Resurging Sinhala Buddhist Ethno Nationalism and Shrinking Space for Muslims in Sri Lanka

By Colombo Telegraph – After the Dambulla Mosque incident, Muslim organizations met with a few very senior Muslim lawyers to discuss possible legal action.

by Rajeesh CS and Ashwati C.K   17/3/2018



The systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, the periodic attacks on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh, recent but constant attacks on Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka, destruction of Christian churches in Pakistan make it prudent to infer a fact that religious and political right outfits are getting strengthened day by day in South Asia. The rise of the ultra-religious and political right groups in the disguise of majoritarian and communal nationalism have rattled and flustered the core democratic, federal and secular institutions in the region. Though secularism from its ideological base demands the separation of the public and political institution from religious ones, the recent developments in the South Asian region show that the people’s representatives and bureaucrats who have earned and delegated the mandate to govern are allowing democratic space to turn into the tyranny of the majority. The recent communal skirmishes and scuffles between two communities – Sinhalese and Muslims – in Sri Lanka should be viewed in the same lens which exactly reflects the injunction of majoritarian Sinhala Ethno Buddhist nationalism in statecraft and societal aspects.

The post-Tamil Elam war has been revealed the soft authoritarian nature of Sri Lankan government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The two major national parties started employing election plans and strategies precisely based on ethnic and political embedding. Why Soft— Some follows, strives and clamors to establish a political system in line with Sinhala Buddhist ideology. Some portray Muslims as a marginalised minority in Sri Lanka and ally with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. No doubt, it benefitted the Muslims communities at socio-economic, cultural and political levels but left the Sinhala right groups to re-think on Muslims unprecedented political prominence and economic advancement. Increasingly politicised nature of the Muslim community and the key roles that many of its political leaders held in government structures have frustrated extreme right-wing Buddhist groups. Today, majority Sinhalese are infuriated to see the quick political and economic betterment of the Muslims by arousing its identity consciousness. Ostensibly, the Sinhala chauvinist groups reflecting majoritarian schism questioned the recent socio-political transformations of Muslim minority as a consequence of their identity-driven demand for more autonomy profoundly encouraged by funding from Middle East Nations and support from Global Ummah. The constant religious and cultural pressure from right-wing Sinhala Buddhist groups-JHU, BBS, etc., made national political parties deviate from their constitutional and legal obligations to maintain an egalitarian society.

Evolution of Violence Against Muslim in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Muslim community is internally differentiated and scattered across the country, depending on the process by which it has been incorporated into Island society and the economy at various times. They are traditionally and regarding origin divided into Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors, Malays, Memons, and Bohras. Sri Lankan Moors are Muslims of mixed Arab origin living in the coastal cities whereas Indian Moors had migrated from South India and settled in different parts of the Island before imperialistic and colonial expansionism. Malays came to Ceylon due to relations between the Sinhalese and Malay ruling classes dating back to the ninth century. Bohras reached the Island as traders during colonial rule from Western India mainly Mumbai and Gujarat. The Memons trace their origin to the Hindu merchant community of Lohana in Sindh who were converted to Islam in 1423 and were given the name ‘Momin’ or ‘believer’ which later became Memon. Comprising 9,7% of the country’s population, they are geographically dispersed in different parts of the Island but conscious and assertive about their distinct identity.

The roots of persecution against the Muslim community could be traced back to the early colonial history of the Island nation since the sixteenth century. The arrival of Portuguese political and strategic maritime interests in Ceylon was coupled with the introduction of Roman Catholicism, and non-adherents to this faith were persecuted, coerced and faithful to Islam became the earliest victims. In the year 1643, many Muslims were butchered in Matara, mosques were set on fire, as many 4000 people were forced to flee for their lives. After Portuguese and Dutch, British administration tried to accommodate Muslim communities to counter powerful Sinhala Kingdoms. At the same time, during the last quarter of 19th century, there was sparking debate between Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Azeez over the identity of Muslims on religious and Tamil ethnic lines. The dawn of 20th century witnessed the first and foremost challenge to the Islamic symbolism associated with fez cap incident in 1905 when advocates belong to Muslim community were expostulated for donning the same in the courtroom. Tensions had intensified in the year 1915 when Sinhala Muslim riot broke out. The prima facie for the incitement of riot was found to be the prevention of the Buddhist procession’s passage through the Mosque, this catapulted Sinhalese-Muslim rivalry, and the dominant narrative was the one devised by Anagarika Dharmapala, cultural and nationalist face, who once asserted Muslims as Jews or aliens for expropriating wealth of Ceylon using Shylokian methods.

1915 riots were a decisive moment for the Muslim community in the Island nation. As a result, the representatives from the community found cooperating with the majority community, i.e., Sinhalese as prudent for their survival and sustenance of their economic activities. This move irritated the Tamils, particularly after Independence. The war between Sri Lankan state forces and LTTE in Independent post era brought in place questions on the loyalty of the Muslims in the Tamil dominated North-eastern Provinces. Mistrust and suspicion reached its zenith when LTTE orchestrated ethnic cleansing of Muslim community and forced displacement. In this political quagmire, state forces remained neutral to the human rights violations unleashed on Muslim populace in the province. The in-depth critical examination of facts and events, present an enigmatic narrative of the plight of Muslims in Sri Lanka that begins firstly with the 300 years of colonial persecution and the displacement of Muslims by LTTE forces secondly. The third covers the post-Tamil Elam war IV war to the current situation where Muslims of Sri Lanka are bearing the brunt violence through extremist groups claiming to restore island’s race superiority and civilizational might.

Anti Muslim Riots and Sinhala Buddhist Groups in Post Tamil Elam War Sri Lanka

Since Tamil Elam war IV, there have been further examples of such conflicts and violence between Sinhalese and Muslims. In the most recent cases, the motivation appears to be more explicitly religious. It has become more clear that Buddhist nationalists exemplify their Buddhist identities by targeting Muslim communities after 2009 on the belief that Muslim religion is marginalizing Buddhism in places where Muslims are demographically dominated. An attack on a mosque in Dambulla in north-central Sri Lanka on 20 April 2012 turbulated the scenario. Around 2000 Buddhist marched to the mosque and held a demonstration demanding mosque demolition. In March 2013, a mob of protesters attacked a clothing warehouse in Pepiliyana in Colombo, merely because it was owned by Muslim traders. In August 2013, another mosque was attacked in the Grandpass district. It compelled the Muslim community to relocate mosque to another location. In the very next year, 2014, violence broke out in Welipitiya, leaving three dead.

In February 2018, several incidents of violence occurred in Ampara and Kandy regions of Sri Lanka. In Ampara, the violent attacks against Muslim community unleashed due to suspicion about particles found in the meals given to Sinhalese by a Muslim chef in a restaurant. The particles were clumps of wheat flour. Later the rumor about the particles of wheat flour was spread through Facebook that the sterilizing chemicals were added to the meals. In retaliation, Buddhist monks declared a cultural war on Muslims which ended with attacking a mosque and looting the properties including Muslim-business establishments. In the same month, another communal scuffle erupted in Kandy which was the result of Kumarasiri’s, A Sinhala man, death after a violent encounter with a group of Muslims over a traffic dispute. Consequent to the death of Sinhalese man, a well-organized mob led by Buddhists monks with their supporters had beaten the members of the Muslim community and had destroyed the Muslim-own properties, houses, and places of worship in Teldeniya-Digana area.

These cases confirm that there is increasing violence against Muslim minorities throughout Sri Lanka today. It is also clear that such violence against Muslims has sharply increased since the end of the civil war. The following sections examine some of the rhetoric of Buddhist nationalist groups that directly or indirectly encourage this conflict. It is relevant to understand the reasons why these groups choose to target Muslim communities and why they believe Muslims represent a threat to the Sinhala Buddhist order that has influenced and allegedly continues to dominate, the country.

The Sinhala Buddhist Radical Groups and the Muslims

Post 9/11 scenario and Tamil Elam war situations in Sri Lanka present a unique feature where theological and temporal attributes are often linked within the political discourse, where questions on religion and politics dichotomy are challenged by antagonistic political groups. Such narratives could not prevent the mushrooming of right-wing extremist religious organizations with its self-portrayal as vanguards of majoritarian culture, their interactions with other numerically weak minorities are characterized by intolerance to latter’s cultural norms, the objective is to revive the colonial constructions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

So as in Sri Lanka, majoritarian chauvinistic groups like Sinhala Urumaya, Sinhala Ravaya, Bodu Bala Sena, Jathika Hela Urumaya, Mahason Balakaya, Ravana Balaya are devised and designed with intolerance towards minorities. These organizations have clear antecedents and move on a mission to revive and rebuild Buddhism in Sri Lanka. These organizations are operating at the heart of grassroots anti-Muslim politics. They share objectives founded as a way to defend Buddhism against perceived non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala threats. The extensive use of social media as a tool for disseminating the views of these Buddhist nationalist groups also speaks to the increasing importance of technology in modern Sri Lankan politics. They are deeply concerned with ensuring that Buddhism continues to remain the dominant religion of Sri Lanka. Sinhala Ravaya’s mission statement describes their objective as: ‘Let it never happen that the Sinhala and Buddhist nation be swept from the Earth because of foreign and domestic plots.’ Like Sinhala Ravaya, BBS also believes that Buddhism must be defended against non-Buddhist threats. The objectives page of their website is quite explicit in this regard, and it stands to establish a Buddhist society; to produce a fearless monastic heritage; the protection and building of Buddhist businesses and entrepreneurship; to guard Buddhist archaeological sites; and to step up, protect and face the challenges against Buddhism.

But in the light of the recent communally and economically motivated attacks on the Muslim community and their businesses in Pepiliyana and Maradona, these remarks take on a much more sinister tone. BBS’ privileging of Buddhism at the expense of other religions is, however, intimated by other evidence such as oppose pluralist co-existence, when it simply states ‘a Buddhist society’ as the ideal. This does not envisage the establishment of a harmonious society where Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists can live together, but simply the establishment of Buddhist society. BBS have objected to the construction of a mosque on a Buddhist site in Kuragala and have vowed to have it torn down. They claim that Buddhist rock caves in the area are being destroyed by Muslims. The argument behind these claims is that Muslims are taking over the country and are now establishing mosques and other religious sites with the intention of displacing Buddhists from those areas. It is therefore claimed to hat the presence of these Muslim sites represents a threat to the stability of Buddhism throughout the country.

Buddhist Sinhala Cultural Hegemony and Shrinking Spaces for Muslims in Sri Lanka

The inclination of Sri Lankan state to ethnocentrism in the post-civil war period has paved the way for Buddhist right-wing groups to have access to dismantle the peace through the imposition of religious and cultural dictums. The recent developments show that the Island was plunged into the degeneration of secular credentials of the country. A coterie of communally charged political, cultural groups has questioned the very sustainability of religions other than Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The killing of animals using Halal techniques led Buddhist nationalists to challenge Islam. It is argued that halal is unkind and non-Buddhist. Amongst Sinhala Buddhists, cattle are especially respected, and many pious Buddhists refuse to consume cow flesh. Importantly, it also involved the defense of Buddhism against outside colonial forces. It is likely that the halal abolitionist movement is motivated by Anagarika Dharmapala’s views about cow slaughter as he is considered one of the first Sinhalese to effectively resist British rule. Cultural groups like Safe Buddhism, Sinha Handa, Bokkaetc., are critical of Islam because it encourages food businesses to acquire halal certification. Historically, Anagarika Dharmapala was instrumental in developing this movement, a major precursor to modern Buddhist nationalism too. As far as halal abolitionism is concerned, it is important to note that the movement is not simply a peaceful animal welfare movement. The underlying motives are ethnic and religious. In this instance, animal welfarism is just a vehicle for attacking Muslim practices and businesses. It is in this light that we should understand the wider anti-Muslim movement, a movement that appeals to general Buddhist principles that on the surface seem reasonable, but in reality, are used as a device to target and marginalize Muslim communities.

The Buddhist groups are also tried to spread false information about the presence of Ahl-e-Hadith movement in the Island and its relations with Sri Lankan Muslims. Ahl-e Hadith, meaning the people of hadith, is an Islam religious movement and regards the Quran, Sunnah, and hadith as the sole sources of religious authority and oppose everything introduced in Islam after the earliest times. In particular, they reject taqlid-following legal precedent- and favor ijtihad-independent legal reasoning- based on the scriptures. In recent years, it has expanded its presence in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan and has drawn financial support from Saudi Arabia. But in the case of Sri Lanka, there was no such movement or organization reported yet. Still, Sinhala inclined outfits urge the people to keep a suspicious eye on All Ceylone Jamaiyuthul Ulama, All Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Tabliq Jamate, Jamat-e-Islami, etc., on the Island.

There were some reports in the Sri Lankan media of Muslim militancy and the existence of an ‘Osama Front’ and ‘Jihadis,’ but such reports have not been adequately substantiated. At the same time, Buddhist organizations have been very critical about the wide range of networking and propagation activities undertaken Muslim organizations which include education with religious content and informal groups which are active in promoting the Islamic way of life. They look at the Muslim dress codes especially skullcaps for men and the veil for women as symbols of religious fanaticism and have been pressurizing the Sri Lankan government to enhance vigil on organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami and Tabligh Jamaat.

Its a fact that the growing influence of Wahabi Islam among Sri Lankan Muslims at the cost of Sufi Islam and the proliferation of mosques built with money from Saudi Arabia have resulted in the Muslims being seen as “not one of us,” but as “the other.” They are also seen as having strong connections with powerful and wealthy Islamic countries, which can one day enslave the Sinhalese. Indeed, the influence of Wahabi Islam has eroded the traditional cultural links between Muslims and other religious communities. In the past, Sri Lankan Muslim traders and artisans had specific roles to play in Buddhist religious festivities, but these began to be frowned upon by Wahabi purists backed by new Saudi-funded Islamic institutions. Therefore, Sinhalese came to view Muslims as the Jews of Sri Lanka and influential pursuers of self-interest. They portrayed the arrival of Wahabism in Islam widened the gulf by creating a cultural and social divide. So, the Muslims became the quintessential “other.”

The end of the Tamil Elam War IV in 2009 eventuated the beginning of illiberal democracy and soft authoritarianism in Sri Lanka. Constitutionally and legally a democratic and secular state now intrigues and connives for the establishment of a state based on demographically majoritarian Sinhalatva projects. Today, after nine years of the ethnic annihilation of Tamil militants, the Sri Lankan state identified a new Other as a new threat – Muslims. The evolution of Muslim community from just ‘eating biriyani and voting UNP’ status to a political queen maker status has left Sinhala Buddhist groups with a plethora of questions. The Muslim appeasement policies of two major political parties, unequal distribution of states resources, rising unemployment among Sinhala youths, unprecedented growth of Muslims’ political and cultural space, etc., have been pressurizing the Sinhala Buddhist groups to identify Muslims as a new potential threat. At the same time, the linkages of some Muslim communities in Sri Lanka with Global Ummah, unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia and Middle East nations, the presence of Ahl-e Hadith Movement and Rohingya refugees, Halal certification issues, etc., put the Sri Lankan Muslims at the receiving end of Islamophobic rhetoric. The constant violence on Muslims from Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organizations is driven by a belief that the Muslim community represents a threat to Buddhism.

However, unlike the Tamils in the northeast and the Sinhalese in the south, Muslims in Sri Lanka have never resorted to armed rebellion to assert their political position. They remained outside the fore of militant politics, though their identity consciousness and formations have grown in the midst of violent confrontations between two communities, Sinhalese, and Tamils. The dispersed nature of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka encouraged them to live near the Tamils in the northeast and the Sinhalese in the south. They have been integrated and accommodative with all other sections of the Island since its inception. So, the recent communal attacks on Muslim houses and the business shop could be viewed as an extension of extreme right Buddhist groups intolerance towards minorities in the Island. Such constant and continuous attacks on minorities from time to time driven by Sinhala ethnic Buddhist nationalist instincts by projecting Muslims as internal and external threats made the political expert to brand the Sri Lankan state as control, illiberal and ethnocentric democracy. Eventually, no doubt, this Island nation soon will stand to contribute a unique example to soft authoritarianism.

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