The National New Year that dawned this weekend is an opportune moment to reflect on the racial tensions of the times. It’s already late, but better late than never as silence may be taken for acquiescence of what is taking place. The post-Iran revolution (1979) saw an increased manifestation of the Islamic identity around the [...]


New Year reflections for religious harmony


The National New Year that dawned this weekend is an opportune moment to reflect on the racial tensions of the times. It’s already late, but better late than never as silence may be taken for acquiescence of what is taking place.

The post-Iran revolution (1979) saw an increased manifestation of the Islamic identity around the world. There were more and more Muslims strictly following the different schools of thought like Tabligh, Tawheed, Salafi etc. Often there were violent disagreements among them around the world, and even in Sri Lanka like what happened at a mosque in Beruwela not long ago where swords were drawn and blood spilt.

This trend witnessed a greater number of women wearing the hijab, more men sporting long beards, and the increasing number of madrasas for the religious teaching of young children among the Muslims in Sri Lanka as was the case worldwide in countries where Muslims reside either as majorities or minorities. This however, attracted concern, and disenchantment among other religious faiths around the world, and even in Sri Lanka.

Even at the height of the Northern insurgency when it was portrayed as a battle between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, there were murmurs that a bigger problem was yet to come. Many will recall the campaign of the popular Buddhist monk, Soma Hamuduruwo against what he called the ‘Muslimisation’ of the Eastern Province. This campaign led to the birth of a political party like the JHU. There was a genuine apprehension among the Eastern Province Sinhalese that they were losing their lands to the Muslims. In the CentralProvince they felt Muslim traders were taking a grip of the towns. The LTTE on the other hand tried to adjust the population ratio of the province differently – by engaging in ethnic cleansing; those in prayer at a mosque in Kathankudy were mowed down in a hail of bullets, lands cultivated by the Muslims were taken over forcibly and Muslim in Jaffna were evicted and forced into makeshift refugee camps in Puttalam.

The inescapable truth was that it was only a matter of time before someone was going to cash in on this volatile situation once the LTTE was liquidated and the Northern insurgency ended. The ‘Halal’ issue had silently gathered momentum, initially by way of an internet campaign and then the sprouting of militant groups led by a section of Buddhist clergy hitherto in the periphery of national life, unknown and unheard. Their campaign had currency for a variety of reasons, not so much religious, but mostly economic. It was the platform to launch the current anti-Muslim hate campaign.

As much as this new campaign was unfortunate, insofar as the manner in which it has been launched, it was also unfortunate that the Muslim community did not see the writing on the wall. They did not take note of the rising undercurrents. The fact that a few Buddhist monks could give leadership to a campaign that has considerable support, tacit, overt or covert is purely because these insecurities existed, however politically incorrect it may be to say so. Instead, the leadership of the Muslim community relied far too much on their politicians who were more focused on cabinet portfolios and government jobs than speaking up for their community.

The Government in general is being accused of instigating this anti-Muslim hate campaign partly as a welcome distraction to the rising cost of living, democracy deficiency, and general bad governance. The Defence Secretary in particular is said to be the one behind this campaign. The Secretary agrees that all this has landed on his head. “But,” he says “these developments end up as security issues and I have to deal with them. You cannot put a lid on a groundswell of public opinion and hope to keep it that way. We must have a dialogue with all parties. You can’t do things without talking to these groups and working with them. You have to interact and see that it (anti-Muslim campaign) doesn’t reach another level.”

What he says is that somebody has to do the dirty work, and it has fallen on him to do it. And, he points out, that the ‘Halal’ issue was resolved by dialogue.  Religious fanaticism is not a good thing for any country. One has only to look at theological states and compare them with secular states to see the levels of individual freedom enjoyed by its citizens in these states.

According to the Religious Affairs Ministry, there are 724 Buddhist temples in the entire district of Colombo and 519 places of worship belonging to other religions despite the Buddhist population being 70 per cent. There are 225 churches for a population of less than 10 per cent. In 9 districts there are more non-Buddhist places of worship. Sri Lanka is arguably one of the most multi-religious nations in the world. That religious freedom flourishes in the US and Europe is a myth. This country has a great heritage in that sense where temples, kovils, churches and mosques have stood side by side. But tensions have grown, and the Ministry has had to issue three circulars to local councils and police since 2008 giving guidelines on the construction of new places of worship.

Statistics are not the only indicators of a pluralist society. While Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of this nation’s defence, the current campaigns are clearly overstepping their role. Their supporters argue that the history of the world shows that pacifism did not serve Buddhism well. Proselytisation is rampant, with foreign funds, but religious minorities cannot be made to feel insecure or alienated nor deprived of their freedom of worship and to engage in their trade and vocation. Sri Lankan Muslims have never resorted to violence against the state and they love this country as much as anyone else for being afforded the space for diversity and respect of other religions. If their businesses are anti-national, unleash the Inland Revenue on them, not the monks.

To say that this anti-Muslim campaign is the work of ‘Buddhist fundamentalists’ is paying an undeserved compliment to the campaigners. Buddhist fundamentals preach non-violence and loving kindness towards all beings, including animals. Buddhism is a religion proud of its heritage of not shedding blood in its cause and Sri Lankan monks must keep that slate clean. It is unbecoming of monks to be seen mouthing hate speech and throwing their fists about.

The Government has allowed these forces to go too far. It is in its own interest to defuse tensions. For surely the genie once unleashed will be difficult to put back in the bottle. The lessons of July 1983 must be learnt by the majority, and the Government. It was a watershed moment for contemporary Sri Lanka and the country can ill afford to repeat that unfortunate history.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.