By V.Sivayogalingam –
State institutions in post-colonial Sri Lanka has been working within the general institutional framework of parliamentary democracy, yet this process took the character of an ethnic majoritarian democracy. The latter evolved in a context of the rise of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism – the ideology which contained a political vision of using the state institutions to serve the interests of the majority Sinhalese community. Through this ideology, the state policies were specifically served the Sinhalese language, Buddhist religion and the Sinhalese-Buddhist culture.
The defeat of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and the regain of the LTTE controlled areas in the North-Eastern parts of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan army in the name of war against terrorism and the war for the unification of Sri Lankan territory have, in number of ways, paved way for the re-emergence of Buddhist ethno-religious hegemony and sentiments in Sri Lanka. Number of incidents has been justifying the exercise and dominance of majoritarian hegemony which really targeting minority communities and their religious, linguistic and cultural distinctiveness and identity. One of the minority groups which severely affected by these hegemonic politics is the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
Muslims of Sri Lanka is the second larger minority community, comprise 8 percent of the total population are living along the territory of Sri Lanka, but scattered. They have a history of 2500 years in Sri Lanka where they have been living with majority communities in the country peacefully and maintained a harmonious relationship in every aspects of life. The history has recorded a number of incidents that the Muslim community has contributed in number of ways to unity, peace, social harmony and the national and territorial integration of Sri Lanka. However, unfortunately, during most of the nationalistic hegemonic periods, the Muslim were targeted and vehemently victimized by the nationalist groups. The major incident against Muslim community has recorded in the history was the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 which labeled the Muslims as exploitative foreign trading community similar to how Jews have been viewed in Europe. During the post-independent period also, numbers of incidents against Muslims were printed. An occurrence of a riot of the same nature as that of 1915 was the violence in 1975 when some Muslims were killed in Puttalam mosque due to a misconception that the Muslims were an economically privileged group and which fact fired the major motivation for anti-Muslim hatred. Likewise, there has been an unprecedented level of violent attacks, demonstrations and hate speeches targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim population, mainly perpetrated by Buddhist-fascist fundamentalist groups. Those events have left the Muslims feeling afraid and vulnerable. The situation has become worse after the defeat of the LTTE in 2009.
End of civil war in Sri Lanka has been marked by state-sponsored Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, the weakening of democratic institutions and rule of law, the constriction of civil and political rights. As how the Tamils were been targeted, the Muslim community’s personal values- religion, culture, identity, dressing, personal law were mainly targeted by the Buddhist nationalistic groups. The attack on a mosque in Dambulla of April 2012 by a mob led by extremist Buddhist monks has reignited concern about targeted violence against Muslim religious minorities in Sri Lanka.
In addition to attacks on places of religious worship, there are calls to boycott Muslim shops and establishments, all of which is increasing tensions, particularly in areas where Muslims and Sinhalese are live close to each other. The incidents against Muslims are widespread across the country and have picked up momentum during the last few months. The recent attack on the store of Fashion Bug, one of the big chain of textiles owned by a Muslim merchant shows that the attackers are not only giving threats to the Muslims but also they are ready to use violence over them and their properties. One of the major victories of the Sinhalese nationalistic hegemonic agenda was the lifting the Halal certificate by printing of ‘Halal’ Symbol, as an standard of product like, ISO to the product of iteneries of daily use. ‘Halal’ is a Muslim practice since sixth century A.D. It is an Arab term used to mean ‘acceptable’ according to the Islamic religious fundamental’. It is a must for all Muslims to consume Halal items in eating and other purpose of their daily activities. When many merchant companies wanted Halal certificate to sell and export their product to Muslim customers and to Muslim countries, government of Sri Lanka allowed the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the accepted authority concerning religious affairs of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka, to evaluate and issue the halal certificates. However, by propagating as injustice practice which impose non-Muslims to buy Halal food and other items, these Buddhist nationalistic hegemonic groups, especially, the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ (Buddhist Power Force) staged number of anti-Halal and anti-Muslims programs and finally were able to remove Halal certificate from printing in the product. These incidents were mainly looked at by democrats and moderates as one of the violations of Muslims fundamental and religious rights. Thereafter, the agitators are being claiming that they are going to work hard on removing number of their personal and cultural practices of Muslims namely, the Muslim personal laws, special dress code etc. It is a major challenge for the Muslim community living outside to North-East where the Sinhalese are living predominantly, to exercise their distinct religious and cultural practices and living with fear of unwanted and unexpected treats.
Muslims in North-East, particularly in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka where they formed a considerable majority say that statues of the Buddha and Buddhist shrines are appearing in places where previously they did not exist. In both the north and the east, it is common that, wherever a Bo tree is found, a Buddhist shrine is erected. It noted a “sharp uptick” in religiously-motivated violence and said the authorities are “passively and sometimes actively” condoning extremist Buddhist groups, such as the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ and the Hela Urumaya are the main groups behind the targeting of Muslims.
During these anti-Muslim sentiments and violence, the Sri Lanka government’s failure to take decisive action to protect religious minorities from threats and violence is undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy and pave the way for another ethnic violence against Muslim which may create another possible violent conflict in Sri Lanka’s near future.
*Dr. V.Sivayogalingam, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya,