Sri Lankan Muslims: the new ‘others’?
23 April 2018
The history and politics of Muslimphobia in Sri Lanka.
A few days after Kandy District in central Sri Lanka experienced a spate of violent incidents targeting Muslims, resulting in deaths, injury and destruction of property, the country’s election commissioner made a startling observation. “The claim that a majority of Sinhalese were against the recent attacks on Muslims is wrong,” Mahinda Deshapriya said at a workshop on ethnic harmony; “Most Sinhalese are happy about the riots.” He then drew a parallel between this and the majoritarian reaction to Black July: “A majority of Sinhalese were happy to see the Tamils too being attacked in 1983, only to regret it a few years later.” He also spoke of an increasingly visible trend towards cultural insularity on the part of some Lankan Muslims, arguing that this was worsening the problem of communal distrust.
In the absence of credible opinion polling, it is not possible to make a scientific evaluation of Mr. Deshapriya’s claim. The only available yardsticks are what happened and didn’t happen when mobs started roaming freely, attacking and burning Muslim-owned shops, homes and mosques. When the violence was finally brought under control, including through the imposition of a national emergency, curfew and deployment of forces, at least two persons had been killed and 465 houses, business establishments and vehicles were destroyed or damaged by the violence according to official estimates.
What happened in response, was, in the main, silence and inaction, denoting indifference, approbation or a combination thereof. The government was caught napping. Even when a curfew was imposed, it was not enforced.
Only a few politicians and public figures condemned the violence outright; unequivocal statements from non-Muslim religious leaders were even rarer. Most of those who spoke preferred to hide behind the myth of a Sinhala-Muslim clash, even though what happened was an attack on Muslims by Sinhalese with the connivance of members of the elite paramilitary unit, the Special Task Force of the Sri Lankan police.
What didn’t happen was a public outpouring of anger against the violence, or sympathy for the victims. What didn’t happen was an informed discussion or debate about the riots in the media and other public spaces. What didn’t happen was a societal effort to help the victims. The army undertook to rebuild the destroyed properties, but there were no offers of assistance from the larger society.
True, a couple of Buddhist monks condemned the violence and appealed for sanity while the fires were still burning. Several smaller Buddhist temples in Kandy offered sanctuary to Muslims. In the provincial town of Anamaduwa, when a Muslim eatery was fire-bombed, the town’s Sinhala Traders Association rebuilt it within 24 hours. The exceptions are uplifting, but they are exceptions. And the paucity of such positive responses conveys a depressing message – the safety of Muslims depends on the attitude of the Sinhalese. Where Sinhalese are benevolent, as in Anamaduwa, Muslims are safer; where Sinhalese are angry or indifferent, as in Kandy, Muslims are not safe.
Sri Lanka’s Constitution guarantees Muslims the same rights as Sinhalese, but how these rights translate into practice is dependent on the mindset of the majority community. Muslims, if they want to enjoy their constitutional rights, must not act in a way which makes Sinhalese ‘feel threatened’. Going by the gist of anti-Muslim campaigns of the past, this can mean anything, from birth rates to halal food, from the attire of some Muslim women to the success of some Muslim businesses. The responsibility for the presence or absence of violence is thus transferred from perpetrators to victims: if Muslims want to be safe, they must take care not to provoke the Sinhalese; if they do and violence ensues, they asked for it.
The fact that the anti-Muslim sentiment has little to do with the growing insularity of a small section of the minority community (Muslims comprise 9.7 percent of the population), is evidenced by the lack of wider support for social reforms. During the last three years, liberal and progressive Muslims have been trying to change their communities from within, the struggle to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act being an excellent case in point. The Act discriminates against women and girls and permits such atrocities as child marriage within the Muslim community. If the real problem Sinhalese have with Muslims is their insularity, then there should have been more widespread support for these progressive reforms. Sinhalese should have joined progressive and liberal Muslims in pressurising the government to expedite changes. That hasn’t happened. Muslim activists struggling for reforms (most of them women) have had to contend with governmental indifference and the wrath of their own fundamentalists, with hardly any support from Sinhala society.
During the anti-Tamil mob violence of 1983, now known as Black July, the predominant Sinhala response was that it was an understandable reaction to Tamil armed separatism in general, and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelum) attack on the Four-Four Bravo army patrol, which killed 13 soldiers in particular. A history of Tamil invasions from India in centuries past was also used as justification. Reprehensible as that false causality is, Lankan Muslims are not demanding a separate state. There’s no armed Muslim militancy. The two communities have historically lived in peace, with a few exceptions such as the 1915 riots. The Muslim community sided with the Sinhala majority and the Lankan state during the long Eelam War, especially after the forced eviction of Muslims from the North by the LTTE. Nor are Muslims trying to convert Buddhists, a charge that is usually levelled against religious minorities.
So where did the fear and the hate come from? Was it born naturally or engineered artificially? It is easy to blame power-hungry politicians for sowing racial/religious hatred, but the truth is more complicated. There seem to be enough ordinary Sinhala-Buddhists out there who are on the lookout for enemies. Facts don’t interest them, slogans suffice. As a result there is always a ready-made audience for ethno-religious fear-mongering.
But why the focus on Muslims? Why have they become the new Tamils? Is it because the Tamils are too beaten down to amount to a serious threat?
Civilisational angst and the search for enemies
The first post-independence attempts at depicting Muslims as an existential threat to Sinhala- Buddhists began in the late 1990’s. It’s architect was Gangodawila Soma Thero, a Buddhist monk who was a hugely popular preacher. By this time, the riots of 1915 constituted a footnote in history rather than a living memory. If Muslimphobia existed in the collective psyche of the Sinhalese, it was too marginal to be a political factor.
But Soma Thero succeeded in creating a wave of anti-Muslim hysteria, and rendering it acceptable to middle and upper echelons of Sinhala society. He convinced educated middle-class Sinhalese (many of them professionals) that Muslims were a greater threat to Sinhalese than even the LTTE. He preached about a Muslim plan to overtake Sinhalese demographically. Others joined in, especially the then secretary and current leader of the JHU (National Heritage Party then going by the name of Sinhala Urumaya) Champaka Ranawaka. Ranawaka who claimed that Muslims were trying to carve out a separate state in the Eastern Province called Nasiristan. That first round of anti-Muslim hysteria led to an outburst of anti-Muslim violence in the town of Mawanella in 2001.
Soma Thero’s Muslim baiting came to an end abruptly when he was deemed the loser in a TV debate with M H M Ashraff, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslims Congress. In the widely watched debate, Ashraff debunked the accusations against Muslims one by one; he also displayed his superior knowledge of Buddhist scriptures. Soon after this debacle, Soma Thero abandoned Muslimphobia and moved on, with seamless ease, to Christianophobia. His followers followed suit en masse and with hardly a question.
So Muslims were allowed to recede into the background and Christians became Sinhala-Buddhism’s new ‘enemy.’ They were accused of trying to turn Sri Lanka into a Christian country through mass conversions. Statistics were bandied, maps produced and a Western conspiracy was alleged. Churches were attacked and a draconian anti-conversion bill placed on the political agenda. When Soma Thero died suddenly during a trip to Russia, fundamentalist Christians were blamed for killing him. The outcry was such that the government was forced to appoint a commission to study the matter (the monk had travelled to St. Petersburg in December without any winter gear and died of exposure).
Once the Fourth Eelam War began in earnest in 2006, the anti-Christian wave receded as suddenly as it began. Once again Sinhala animus and suspicion became focused on Tamils. In 2006 there were two attacks targeting Tamil civilian : in the eastern city of Trincomalee in April and in the southern city of Galle in October. The government looked the other way until compelled by the Indian government’s pressure to impose order.
Following the 2009 victory over the LTTE, attacks on Christian churches resumed in May 2009. Unlike during the previous occasions, this time only evangelical churches were targeted. Days after the war ended, security forces raided the office of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka in Colombo. Since the raid was not linked to any further action, it seems that its purpose was to terrorise. An attack on a church in the suburban town of Kelaniya was personally led by a government minister closely identified with the ruling family. As attacks on evangelical churches intensified, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith issued a statement blaming the victimised evangelicals of trying to convert Buddhists and Catholics. He was moved to protest only when a statue of the Virgin Mary, built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of a Catholic church in the provincial town of Avissawella, was burnt in late January 2013.
The first reported attack on Muslims, post-victory, took place in September 2011, when a mob demolished a small mosque in Anuradhapura. This was decried by the government. Other than a few incidents, there was no special targeting of Muslims during this period, not even by the BBS (Bodu Bala Sena – Buddhist Power Force) whose members have more recently been held responsible for instigating anti-Muslim violence. When the BBS held its first public convention in Colombo in 2012, none of its five demands were aimed at Muslims exclusively.
The depiction of Muslims as the new enemy commenced in February 2013. The BBS held a mass rally in the suburban town of Maharagama and unveiled a national campaign against the labelling of food as halal. Until then few Buddhists had been bothered about the labelling; overnight, it became a matter of utmost importance to Sinhala-Buddhism. Around the same time, Muslim shop owners in two provincial towns claimed that they were sent letters demanding their shops be closed.
The freedom accorded to the BBS and its fellow travellers indicated that they had the blessings of the Rajapaksa family. This connection became public when Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the powerful younger brother of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, attended a BBS function. He praised the monks for engaging in a “nationally important task”, and insisted that they should not be feared or doubted by anyone.
Less than a month after this Rajapaksa endorsement, the suburban branch of Fashion Bug, a clothing chain owned by Muslims was burnt by a mob. About a fortnight before that attack, the BBS accused the owners of Fashion Bug of conspiring to turn Sinhala-Buddhist girls into harem-inmates. The charge and the subsequent attack centred around the claim of an employee of the shop that he had an affair with the 15 year old girl from a neighbouring house, a claim disputed by the girl’s father who lodged a complaint of rape with the police.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, President Mahinda Rajapaksa repeated the same lie to explain or justify anti-minority attacks (he also reduced the age of the alleged victim from 15 to 7 years): “There were incidents. There were attacks; some incidents. What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion. The people when they heard about it they were so upset, relations everybody. There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that.” In 2014, the aftermath of the anti-Muslim riot in Aluthgama, President Rajapaksa railed not at the rioters but at those who protested against the riot.
The Rajapaksas regarded anti-minority phobia as a way of gaining and maintaining Sinhala-Buddhist support in the context of a worsening economic crisis. But their ploy didn’t work. The Rajapaksas lost both the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015, partly because a segment of the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate shifted to the opposition. The reasons for this crucial shift included economic hardships and anger at blatant corruption and nepotism. If the rise of the Rajapaksas indicated the political potency of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, their unexpected electoral fall highlighted the limits of that strategy.
Ancient myths and modern politics
In April 2012, a mob attacked a mosque in the heritage city of Dambulla. In 2013, as anti-Muslim hysteria was reaching its zenith, distinguished pedagogue Jezima Ismail recalled an incident which was both a personal memory and a shared minority experience: “Some years ago at a lecture session at the BMICH [the Bandaranaike Conference Hall, a venue for conferences] a professor waxed eloquent on the feelings he had for Sri Lanka and that this was the only place for him. In the course of this talk he turned round to me and said that if anything untoward happened I could of course seek refuge in Saudi or the Middle East.”
Juxtapose the two incidents and a clear picture emerges. Minorities are essentially outsiders, irrespective of how long they have been here. Sinhala-Buddhists are the sole owners of the country; minorities are not co-owners but guests, here on sufferance without inalienable rights, notwithstanding what the Constitution might proclaim.
The ideological underpinning for this host and guest concept is provided by the Mahawamsa, the 6th-century chronicle written by a Buddhist monk. The Mahawamsa claims that the Buddha, on his deathbed, proclaimed Lanka the Buddhist Holy-Land: “In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect…Lanka.” The Mahawamsa, unlike the Buddha’s teachings of non-violence, claims that it is no sin to kill an unbeliever in the furtherance of Buddhism. It is from these ancient myths of a chosen people and a sinless war that the modern Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists fashion their version of ‘the clash of civilisations.’ In this rendition, pioneered by Anagarika Dharmapala (whose anti-minority diatribes played a role in the 1915 riots) ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ Lanka is forever threatened by ‘Christian, Islamic and Hindu worlds’. Minorities are inherently suspect as they can be the agents of these inimical external forces. Since geographical displacement is not possible, the only solution is to confine minorities to their ‘rightful’ place politically. This should be done legislatively and peacefully, if possible, and violently, if necessary, the logic goes.
One of the main entities behind the Kandy violence is an organisation called the Mahason Balakaya (Demon Force). In its propaganda videos on YouTube, the organisation’s leader (who was arrested for his role in the violence) uses the ancient Mahawamsa myths as justification for his brand of incendiary politics. Since these myths are taught in schools as historical and sacred facts, rants against this or that encroaching minority can always find enough receptive ears in Sinhala society.
The current political conjuncture is characterised by growing economic hardships, a government unwilling to stand up to extremists, and an opposition ready to use anti-minority hysteria to regain power. If these three conditions remain unchanged, the March 2018 anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy will be the beginning of a new cycle of violence and possibly counter-violence. In Sri Lanka, the past is once again set to defeat the future.
~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo.