The persecution of Sri Lankan Muslims
Islam is the third largest religion in Sri Lanka and certainly deserves a better deal than what it is getting.
The Muslims in Sri Lanka look forward to a better deal.
For centuries, Sri Lanka has been viewed with respect for its multireligious sites allowing people to enjoy the freedom to worship. The country’s archaeological record testifies how religious places such as Katargama, Madhu shrine and Sri Pada existed side by side and were revered by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. This spirit of tolerance received serious setbacks in recent months with shocking news of attacks on Muslims and mosques. Like Myanmar, Sri Lanka has also started witnessing a growing hatred towards Muslims. The Economist, in a recent report said: “Another country where Buddhism is becoming conflated with a growing ethnic and nationalist identity is Sri Lanka. There the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) organisation – that stands for “Buddhist force” and is made up of members of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese majority – preaches a doctrine of intolerance against a minority Islamic population (in this case, about 10 per cent of the country), whose birth rate, they also claim, is alarmingly high. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, a BBS leader, argues that “This is a Sinhala Buddhist country. We have a Sinhala Buddhist culture. This is not Saudi Arabia. But you must accept the culture and behave in a manner that doesn’t harm it.” The BBS, Economist says, “has been campaigning against Islam on specific issues, such as halal labelling on food. More generally, it is accused of inciting mobs to attack mosques and Muslim-owned shops. The BBS defends the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, claiming that Buddhists are acting out of self-preservation. As in Myanmar, plenty of politicians are ready to promote the agenda of groups like the BBS by exploiting the ignorance, prejudices and fears of the Buddhist population.” It is unfortunate that the rising tide of hatred between two of the most widespread religions – Islam and Buddhism – in Asia is rekindling bigotry in countries having a proven track record of tolerant multi-religious cultures. In India, Pakistan and Indonesia, thousands of Muslims marched in support of their brethren in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Thus, the Muslim versus Buddhist issue is no longer confined to Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It is posing global ramifications for peace and democracy. 1.4 million Muslims live in Sri Lanka representing 7.5 % of the islands´19 million inhabitants. Islam is the nation’s third largest religion after Buddhism (over 13 million faithful, 69% of the population) and Hinduism (circa 9 million). The Muslim community is divided into three main ethnic groups: the Sri Lankan Moors, the Indian Muslims and the Malays, each with its own history and traditions. The attitude among the majority of people in Sri Lanka is to use the term “Muslim” as an ethnic group, specifically when referring to Sri Lankan Moors. Amid this disturbing scenario there are still voices of sanity. In the wake of unprovoked attack on the Masjid Deenul Islam in Sri Lanka on August 10, 2013 by an extremist mob injuring 12 people, over two hundred concerned citizens [The Guardian, August 15, 2013] signed a protest note saying: “While recognising and promoting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech, religious worship, and assembly, we urge all communities to respect the religious beliefs – and the associated rights – of their fellow citizens, and to not be influenced by state-condoned Buddhist extremists groups.” These citizens expressed dismay over what they called “the visible apathy displayed by the government and the Mahanayake Theros of the Tri-Nikayas, at a time when the rights to religious worship and assembly of its citizens are being threatened by extremism” and added “we wish to highlight apparent state complicity and the level of impunity repeatedly granted by the state to extremist elements in the country.” These citizens welcomed and endorsed the open letter of protest by Muslim members of the government addressed to the President of Sri Lanka, and shared their view that “the lukewarm and ineffective measures taken by the law enforcement agencies on previous occasions, when Muslim communities and their mosques were deliberately attacked, seem to have emboldened some extremist groups who are
determined to create chaos in the country that is still in search of national reconciliation after a prolonged war.” Raashid Raza in his article, Lankan Muslims and their image problem, published in Ceylon Today on July 24, 2013, observed that in the last few years “indeed the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims has become somewhat dire; new radical Sinhalese groups like the BBS and the Sinhala Ravaya (SR) have hijacked Buddhism and are both committing and advocating crimes against the Muslim community.” A Rameez, currently a PhD scholar at National University of Singapore and lecturer in Sociology at South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, in his article, ‘The persecution of the Muslims in Sri Lanka’, published in The Guardian, July 28, 2013, quoted Hunaiz Farook, Member Parliament, claiming that “the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) forcefully expelled the Muslims from the Northern province at gunpoint, and abruptly put an end to the call for prayers (Athan), thereby closing the mosques in the province.” Rameez wrote that this speech was a genuine reflection of the emotions and grief in the minds of any Muslim in the country, “against the backdrop of them continuously being targeted by the ethno-religious fascist Buddhist forces like BBS and SR, obviously stirred by the government.” Rameez says “it is high time for the government to take some measures immediately to contain these ethno-religious fascist movements mushrooming in the post-war scenario, and to restore the religious rights of the Muslims historically enjoyed by them throughout the country. It is also important for the Muslim MPs and ministers to show genuine commitment regarding the issues plaguing the community at large, adopting a view that looks beyond the next election. They should also raise this issue in parliament and cabinets. This issue should also be drawn, with the intervention of the Muslim politicians, to the attention of the international community, especially the Muslim countries that support Sri Lanka financially and diplomatically in international forums like Geneva. The continuous persecution of Muslims in the country is a serious issue that must be dealt with immediately by those in power, lest it lead to another national catastrophe.” It may be remembered that in 2009, the present government successfully defeated the LTTE militarily, and in historic victory speech made by the President on May 19, 2009 he averred, “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any other minorities. There are only two kinds of people in this country now. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group.” The hope expressed by the President proved short lived as evidenced by unprovoked attacks on Muslim minority. Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne, in his article, ‘Religious bigotry, hatred & and human rights’, published in The Guardian (Sri Lanka), August 14, 2013, aptly concluded: “The protection of human rights is the most significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world. The traditional nation State in which a distinct national group rules over a territorial unit is fast receding in history. Globalisation and increased migration across borders is gradually putting an end to the concept of the nation State, although resistance to reality can still be observed in instances where majority or dominant cultures impose their identity and interests on groups with whom they share a territory. In such cases, minorities frequently intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity, in order to avoid marginalisation. Polarisation between the opposite forces of assimilation on the one hand and protection of minority identity on the other inevitably causes increased intolerance culminating in armed ethnic conflict. In such a scenario, the first duty of governance is to ensure that the rights of a minority society are protected.” Humanity at large fervently hopes that Sri Lankan government will come out of the syndrome that minorities should be subdued and marginalized following defeat of the LTTE. It is a proven fact that the more the minorities are marginalised, the more rebellious and frustrated they would become. Presently, onus is on the government to dispel any such impression and deal with an iron hand provocative acts of certain extremist groups to the detriment of minority communities ensuring cultural diversity, equality, tolerance, and their fundamental human rights.