Muslims in Sri Lanka: Four Reasons for their Marginalisation

31 Oct, 2014    ·   4722

Roomana Hukil looks at the alienation of the Sinhalese Muslim community from mainstream society

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

With the defeat of the Tamil Tigers after 26 years in 2009 in Sri Lanka, it was hoped that the Sri Lankan political space would see a new opening for a peaceful co-existence, and attempts were made to address the long standing grievances between the Tamil community and other minority groups. However, Sinhalese Buddhist triumphalism led to its consolidation of power within the ruling party. As a result, assertions for a single Sinhala Buddhist state were made and many instances of violence, essentially against the Sinhalese Muslims, drew the attention of the international community.

Such percolating hate-filled propaganda against the Sri Lankan minorities raise concerns about the prospects for reconciliation and reconstruction policies/processes. What has led to the marginalisation of Sri Lankan Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially when compared to the other ethno-religious minority groups in the country?

Historical Hiccup
At the beginning of the 20th century, the majoritarian attitude towards the minority was based on religious and not ethnic factors. This attitude changed during independence, when Tamil Indians were targeted based on their ethnicity. It was only post-independence that the Sri Lankan Muslims started being targeted on the basis of their religious, linguistic and ethnic differences. Disparities were first realised in the early 1990s, when 72,000 Tamil Muslims from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka were forcibly evicted by the LTTE when Jaffna peninsula was captured and hundreds were massacred.

This phenomenon has re-emerged with the defeat of the LTTE and, now, the divide is based on a composition of ethnic, religious, political and economic underpinnings.

The latest census indicates a vast increase in the number of Sinhalese Muslims from 8.5 to 9.7 per cent in 2001 and 2012 respectively. On the other hand, the Theravada Buddhists who represented 76.7 per cent of the population in 2001 have fallen to 70.2 per cent in 2012. This alteration disturbs the majority Buddhist community as well as the national political parties who consider electoral representation and allotment and distribution of the limited land as pressing concerns. Consequently, political parties are alleged to be supporting the cause for radical groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Furthermore, on the eastern coast, Tamil and Sinhalese Muslims roughly share the same demographic composition that is steadily mounting. This is seen as an impediment to the Sinhalese Buddhist’s ideology of a ‘single Sinhala nation’ since they live in a minority there. 

Sensitivity Factor
The objective of the hardliners in Sri Lanka is to touch upon and raise sensitive issues that are common also to other less aggravated Sinhalese sections of the population. The aim is to create an inter-communal divide. Early 2013, the BBS campaigned against the system of certifying halal meat products in the country, stating that Muslims were trying to impose their food habits with an intention of bringing about Sharia law. Due to pressure exerted by the BBS, the government pronounced that the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) should cease to issue halal certificates on meat products.

Supplementing the frantic urge to create communal divisions, the BBS also alleged the slaughter of cows in a meat inspection facility in Dematagoda. However, they were proven inaccurate.

Eye Openers
The status of Muslims has changed considerably since the 1970s, when Muslims were played against the LTTE. With the fall of the Tamil Tigers, the Sinhalese Muslims lost their value-laden image and ceased to exist as perceived assets to the Sinhala state. Also, post 2009, Muslims started flourishing in their business enterprises, trade and commerce units in urban spaces. They gained a foothold in the Sinhalese Army and acted as significant contributors to the economy. The Sinhalese Buddhists began to fear that their positions and opportunities were being overwhelmed by the minority groups.

Without the issue of the Sinhalese Muslims in Sri Lanka, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero would not be a popular figure. Radical establishments like the BBS seek out new enemies and problems to grow and survive. As a consequence, the BBS also urges Muslims to exhibit their anxiety and angst against the majority Sinhalese Buddhists so that they may spontaneously react, allowing the BBS to project the Muslims negatively and gain popular support from the majority Sinhalese population. 

As a result of these factors, Muslims are being pinned against the wall as were the Tamils in 1972 when the standardisation quota was implemented. Gradually, the moderate Tamils turned radical. This may seems as a distant possibility but certainly cannot be discounted for the Sinhalese Muslims. At present, Muslims in Sri Lanka are alienating themselves from the mainstream community. The issue, at this time, for the Sinhalese Muslims in Sri Lanka is to choose between living as ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka’ or as ‘Muslims in Sri Lanka’.

The author would like to thank Dr N Manoharan for his inputs.