By Michael Roberts –
Because of such incidents as the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015 and the recent assaults in Paris in November 2015 those living in Western countries today are only too aware of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists. A tiny minority from within a specific strand of Islam known as Salafi has etched its fundamentalism within world consciousness.
Ironically, but in fact meaningfully, the term “fundamentalism” took root in the English language from its Christian expressions in USA from the 1920s. Such religious inspirations should not blind us to the existence of many forms of fundamentalist extremism, including those of a radical liberal kind. This is a tendentious claim.
It is for this reason, its tendentious character, that I pen this essay. The radical liberal strands of fundamentalism in the modern world are secular in leaning and constitute a fascinating field of study. My focus here is on a range of well-meaning enterprises: those marching forth to cleanse the world of “evil” in the form of carbon pollution, and smoke inhalation for instance; and those pursuing – selectively in most instances — paedophiles, war criminals and sexual predators (e. g. Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby).
I read these currents of exposure and judicial trial as a form of secular fundamentalism. Currents of self-righteous moralism and a black-and-white epistemology motivate and thread the work of the accusers, hunters and media reporters at the leading edge of such efforts. Their projects can often be worthy. Having seen the film version of a true story in Spotlight, which details how a team of journalists from the Boston Globe uncovered the systematic paedophile activities of frocked elements in the Catholic Church, activities that were then covered up in ways that meant a re-cycling of the miscreant priests, it is far from my intention to discard such endeavours wholesale.
However, my interest is in unpacking the motivating spirit of righteousness and its wider implications – including excess and blindness arising, as it seems to me, from that spirit itself.
For this reason, my opening illustration is a gambit extracted from a surprising arena — a gambit drawn from the cricket field, one arising from Australian umpire Ross Emerson’s recent resuscitation of the tale surrounding his no-balling of the star Sri Lankan bowler Muralitharan on 23rd January 1998. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this moment let me stress that the story begins in 26thDecember 1995 when Muralitharan was first called for “throwing the ball” by Darrell Hair at the MCGin Melbourne.
Righteous Fundamentalism in the Field of Cricket
Emerson’s recent return (2016) to the public limelight has been through the good offices of a sports reporter named Simon King and includes explicit charges of racist prejudice towards the White cricketing nations on the part of the Black and Brown nations acting in cohort. Not surprisingly, there is a suggestion of White prejudice inscribed within Emerson’s outpourings – prejudice of the type that underpinned the Christian forms of fundamentalism in those localities in USA where the very concept “fundamentalism” originated.
But that is to digress. What I wish to stress is the force of righteousness directing and empowering those Australians in the cricket world who decided to no-ball Muralitharan as a beachhead in their campaign to clean cricket of those throwing the ball, that is “chucking” in disparaging Aussie parlance. The actions taken by Darrell Hair, Ross Emerson, Tony McQuillan and their backers behind the scenes from 1995-98 were not primarily directed by White racism. They were concerned about the number of suspect bowling actions figuring in the cricket world, with many (e.g. Warnaweera, Dharmasena, Muralithran) happening to be from the Asian scene.
Since Australia was the kingpin in international cricket circles in the early 1990s, this coterie of Aussies took upon themselves the task of cleansing the green fields of cricket. In their earnest view, the evil of “chucking” had to be exorcised. They were determined to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and sustain cricket in its pure form. That they chose to target Sri Lanka’s best bowler was, perhaps, no accident; but it was a secondary dimension within a righteous fundamentalist operation.
The no-balling of Muralitharan by Darrell Hair at the MCG on the 26th December 1995 was a pre-planned act to which several influential figures in the Australian Cricket Board were privy. Hair even broke with convention by executing this damning act from the unusual position of head-umpire.
I was watching the match at the MCG that day and immediately explored the ideological circumstances leading to this intervention, a cause celebre if ever there was one. On returning to Adelaide I penned an essay in some anger on the 1st January 1996. It was entitled “Fundamentalism in Cricket: Crucifying Muralitharan.” Appearing initially in a Sri Lankan newspaper, this article is available in print in Roberts & James, Crosscurrents. Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket, Sydney, Walla Walla Press, 1998, pp. 124-25.
That article attends to the ambiguities in the law on “throwing,” but attaches the greatest weight to Muralitharan’s peculiar anatomy in order to reach this conclusion: “Hair [and his backers] … have not attended to Muralitharan’s unique anatomy: a plasticine wrist and a 32 per cent deficiency at the elbow. Their epistemology is based on either/or assumptions: every phenomenon is either black or white; there are no grey areas…. The Book reigns.” Today, in the light of subsequent developments in the cricket world in regard to bowling actions, I reiterate this assessment, but place even greater weight on the righteous desire on the part of these scheming Australians to eradicate what they considered to be a blight on cricket.
Human Rights Fundamentalism
A similar tendency towards excess has characterized the campaigns of the moral crusaders directing the liberal/radical human rights agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their watch-dog interventions during the last stages of Eelam War IV. The readings of the Sri Lankan situation in the West were informed in part by the assessment of the causes for the Sinhala-Tamil divide that was particularly influenced by the outrageous pogrom directed against Tamils in July 1983. Thus, the liberal/radical currents of thinking in the West saw the Sri Lankan Tamils as victims of Sinhala chauvinism. This was an oversimplified part-truth that continued to sway thinking in the 2000s despite changed circumtances.
This partiality dominated evaluations of Eelam War IV in the West despite the definitive evidence (for instance: Hoole 2001, Padraig Colman 2016) that Pirapaharan and the LTTE were a fascist regime and despite the LTTE’s repeated use of a ceasefire as a platform for refreshing itself before reviving its singular goal: namely, an independent state of Eelam (Thamilīlam).
There is good reason to surmise that USA and its allies were displeased by the extent to which the Sri Lankan government under Mahinda Rajapaksa leaned on China for loans and military gear from the year 2007 onwards. This hostility was deepened when the dirty underground war that is integral to most warring contexts saw elements in GSL resorting to the killing and abduction of local journalists, with the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge in early January 2009 causing the greatest furore (Kurululasuriya 2013 & Roberts 2009).
Needless to say, the killing of Wickramatunga incensed journalists in many parts of the world and the Western media machines in particular, while consolidating the jaundiced evaluation of the Sinhala-dominated Rajapaksa regime already reposing in liberal/radical circles in the West – circles that embraced Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch as well as the International Crisis Group and the Greens Party in Australia.
The Wickramatunga killing occurred when Eelam War IV had reached a climactic moment and the LTTE war machine was in a bad way in early 2009 – having lost control of the arterial road A9 and been forced to abandon its administrative capital at Kilinochchi. Here, we must backtrack several months in order to gain some understanding of the evolving battle theatre and the LTTE’s grand strategy in defence – a strategy that included a highly effective propaganda campaign directed at winning over forces in the West.
By late 2007 the LTTE had lost its rogue warehouse ships due to the enterprise of the SL Navy in the preceding year. So its means of replenishing munitions and weaponry was limited. This was further restricted in early 2008 when the Sri Lankan Army began a slow march forward along the western coast of the island that curtailed the LTTE’s supply chain from India. At this point, circa March-April 2008, the Tiger leadership encouraged the local population to move eastwards ahead of the slowly advancing GSL forces, while deploying bunds, ditches and mines to defend their territory and/or slow down the SL Army which outmanned and outgunned them.
Thus, in mid-2008 the Tiger high command developed a grand propaganda strategy: they presented a picture of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” – namely, mass civilian deaths. As the Tiger political leader Pulidevan told European friends: “just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” (Harrison 2012: 63). In other words, the Tamil citizens encased within their declining battle theatre served as a raison d’etre and bargaining tool for Western interventions that would keep the LTTE state afloat.
This spectre of a “calamity” was not a fiction. But it was a situation, a context, which the LTTE had engineered. Thus, from mid-2008 the geo-political parametres of the war were of Tamil Tiger making. The people, in fact, were more than “human shields” or sandbags set up by the LTTE. In the context of declining terrain in their hands, the mass of people was a central defensive formation and a potential lifeline.
The LTTE propaganda machinery abroad was extensive and now had the support of many Tamils who were not necessarily Tiger supporters, but were deeply agitated by the fate that could befall friends and relatives trapped in the declining space of LTTE territory. The LTTE command in Lanka deployed the medical doctors and Tamil functionaries in INGO and NGO agencies working among the Tamil people to circulate reports of increasing deaths, injuries and malnutrition among the three lakhs of people that the LTTE had corralled within their declining territory. These reports, crafted by the LTTE, were part-truth, part-exaggeration and part wholesale fabrication.
This reportage was massively and widely effective — providing grist for the picture of “impending catastrophe.” The impact of Western media coverage was sharpened by the partialities of key media personnel. Marie Colvin, the intrepid American war reporter attached to The Times of London, was nothing less than a Tiger voice. She had been injured on 16th April 2001 when returning to government controlled territory after slipping into Thamilīlam and securing a journalistic coup through interviews with the Tiger political commissars. She peddled some lies on that occasion about the circumstances of her injury (Roberts, “Truth Journalism,” 2014). Now, in 2009, she regurgitated the tales conveyed by TamilNet or calls from her friends in LTTE territory as ‘definitive’ news items to an audience which may conceivably have believed that she was reporting from the front. In Colombo Ravi Nessman, the Bureau Chief for Associated Press, was driven by considerable animus towards the GSL. He also seems to have interacted closely with the Media Officer attached to the UN, one Gordon Weiss. In early May 2009 Weiss went on air in an Associated Press report to arouse alarm bells about the “bloodbath” that was on the cards in the coastal stub remaining under LTTE control. 
In sum, while some facets of the Sri Lankan government’s bad press in the West were of the government’s own making, the Tiger and Sri Lankan Tamil campaign was overwhelming in its force and success. This does not mean that its claims were valid, either in whole or in all of its parts. The dubious and fake dimensions of the Channel 4 ‘documentaries’ constitute one arena for serious questioning, but that knotty issue is not my focus here. My interest is in the manner in which self-righteous and seemingly ethical organisations have consistently by-passed empirical data and arguments that undermine several of their conclusions. Such prima facie evidence of blatant dishonesty should normally result in their denunciations being disqualified – in cricketing terms their specific acts of ‘bowling’ should be debarred as “wide,” “no-ball” or “throw.” This has not occurred. Such an outcome highlights inequalities of power in the media world as well as the world’s institutional configurations.
Nevertheless, let me conclude with a picture of this potential Achilles heel.
An Achilles Heel? Empirical Distortions and Outright Blindness
The UN in Sri Lanka had set up a “Crisis Operations Group” and one can assume that Gordon Weiss was a key figure in this work. This team “estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count.” Then, after the fighting ended on the 19th May, the various aid agencies in Sri Lanka acted in concert to make a rough count of the wounded civilians in camps and hospitals in late June: a “preliminary calculation [showed] 15,000-20,000 wounded civilians, including roughly 200 children with amputatiions” (Weiss, The Cage, 2011, pp. 320-21). This was an important initiative.
It is a universal outcome among armies at war that their wounded outnumber the dead, sometimes resting at seven wounded to one dead, but varying according to circumstances. A comparative studies of casualty ratios in wars from 1940 to 1988 in the British Medical Journal in 1999 showed that the “number of people wounded is at least twice the number killed and may be 13 times as high” depending on the conflict type, weapons used and other factors (Mango 2013). At the Gallipoli Peninsula in 2015/16, however, 8,709 Australians were killed (KIA) and 19,441 were wounded (WIA). So the ratio of Australian wounded to dead was 2.23.
The Tamil people and Tiger personnel were locked within a restricted space-cum-battle-theatre in the north eastern corner of Lanka that was not unlike the compacted Gallipoli Peninsula between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles. The compilation of the numbers with wounds in May-June 2009 by aid agencies therefore suggests that the death toll of Tamils (including some Tigers as well as civilian conscripts in the category “belligerents”) would have been around 9,000-10,000. This figure is in step with the guesswork computation of 10-15,000 dead for both Tigers and civilians together that has been provided by the grounded reasoning of Narendran Rajasingham. The computations of Citizen Silva, however, are higher: reckoning that as many as 18,000 civilians died from crossfire, shellfire and Tiger killings of people escaping (IDAG 2013). The latter figure does not sit comfortably alongside the compilations of the aid agencies in mid-2009 because it amounts to one/one ratio for KIA/WIA if we deploy the aid-agency figures for wounded.
Gordon Weiss in the meanwhile seems to have completely forgotten the aid-agency computation. Having resigned from the UN and returned to his native Australia, he hit the limelight in media and human rights circles. He commented on Sri Lankan affairs on TV for ABC on occasions, starred in launches of The Cage (2011a) and had a speaking spot at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. His representation of the Sri Lankan war as the island’s “Srebenica Moment,” needless to say, was a sensational news headline (2011b).
Weiss was also recruited to a team of five by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney in 2013/1114 to draw up a report on the Sri Lankan war, with the other four members being John Ralston, Professor Paola Gaeta, Professor William Schabas and Col. (Retired) Desmond Travers.This committee’s report appeared in February 2014 as Island of Impunity? Investigation into International Crimes in the Final Stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War and served as the foundation for a hard-hitting condemnation of the Sri Lankan government in a Senate speechby Christine Milne, Leader of the Australian Greens. In tune with the report, Milne took the moral high ground.
However, two of her condemnatory claims were wholly fictitious and others carried some exaggeration. I have indicated these errors elsewhere, while birching Milne for “a blatant neglect of context” in her summary analysis of the events (Roberts 2016). What calls for emphasis here are two outstanding facts that Milne and PIAC team conveniently dowplayed: namely, (A) that the SL Armed Services operations in the five months of 2009 enabled some 295,000 civilians and Tigers (deserters and captives) to survive; and (B) the computation for injured civilians and Tigers worked out by aid agencies in Lanka and recorded by Weiss himself (stressed above).
The erasure of the latter is particularly astounding because of its occurrence in Australia. The Gallipoli campaign is etched in stone in the Australian firmament. The high casualty figures at Gallipoli and the fact that the wounded outnumbered the dead by two to one would also be widely known. So, one can raise more than an eyebrow in asking how this cohort of intellectuals bypassed the implications of the Gallipoli lessons of war for the death toll statistics on Sri Lanka they borrowed from the slipshod work of the UN Panel of Experts.
When a body of intelligent people pursuing an ethical course with fervour indulge in such blunders one is confronted with a puzzle.
One’s resolution of this puzzle must necessarily be conjecture. We are dealing here with people of righteousness in powerful positions in the international firmament. That is why I commenced this analysis with the tale of Aussie men of power setting out in the mid-1990s to cleanse the world of cricket by erasing “chuckers” from the game. A sense of ethical rectitude blinded Simpson, Merriman, Hair, Emerson and company in 1995-98: they could not see that premeditated umpiring decisions prompted from committee rooms in conspiratorial manner were quite contrary to cricketing ethics and match-rules. In their righteous certitude from a position of power in the international cricket circuit, Muralitharan had to be thrown out to protect cricket from the evil of chucking.
Likewise, then, the human rights advocates of PIAC joined their brethren abroad in condemning the Sri Lankan government – with some secondary attention to the LTTE. They adopted dual roles as prosecuting agencies and judicial courts – a procedure that is quite opposed to natural justice and built on a conflict of interest. They stood figuratively on Mount Sinai in biblical vestments, quite blind to the empirical data and contextual circumstances that demand amendments in their evaluations. Like, but yet unlike, the religious fanatics of today, secular fundamentalists, it seems, can dictate and denounce in a one-eyed manner. There are none so blind as people of fervour who see only one horizon.
Dr. Michael Roberts blog –
Published in Colombo Telegraph on 19th February 2016 and in Dr. Michael Roberts blog on 5th April 2019.