Christopher Columbus and Islam
By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
Epigraph: Despite the narrative handed down by generations of historians, “Columbus’s life simply cannot be understood without taking Islam into account” (Mikhail, p. 90).
What follows is taken from God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World by Alan Mikhail, Professor and chair of the Department of History at Yale University. Page reference is to this (Faber, 2020) publication. Professor Mikhail’s subject is the Ottoman Empire and Salem, (1470-1520), “the ruler of the world’s largest empire, sultan and caliph, God’s shadow on earth” (p. 353); grandson of Mehmet 11 who took Byzantine Constantinople in 1453, thereby sending shock waves through the Christian West. However, my focus here is on Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), born in the same year as his patroness, Queen Isabella of Spain, both of whom saw themselves as Matamoros, “slayers of Moors”, with “Moors” standing for all Muslims.
“Whether politicians, pundits and traditional historians like it or not, the world we inhabit is very much an Ottoman one” (p. 12) – I may add: If not directly, then indirectly. The word “Ottoman” is traced back to Osman (died 1320s) who led a loosely bound tribal group. “Every sultan down to the twentieth century” was a blood descendant of Osman (p. 6). Until it expanded into Muslim countries, the Ottoman Empire ruled more non-Muslims than Muslims. One factor leading to their success was that they were pluralistic, allowing minority entities maximum freedom possible: an accommodation particularly extended to Jews and Christians. Thessaloniki under the Ottomans was the largest Jewish city in the world (p. 166). The Ottoman political thinking was of a circle composed of four equally important parts: There’s no power without an army; no army without payment; no payment without prosperity; no prosperity without justice and good administration.
Alan Mikhail points out that Columbus lived at a time when the greatest menace to the Roman Catholic West was thought to be Islam, a greater danger than that posed by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Reformation. Luther argued that it was the moral depravity of Pope Leo X that enabled Islam to spread round the world (p. 371). He attacked the sale of indulgences whereby one could literally buy forgiveness and win God’s blessings – not only for oneself but for the dead: as the friar Johann Tetzel pithily expressed it, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (p. 375). Money, not goodness, purchased entry to heaven. An example of the indirect influence of Muslims is that the ‘sale of indulgences’ originated from Christian priests guaranteeing, in advance, absolution from all sin to Crusaders in the event that they died while fighting for the liberation of Jerusalem (p. 375).
For Luther, Christians themselves, and not Muslims, were Christianity’s true problem, and the way was not to fight the Muslims but to struggle against Christianity’s own sins (p. 377). One is reminded of Islam’s Jihad or the saying of the Buddha: Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself. Better to conquer yourself than others. When you’ve trained yourself, living in constant self-control, nothing can turn that triumph back into defeat. And Jesus admonishes that we must first ‘heal’ ourselves (figuratively) before setting out to ‘heal’ others (Luke, 4:16.) Obsessed with the war against Muslims, the destruction of Luther was postponed: ironically, the safety of the Protestant Reformation depended upon the strength of the Turkish armies (p. 373).
Returning to Columbus, the First Crusade against Muslims set out in 1096, to be followed by others: Columbus, we remind ourselves, was born in 1451. Growing up in Genoa, the boy Columbus would run to the docks to wave off men departing for Jerusalem. In short, Columbus grew up “steeped” in the rhetoric of the Crusades. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed as a sailor. Years later, he took part in the siege of Granada which Mohammad X11, the last Muslim ruler of Spain, surrendered on 2 January 1492. Legend has it that when Mohammad turned to take a last look at his beloved city (exquisite even today) his mother said: Yes, weep like a woman over a city you failed to defend as a man. About six months later (3 August, 1492), supported by Isabella, Columbus set sail on his voyage, perhaps the most momentous in human history.
“As every schoolchild learns, Columbus set sail with India on his mind’s horizon. Rarely, though, do schoolchildren learn why Columbus sought to cross the Atlantic” (p. 386). A common, if vague, explanation is that he was a Renaissance man, fired by the spirit of inquiry and adventure: disinterested (as distinct from uninterested) and secular. But Columbus sailed “imbued with a zeal for waging Christianity’s war against its foremost enemy – Islam” (p. 2). His was not some “secular Western march of progress”: Columbus sailed West on Crusade (p. 124). In order to capture Jerusalem (part of the destruction of Islam), he headed West, bypassing the Ottomans altogether (p. 102).
Columbus believed, like many others, that there was a Grand Khan in the East, who was a Christian. The Ottomans controlled the Mediterranean but if by sailing west, this Khan could be contacted and his help enlisted, then Jerusalem and Islam could be attacked from both sides. Columbus also believed in the existence of the Seven Cities of Cibola and their “vast repository of gold that could fund the holy army needed to retake Jerusalem”. According to this belief, when the Muslims first seized Spain in 711, seven bishops and their followers escaped and built on an island seven cities fashioned entirely of gold (p. 95). This island was thought to be somewhere in the West, and the failure to find it, rather than destroying the fantasy, “only served to fuel hopes even more” (p. 96). Columbus set sail determined to find it and, with that wealth, fight Islam.
His obsession with Muslims led Columbus to identify Taino weapons as “alfanjes”, derived from Arabic for “a curved metal scimitar inscribed with Qur’anic verses” (p. 131) – even though the Taino had no iron and knew nothing about the Qur’an! (The Taíno were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean, inhabitng what are now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Island. By 1550, they were close to extinction.) The scarves of a group of indigenous women were compared to Moorish sashes, and offered as evidence of contact between “Asia” and Spain. Decades later, Herman Cortes wrote that the Aztecs wore Moorish (Muslim) robes, and that Aztec females resembled Muslim women (p. 131). Crusader Columbus spent his final years compiling a book about a Spanish messianic figure, one who would defeat Islam and convert the whole world to Christianity (p.138).
Muslim power led to other entirely unintended consequences. As a result of Columbus’s discovery, 90% of the native population died: never before in world history has genocide occurred on such a scale (p. 163). Then there was the appalling cruelty of the slave trade. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull giving Portugal the right to enslave Muslims: “the first legal basis for the European enslavement of Africans” (p. 108). North and West Africa was Muslim, so slaves abducted from this region were Muslim. “Muslims led the first ever revolt against European slavery in the Americas” (p. 153). America was founded on violence, expropriation and genocide. As for the present, Professor Mikhail points out that, since “9/11”, white nationalists, most of whom are Christian, have unleashed far more terrorist violence in the USA than Muslims. It’s the USA which has invaded Muslim countries, and not the other way round: see pages 394 and 395.
In short, Professor Mikhail claims that “If we do not place Islam at the centre of our grasp of world history” (p. 12), we will “miss major features of our shared past”. The popular narrative about Columbus doesn’t mention Islam at all. In contrast, Alan Mikhail argues it had everything to do with that religion and its followers. His book offers a challenging perspective, and adds to our awareness.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
South Korean airline bans emergency seats after plane door opens
Heat Index at Caution level in Northern, North-Central, North-western and Eastern provinces and Monaragala and Hambanthota districts
GCE Ordinary Level examination commences on Monday (29)
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
#Sundayisland Sunday Island- 31 January- Headlines
Features5 days ago
Jerome Fernando and his profane gimmicks
Features7 days ago
Will the IMF fail in Sri Lanka?
Opinion7 days ago
Are we the most gullible on earth?
Business6 days ago
Daraz ‘revolutionises’ the workplace experience
Sports7 days ago
Malinga on Pathirana: ‘I somehow want to make this guy even better than me’
Features6 days ago
Gender and sexuality in the classroom
Opinion5 days ago
Pastor Jerome Saga: Buddhist perspective
News4 days ago
Gold smuggling govt. MP walks free after paying Rs 7.4 mn fine