “its string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean — said to be a means by which China can encircle India with various military installations. He then refers to the killing of a “prominent media critic”[11] – eliciting a “wow” from Totten and encouraging Kaplan to proceed thus:

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government.[12] So that’s one thing they did. …. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months. 

So, the Sri Lankan and Russian operations in Chechnya are all of a piece. This is certainly an argument that one can place on the debating table, but there are glaring omissions here once we proceed to the global stage of comparisons: George Bush’s enterprise in Iraq and its subsequent ramifications, the range of American operations in Afghanistan, recent Pakistani-US operations in the Swat Valley for instance. While it may have been Totten who suggested the comparison, Kaplan seems happy to run with it. If Kaplan’s charm calls to mind the proverbial real estate agent, here, then, we find out that he is an American real estate agent.

    Nor is there much pleasure for Tamils in Kaplan’s reading of Sri Lankan events. Interspersed within his replies to Totten, one finds the following comment: “The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say ‘you have to kill all the people to get to us.’ So the government obliged them.”    

    Later, Kaplan was asked how popular the LTTE was amongst the Tamil population. “Not particularly popular,” he responded. “The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.”[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response – the second sentence does not follow from the first, and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

    Nonetheless, and predictably, the latter information drew an exclamation from Totten. The LTTE’s military capacities were indeed remarkable and was matched by its ruthlessness and use of suicide bombers. But it is typical that both Kaplan and Totten immediately honed in on the spectacular within its three military arms – namely, the air wing. Glitter evidently draws those without much background knowledge. Any amateur military analyst would have told them that the LTTE’s maritime capacities were in fact a central aspect of the LTTE’s strength, and that the embryonic air wing offered little more nuisance than a mosquito in hardline military terms. (Kaplan, it should be noted, has written well-regarded articles on naval power elsewhere.) From the very outset, during the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers’ coastal smuggling-and-shipping resources made India a safe haven and a steady source of supplies, while simultaneously enabling troop movements of immense strategic value for them. For over 20 years, their ‘brown water’ navy of speedboats was a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan military; while its international shipping company was a vital logistical medium for military hardware, as well as an economic asset.[14] Indeed, on one occasion in the 1980s, Prabhakaran himself stressed that “geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas.”[15] Kaplan, it appears, is blissfully ignorant of this dimension of the LTTE’s history, though to the detriment of his own analysis.
    As breathtaking, too, is the confidence with which Kaplan can tell the world that the Tamil Tigers were not “particularly popular” among the Tamil people. This is quite erroneous. Without visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, without much background reading, his unqualified response highlights his conceit. But, then, he was presumably addressing an American audience through Totten. To tweak the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man can play king.
Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. 

[1] Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2009,

[2] Now retired, Weerakoon was a senior administrator who served at the highest levels, including stints as the right-hand of some Presidents. He is knowledgeable and widely respected.

[3] I was present too on this occasion at one point in late May 2009 and was among those participating in raging arguments. Key figures in this salon-debate included several Tamil parliamentarians, Minister Tissa Vitharana and Kumar Rupesinghe, with the latter often acting as mediator and peacemaker. Kaplan was mostly a listener.

[4] For instance, Bishop Emmanuel (now in Germany), Revd. Chandrakanthan (now in Canada) and Frs. Bernard and Pakianathan.

[5] Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, Random House, 2005: 146.

[6] Pape, “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2003, 97: 343-61.

[7] See Stephen Hopgood, “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of

      Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 43-76 and Roberts, “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis, 2006, 50: 73-102.    

[8] See Sri Kantha, “On educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” representing the Ilankai Tamil Sangam, namely, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in USA.

[9] In late August 2009 Channel Four in UK broadcast a video purporting to show executions of Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan soldiers as filmed on mobile camera in January 2009, with the qualifying note that it was not authenticated. This video has been analyzed by experts and shown up as a concoction (Asian Tribune, 31 August 2009 and Neville de Silva’s article in Island, 14 Sept. 2009). In fact, one could say that Channel Four has tended to run a campaign marked by a pronounced animus against the Sri Lankan government. One of its journalists, Nick Paton Walsh, was deported from Sri Lanka around 10 May 2009 for filing a video and report on the IDP internment camps that was sullied by hearsay information about horrible conditions. On this issue, see Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in, 8 December 2009,

[10] Totten: “A conversation with Robert Kaplan,” 2 July 2009, archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.

[11] Though he is not named, this would be a reference to Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, killed on 8th January 2009. Note that 34 media personnel have been killed – and others intimidated – between 2004 and 2009, so this is serious issue and indeed an indictment of the governing order (see 090722 _jds_ journalists.shtml).

[12] This is an exaggeration. The Sunday Leader was, and remains, relatively independent. There are a few English-media newspapers as well as Tamil and Sinhala newspapers/magazines that have some independence, while there are a few vibrant cyber-net sites such as http://www.groundviews. org. All the print media, however, work within a highly intimidating backdrop that constrains comment; while encouraging many independent news channels to cater to Sinhalese – repeat “Sinhalese” not just Sinhala-Buddhist – prejudices. This threatening environment does require emphasis.

[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response. The second sentence does not follow from the first and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

[14] See Roberts, “Ideological and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” (2009, mss under journal review) and M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1994: 54, 71, 74, 78 and “Interview [by Ahilan Kadirgamar] with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),”

[15] Quoted by Shyam Tekwani, “The Man who destroyed Eelam,” ( home/20090523/default.asp. 2009, p. 10)




On Tuesday 20 October 2009 I received an unsolicited email pointing me towards a video clip in which an Islamic American lady named WAFA SULTAN takes on the Islamic world – full frontal so to speak — through Al Jazeera network. In doing so I included the email introduction which was part of the unsolicited message (see below).

A good friend, young and of sharp intellect, has indicated to me and others in our special cluster, that I have contributed to extremism by implicitly praising a form or reprehensible right-wing ideology with its own partialities, etc etc. SO, a process of re-education has been initiated for those on the fringes of certain debates. This is precisely what SACRIFICAL DEVOTION, VIRULENT POLITICS is about – note the second part of the title!!

Hence I enter the lively exchange initiated within our restricted circle within this open site so that others can join in. I thank Ajit for opening the subject up and others who joined in,

MICHAEL ROBERTS, in Adelaide, 21Oct. 09

An exraordinarily brave woman. Watch this quickly before it is taken off the WEBThis is amazing. WATCH THIS, BEFORE IT’S TAKEN OFF THE WEB =
It is extremely surprising that the Arab financed TV station in Dubai would allow this to air. Be sure and watch this, it is so powerful I have no doubt she now has a very large price on her head. I also have no doubt it won’t be on the net very long.
She is one impressive woman.
Here is a powerful and amazing statement on Al Jazeera television. The woman is Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American psychologist from Los Angeles . I would suggest watching it ASAP because I don’t know how long the link will be active. This film clip should be shown around the world repeatedly!

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Oct 20, 2009 at 8:39 PM

Dear Dr. Roberts,

I wonder if you email account has been hacked again, or if indeed you had intended to send out this link to this email group that you have kindly reconstituted, and with which you share many valuable links – and let me thank you for them. Your work continues to be very influential and provoking, and I look forward to reading more.

Just a brief however, to say in response – in case you do wish for this video clip to be circulate – Wafa Sultan’s clip has been widely circulated before, and I find it reprehensible in every way. Not only is her message saturated with racism and a portrayal of Islam that does not disguise its contempt, but it is factually untenable, and intellectually flimsy. Consider, for example, her ludicrous assertion in 4:43 of the clip “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.” This comment, and many such others that she makes, betray – apart from an absurd effacement of history – a fawning acceptance of American and Israeli rhetoric.

But I am even more puzzled at your introduction of this message, and the endorsement that it is a rare or threatened on the web. In fact, it is not – it is freely available on Youtube. Second, and more troubling, is your claim that she is “brave” or “powerful.” First, she was speaking in the US – not in the Middle East. Second, her power or bravery comes from a parroting a view that is disseminated by the most vociferous right-wing American and Israeli groups – even the most critical Israeli scholars would disagree with her. And her belligerence is the same belligerence as, say, Fox news, (and ironically, the same belligerence that she accuses “Muslims” of having) and so I certainly do not think that there is anything that we need to celebrate in Sultan’s so-called “bravery.” In fact, we should acknowledge how commonplace and vulgar her views are.

However, this argument against her, has been made before, and the larger arguments that she makes (for example, a zealous faith in reason, secularism and modernity) have been shown to be simply untenable by scholars such as Edward Said and Talal Asad. And, as these scholars show, more to the point, that adopting a critical stance towards her does not mean one supports the Taliban, for example. In fact, I would wonder if your own work does not, in a Sri Lankan context, strive to undo the kinds of things she says.

What I do want to draw attention to here, however, is to say in response, in this (semi)public forum, that I will certainly not be circulating this video, at least not with any triumphalist tenor; rather, I might attempt to do so with an acknowledgment of how racist, imperialist and xenophobic her views are. But, one only has to turn on the news here in the US to see just how unexceptional and hawkish her views are.

And in that sense, your endorsement of her views and the sense of urgency with which you ask us to consider it are a re-iteration of those hawkish and insular views; I wonder how comfortable you would be, then, in affixing your signature to this video clip.

With profound respect and best wishes,

SWATI PARASHAR Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 9:44 PM

Dear Ajit

I read your response with interest and feel sufficiently provoked to express my views here. To me what is striking is how easily you dismiss her views, without locating it or even bothering to engage with her politics. I would not be surprised if you had similar views about Tasleema Nasreen, Ayan Hirsi Ali or such like. Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith thats coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.

We have moved much beyond Talal and Said and much beyond teh political correctness you seem to espouse. Its not just about these women, who incidently happen to be Muslims, but about several brave others who critique their own regious and cultural experiences. I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same. I do not see why you think its less courageous for her to speak in America than in teh middle east. To me its not teh location, but what she speaks that is imp. incidently thats also a very narrow view of America where such expressions would not make her life any more comfortable.

It is interesting that you feel the need to dismiss her views as racist and intellectually flimsy, denying her the right to her experiences and her politics. Moreover, you feel the need to protect communities ( whatever here you imagine she is spekaing against), over individuals right to speak up against their experiences. I am hoping your critique is not just targetted at women, who show exceptional courage to speka against the norm and knowing fully well the consequences of their actions. i am sure you are familiar of Hirsi Ali’s and Tasleema’s experiences.

Incidently, what she is spekaing against is a religion that she was born into and the way she has interpreted/experienced it. I do not see what crime that maybe, given that most religions do include racist and mysoginist concepts that have evolved through years of practices that are based on exclusion and violence. As I said she incidently is a Muslim. I am assuming you would have similar opinion of others who express deep anguish and rage at belonging to groups nad communities where their individual rights are non existent. Nothing is infallible and beyond questioning. Not religions of all kinds who treat women like beasts than anything else. I feel the need to reiterate that practices within Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, have all extended similar treatment to women and thsoe perceived as ‘others’. The least we can offer as intellectual space is for individuals to express themselves.

There is far more to her politics than racism, imperialism and hawkishness that you attribute to her. There are some people in the world who have shown exceptional courage in speaking up against what they perceive as injustices nad unfair treatment. I wonder who we try to please by rejecting such individual expressions. It is only unfortunate that her views are appropriated by the ‘right wing’, but that still does not mean that her views dont matter at all.

It is time we dropped all guards and understood the need to critique communities and groups and their politics. It doenst do any good to parrot ‘religions’ mean well…..we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emrged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.

I am disppointed by your reaction. In nay case, I am sure people have seen this video before it was sent on this email list (intentionally or unintentionally)…There is a need to debate certain uncomfortable issues instead of seeking refuge in the likes of Said and Talal. there is a need to look beyond ideologies as fortresses that need to be defended. There is need to realise that people matter more than the discourse.

best wishes


BODHI DHANAPALA Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:33 AM

You say: “I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same.”
Could you give some details of Buddhists and substantiate your claim.

SWATI PARASHAR Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45 AM

for Bodhi D’pala
So is the debate only about proving a point? then maybe u could look around yourself….

How many Hindus have spoken against the caste atrocities, against radical/militant Hindu politics…?

Likewise, there are enough Sri Lankan Buddhists, who have expressed grave concerns on the way the Tamil community has been treated by the state and are opposed to the religious nationalism that the state has propounded, that has often excluded minorities.

Christians have done likewise against the Church dictats which restrict freedom of individuals esp women.

The critical discourse has always been part of any religion….and those speaking have never had it easy esp women….

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45
Dear Swati,
Thank you for your response; I have responded publicly on this forum once again, and I ask anyone not interested in this exchange to excuse this flurry of emails.
Swati, I am in disagreement in almost everything you say; not simply your political stances, but your theoretical claims as well – assuming that we can separate ‘politics’ from ‘theory.’ But I will somewhat artificially separate the two because I hope to pose a question that may leave this debate open, – and if people would like to comment, I invite them to do so, on this list serve or to please contact me to form a different email group.
So I will respond to one drift in your thought. You say, “Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith that’s coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.”
One of the clear drifts of your response, I think, is to pose the question of people or discourses ( a distinction that I do not draw here), and to suggest that people’s experiences give them a right to speak (out) against certain violence. But I very much disagree that personal biography authorizes someone to speak in a way that indemnifies their positions, nor that they have a privileged viewpoint to their politics. Not that I want to suggest that certain authors have not experienced unimaginable atrocity, but that experience does not automatically produce a politics that we should espouse. In fact, is not you who psychologizes Sultan’s position by claiming that her experience authorizes her to have a certain kind of politics? But how is that different from, let’s say, and Israeli position that suggests that “their experience” of the Holocaust authorizes them to have certain views, or that the American experience of 9/11, allows them to practice all kinds of violence in the name of that event? I do not want to deny that these events occurred, but we must certainly guard against the fact that the myriad political positions that flow from them should all have equal merit, or are all equally valid. In fact, if politics automatically flowed from experience, we could not begin the questioning of everything that you call for. If we must “engage with her politics” as you say, then we must in some way refuse to psychologize or biographize Sultan’s position and consider her ability and choice to mediate her struggle against fundamentalist Islam in a number of ways.
You also note that: “we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emerged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.”
I completely agree with this statement, but I would extend it to Sultan herself: militants, racists and rioters have emerged claiming their “experiences” or “victimhood” as legitimation for the politics they espouse. And I certainly do not claim to defend religion or prevent the critique of communities and groups and I did not express this view. I despise the abhorrent treatment of women in certain Islamic regimes, but it seems that Sultan’s view offers very little in a critique or position that would promote a more inclusive politics.
I have many other disagreements with your position, and I invite you to continue this discussion by writing to my email directly if you choose. At least let me note that, Sultan’s views such as “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people” are inexcusable and unjustifiable, at least not by an appeal to either a standard of intellectual rigor or a progressive or inclusive politics. And my intention to respond to Dr. Roberts’ email was to draw attention to this fact.
Thanks for your time and best wishes,

JEFFREY BALE Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 3:15 AM

I completely agree with your views, Swati.

BTW, Wafa Sultan periodically appears on al-Jazira, a news network that systematically peddles Arab nationalist and Islamist propaganda are adopts a virulently anti-Western stance, to challenge Islamist spokesmen. In the process, of course, she is subjected to incredible amounts of religious, political, and gender abuse. I would say that makes her courageous, though not as much so as Hirsan Ali, who had to have bodyguards assigned to protect her, merely for stating the obvious. The Islamist response to any criticism of Islam, no matter how legitimate, is to threaten to kill the critic, as one can document in numerous contexts. The fact that so many intellectuals not only try to appease them by advocating levels of “sensitivity” that are not granted to anyone else, especially in Western societies where all oxen are gored and everything sacred is (and should be) satirized, is itself the real scandal.

As for those who continue to worship that dishonest propagandist Said and his ilk, peddle other types of mindless political correctness, and slander everyone who disagrees with them as “imperialists” or “Islamophobes,” who really cares what they think about anything? The apologists for Islamism, like the apologists for communism and fascism, will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history. The sooner, the better. What we need is more George Orwells, not more Andre Gides.

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:45 AM
My last response:
It never ceases to amaze me how much ire scholars like Said and Asad (let us not talk about the likes of people like Foucault and Derrida!) evoke amongst the most gentle people; and I must assume that Jeffrey Bale is a kind and gentle soul, since he has evoked the most velvet passive-aggressive tones and allusions to belittle my comments. And since we are all here for a bit of fun, let me retort!
Let’s assume that Jeffrey Bale’s (I will refer to his proper name since I lack the tact he shows) comments have some merit; a far-fetched notion as that is. (Among the gems in his little email is his claim that Hirsan Ali is “more courageous” than Sultan simply because she needed bodyguards.) It is alarming, how the structure of his critiques and jabs parallel Wafa Sultan’s! I am a worshipper (of Said), in a religion which can be dismissed wholesale (“mindless political correctness”) as a backward, anti-modern ideology that goes against the grain of history (“consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history”). And he suggests, about the views of my fellow horde of zealots, “Who really cares what they think about anything?” What a lovely way of summing up American and Israel foreign policy attitudes towards the middle east over the last half century! Jeffrey Bale has certainly watched the video clip, I see, and is practicing Wafa Sultan-lite!
But since Jeffery Bale has made no reference to the two emails I shared (which claim no great merit on its own, they are quick dispatches) and showed no attempt to read, cite, argue, reason with anything like good faith with the people with who he is in dialogue (this email group in general, myself in particular – and for my disagreements with Swati, I thank her for the generosity she shows), I scarcely can believe that he has bothered to read “Said and his ilk” with any “sensitivity.” In fact, none of what he attributes to me is accurate. And though I am certainly not a huge fan of Said, I acknowledge the weight of his work (I am a bigger fan of Frenchies like Foucault and Derrida, and I say this to allow Jeffrey Bale to have a finer impression of me than he already does). Dear Jeffrey, did you know that Said in fact wrote quite a bit on both George Orwell and Andre Gide?
But since Jeffrey does not really care what my ilk thinks, I am afraid that I will loiter in the refuse of history. From here, we will all look up and forward to more to come from Jeffrey Bale. But I hope to find some comfort in the others I might find in the dustbin, for example Walter Benjamin, who often invoked that image to invoke the pathos of the wreckage of civilization (Edward Said and his ilk have written on this as well), and Jeffrey Bale may well want to look up this reference to note the profound irony that marks every comment of his own email.
from the Dustbin,
P.S. I will now refrain from further responses

GAUTAM GHOSH Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Hello All,

I am interested and invested in these debates. However I could not view this particular clip, either via the email below or by searching on youtube. Anyone else have this problem — and solve it?

From my — admittedly hasty — review of the debate thus far, and some basic info I’ve found on the Internet, my impression is her perspective is more problematic than promising. And the apparent approval she has garnered from people like David Horowitz and Glenn Beck doesn’t bode well.

But, again, I haven’t seen the clip and will appreciate being pointed to it.

Best wishes,


RIAZ HASSAN Wed. 21 Oct morning

Dear Michael,

Wafa Sultan is a vocal Syrian/American critic of Islam and you can find all her statements on the internet including the video you have circulated. She presents a personal view of Islam, Islamic world, Muslims and what is wrong with them. Sultan speaks for herself (and does so passionately) and those who share her views but not for all Muslims and even non Muslims as reflected in the ensuing exchanges following your postings of her video clip. I hope that for those who want to critique Islam, Islamism, Islamic regimes would, Muslims would consider going beyond applauding and identifying with criticisms of Ali, Tasleema and Sultan. There are a whole range of sources, critiques and commentaries which are easily accessible. I hope that in our haste to we don’t dump works of people like Said and Asad. The easy starting point for those interested will be the 2003 two part essay entitled “/Which Way to Mecca/’ by the late Clifford Geertz in the /New York Review of Books/, and then there are feminist NGOs like the/ Sharkat Gah/ in Lahore and scholars associated with them, books by Khaled Abou al Fadl (particularly ‘/Speaking in God’s Name’/ for gender issues and Islamic regimes), Hanifa Deen’s ‘/The Crescent and the Pen/’ on Taslema Nasreen and even my book /Inside Muslim Minds.


MICHAEL ROBERTS Wednesday morning, 21 Oct.Adelaide

The cross-reference to the WAFA SULTAN clip arrived unsolicited on Tuesday evening on via Lankan circuit with the “Preamble” penned by a Sri Lankan whom I did not know. I used ‘scissors and paste’ and sent the message on to our sacrificial devotion cluster.

I had never heard of Wafa Sultan or seen the clip before – which just goes to show that many in Australia and in Sri Lanka are not at the epicentre of worldly debate or power [while Guam and New Zealand seem beyond the cyber world of U Tubes to judge from Gautam’s and Douglas Farrer’s inability to view the clip].

Thus, impressed as I was by the forcefulness with which Wafa Sultan confronted the Islamic world in the heartland itself — insofar as Al Jazeeera is so located – I considered the ‘tale’ worthy of notice in our circle.

I am grateful to Ajit for bringing me up to speed and introducing me to a range of debates with which I have limited familiarity. I did note Wafa Sultan’s either//or approach to the subject – an attitude I do not share. Ajit’s comments notwithstanding, I think she is brave, as, indeed, indicated by the manner in which a mullah branded her a “heretic”.

I thank Ajit too for making me aware of the American context of debate and for opening up a fascinating, if contentious, terrain of discussion for consideration.

It will now be inserted on
which, incidentally, has VIRULENT POLTICS in its formal title.


Bodhi Dhanapala is not a member of our cluster and his intervention indicates considerable entreprenuership! Apropos of his query and its implicit political positioning, I note (A) that The present regime came to power on a campaign which explicitly lauded the 1956 political transformation and may even have contained references to its totemic emblem, Anagarika Dharmapala; and (B) that in the last 5-8 years there have been sporadic attacks on Pentecostal and Catholic churches.

I do not have figures on the latter phenomenon and would appreciate it if someone posts cross-reference or gives some basic empirical facts.

For those unfamiliar with Dharmapala (1864-1933) note the two articles in my anthology Confrontations. But what is more pertinent to this issue is the situation today and rohan Bastin’s article is hot press; see Rohan Bastin, “Sri Lankan Civil Society and its Fanatics,” Social Analysis, Spring 2009, vol. 53/1, pp. 123-40. His abstract runs thus: “The current moment, seen by some as an interregnum between societies of discipline and control, is marked by intense forms of religious fanaticism and iconoclasm that are striving to create new forms of the state. This is evident in the militancy and political engagement of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, who promote war against Tamil separatists as well as violent resistance to the proselytization identified with global civil society agencies that, due to the war and the 2004 tsunami disaster, have been active in the country. The article looks at this rising Buddhist militancy, which is associated with a political party that is linked to the more famous party known as the JVP. It argues that instead of resisting the formation of the new global civil society, the iconoclasm of this Buddhist political formation is facilitating its establishment.

If so disposed I encourage some of you to read Rohan’s article and initiate separate debate within the s/v/p web site.

MICHAEL Roberts, 25 Oct 09

On a different tack, I recommend a read of Mike Marqusee: If I am not myself, London: Verso, 2008. In this book “he reminds us … that Zionists and anti-Semites sg hare the same sinister, racialized concept of group identity. both in the eloquence of his writing and the deep humanism of his vision, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the spirits of Isaac Deutscher and Edward Said” (reviewer Mike Davis). Mike is an anti-zionist Jew, and an American in London who has written book on bob Dylan and on cricket. Indeed, I met him because of another cricket addict, Niggy Tiruchelvam.

Apart from content and thrust Mike presents his contentions in accessible language

SWATI PARASHAR Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks Riaz for drawing attention to the critiques. Much appreciated. However, the debate is also about who can speak for whom. If Ali, Sultan and Nasreen can be dismissed as expressing ‘personal opinion and as speaking for themselves, might not it apply to all of us? when can/and most importantly who can effectively be representing a group especially a religious/ethinic group is also worth paying attention to. Why should the experiences of these women not be speaking for/to other women and men. They have received considerable support too and that cannot be overlooked. I have been greatly troubled by these questions because my fundamental understanding and postion is that religions are patriarchal domains and it is not fair to dismiss criticisms of people (women) who live through different experiences. Does that mean that only certain people’s experiences can be validated? For example, whats so unusual and ‘personal’ about Nasreen claiming the horrifying treatment of minority women by Islamists in Bangladesh and why should these women’s lives be brutally threatened by the radical forces only because they argue that their  experiences reveal religions are oppressive and patriarchal ? Whats so unusual and personal about critiquing ones experiences of belonging to any community? I am thinking of Rajini Thiranagama too, who had the courage to speak against the LTTE. She also spoke against a community that she belonged to, didnt she and paid the price with her life.

I am raising these questions in order to argue that we should not also be hasty in dismissing these women, their locations and their politics. Religions should not be sacrosanct domains which are beyond common critique and dissent. Religions/practices and popular culture  are so intrinsic to our lives (I speak as a South Asian and specifically as an Indian) that it is important to allow ‘personal’ critiques and enagage with them. I am against the politics of silencing these women only because they speak in a language we are unwilling to understand or appreciate. My point is again, how do we decide whose critique is valid and representative?
Thanks to Michael for facilitating this debate.

Analytical Anthology


by B.Muralidhar Reddy

Amended and abbreviated version or article in Frontline, Vol. 26, No. 20, 26 Sept 2009

Michael Roberts’s latest book assembles thirteen of his recent academic essays on the cultural and ideological roots of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka. It includes a study of the pogrom against the Muslims in 1915 and a remarkably detailed analysis of the projects of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

The author‘s preface “Before Pirapāharan, after Pirapāharan” was written after the military decimation of the LTTE early this year, but all the other articles are the product of years of research. This journey, clearly, has been a labour of love. We now have some of the results before us so that they can be subject to critical scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, this book of 450 pages that include 35 striking photographs with mini-essays comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by hasty accounts penned by fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV.

The temporal focus encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity, modes of communication and the embodied practices of committed people provide some of the overlapping themes that straddle past and present.

Sinhala consciousness serves as a central theme within the collection, with particular attention to its modern form, namely, the currents of Sinhala nationalism from the British period onwards. The author’s readiness to depict some of these expressions as “chauvinist” provides a clue to his political positioning today.

The book clearly shows that the crisis which Sri Lanka faces today was born well before Prabākaran. The roots of Sinhala claims to hegemony go deep. If the chapter on Dharmapäla’s thinking and the “Marakkala Kolahālaya” in 1915 are not revelatory enough, that on the logic of association and conflations of time which inspired the Kandyan rulers of the 1810s to link the threat posed by the demonic white foreigners with that of the “sädi demalu” (vile & fierce Tamils) of Dutugämunu’s time is illuminating: it highlights the historical depth of sharp differentiation.

Attention to Sinhalese thinking is balanced, albeit unevenly, by some space devoted to Tamil nationalism in modern times. Roberts indicates that the first sustained exposition of Sri Lankan Tamils as a “nation” was presented by the Ceylon Communist Party in 1944. However, the book does not trace the history of this current and jumps to a consideration of specific threads informing the commitment of those who joined the LTTE.

Two essays elaborate on the religio-cultural roots of the martyr cult deployed by the LTTE in the course of the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This takes Roberts on a journey into the southern Indian heritages around the Cankam poetry and bhakti movement. These chapters also dwell upon a whole range of everyday practices of religious devotion oriented towards the negation of the self and the offering of votive gifts to powerful entities/goals. Renewal of self through fusion with a deity, it is argued, is conducive to martyrdom on behalf of one’s people and their cause.

Michael Roberts’s corpus of writings is substantial. They “straddle the fields of politics, history and culture;” while his disciplinary specialities are described as “cultural anthropology and historical sociology” (publisher). Few scholars on Sri Lanka can match his credentials, though his arguments on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’s works cannot be ignored.