Lankan Mus­lims un­der threat

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL -

ACURIOUS story in a lo­cal English daily caught my eye the other day. It seemed the Sri Lanka Mus­lim Coun­cil had given in to de­mands that meat could be sold with­out ha­lal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. This is a huge success for rad­i­cal Bud­dhist groups who have been or­ches­trat­ing an anti-Mus­lim cam­paign for the last few years.

Mosques have been at­tacked, prayers dis­rupted, and Mus­lims in gen­eral ac­cused of be­ing anti-state. The Mus­lim Tamil Na­tional Al­liance has writ­ten to the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of the United Na­tions, ask­ing him for pro­tec­tion, and protest­ing against this nasty cam­paign.

Lead­ing the anti-Mus­lim charge is a group called the Bodu Bela Sena, or Bud­dhist Force. Headed by ul­tra­na­tion­al­is­tic monks, the group fol­lows a xeno­pho­bic agenda of "Sri Lanka for the Bud­dhists". Of late, Bud­dhist monks have be­gun play­ing a grow­ing and ret­ro­gres­sive role in the is­land's pol­i­tics.

The monks first flexed their mus­cles to shore up the Ra­japakse government's re­solve to crush the Tamil in­sur­gency. First, they blocked any pos­si­bil­ity of com­pro­mise by of­fer­ing the Tamil Tigers greater au­ton­omy. To build up pres­sure, they formed a po­lit­i­cal party and won enough seats to take a place in the coali­tion government.

Then, when Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japakse's brother, de­fence sec­re­tary Gotabaya, was fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing enough re­cruits for the army, a group of monks fanned out across the Bud­dhist ar­eas to mo­ti­vate thou­sands of young men. Th­ese re­cruits were as­sured that they would not lose karma by fight­ing and killing in a war as they would be do­ing so in the cause of Bud­dhism.

The bru­tal civil war ended nearly four years ago in a blood­bath that is now the sub­ject of in­tense scru­tiny and crit­i­cism from abroad. The on­go­ing ses­sion of the UN Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion at Geneva is about to vote on a res­o­lu­tion ini­ti­ated by the US, de­mand­ing an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the fate of tens of thou­sands of Tamils said to be killed in the last days of the fight­ing in the north of the is­land.

Against this back­drop, it is odd that the government is do­ing so lit­tle

Ir­fan Hu­sain to clamp down on the anti-Mus­lim cam­paign. Should it gain sup­port and trac­tion, the re­sults could be very bad news. Mus­lims are mostly con­cen­trated in three ar­eas: in and around Galle and Colombo, and in the coastal ar­eas of the north-east. The lat­ter are mostly poor fish­er­men, while ur­ban Mus­lims are heav­ily rep­re­sented in busi­ness and the pro­fes­sions.

Ac­cord­ing to unof­fi­cial re­ports, the 2011 cen­sus in­di­cates that Mus­lims form around 10 per cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 21.4 mil­lion. This is a sub­stan­tial in­crease from the 7.6 pc in the last cen­sus. One rea­son the new cen­sus fig­ures have not been of­fi­cially re­leased is said to be the dis­quiet the in­crease in the num­ber of Mus­lims might cause among the ma­jor­ity.

Al­ready, Mus­lims in the north have been sub­jected to eth­nic cleans­ing by the Tamil Tigers in the early nineties. Thou­sands were driven south­ward from their homes and farms in the mostly Tamil north. Af­ter the war ended, and they tried to re­claim their prop­erty, they were sub­jected to great hos­til­ity by Sin­halese farm­ers who had grabbed much of the land. Most of the dis­placed Mus­lims have set­tled around Colombo, and their chil­dren con­sid- er the cap­i­tal their home.

One fac­tor that is prob­a­bly driv­ing the anti-Mus­lim cam­paign is envy. Ur­ban Mus­lims have fared rel­a­tively well over the years, and have cor­nered the lu­cra­tive gem­stone mar­ket. Oth­ers have gone into real es­tate and con­struc­tion. Many have made a name for them­selves in the le­gal pro­fes­sion. And while a few have gone into pol­i­tics, they recog­nise that they can never hope to rise to the top. By and large, they have kept a low pro­file.

A num­ber of Mus­lim fam­i­lies in Galle and Ma­tra pride them­selves on their de­scent from Arab traders who set­tled in Sri Lanka cen­turies ago. Oth­ers have come from the In­dian coast. There is a small and wealthy Bohra com­mu­nity in Colombo. Many north­ern Mus­lims de­scended from Malays who set­tled along the coast.

Thus, Sri Lankan Mus­lims rep­re­sent an eth­nic mix who have helped in cre­at­ing pros­per­ity and di­ver­sity. So far, at least, they have got along well with their neigh­bours. How­ever, de­spite cen­turies of liv­ing to­gether, in­te­gra­tion has been slow. Like most mi­nori­ties, Mus­lims tend to stick to­gether, main­tain­ing their dress code and diet. Women usu­ally wear some form of hi­jab, and many Mus­lim men wear beards and skull caps.

Even lib­eral Sin­halese ac­cuse Mus­lims of not keep­ing their streets clean, and gen­er­ally stay­ing aloof from the main­stream.

In­ter- mar­riage be­tween Mus­lims and Sin­halese are lim­ited to the elites. But ev­ery­body ac­knowl­edges their hard work and sound busi­ness ethics.

The civil war and the way it ended has ex­ploded the myth of the peace­ful Bud­dhists. There is thus a gen­uine con­cern over the on­go­ing anti- Mus­lim cam­paign: ob­servers recog­nise the po­ten­tial for a vi­cious pogrom should the government not step in.

How­ever, the ugly re­al­ity is that the Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity are a far larger vote bank than the Mus­lims.

Many are puz­zled by how and why anti- Mus­lim feel­ings have spread so quickly.

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