By Tilak Samaranayaka –
There have been several articles in the print media and in a few internet sites expressing views about the on-going conflict between the Sinhalese Buddhist organizations and Muslims over a number of issues, including the issue of Halal certification of consumer products. Most views expressed on this issue were sympathetic towards Muslims and, importantly, a number of these articles were from Sinhala writers. Using Dammaphada, Buddhist principles, and the Buddhist way of life, they have emphasized the need for a tolerant approach to this issue. At the same time, some have strongly criticized Buddhist monks and Buddhist organizations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) for carrying out protests against the growing influence of Muslims within the Sinhala community and its culture and religion. The BBS in particular is being accused of creating disharmony by promoting extreme views and hate campaigns against Muslims.
The articles that were very critical about the actions of the BBS attracted abusive and very derogatory comments from some readers, including those with Sinhala names. Most of these comments were in response to articles that appeared on some news sites that very heavily defended Muslims and their rights, while discrediting BBS and other Buddhist organizations for their role in the conflict. Among the Sinhala writers supporting Muslims on this issue, the focus is primarily on the need to follow a Buddhist way of life as described by Dhammapada and other writings on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy.
The argument that we should follow Buddhist principles and live accordingly has no relevance when there are two sides to a problem. In fact, we are dealing with real people and real issues, and these issues involve two cultures, two religions, two languages, and two different life styles. Religion, cultural practices, and social values of Muslims are poles apart when compared with the Sinhalese. It is an absurd assumption to accept that by living according to Buddhist principles, these problems can be automatically solved. It is very unfair to suggest that only the Sinhalese should sacrifice their rights and values and provide a solution to this problem. Since the Sinhalese are beginning to take action to protect their culture, religion, and fundamental rights, they are branded as ‘extremists’.
In any event, it may be possible to advocate a more tolerant approach acceptable to both sides. If we are to solve this issue amicably, we must all understand the root cause of the conflict, and then deal with them in a way that the solution will not adversely affect one party more than the other. Since we have been informed in detail about the Muslims concerns, my objective is to highlight some of the long-standing issues and concerns of the Sinhala community so that it is possible to look at both sides of the problem more objectively.
Muslims live everywhere in the country. In some regions, there are more Muslims than the Sinhalese. They not only live with the Sinhalese, but also carry out most of their economic activities with the Sinhalese and supported by them. Furthermore, they practice their religion the way they want despite the inconvenience caused by their religious practices to others living in the area. Evidence that the Sinhalese are a tolerant community is that they allow Muslims in their neighbourhoods, contribute to their economic base, and allow their religion to practice. This does not mean, however, that there is no limit to their tolerance. Can the Muslims be considered a tolerant community, if they are placed in the same context?
Muslims are a community living within a community. They never participate in any social or community activity. Their participation in any sport in the country is practically non-existent. There are no cultural or religious links between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. Although Muslims live with the majority Sinhala population –practically everywhere in the country—most Muslims cannot even speak the language of the majority in the country. It is even difficult to know how many are familiar with the national anthem of the country.
The growth and distribution of the population is one of the key issues that often come up when talking about Muslims. The belief that Muslims are reproducing much faster than that of the other communities is common among the Sinhalese. This is one of the key issues of this conflict.
According to the preliminary reports available from the 2011 Census of Population, Sri Lanka recorded a total population of 20.3 million in 2011. Out of this total, the Sinhalese accounted for 15.2 million, Sri Lankan Tamils 2.3 million, and Muslims 1.9 million. As a percentage, the three ethnic groups accounted for 74.9%, 10.8%, and 9.2% respectively.
The increase in population between 1981 and 2011 has been 7.1 million. Of this, the Sinhalese accounted for 4.3 million while Muslims accounted for 1.0 million. However, the difference in the average growth rates of the two groups clearly highlights one of the major causes for perceived threats by the Sinhalese from the expanding Muslim population. During the thirty-year period from 1981 to 2011, the average growth rate of the Sinhalese has been 0.94% compared with 1.8% growth rate of Muslims. Over the next 25 years, the Muslim population is likely to reach over 5 million, more than double the 2011 population, with the Sinhalese population increasing to about 19 million. With a projected total population of about 27 million by 2040, the share of the Muslim population will increase to over 18% while the share of the Sinhalese will decline to 70%.
The rapid increase in population in one community compared with other communities creates not only an imbalance in the composition of population, but also a significant misallocation of resources. To meet this future Muslim population growth, scarce resources will need to be allocated for food production, health services, housing, education, and various other social services. In addition, the increase in population will also need more land to build schools, to expand infrastructure facilities for trading and other activities, and to put up more mosques. The latter need arises because the increasing population and mosques always go together. In a country where scarcity of land is a critical issue, the demand for additional land that results from excessive growth of population among the Muslims will make the issue even more critical.
In absolute terms, a zero growth of population does not add to the existing population, but as the growth rate increases, the population will also increase by an increasing rate. This can be seen clearly from the difference in growth of population of the two communities.
Sri Lanka is one of the countries in the world with a relatively high population. Its current population density is 323 per square kilometre and, in terms of average population density, Sri Lanka ranks twenty-third position in descending order in the world, which consists of 192 countries. This means that only 22 countries in the world that have a population density greater than Sri Lanka.
The rapid increase in population also increases the base population as well as the female population in the child-bearing age group. All these factors will contribute to a further widening in the gap in the composition of Sinhala and Muslim population. This can be clearly seen from the sharp increase in the ratio of Muslims to Sinhalese over the years. In 1981, for example, there were 7.8 Muslims per 100 Sinhalese and, in 2011, this number has jumped to 12.3 per 100 Sinhalese. At the current growth rate, the number of Muslims per 100 Sinhalese is projected to double to 26.3 persons by 2040. It was during the 1981 and 2011 period that the population increase among Muslims became quite visible because of the sharp decline in population growth of the Sinhalese.
Another issue that comes up frequently from the Buddhists is the conversion of Sinhala Buddhists into Islam. The Census and Statistics data also give ample evidence to support this belief. In 2011, for example, there were 101,319 non-Muslims practicing Islam in the country. This number in 1981 was 65,755. Accordingly, another 35,000 non-Muslims have become followers of Islam since1981. This can only happen from conversion of non- Muslims into Islam, and it is quite possible that almost the entire number of non-Muslim followers of Islam could be Sinhalese. This practice started with the first settlements of Muslims in the Eastern Province where there are still Muslims with traditional Sinhala names. Although so many Sinhalese have been converted into Islam, it is difficult to find the reverse with Muslims converting to Buddhism over the last three hundred years of Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka.
The Sinhalese are also living with two other communities in the country: Sri Lanka Tamils and Indian Tamils. Although an emerging conflict between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils was evident since the 1950s, which later became a bloody conflict causing more than 70,000 deaths on both sides, its foundation was largely political. There is no animosity between an average Sinhalese and an average Tamil. The two communities share long standing social and cultural links, and have common cultural and social customs. The relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils soured during the 1983 July disturbance, it is gradually improving since 2009.
Although an increase of 1.7 million has been recorded under Sri Lankan Tamils in the 2011 Census, it cannot be considered as a net gain because the coverage of the 1981 census was limited to few parts of the Northern Province due to the ethnic conflict that was emerging in the North at that time. Therefore, the 2011 census does not give a clear picture of the increase in the Sri Lankan Tamil population. It is, however, believed that the growth of population of the Sri Lankan Tamils is quite comparable with the Sinhalese. Although the size of the Indian Tamils was quite close to the size of the Muslim population in 1981, they added only 92,000 over the 30-year period compared with one million by the Muslims.
The ongoing conflicts throughout the world are either directly or indirectly related to Muslims whose ideologies are based on the rigid form of Islam. This is giving rise to ultra-national groups in some countries to strengthen their power base. In France for example, the last presidential election polled 20% to the Le Pen party, which campaigned on a platform against Muslim immigration. They are confident that within 10 years they will capture the power, which will allow the party to further their agenda of limiting immigration of Muslims into France. The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first Western leader to enforce a ban on burqas and niqabas (face veils) in France, but this decision was never challenged by any organization as a human rights violation. If, on the other hand, a country like Sri Lanka introduces a similar rule, there will certainly be a lot of criticisms and protests from the local Muslim community, branding it as a human rights violation. In Netherlands too, there is growing resentment to Muslim immigration in that country.
The wearing of burqas and niqabas is not a universal practice among Muslims. Even in traditional Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Turkey, these practices are not compulsory and there are many women that wear normal dresses without burqas or niqabas. According to some Muslims, these are not the practices of Islam. Muslims must also understand the implications of these on themselves because wearing of these articles make them more conspicuous in a crowd, inviting undue attention from troublemakers.
The importance of religious tolerance in a country where there are followers of different religions is also an issue that needs serious consideration. Muslims appear to be pushing their boundaries beyond the limit and this may be because they expect other Muslim nations will influence the government of Sri Lanka for favourable outcome for the Muslims demands. Some are arguing that because Pakistan and some other Muslim countries supported the Sri Lankan government at the UNCHR resolution, these countries should advise the Sri Lankan government to ban Buddhists organizations that oppose certain Muslim practices.
It is a terrible mistake for another country to intervene in Sri Lanka’s domestic issues. Although there are many Muslim countries openly abuse some minorities, including Buddhists, the Sri Lankan government has not adopted the practice of intervention into the affairs of other countries. By considering their human rights records, it is difficult to find a single country that could take up this issue with the Sri Lankan government.
Every conflict is based on some issue and it is this issue, whether it is social, religious, personal, or communal, that eventually becomes the source of a particular conflict. A solution to any such conflict needs a correct understanding of the causes that lead to the conflict, without thrashing one side of the conflict while sympathising with the other. Unfortunately, almost 90% of the articles written by various writers on this subject are doing just that.
In this article, I have highlighted the main arguments of the other side of the conflict, and they are not based on extreme views, but on established facts. If this conflict is not changing its form and magnitude overtime, then it is possible to continue with the tolerant approach, as suggested by many writers on this issue, since it does not have any long-term implications. Unfortunately, it is a dynamic problem because it changes its composition, form and magnitude overtime with the changes of the factors that contribute to the conflict.
If both communities are determined to live together in harmony, it is important that Muslims also accommodate the values and the rights of the Sinhalese community. Ethnic conflicts often arise in countries when the boundaries that normally exist among different ethnic groups are pushed beyond the limit, and this is the key factor in the Sinhala-Muslim conflict in Sri Lanka as well. The Sinhalese feel that they have been pushed beyond the tolerant level by the activities of the Muslims. Unless the concerns of both parties are treated equally, with a view to finding a long-term solution, this conflict could be vastly different from its current form and dimension in a few years’ time.
*Tilak Samaranayaka is an economist currently living in Australia