Intolerance And Islamaphobia In Post-War Sri Lanka

By Abdul



‘Being Sri Lankan’ to me is a confusing idea sometimes. Do we really have an all-encompassing identity that cuts across our cultural and religious differences, or are we just unfortunate inhabitants of the same piece of land? Having grown up all my life in a country torn by war, the hope I felt after it finally ended was very brief. The war now only appears to have been a symptom of a disease we have failed to address the root causes of. Today ‘being Sri Lankan’ has been reduced to a crude ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric biased to a ruling regime that has arguably appropriated and been appropriated by hard core right wing ultranationalists. When Darga Town in Aluthgama was attacked by extremists, I was in Colombo gathering with friends and family. Not knowing the extent of the violence happening there, we didn’t know if the riots would spread; if our own homes and lives would be next. ‘Was this what July 1983 felt like?’ I found myself asking. 3 people died, almost a hundred were injured and untold damages, estimated by some to number into the billions, were incurred. As I write this six months later, none of the perpetrators of the Aluthgama attacks, not of any other religiously motivated act of violence Sri Lanka has seen over the past 2-3 years, have been brought to justice. Adequate compensation by the state has failed to materialize. Muslims were not the only minority to be targeted with violence, several Christian churches were also targeted and many of the post war grievances of the Tamil people remain largely unaddressed.


The dress of Muslim women, along with the halal certification, paranoia of Muslim economic control and population takeovers, constituted one of the key prongs of anti-Muslim racist discourse recently seen in Sri Lanka. Both the niqab (face covering) and the hijaab (head cover) came under scrutiny and controversy. Teachers were banned from coming to school wearing the headscarf, students of the University of Moratuwa wearing the niqab were one day stopped at the gate and asked to remove it, and at least one school reportedly asked its students to take off the hijab whilst within the premises. These incidents are significant because they were all instances of institutional islamophobia; institutions doing unconstitutional and unjust acts of their own volition and suffering no penalization from the country’s justice system, which, aside from being constitutionally broken and corrupt, has scant mechanisms for addressing racism. Institutional islamophobia goes a ways beyond personal attacks and is a serious condemnation of institutional integrity and the justice system of Sri Lanka.

Is Buddhism violent? And does Buddhism have a ‘just war’ thesis? A mati pahana is usually lit by Buddhists as an offering of light, the flame a symbol of the impermanence of life, yet in Aluthgama the light lit by individuals claiming to protect the dhamma, raining down in the form of petrol bombs thrown into houses, only caused destruction to the lives and property of innocents. In Tibet, monks were authorized to disrobe in order to fight the invading Chinese, to them the biggest sacrifice was not laying down their lives but laying down their accumulated good karma by the very act of even touching a weapon. I believe war becomes just after a certain threshold is breached, but what happened in Aluthgama was pure terrorism. Being a Muslim, I know what it feels like to see your beliefs used as a scapegoat by some for unimaginable hate and violence. Faith leaders have a moral responsibility to speak out and promote socially and politically relevant understandings of religion in a way that directly addresses events in reality. Unfortunately though, a lot of them appear to be happy in a comfortable world of religious abstractions almost exclusively restricted to the personal realm, leaving the social realm open to the predatory forays of extremists and self-interested politicians alike.

The Sri Lankan state has failed to ensure law and order, and justice for victims of hate crimes. More worryingly, it could even have actively facilitated ethno-religious strife in order to selfishly preserve its political power. It’s coupling of this action with a highly polarizing discourse of patriotism leaves me disenfranchised. I love my country, but I choose to define what ‘my country’ is in my own way. I will wave its flag proudly at cricket matches, but I will still reserve the freedom to question its symbolism. Especially when it is eerily relevant in light of our post-independence history and more recent events. If the flag is a symbol of the nation and vice versa, then we cannot afford to treat it as inviolable and sacrosanct.
If someone were to seek out a prime example of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in Sri Lanka, Kiribathgoda should be one of the first places to visit. If the Bodu Bala Sena had its way, Kiribathgoda would be its model for economic utopia. Virtually no Muslim businesses of significance exist in this town on the outskirts of Colombo and the fact that any dense enough to try are summarily and in some cases (as in the 1996 bombing of a Bairaha outlet) violently expelled is no secret. Other areas of Sri Lanka have seen similar ethnicisation of business and culture; the town of Katankudy for instance is well known for exhibiting a thorough zeal in displaying its acquisition of so-called Arab culture. Other towns like Jaffna display a proud preoccupation with the Hindu religion and customs. However, none of these places violently coerce members of other faiths to vacate the premises, and often boast strong diversity of inhabitants. The economic status of Kiribathgoda draws uncanny parallels with one of the primary driving forces behind BBS induced islamophobia; diverting business away from Muslim owned establishments to those owned by Sinhalese. To this end the last two to three years saw attacks on numerous Muslim businesses (mostly apparel, apparently an industry of highly racially polarized ownership) across the country and blatantly base propaganda spread over social media and by speeches delivered by the BBS’ firebrand Gnanasara exhorting Sinhala people to ‘shop Sinhalese’. I suppose hate requires funding. And funding always has its own agenda.
Every time I go to Independence Square, I witness a sight that manifests physically the problem I have with what ‘patriotism’ or even ‘being Sri Lankan’ is. Looking at it, I am befuddled by questions such as “why is this monument to the independence of the whole nation commemorated by a flag representing only a portion of its population?” and “As a member of a minority, where is my stake in this independence I am supposed to enjoy?”.
Aside from the spread of Islamophobia and xenophobia, a lot of it facilitated by mass ignorance, right wing ultranationalists like the BBS exploited majoritarian insecurities with gusto. The apparent endangerment of the Sinhala language is an old issue in Sri Lankan society that pre-dates colonial independence; the Sinhala language, being spoken only in Sri Lanka, has for this reason long thought to contribute to a minority complex in the country’s majority. Language oriented paranoia was accompanied by conspiracy theories to the affect that the Sinhalese race (due apparently to its own flagging birthrates and the escalation of that of the Muslims’) were being outnumbered in their own country. The fact that I found this well-made sign facing a prominent road in Maharagama, untouched and not removed says a lot about the demographics of the area and the ethno-religious demographic changes that Sri Lanka has begun to see in its post-war years. The city of Colombo which has always been majority Muslim in terms of religious breakdown, is being surrounded by emerging suburbs, growing due to economic migrants attracted by job opportunities in the city, which are increasingly Sinhalese Buddhist in composition. These changes have influenced and been influenced in turn by the xenophobic rhetoric; many of the most vocal supporters of hate groups were not people form rural areas but members of the upwardly mobile urbanizing middle classes. On the flipside, many accuse the state’s urban development policies as being a convenient excuse to displace minority communities from the city center; thereby creating demographic changes that are more politically expedient.
Muslims are organized. They control a disproportionate portion of the economy. They are driven by and operate on a long term, strategic plan bent on overtaking the Sinhalese race. Or so goes the story. Needless to say, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has severe socio-economic problems, by some reports nearly 70 languish in poverty, and education levels are low. This is a poor family in Maligawatte; one among thousands. They live in what is barely-a-shack and were gratefully bringing home a discarded used mattress when I met them. But Colombo, whilst also being home to many of these poor is also home to a more affluent class of Muslims with very visible spending habits that make the community an easy target around which a conspiracy theory can be built.
One of the justifications used to ‘otherize’ the Muslims is that the Muslims are ‘otherizing’ themselves by importing Arab culture. One of the primary manifestations of this ‘Arabization’ frequently pointed out is the changing dress code Islamic communities have increasingly adopted over the past couple of decades. Islam is broadly accepted as specifying general guidelines for dress for men and women, but does not stipulate details such as what color they must wear, neither does it command its followers to wear a particular type of dress from a particular culture. The Sri Lankan Muslim community is very much influenced by religious teachings imported from the Salafi school based in Saudi Arabia. The school’s thought, while not strictly stipulating, certainly encourages the adoption of certain dress codes as ideal for Muslims. Arguably, a free country should allow freedom of dress for its populace. But the real question goes beyond mere superficialities such as dress, the real question is whether the Muslim community of Sri Lanka has allowed itself to become relationally isolated from the rest of the peoples of this country, and how much of it has to do with the religion of Islam and how much with culture and incorrect beliefs. In my humble opinion Muslims could have and should be doing much more than they are in order to build trust and friendship with other communities. In fact, they should be doing this within their own community which, politically and socially, suffers from serious debilitating divisions. Many would agree that the whole fiasco with the BBS was an excellent wake up call to the Muslims of Sri Lanka. But will they take advantage of it?
One of the primarily results of widespread and organized hate speech is the indoctrination of the young and innocent. The social studies and history taught in Sri Lankan schools is woefully inadequate at best and highly damaging at worst. My recollection is of subject matter that was exceedingly boring when it wasn’t being highly jingoistic, and the chats I’ve had with students still in school would indicate the present situation to be much the same. One of the biggest dangers of a lack of such an education is the vast availability of hate speech and propaganda over the internet. Which is all the more dangerous in a social environment which refuses to talk about, let along critically examine its own history and circumstances in an objective light. Sri Lanka, having come out of a civil war that spanned an entire generation’s youth, is in danger of repeating its mistakes if it continues to refuse to learn from them.
As I write this, the Islamophobia, bigotry and jingoism that thickened Sri Lankan social media channels is manifesting more and more in the form of political mud-slinging as the presidential election campaign approaches its climax. The internet was prime breeding ground for hate speech in Sri Lanka; the very first indications of it appeared on social media platforms, mainly Facebook. As a recent report released by Groundviews pointed out, hate speech on Facebook was disseminated over a large number of groups and pages and mostly in the Sinhala language. These groups functioned as an ‘echo chamber’ of sorts propagating and spreading ideas among like-minded individuals and indoctrinating others into their folds.
Somewhere in the midst of this wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, the word ‘hambaya’ became more popular among racists that its predecessor ‘thambiya’ (which literally means little brother) as a derogatory for Muslims. But what many do not know is that the term has its roots in innocent, even respectable origins. ‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay term ‘Sampan’; a flat bottomed boat frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and Madagascar; many of them stayed in Sri Lanka as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who adopted the same style of boat and who were also Muslims like the Javan people. Eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ in Sinhala, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ evolved to describe the people that used them. The word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. Signs that ‘Hamba’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, the whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.
SWRD Bandaranaike was the first post-independence head-of-state to come into power on an ethno-religious supremacist platform. His was also the first assassination in independent Ceylon. A man born to the aristocracy, educated in Britain, he won the hearts and minds of people largely by propagating Sinhala Buddhist values. His reign saw the fruition of the Sinhala Only Act, a piece of legislation that many directly connect to the EELAM war. Ironically, in 1959, he was gunned down at his home in Colombo 7 by a Buddhist monk. The motives for the assassination plot are muddy, but they are generally accepted as being due to ugly forces that his reign unleashed, but couldn’t control. The relationship between state opportunism and right wing extremism in Sri Lanka then is a long one. As Mark Juergensmeyer wrote, in 1995, in his brilliant “The New Religious State”; “The present rulers in Sri Lanka face the same dilemma as their predecessors: they need Sinhalese support, but they feel they cannot go so far as to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups. They have been attacked viciously by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists for attempting to achieve what might be impossible: a national entity that is both Buddhist and secular. The use of Buddhist symbols is meant to appeal to the Sinhalese, and the adoption of a secular political ideology is supposed to mollify everyone else.” This is still relevant today.
Scrawled on the walls of broken and burnt houses in Aluthgama; ‘God is with those who are patient’. Sri Lankan Muslims, to their immense credit, have refused to be swayed by the crimes perpetrated against them. Many strongly suspected the sustained hate campaign dotted with consistent violent acts to have been an attempt to provoke elements of the Muslim community into seeking similar vengeance, what its detractors called a ‘jihad’. In response to the hate campaigns against them, Sri Lankan Muslims did engage in a collective jihad, but this was a jihad of forbearance and patience, and some (but not enough) self-examination. Globally, ‘jihad’ has become a dirty word, but in reality it is a concept that is deeply spiritual; signifying the inner struggle of Muslims against temptation and the base desires of the soul. Every Muslim must technically engage in Jihad to be a good person and to ensure peace and prosperity on earth. In a ‘just war’ context, Jihad can also be used to refer to state endorsed military action; but this is a far cry from its use by some extremists for the justification of indiscriminate violence today, extremists the ilk of which Sri Lanka mercifully seems to be devoid of. It is however damaging and sad that the media chooses to side with this narrow fringe and against the vast majority of Muslims globally in how it chooses to define what ‘jihad’ means.
Hate speech spread in the country, and the fourth estate did nothing to help. Mainstream media, aside from a notable few outlets, largely failed to highlight the real extent of hate campaigns against Muslims and used rhetoric that diminished the significance of hate crimes and spreading hate speech. It failed to critically examine and investigate events taking place in the country and even functioned as an active conduit for the spread of hate by providing a ready platform for the voice of the BBS and their ilk whilst also actively participating in the stereotyping of Muslims, against which many a complaint in the press complaints commission has been lodged. Crucially, biased and inadequate reporting during the Aluthgama riots diminished the serious nature of the incident and failed to adequately locate it within Sri Lanka’s current socio-political context, let alone its history. Efforts to advocate for justice and the bringing to bear of criminals were hardly bothered with.
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