Sri Lanka: Understanding the Buddhist-Muslim Communal Clashes

24 Jul, 2014    ·   4577

Zarin Ahmad explains the current conflict between Sri Lanka's Buddhists and Muslims from a historical perspective

In June 2014, history repeated itself when three Muslims were killed and over 50 injured in Aluthgama, Sri Lanka. Almost 100 years ago, in May 1915, communal violence erupted between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The 1915 riot was a spontaneous expression of deep economic hostilities with Muslim traders. This time the island’s Muslim community finds itself at the receiving end of a concerted and well thought-out attack by the jubilant Sinhala-Buddhists in a post-war Sri Lanka. The militant Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an off-shoot of another hard-line Sinhala organisation the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is spearheading a movement against Muslims. Over the past two years, the BBS has organised a systematic and structured attack on Muslim places of worship, dress-code, dietary practices, and business establishments. In February 2013, the BBS went on an aggressive campaign against ‘halal’ certification of foods that follow Islamic dietary guidelines. Later, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama withdrew the ‘halal’ certification in the domestic market ‘in the interest of peace’. Soon after, the Islamic dress-code of the ‘abaya’ became the new bone of contention and drew the ire and disdain of the BBS. Since 2012, the BBS has been distributing pamphlets to discourage people from buying products from Muslim-owned establishments.

Why has there been this aggressive campaign against Muslims, and what has been the Muslim response in the island’s politics? The answer lies in the island’s complex political history. Muslim identity in Sri Lanka grew within and as a result of competing Sinhala and Tamil identity assertions. Muslims are the third largest community in the island-nation. According to the 2011 census, they constitute 9.7 per cent of the country’s population. Despite a sizeable number, they are scattered across the country, particularly in the eastern province, and in Colombo. Ethnically they comprise Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors, Malays, Memons and Bohras. The term ‘Moor’ was used by the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, to refer to Muslims of mixed Arab origin living in the coastal cities of Sri Lanka.  A majority of the island’s Muslims claim their ancestral connection to Arab maritime traders – that predates the birth of Islam. Except southern Muslims who are bilingual (i.e they speak Tamil and Sinhala), Muslims are predominantly Tamil-speaking. In a country sharply divided along linguistic lines, they formed an identity on the basis of religion.

Due to a history of persecution (under Portuguese and Dutch rules from the 1600s to the beginning of the 1900s), scattered geography, and competing Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, Muslims have by and large maintained a low-profile in the complex dynamics of the island’s politics. However, in the 1980s, when the fight for a Tamil homeland was happening literally in their backyard, Muslims could not remain out of the fray. They opposed a merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces fearing that they would become a ‘minority within a minority’.

They demanded that the predominantly Muslim areas in the Eastern Province should be linked together as a single political and administrative entity. This was also the period when their political and electoral identity crystallised with the formation of the island’s first effective Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) under the aegis of the late MHM Ashraff. Socially, Muslims expressed an identity based on their religion to distinguish themselves from Tamils. However, despite being geo-politically located in the locus of the war, Muslims did not resort to militancy like their Tamil counterparts.

In the immediate post-war political dynamics, the SLMC initially supported the opposition coalition. However, the lasting impact of the total obliteration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and the overwhelming electoral victories of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) hereafter put minorities, particularly Muslims, on the political back foot and an end to a viable opposition. The SLMC joined the ruling coalition in 2010.

This brings us back to our initial question – why is there a systematic attack against Sri Lankan Muslims? First, this could be yet another reflection of rising Islamophobia in the Indian Ocean region as asserted by Justice Minister and SLMC leader, Rauf Hakeem. Second, the demographic number game has been critical in Sri Lankan politics. The 2011 census indicated a positive curve in the Muslim population. This growth is perceived as an upsurge of growing Muslim domination. Third, the military victory over the LTTE in 2009 gave the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners a strong ‘imagined’ sense of preserving the ‘homeland’ for themselves.

In a much delayed response to the riots of June 2014, Hakeem threatened Muslim radicalisation and claimed that Sri Lanka could become a fertile ground for 'outside' forces. Going by the history of Sri Lankan Muslims, this may well be another strong statement by the SLMC to assert to its electorate that it is the only party that stands up for Muslim rights. But what is more disturbing is the growing latent hostility in a section of the majority mind-set.