By Imtiyaz Razak –
When July 1983 ethnic program occurred, I was a junior high school student from Colombo. I didn’t have any meaningful understanding of what had happened in the third week of July. But I witnessed the looting of properties belong to Tamils in Colombo and burned down bodies by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists (with the help from local cops). That one week horrific violence against the Tamils, negatively affected my own life though I am ethnically Moor (Muslim). I used to be a five-times praying and Allah loving kid than, but that violence against the Tamils during the UNP government critically challenged me and thus my worldviews and political understanding. I then asked very simple question: why did they (Sinhala-Buddhist extremists) attack Tamils?
Now I am not a junior school student, but the question I asked in 1983 inspired me to understand violence by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. There are many factors that lead to violence and hatred in modern societies. In my published articles on Sri Lanka, I have examined some crucial sources of violence by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists and Sri Lanka state.
One of major sources of hatred and violence against non-Sinhalese is Sinhala-Buddhists’ insecurity. This insecurity among Sinhala-Buddhists has been playing significant role in political psycho of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists in particular. In Sri Lanka, though Sinhala-Buddhists are the majority, experiences suggest that they harbor a kind of inferior mentality and thus grow fears and hatred against non-Sinhalese. Though this development is not very obvious among each and every Sinhala-Buddhists, such a mentality does exist in low income Sinhala-Buddhists, who live in villages where Buddhist Temples and monks have vital role in community making.
Last week, Sri Lanka Muslims in the central province district of Kandy experienced violent outbreak. Evidences suggest that Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, including some politicized monks led the violence targeted at properties belong to Muslims. To understand the motivations of the violence against the Muslims, I spent my own resources to interview some Sinhala-Buddhists both in Kandy and Galle.
The followings are some responses for my questions from my respondents:
“Muslims are good, but they’re trying to convert Buddhists to Islam. Iran and Saudi Arabia are helping Muslims to do this”
“Look, our markets, shopping centers and food stores. Muslims own these places and they are rich. They’re having more kids and have good houses.”
“I want to see Muslims go back to Saudi Arabia. I am not comfortable to see Muslims in Sri Lanka. ”
Above three respondents are from Kandy city and are young male between 27-35. They claimed they don’t have university degrees and don’t have regular full time job.
It’s wrong to generalize individual opinions. But individual opinions do carry some critical general tendencies. Above views fundamentally help us to understand the psycho of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, who would harbor fears and hatreds.
The fears and anxiety fuel people thinking and actions. In Sri Lanka, these factors contributed significantly in Sinhala-Buddhist position to deny meaningful power sharing with non-Sinhalese. Since Sri Lanka state represents the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists, the state struggled to reach an acceptable political settlement to the ethnic conflict, overriding the aspirations of Sinhala-Buddhists. The fundamental fear from the Sinhala-Buddhist community is that any solution along the power-sharing democracy (federalism) would jeopardize Sri Lanka’s territorial unity, because such is concession for an independent state for Tamils. This fear is still exist and strong among Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, who would think that they are the owners of the island and non-Sinhalese can live in Sri Lanka as guests.
Sinhala-Buddhist extremists’ violent campaign from 1957 to 1983 against the Tamils and Sri Lanka state’s failure to negotiate a political settlement along a federal solution, and wave of violence’s against Muslims from 2009 in general and from 2012 in particular highlight the very insecure political mentality of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhists generally believe that non-Sinhalese are guests and thus they shouldn’t have any special privileges in the island, which is, according to them, belong to the Sinhala race. The Sinhala-Buddhists also tend to believe that non-Sinhalese are economically and socio-culturally powerful. These are basically roots of the existing insecurity among Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, who are actually the majority (around 73 percent). These fundamental belief system not only help shape their fears and power over non-Sinhalese, but also contribute to radicalize some Sinhala-Buddhists.
Insecurity And Politicization
In electoral democracy, politicians would compete for votes. Sri Lanka’s electoral democracy experiences suggest that Sinhala-Buddhist politicians use Sinhala Buddhist symbols and fears to outbid their opponents. Those politicians also strategically place Sinhala-Buddhist insecure mentality to shape up their political agendas and positions.
That political outbidding produces success in elections. Tamils were once portrayed as brutal enemies of Sinhala race. It allowed Sinhala politicians and ruling class to wage war against the Tamil Tigers and to deny meaningful political solution for grievances fueled by ethno-centric policies. Since Tamil Tigers silenced their guns, Sinhala-Buddhist extremists actively searched new enemies to consolidate their power and position. Then they found Sri Lanka Muslims, who actually worked so closely with the successive Sinhala-Buddhists dominated regimes for concessions, including religious concessions.
Sinhala-Buddhists extremists now suddenly found that Muslim symbols and identity markers such as Hijab and the rise of Islamic awareness threaten the stability of the island. But careful readers of Sri Lanka know many concessions what Sri Lanka Muslims enjoy in our time, for example, Muslim schools, Islamic dress in public schools were the concessions that Muslim elites received for their cohabitation politics with the successive Sinhala-Buddhists dominated regimes since 1949.
Now the same Muslims became harsh enemy for some aggressive Sinhala-Buddhists extremists and thus Muslims are new-Tamils for Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. Making a new enemy is important for nationalists because strategy of enemy making would help consolidate political agendas of nationalists.
Sri Lanka’s unbalance economic development affect villagers regardless of ethnic background. Economic inequality is real in the island and it’s hitting many low-income people. But Muslims are not running Sri Lanka’s economy. Very good portion of Sri Lanka Muslims also live in poverty and thus they experience economic anxiety. Just because a tiny portion of Sri Lanka Muslims are doing good in business and trade, does not mean that all Muslims are economically well off. It’s wrong to portray Muslims as trade community. But Sinhala-Buddhists extremists are portraying that Muslims are dominating Sri Lanka business and eventually Muslims want to conquer the island.
This breeds both Islamophobia and insecurity among Sinhala-Buddhists. This trend is not going to help Sri Lanka to gain peace and justice. Though not all Sinhala-Buddhists harbor hatred against non-Sinhalese, those who would lead the campaign against Muslims are not isolated. It seems those forces have blessings from top Sinhala-Buddhist politician. Politicized monks have crucial role in the mobilization of violence against Muslims this time around as they played role in the war against the Tamil Tigers.
Whether Sri Lanka would arrest the current tensions and violence against Muslims are remains to be seen. But there are concerns and fears among Muslims: Sinhala-Buddhist extremists would come again with a new wave of violence. Muslims, who responded to my questions, expressed this concern. This is plainly dangerous, because such a fear and anxiety as well as pains may give birth to some unpleasant mobilization, perhaps violent defense and offense. Circle of fears and tensions might help radicalize some Muslims. Sri Lanka shouldn’t forget the sources that gave birth to the rise of Tamil insurgency and terrorism.
*Prof, A.R, M. Imtiyaz is a US based scholar. His scholarly pursuits on Sri Lanka have led to publications at various international venues, including the /Journal of Asian and African Studies/ (JAAS), / the Journal of South Asia/ (JAS), the /Journal of Third Third_World Studies/ (JTWS), the Journal of South Asia/ (JAS) and /Asian Affairs/. His most recent research examines issues pertaining to Muslims in Middle East and Xinjiang province, China.