Down a Fa­mil­iar Path

Southasia - - Comment - Syed Jawaid Iqbal

From what has tran­spired in Sri Lanka over the re­cent past, it is un­for­tu­nate that re­li­gious-based con­flicts are in­creas­ing and are be­com­ing more in­tense. The oth­er­wise peace­ful is­land na­tion, which is just re­cov­er­ing from a bloody con­flict against the LTTE, has now been pit­ted into an­other strife. In­ter­est­ingly, the stand­off be­tween the Sin­halese ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion of Sri Lanka and the mi­nor­ity Mus­lims had been cook­ing for some time as it seems the Sin­hala Bud­dhists have lost their en­thu­si­asm for in­ter­faith har­mony and now seem to re­gard Mus­lim and Chris­tian mi­nori­ties as a threat to Bud­dhist cul­ture. Vig­i­lante Bud­dhist groups led by monks are known to have been run­ning cam­paigns against Mus­lims and there have even been calls to ban ha­lal meat.

Mus­lims ac­count for about 10 per­cent of Sri Lanka’s pop­u­la­tion. Af­ter re­cent at­tacks on Mus­lim life and prop­erty, com­mando forces have stepped up se­cu­rity mea­sures around Mus­lim-owned busi­nesses and homes around the na­tion to counter mobs of Bud­dhist ex­trem­ists who have taken to set­ting fire to Mus­lim busi­nesses in the cap­i­tal Colombo and in other parts of the coun­try. The Mus­lim Coun­cil of Sri Lanka has even warned that anti-Mus­lim dis­tur­bances are push­ing re­li­gious and eth­nic ten­sions on the is­land to the lim­its and this is de­spite the fact that the ma­jor­ity of the Bud­dhist pop­u­la­tion does not sup­port such ac­tiv­ity. In fact, one of Sri Lanka’s most vo­cal and prom­i­nent Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist groups, the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, has de­nied that they are in­volved in th­ese acts. This is heart-warm­ing be­cause the BBS has been known to con­tin­u­ally make in­flam­ma­tory re­marks against the Mus­lims. BBS of­fi­cials have claimed though that Mus­lim stu­dents re­ceive fa­vor­able treat­ment in schools and are car­ry­ing out il­le­gal prac­tices re­lated to the slaugh­ter of live­stock. Some na­tion­al­ist Bud­dhist monks also ac­cuse Mus­lims of con­struct­ing too many mosques, seek­ing to forcibly con­vert Bud­dhists to Is­lam and of hav­ing too many chil­dren in or­der to in­crease their in­flu­ence in so­ci­ety.

A part of the anti-Mus­lim rage on part of ex­trem­ist Bud­dhists in Sri Lanka emerges from the be­lief of the Bud­dhist Sin­hala pop­u­la­tion that Sri Lanka is the only coun­try now left for the Sin­halese whereas, they claim that his­tor­i­cally speak­ing coun­tries like Malaysia, In­done­sia, Pak­istan, Afghanistan and oth­ers were all Bud­dhist coun­tries. In such a back­drop, those who say that at the heart of the Sri Lankan con­flict is racism may just be right. This racism is ac­com­pa­nied, as usual, by in­se­cu­rity, envy and ha­tred. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve that ex­trem­ist Sin­halese Bud­dhists, hav­ing re­cently de­feated Tamil Hin­dus, are now tar­get­ing the Mus­lims to en­force their supremacy. How­ever, they are also of the view that in a coun­try like Sri Lanka, that prides it­self on be­ing ‘multi­na­tional,’ such racist sen­ti­ment will only serve to dam­age its fu­ture. Na­tion­al­is­tic ideals fu­eled by racism cost the coun­try 30 years of civil war and it is there­fore quite a pity four years down the road of peace that Sri Lanka again ap­pears to be head­ing to­wards an­other bloody and un­nec­es­sary con­flict. It is en­cour­ag­ing that the Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties have taken due cog­nizance of the sit­u­a­tion and elite po­lice com­man­dos and army units have been or­dered to pa­trol the sub­urbs of the Sri Lankan cap­i­tal to dif­fuse ten­sions. But those in charge would have to look much deeper and ad­dress the prob­lem at its very roots. Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japakse, who is a Bud­dhist him­self, had urged monks ear­lier this year not to incite re­li­gious ha­tred and vi­o­lence. He would be very much aware that Sri Lankan Mus­lims liv­ing in the north were sub­jected to eth­nic cleans­ing by the Tamil Tigers in the early nineties as a re­sult of which thou­sands were driven south­ward from their homes and farms in the mostly Tamil north. Where do they go now? Per­haps, along with the Sri Lankan government, this is also a cause for the world’s Mus­lim com­mu­nity to con­sider and ad­dress – be­fore it is too late.

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