Anti-Muslim Bigotry on the Island: Sri Lankan Muslims in the Face of a New Civil War?

Posted on February 11, 2013

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As written for Muslim Matters (February 11, 2013)

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The island nation of Sri Lanka celebrated its 65th Independence Day on the 4th of February amidst conflicting emotions. Although no stranger to tourism brochures as the idyllic holiday getaway, this teardrop isle has also had its fair share of the spotlight in making international headlines – there was the incapacitating tsunami of 2004, the 3-decade-long civil war and the war-crime allegations that followed, and more recently the very public (and dubious) impeachment of the country’s chief justice.

There is however, another internal conflict that is yet to reach international waters.

Still reeling from the after effects of a long-standing civil war Sri Lanka seems poised for yet another, this time with another face attributed to the enemy – the minority (9%) Muslim population of the island.

For rising tensions, the result of a freshly administered hate campaign against the Muslims minority by fringe groups of the extremist Buddhist variety, have challenged cosy notions of post-conflict harmony finally taking root.

At a rate that is worryingly escalating, said fanatical nationalist groups have taken to the streets as well associal media forums to denigrate Islam by picketing scaremongering slogans, all claiming ludicrously that the Muslim population is plotting to unseat Buddhism as the official state religion of Sri Lanka.

In true doomsayer-esque fervour, these supremacists warn of the infiltration of Halaal certified food into mainstream eating outlets as a threat to a pure Buddhist state, and in keeping with the times have even taken to posting inflammatory material on the internet mobilising the online community for a nation-wide boycott of all Muslim-owned businesses. More ambitious allegations include claims that madrasas are serving as breeding ground for terrorists, and that Sharia’a law is out to take over the island with its ‘draconian’ implementation of law and order.

It has to be stressed that this vehement sentiment is not representative of the opinion of the vast majority of the Sri Lankan non-Muslim population, nor is this hate reciprocated by the moderate Muslim community. And while Sri Lankan Muslims can take comfort in this, what is undeniably cause for concern, is:

  • The deafening silence from the government to these obvious instigations, and the impunity with which said groups are allowed to operate – leaving room for many to harbour suspicions that this hysteria is in fact a well-financed operation not just by the higher-ups, but even possibly an external lobby.
  • The disconcertingly growing audience paying heed to the hate being spewed – some Facebook groups have garnered up to 15,000 ‘likes’ and Twitter followings of similar proportions.
  • The increasing presence of anti-Muslim hate-speech (however absurd) making its way into local, mainstream media
  • The detrimental long-term effects in the psyche of non-Muslim Sri Lankans in this misleading generalisation of all Muslims.

Muslim-Sinhala relations have never been cause for concern until very recently – the symbiosis with which they existed could in fact have served as a model example of ethnic harmony in a pluralistic, society dating back hundreds of years.  However, what with the LTTE forces having served their 26-year term, Muslims have now seemingly replaced the ex-adversaries as the new enemy target.

Not much has been done as of yet to quash these attacks, except for the occasional online campaign calling for religious harmony and the one-off retaliatory article from Muslim mediators refuting absurd claims.

All eyes are now on the current regime, seeking out truth in their claims that the inculcation of religious tolerance (by taking urgent measures to quell these instigators of hate) is truly top priority on the political agenda.

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