29 October, 2020

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The Rise Of Red-Robed Islamophobia In Sri Lanka

By Lewis Garland –

Lewis Garland

A year ago this week, on 20 April 2012, a 2,000-strong mob led by Buddhists monks stormed a mosque in Dambulla, central Sri Lanka, during Friday Prayers. They damaged both the building and property within it, including religious artefacts and texts. The Mosque had already been fire-bombed the previous evening. The mob claimed that the Mosque was situated within a sacred Buddhist area and had been constructed illegally. The reality was that the Mosque, a small, corrugated iron structure reachable only via a narrow path, barely visible from the street, had been used by the local Muslim community for over half a century without question or incident.

I was living in Sri Lanka at the time and after visiting the site of the Mosque a few days after the event, I began to follow the repercussions of the incident. What I found most shocking was that these attacks seemed to occur not only with absolute impunity but with at least some degree of official support. These attacks were committed in the presence of the police and yet no action was taken to apprehend the culprits. Moreover, two days after the incident, an order came from the Prime Minister for the Mosque to be demolished.

One year on, such instances, coupled with muted official responses, have long stopped being shocking and have become an insidious norm. Anti-Muslim fervour is now rife among the majority Sinhalese population, stirred and fed by the firebrand propaganda of extremist Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – The Buddhist Strength Force.

Since the Dambulla incident, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community have been subjected to repeated attacks, including rotten meat being thrown into mosques during prayers, mosques being tagged with obscene graffiti, death threats, arson and Muslim-owned businesses being vandalized by marauding mobs. These attacks briefly reached international attention in March 2013 after footage emerged of a monk hurling stones at a Muslim-owned clothes shop in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, in full view of the police and media.

These attacks have been driven by a series of high-profile hate campaigns targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and their practices. As Javid Yusuf, founding  Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims in Sri Lanka explained to me, the BBS have manufactured ‘distrust of the Muslims among Sinhala Buddhists by spreading untruths, half truths and lies among the populace’. These have included advocating a ban on both Hijab and Halal meat certification and campaigns encouraging the Sinhalese community to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses (based on claims ranging from the false: that shop-owners have been concertedly converting  their female Buddhist employees to Islam, to the nonsensical: that  shop-owners were giving free miscarriage-inducing sweets to their Sinhalese customers).

The BBS has frequently advocated vigilantism and in one rally which boasted a crowd of over 10,000, the organization’s secretary, Gnanasara Thero, called on followers to become ‘an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism’.

In the midst of this ever escalating Islamophobic sentiment, the Sri Lankan government, whilst not officially patronising the BBS and its associated Sinhala-Nationalist mobs, has shown few signs of disowning the group or taking any serious action against it. The police have been shown, time and time again, standing by as stone-throwing mobs attack Muslims and Muslim property. On the few occasions in which arrests have been publically called for, the accusations have been dropped prior to any arrests taking place. Moreover, the government has bowed to pressure over the Halal issue resulting in an effective ban on Halal certification.

Perhaps more worrying is the increasing evidence linking the BBS with those inhabiting the highest echelons of power. On 9 March 2013 the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS was officially opened by Defence Secretary (and brother to the President) Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the ominous words: ‘The venerable monks always came forward to protect our country, race, religion and culture.

The extent of the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in whipping up Islamophobic sentiment remains unclear. However, what is clear is that the government is acutely aware that supporters of the BBS make up a core element of its primarily Sinhalese-Nationalist support base and as a result is willing to pander to the group’s increasingly repugnant demands.

What is also clear is that these venomous attacks on the Muslim community have opened new wounds in a country still riven by deep inter-communal divisions and distrust after 27 years of civil war. In Javid Yusef’s words, there is now a ‘fear psychosis among the Muslims… relations between the [Sinhalese and Muslim] communities have been dented to such an extent that a great deal of work has to be done to repair the damage.’

Lewis Garland is freelance journalist and social justice activist. He has written on a range of issues including the rights of asylum seekers and returnees and post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He previously worked for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka. This article is first appeared in New Internationalist Blogs.

Twitter @lewisgarland 

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    The author has summarised the recent Islamo’phobics actions in Sri Lanka beautifully. We do have a few minorities specially Muslims have chosen to bury their head in the desert sand wishing this BBS menace will go away in time, rather than taking affirmative action through diplomatic means.

    • 0
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      To justify the existence of a large military and its Commander, the Muslims are being provoked. It is well known that the Muslims can be provoked easily by attacking their beliefs.

      Unfortunately for them, Muslims are patient in this instance.

      Like the Buddhists believe in Karma, Muslims too, believe in retribution.

      One cannot escape natural justice – even their children and the grandchildren have to pay !

  • 0
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    can the author also mentions the things Muslims are doing… without painting a picture of lily white muslims…

    • 0
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      Sri Lankan Muslims did not try to divide the country nor did they ask for any autonomy !

      They happiliy covered themselves like ‘goni billas’ and went about doing their own thing :)

    • 0
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      So that bothers you eh? Your comment only reflects your own insecuries and hatred for the Muslims, like your other comments. Has the writer stated anywhere that the Muslims are perfect? Or has he written about the current situation referring to every incident accurately? Did the Dambulla incident happen? Has he written untruths? Have the Muslims retaliated in violent ways? Do answer all questions.
      You sound like a sore loser and seem unhappy that the writer has written facts that we are already aware of.

    • 0
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      Like what, Shiva. Pray in their mosques so that they can be gunned down by Tamil Hindu Terrorists! Always looking for a scapegoat among Muslims, for other people’s crime. It’s an old game.

    • 0
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      CAN YOU PLEASE TELL WHAT THE MUSLIMS ARE DOING.MUSLIMS HAVE LIVED
      PEACEFULLY WITH ALL COMMUNITIES..YOUR GROUSE IS THAT THE MUSLIMS DID NOT JOIN THE TAMILS IN MAKING DEMANDS AND NOT SIDING WITH THE TAMILS IN THE WAR. EVEN NOW MUSLIMS ARE EXERCISING RESTRAINT AND PATIENCE WHILE BEING CONTINUOUSLY PROVOKED.

    • 0
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      Shiva

      Why don’t you tell us what the Muslims did to your (Sinhala-Buddhist) people?

  • 0
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    You are right Shiva. Presentations should be balanced. this is the type ICES Colombo had been employing. ‘Eka walle pol’.

  • 0
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    We need to stop the Islamisation of Lanka.
    That means no more mosques, no more Islamic schools, no more imams… Not all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorists are Muslims.’ Free speech or hate speech? ‘I don’t create hate.
    I want to be honest. I don’t hate people.
    I don’t hate Muslims.
    I hate their book and their ideology.’ – Geert Wilders

    • 0
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      @ One,
      I don’t blame you because you don’t have any basic knowledge or understanding of this world now and before 19 century. Basically, you just follow anti muslims websites and western media who fool the world since 19cent. start from today to read the Quran with quotations if you find a faults in there just write your comments unless following the corrupted media. Use the brain think logically…….i don’t wanna hurt you, but i don’t want any sri lankan to be fooled anymore.
      Good Luck.

    • 0
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      A former member of the anti-Islamist Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ party and personal friend of his, has declared his conversion to Islam.

      Arnoud van Doorn was a member of Wilders’ right-wing Freedom Party until the end of 2011.

      He said that he had made a fresh start by announcing his decision to the world and taking his Shahadah [Testimony of Faith] on his Twitter

    • 0
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      One – How do you propose to shut free thinking people to deprive them of choosing an ideology they seem fit to practice. A strong believer cannot be converted by any means. Faith is so sacred that one does not have to reveal it publicly. Only a weak belief system and or a weak believer could be manipulated, forced and would consider to leave his/her faith and sort refuge in another. No Legislation would prevent the heart to seek the truth and to practice it. It all boils down to the tenets of each faith. The practice of ones faith should be left alone to choose as one pleases and the rest should learn to respect that choice. Low self esteem, insecurity, jealousy is a recipe for disaster.

      The Law of Nature defines, the fear of survival turning into an obsession to survive by destructive means is a quickest way to extinction of a species.

      Hatred towards the word of God either will destroy one or guide them to the truth.

      On the Day when every soul will find itself confronted with all that it hath done of good and all that it hath done of evil (every soul) will long that there might be a mighty space of distance between it and that (evil). Allah biddeth you beware of Him. And Allah is Full of Pity for (His) bondmen. (The Noble Quran 3:30)

    • 0
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      You are quoting a well known bigot and islamaphobe. It seems his much condemned propaganda has found a place in your prejudiced mind. Anyone should be ashamed to quote a hate speech from a hate monger who is notorious for promoting violence against another religion. You expect such nonsense from ignorant and uneducated mobs.

    • 0
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      It is the Suppression and terrorising others that create other terrorists.

      How could you force other religions who follow a True God and a Creator to follow a Man whojust preached a Philosopical Doctrine of Non Violance and who left his body parts all over South Asia to say he is the God or the solution.

      Please talk with sence as the outsiders think what your buddhist doctrine is similar to how you govern your country.

      Absolute blind followers also rule the country blindly, and your thinking, action and ruling of the country say it all.

      Learn from the world and follow them than sending Boat people as adventurers around the world without passports and visa.

  • 0
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    Shiva, what are the Muslims doing??

  • 0
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    BBS are the proxy of the Rajpaakse regime. They dress up in lilly white and get these thugs and golayas to do the dirty work. Then they act as if nothing happened.

    • 0
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      Grease Yakka did not work for Rajapakse and now he has started a new one called Balu Yakka

  • 0
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    dear author,

    you were able visit the site a few days later. This is something very interesting. The place ,where you mentioned Dambulla, is one of the advertising spot for the Srilankan tourist industry. That was why at least you were able to see something.

    Have you ever wondered to visit the Srilankan secret places where you would have been able to see mass grave , how to commit genocide and war and killing field with out witnesses? Would be very interesting to visit to find out some surprise. Of course if you take the path of Srilankan guests list like Ban Ki Moon etc you might see as paradise on top of the mass grave. Some of the foreign dignitaries still see the paradise on top of the mass grave.

  • 0
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    I think the Muslim community at large needs to wake up. There seems to be a divide between the Muslims born and brought up in the urban areas and those from the rest of the country. It is time the Muslims recognize this fact and prevent Islam being hijacked by those in their community for personal gain.
    It is a given that the Muslims do not have the political leadership needed to deal with this developing crisis. EVERY single of the Muslim politicians are compromised. Some more disgracefully than others.
    Into this vacuum have stepped in organizations like the Jamiathul Ulema.
    They had no business getting into the Halal certificate business no matter what the perceived demands of the business community might have been. Of course, successive governments had turned a blind eye to this because the JU leadership served their ulterior motives. Recently the leader of the JU was in Geneva canvassing the Islamic states prior to the Geneva Human Rights Commission vote. What was his business at a conference like that?
    Muslims need to be vigilant of those amongst them. They are causing more issues for the community, whilst pretending to be negotiating in good faith.

    • 0
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      Sri Lankan muslims are quite different than the other muslims in the world. They are well educated and peace loving nation and they strongly believe in their faith without any doubt. The Sri lankan muslims are highly respected in other muslim countries too.

    • 0
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      Like all major religions there are differences among practitioners of Islam too. We find different sects in all religions. Islam came 1400 years ago, when it went to different countries and cultures it took the practices of those countries too. There are Muslims who respect and even worships saints. They believe that saints are mediators between God and man and others think it is a sin to worship saints. There are differences in the way we say our daily prayers and I don’t see it as a major problem in Sri Lanka.

      As much as you say Islam is hijacked
      I feel Buddhism is hijacked by bbs and similar groups. Buddhism I know doesn’t incite others to attack business establishments belonging to other religion. Buddhism like Islam do not encourage consumption of liquor and casinos. Muslims should join Buddhists in promoting a society without liquor, gambling etc. We are one of the world’s no 1 boozing country.

      • 0
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        @ Zareena Farook,
        Islam has come when the first man arrived to this world not 1400y back. Worshiping saints is not in islam, and it’s strictly prohibited in Islam. There are 124000 messengers came to this world and they are all muslims and there are many testaments (scriptures) sent to them to follow. The last and final messenger of God is Prophet Muhammed (Pbuh) and the final testament is Quran which should follow all the human beings in the universe. The Ummath of prophet Muhammed(Pbuh) should follow the Quran and the teaching of Prophet Muhammed(Pbuh).

    • 0
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      Upul

      I agree with you when you said the Muslims do not have a proper political leadership. Unlike the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Muslim political leaders are simply rouges. They are only interested in the Muslim votes but not the people. Rauf Hakeem is a cunning crook. Azwer is a donkey who knows only to bray in parliment. The others are no different. There is nobody to talk for the Muslims in the SL parliment.

      It is a shame if our people vote for these rouges in the next election.

      • 0
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        Both Upul and Nabil,

        I think you ave to look at the bigger picture here.

        Sri Lanka is still a majority Buddhist Sinhala country with 75% of population vote base on their side.
        Some Christian Sinhala politicians, in order to get the B/S vote changed their names and religion to Buddhist. SWRD Banda was one of them. Also Mahinda Samarasinghe(minister of plantation)etc,

        Therefore in order to survive in the B/S political arena Muslim politicians had to play both ….S/B, tamil and muslim cards….which is a difficult task. They had to satisfy both voters and the ruling masters.

        That’s why many of Muslim politicians face the wrath from both sides when a conflict occurs.

        Now the country is on a dangerous political path, the future is yet to decide.

  • 0
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    It is shameful that foreigners have to speak on behalf of our Muslim brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala people have traditionally been accommodating, tolerant, accepting and compassionate. These cultural values have been adopted by the other minority groups as well.

    However, together with an upsurge of Muslims in Sri Lanka desperate to follow foreign(ie religious states’) edicts to assert their identity in the face of threats from Western hegemons who covet their scarce resources in the “Mid East”, the ugly head of opportunistic manipulation required a scapegoat to victimise, with a distraction as objective.

    Hence, many indolent Sinhala business-people, together with cunning usurpers moulding racist/bigoted public opinion among the gullible masses have got on the Muslim-bashing bandwagon.

    It is a pity that Sinhala community leaders are silent when the need of the hour is as obviously visible as the proverbial elephant in the room.

    • 0
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      All Politicians in SL including so called muslims politicians are of same category,either they are underworld gangsters,drug peddlers,rapist,smugglers,corruptors,opportunist etc…
      As long as these politician keep playing around with racial issues its not a good sign for all peace loving sri Lankans like u and me.One bad move cost SL 30 years of disaster which made the difference between what SL would have been and what its today.Shame

    • 0
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      “The Sinhala people have traditionally been accommodating, tolerant, accepting and compassionate.” Hooooo!
      What soberness conceals, Drunkenness reveals.

  • 0
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    Muslims in SL have to accept the realities of the new dispensation, vis-a-vis the post-war emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist dominance, sponsored by some strong state players.

    Yes, we can talk till the cows come home about Fundamental Rights, Human Rights, Democracy and all those noble concepts. Great in theory, but not in practice.

    As a gentle response to Lewis Garland: Isn’t Saudia Arabia worse than SL in all respects, except that we are beggar nation!

    Yep, two wrongs don’t make a right, but if Rulers are fundamentally bigoted, then the people will experience the sort of extreme behaviour as manifested by the BBS and the Wahabis…. and Al Qaeda.

    The Muslim population is reported to be growing faster than the other communities in SL, apparently because they do not practice birth control. This population explosion also creates demand for more Muslim schools and mosques, consequently creating conflict with Sinhala space.

    Muslims are, by and large, perceived to be very good traders. Unfortunately in these times of economic hardship the Sinhala businessman feels threatened. Hence the attacks on Fashion Bug and No Limit.

    Sociological problems can become easily (though irrationally) manifested via religious reaction, from which emerge the likes of BBS and Sinhala Ravaya.

    To the Muslims in SL: Please smell the coffee, and adjust to the real or perceived sensitivities of the majority if you want to live in harmony.

    Playing hardball, and attempting to internationalise the crisis will only exacerbate the issues.

    Abandoning halaal certification by the Jamayathul Ulemah is a good first step.

    To complete the picture: Muslim political leaders should stop playing games, and sincerely come up with mutually acceptable proposals in order to avoid a conflagration like July ’83. Stubbornly fighting with the President and with their parliamentary colleagues is not going to provide a solution.

  • 0
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    Lewis Garland is freelance journalist and social justice activist. He has written on a range of issues including the rights of asylum seekers and returnees and post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He previously worked for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka.

    This guy should be in the USA figuring out how to prevent school shootings and reducing the rate of crime (the USA has the highest rate of prison incarceration). Sri Lanka can handle its own business quite well.

    • 0
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      In USA, they have a justice system and don’t kill perpetrators unless absolute necessary.That’s why they have the highest prison inmates.

      Moreover USA still welcome immigrants and asylum seekers to their country and make them citizens…..where as in Sri Lanka both the Perpetrators and the victims are been murdered, while holding legal born citizens without giving them citizenship.

      Hope you understand.

      • 0
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        Wrong. The crime rate is higher in the USA because people are allowed to carry guns. And, Sri Lanka has never had a school shooting. USA welcomes immigrants and asylum seekers, so does every other Western country. But that has to do with economics more than anything else. A certain amount of unskilled workers are needed to do less well-paying jobs. Sometimes there is a demand for skilled workers as well.

        • 0
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          Wrong Lester,

          It is not because people are allowed to carry guns that their crime rate is high. Infact their crime rate is low due to allowing citizen to carry hand guns.

          It is in USA constitution that allows people to protect themselves by having their own weapons.

          But this is allowed only after back ground checks. Not any person with criminal record allowed to own a weapon.

          Many people in USA have protected themselves by carrying fire arms and due to this men won’t go to mess with women there, unlike in Sri Lanka…..

          In Sri Lanka the handful of people like MPs, govt. goons, politicians and secutity personnel who are allowed to carry fire arms are terrorising innocent people who don’t have any weapons to defend themselves. If this would have allowed then no Parliament goons will mess up with general public.

          Also compared to USA (compare to their 300 million population) our 20 million have a higher crime and murder rate. Check the police records.

          There are many children been killed by thugs using guns in Sri Lanka, but many have gone un noticed.

          USA has enough and more labour that are looking for work….even the manual labour. moreover there are millions of outsiders who are waiting to get in there.

          Capitalist USA and the West are the nations who allocate most funds to their citizens welfare.

          Starting from Free education, upto free health, scholarships for poor to enter universities, to free health, giving food stamps to low income people, giving shelter for homeless, giving food stamps to single parent families and their children, eldery and disabled people, unemployment benefits to unemployed youth and citizens,eldery care, social secutity, free health and retirement homes for the eldery and disabled, giving aid and subsidy to third world countries, disaster management and state funds allocated when people face disasters and special discounts to senior citizens and many more.

          It is only our political frogs who simply bark at West for political gains. It is the Capitalist west who are the most generous and most social welfare countries in the world.

          Not even Communist Russia or China or Sri Lanka do not provide this much of social benefits to their citizen. Only the so called Capitalist nations that look after their citizens well.

          Please educate our Political mutts on this.

  • 0
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    I think both BBS, Rawaya and Rawana are the victims of Rajapakse Brothers Political power play.

    It is Rajapakses who created, nourished and used them for their benefit to stay in power by destabilising the minority communities creating trouble among all communities similar to what JVP and VP did to Sinhala and Tamil youth.

    Very soon they will realise the truth and will start to take their revenge from Rajapakses.

    Rajapakse days could be numbered.

  • 0
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    Whatever said and done, we can not let to create another KOSOVO in Sri Lanka.Strictly, everybody should keep that in mind.

    • 0
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      Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. All are in the hands of the ruling political masters.

    • 0
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      Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. All are in the hands of the ruling political masters.

    • 0
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      It’s easy to open pendora box. But difficult to close.

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