By: Irfan Husain
A CURIOUS story in a local English daily caught my eye the other day. It seemed the Sri Lanka Muslim Council had given in to demands that meat could be sold without halal certification. This is a huge success for radical Buddhist groups who have been orchestrating an anti-Muslim campaign for the last few years.
Mosques have been attacked, prayers disrupted, and Muslims in general accused of being anti-state. The Muslim Tamil National Alliance has written to the Secretary General of the United Nations, asking him for protection, and protesting against this nasty campaign.
Leading the anti-Muslim charge is a group called the Bodu Bela Sena, or Buddhist Force. Headed by ultra-nationalistic monks, the group follows a xenophobic agenda of “Sri Lanka for the Buddhists”. Of late, Buddhist monks have begun playing a growing and retrogressive role in the island’s politics.
The monks first flexed their muscles to shore up the Rajapakse government’s resolve to crush the Tamil insurgency. First, they blocked any possibility of compromise by offering the Tamil Tigers greater autonomy. To build up pressure, they formed a political party and won enough seats to take a place in the coalition government.
Then, when President Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya, was facing difficulties in finding enough recruits for the army, a group of monks fanned out across the Buddhist areas to motivate thousands of young men. These recruits were assured that they would not lose karma by fighting and killing in a war as they would be doing so in the cause of Buddhism.
The brutal civil war ended nearly four years ago in a bloodbath that is now the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism from abroad. The ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Commission at Geneva is about to vote on a resolution initiated by the US, demanding an international investigation into the fate of tens of thousands of Tamils said to be killed in the last days of the fighting in the north of the island.
Against this backdrop, it is odd that the government is doing so little to clamp down on the anti-Muslim campaign. Should it gain support and traction, the results could be very bad news. Muslims are mostly concentrated in three areas: in and around Galle and Colombo, and in the coastal areas of the north-east. The latter are mostly poor fishermen, while urban Muslims are heavily represented in business and the professions.
According to unofficial reports, the 2011 census indicates that Muslims form around 10 per cent of the total population of 21.4 million. This is a substantial increase from the 7.6 pc in the last census. One reason the new census figures have not been officially released is said to be the disquiet the increase in the number of Muslims might cause among the majority.
Already, Muslims in the north have been subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Tigers in the early nineties. Thousands were driven southward from their homes and farms in the mostly Tamil north. After the war ended, and they tried to reclaim their property, they were subjected to great hostility by Sinhalese farmers who had grabbed much of the land. Most of the displaced Muslims have settled around Colombo, and their children consider the capital their home.
One factor that is probably driving the anti-Muslim campaign is envy. Urban Muslims have fared relatively well over the years, and have cornered the lucrative gemstone market. Others have gone into real estate and construction. Many have made a name for themselves in the legal profession. And while a few have gone into politics, they recognise that they can never hope to rise to the top. By and large, they have kept a low profile.
A number of Muslim families in Galle and Matra pride themselves on their descent from Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka centuries ago. Others have come from the Indian coast. There is a small and wealthy Bohra community in Colombo. Many northern Muslims descended from Malays who settled along the coast.
Thus, Sri Lankan Muslims represent an ethnic mix who have helped in creating prosperity and diversity. So far, at least, they have got along well with their neighbours. However, despite centuries of living together, integration has been slow. Like most minorities, Muslims tend to stick together, maintaining their dress code and diet. Women usually wear some form of hijab, and many Muslim men wear beards and skull caps.
Even liberal Sinhalese accuse Muslims of not keeping their streets clean, and generally staying aloof from the mainstream.
Inter-marriage between Muslims and Sinhalese are limited to the elites. But everybody acknowledges their hard work and sound business ethics.
The civil war and the way it ended has exploded the myth of the peaceful Buddhists. There is thus a genuine concern over the ongoing anti-Muslim campaign: observers recognise the potential for a vicious pogrom should the government not step in.
However, the ugly reality is that the Buddhist majority are a far larger vote bank than the Muslims.
Many are puzzled by how and why anti-Muslim feelings have spread so quickly. After all, after the end of the civil war in 2009, it had been widely assumed that the restoration of peace would heal the ethnic wounds opened during decades of conflict. Sadly, the government has made little effort to reach out to a defeated and demoralised Tamil community.
One theory is that the triumphant Sinhalese fringe elements on the extreme right need a fresh target for their xenophobia. Some in the business community are eyeing the assets of their successful Muslim competitors. Politicians are seeking to tap into the strong sense of Buddhist identity that was pumped up during the last stages of the war. The recent execution of a young Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia on flimsy charges provided more ammunition to the extremists.
None of this is good news for the peaceful and prosperous Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Hopefully, the government will check the vicious propaganda doing the rounds and prevent an explosion.