8 August, 2022


Understanding The Buddhist Psyche Behind Islamophobia

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Islamophobia, as a mental phenomenon of fear and hatred against Islam and Muslims, is a Western product. To be precise, it arose in Europe soon after the birth and spread of Islam in and from the seventh century. The name Europe itself has its origins in Christendom’s confrontation with Islam around 9th century. Throughout the medieval era relations between Islam and Christendom had been mostly confrontational and bloody with intermittent businesslike and tactical friendliness. With the dawn of the modern era, European antipathy towards Islam and Muslims continued but in different form and mostly through literary output of Orientalists. From late 20th century however, Islamophobia became more virulent with political Islam becoming aggressive and violent in parts of the Muslim world.      

When compared to this tumultuous history in the West, the arrival of Islam and settlement of its followers in Buddhist Sri Lanka circa 8th century, and the atmosphere of peace and amity, which prevailed for more than a millennium between the settlers who eventually became indigenized and the original hosts, was an unparalleled episode and unique chapter in world history.  The relations between Muslims and Buddhists were so tightly knit and friendly, which prompted one of the Buddhist monarchs of that era to write to his Egyptian counterpart that Sri Lanka was Egypt and Egypt was Sri Lanka. Unlike in Europe where there was Islamophobia, in Medieval Buddhist Sri Lanka there was a sort of Islamophilia. How then did this cordiality and coexistence between the two break down in the 21st century, even though signs of it were evident during the last quarter of the 20th? How did those signs miss the attention of governments and community leaders of that time and what impact did it have on the Buddhist psyche, which eventually succumbed to the Western disease?

To start with, the dawn of the modern era in 16th century marked a disaster to Buddhist Sri Lanka. The arrival of the Portuguese was to drag the country into the power struggles of Europe. From then on and until the next four and a half centuries the country came under Christian rule and Buddhism was pushed to the periphery. Although the Kandyan Kingdom remained independent till 1815, that too fell under the might of British colonialists in that year and the whole country was under foreign rule till 1948. There is no doubt that these conquests by alien powers and the foremost place accorded to Christianity wounded deeply the Buddhist soul. Anagarika Dharmapala’s Buddhist awakening movement in late 19th century was an attempt to recover at least some of the pride lost under colonialism. The Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim riots of 1915 was an unfortunate part of that attempt, but its scars were healed in no time and Buddhist-Muslim amity returned with vengeance. There was no sign of any Islamophobia after that.

With independence in 1948 and introduction of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, government power, after roughly four and a half centuries, once again fell into the hands of Buddhists. It was a moment for reparation of damages and recovery of losses incurred during the colonial era. Politics from then on, in essence, was a story of how Buddhism tried to regain its lost lustre and power in Sri Lanka. The wounded soul was in need of a heeling spirit and it came through politics. Politicization of Buddhism began in earnest and Ven. Walpola Rahula introduced the concept of political Bhikkhu and instilled the idea that ethnic Sinhalese and their language have no other country to survive and prosper except Sri Lanka, and that position should not be compromised under any circumstance. The Citizenship Act, Catholic Action and nationalization of schools, Sinhala Only Language Bill, fight against federalism, Sinhalese colonization of the dry zone, and the civil war – they all mark different phases in the growth of political Buddhism.

For a while, the civil war and LTTE’s fight for a separate state rekindled medieval fears of a possible Tamil invasion from the subcontinent. But the comprehensive victory over and total annihilation of LTTE by an overwhelmingly Buddhist army and navy, added a sense of pride to the Buddhist psyche. The strategic neutrality of India in that war evaporated that fear and planted instead the hope that Sri Lanka would hence be transformed into a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Yet, the same psyche also saw during the war years a new menace cropping up from another quarter, the Muslim community. 

The war years in Sri Lanka coincided with the explosive aftermath of an Islamized (not Islamic) revolution in Iran in 1979, which heralded a new and aggressive wave of Islamic awakening with the slogan, “Islam the Answer”, and a popular demand for an Islamic World Order. The newly found oil wealth was assumed to provide the economic base for this grandiose project. But the problem with this awakening was that it was all inspired by a revolution from a Shia Muslim country, which deposed an American backed monarch and threatening to export its revolution to the Sunni sector in the Middle East. The West panicked, feared for the instability that such an awakening would cause if allowed to enter oil rich Arab Middle East, and searched for ways and means of dousing the Iranian revolutionary fire. It found an answer in Saudi Arabia. If Iran was revolutionary with Khomeinism, Saudi Arabia was ultra-conservative with Wahhabism – an 18th century exclusivist and intolerant religious ideology. Saudis were therefore given license to spread their doctrine wherever they wished, including the West. With the claim that Wahhabism represented the purest form of Islam, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity not only to Wahhabize the Sunni World, but also to make Saudi Arabia the unchallenged champion of Islam and Muslims.

In Sri Lanka, JR’s open economy opened its doors to Wahhabi penetration. Neither the national leadership nor its Muslim subordinates at that time had any clue as to how Wahhabism was going to destroy the millennium old amity between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Wahhabi orthodoxy not only created intra-religious battles within local Muslims, but also effected changes in their inter-personal, and inter-social relations in the name of religious purity and cultural identity. Arabized attire, ostentatious and crowded religious gatherings, sudden increase in the number of mosques and madrasas, use of loudspeakers to call for daily prayers, business signboards in Arabic, date palms to beautify streets, open insistence on halal food and drinks, frequent visits of foreign speakers to address local audience on orthodox Islam, and above all the formation of a separate Muslim political party: all this, while creating a mentality among Muslims that drew them towards self-alienation, made the Buddhist community suspicious of increasing Islamization. The Buddhist psyche having received several shocks in the past became nervous about another, and this time, from a close ally. The Easter massacre of 2019, with which the Sri Lankan Muslim community had nothing to do with, was a gift to political Buddhists to show to their community that their suspicion about Islam was rightly placed. Thus, the reasons for the current wave of Islamophobia driven by political Buddhism must be understood within this context.

To go back to the pre-1980 normality in Buddhist-Muslim relations there need to be serious self-introspection on both sides, and more importantly from the Muslim side, because Muslims would be the ultimate losers in any confrontation. Of course, politicians from either group would like the current status quo continues to make political capital out of it. But the country cannot afford this calamity. However, to treat this situation simply as a law and order problem, in the way the ruling regime appears to do, will make it worse and not better.   

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The same can be said about the Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Atheist psyche.

    From Bali to New York.

    • 2

      Wake up Mr. Ameen! ISIS is a CIA project and Islamophobia a Global Phenomenon – produced by the Christian – Muslim Clash of Civilizations and the so called US led Global War on Islamic Terror!
      This is how Islamophbia came to Lanka and infected the BBS also funded by US and Norway

      Sri Lanka Muslim political and religious elites are all in the funding bag of the CIA Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi project, which is CIA backed to divide Muslim communities in Asia and destroy Muslim and multi-religious societies. Corrupt Muslim politicians – M.L.M Hizbullah in Kathankudi and Bathudeend in Mannar and Rauf Hakeem and Hashim have all got Saudi funds to protect and promote the Wahhabi Salafi-CIA project and they all protected Zaharan and the NTJ network with Sirisena and Wickramasinghe, to enable the Easter 2019 carnage claimed by ISIS!
      The CIA-Saudi-Wahhabi-Salafi project is to de-stabilize the region also by creation of a “Clash of Civilizations” between Buddhism and Islam in Southeast Asian nations. Weaponizing religions, destroying and fragmenting communities and turning them against core religious values is part of the project to crash the Economic rise of Asia and make America Great Again!

  • 3

    Talked of all points but not mentioned that fact that Aspirations of domination also start to form..

    (i) as % of Muslim in the country’s population increases (like in SL) and achieves critical mass above 7.5%-10% – agitations for Sharia / Madrassas and all Islamification starts to come and even moderates can’t control it (Some move to more safer countries)

    See the article on -Dr. Peter Hammond’s book, “Slavery, Terrorism and Islam”

    (ii) Age and Education of Muslim girls being married and and ability to educate – as long as this is low – the population is growing with non-modern views been push into lowly educated masses who believe religion above all.

    Pew Institute Research –

    Fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries are closely related to women’s education levels. In the eight Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the fewest years of schooling, the average fertility rate (5.0 children per woman) is more than double the average rate (2.3 children per woman) in the nine Muslim-majority countries where girls generally receive the most years of schooling.

  • 3

    Tamil people in SL don’t see the risk coming from the East. Until the Mahavir was there – east was controlled and he removed the Muslims from North also. Now without them the east is gaining control and population is expanding.

    The looser will be the Tamilian population – as when Rishad kept working with BasilR and then RW/MS and got all the deals during 2009-2019 – where TNA was kept out and lost a lot!!

    This is the biggest risk for Tamils in SL!!
    Wake up Thabi – Are you sleeping?

  • 3

    “To go back to the pre-1980 normality in Buddhist-Muslim relations there need to be serious self-introspection on both sides, and more importantly from the Muslim side, because Muslims would be the ultimate losers in any confrontation.”

    Dr. Ameer Ali,
    It is sad that you now talk about Buddhist Muslim relationship which took the country into a war, genocide, crimes against humanity and the current status of dictatorship and selling of this land to China and India. The fact is that Muslim and Buddhist politicians are fundamentally influenced by their fundamentalist ideology and opportunistic politics. That is why your Muslim politicians supported the 18th amendment and 20th amendment despite the Buddhist Fundamentalists attacked mosques, business since 2009. Again Why Saharan was used by Buddhist Fundamentalists to attack Christians, not the Buddhists or Muslims.
    You fail to think about unity, peace, economic stability, civilisation, and future of this country.

    • 3

      Ameer Ali,
      (*) When you talk about Medieval fears about Tamils, you are speaking of that era reconstructed by modern historians. S.J. Tambiah, R.A.L.H. Gunawardena and Amaradasa Liyanagamage record that there continued to be a significant South Indian role in local politics post Polonnaruwa – from Chempaka Perumal to the latter kings of Kandy.

      (*) About peace and friendliness between Muslims and Sinhalese until the early 21st Century, it was friendliness founded on a short-sighted tolerance of Sinhalese ideology that had already shown a tendency to go wild. During the four citienship debates in 1948/49, only one of the six Muslim MPs spoke once and that was during the final franchise debate. All supported the four Bills. Opposing the Left and Chelvanayakam, Kariappar couched their support for the Government in the terms ‘We can look after ourselves’ – a stupendously costly piece of arrogance. The Ceylon Tamil elite were not very different then. Only three voted against the Citizenship Bill. Both Muslims and Tamils have paid a very heavy price. Friendship in the absence of principles is a phantasm.

      • 5

        This no excuse but an explanation.
        The Muslim class that represented the Muslims was predominantly from the business community at least until 1960. Even where more scholarly Muslims were elected, they relied on the business elite.
        Exceptions included Senator AMA Azeez, who was not quite a politician.
        The Muslim from the East needed Tamil votes to win the seat and the FP leadership wanted a seat at least nominally that was FP’s. This was the case until the PR scheme came about.
        Did the FP have a programme that addressed the grievances of Muslims, who mostly lived outside the N&E.
        It was a Jaffna-centric party that had a week base in the East and North West except during times when Tamil sentiment rode high.

  • 3

    Dr. Ameer Ali:
    Brownnosing and ingratiating with the majority community is okay. The art of survival ! But then, selective amnesia is not okay. How did you forget the Puttalam mosque attack by police/security forces on 2 Oct. 1976 . The killings of several Muslims inside the mosque. Muslim leaders were partners in the govt. It was Tamil leader Mr. S.J.V. Chelva who first raised the issue in Parliament and demanded a judicial inquiry. The killers were Sinhala-Buddhist men in uniform.

    • 2

      Where were these leaders when the LTTE gave a 24 ultimatum to get out of the North? Why did Muslims loose all there assets?

      Have those been returned?

  • 2

    This article by Dr Ameer Ali is a scholarly article and needs a scholarly response. Does Dr Ali expect restoration of Buddhist- Muslim amity in the interest of survival of Muslims in Sri lanka?

  • 1

    Ohhh these Buddhists………never forget how they bombed our people on April 21st, 2019.

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