GROWING up, I was taught that among the major religions, Buddhism was the only non-violent one. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all preached versions of religious war and harsh physical punishments. Lord Buddha, on the other hand, was a man who repudiated the killing of another human being for any reason.
All the more reason that the sight of saffron-clad Buddhist monks leading mobs to kill non-Buddhists in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar has been so shocking. The latter has been the scene of gruesome ethnic cleansing that has driven close to a million Muslim Rohingyas to Bangladesh. And recent anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka show that sectarian hate is still alive and kicking in that once-tolerant island.
When I began spending large parts of the year in Sri Lanka over the last decade, I was struck by the presence of churches, a mosque and temples in close proximity in the small town close to our beach house. Surely, I thought, this was a sign of inter-faith harmony. How wrong I was: I soon learned that we lived not far from Matra, the heart of the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) uprising. A Marxist outfit formed in the ‘60s, supposedly to protect the rights of the Tamils and the Sinhalese communities, the JVP rose against the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1971. While no accurate figures are available for the resulting bloodbath, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 were killed.
Of course this figure is dwarfed by the carnage that took place at the end of the long civil war against the Tamil Tigers fighting for independence in the north of the island. There, too, Muslims were subjected to ethnic cleansing and driven out by the LTTE in the early ‘90s, forced to abandon their farms and businesses. And after the war ended, and they tried to reclaim their properties, few succeeded. Many did not make the effort as their lands and shops are now occupied by local Tamils.
In an effort to demonise Muslims, extreme Sinhalese nationalists have put out concocted demographic projections showing an inexorable rise in the Muslim population that, over time, will overtake the number of Buddhists. But academic studies rule out this possibility. This kind of fear-mongering is similar to the misinformation that stokes Islamophobia in Europe today.
Muslims today comprise around 10 per cent of the total population, and generally maintain a low profile. Many families trace their presence on the island to the early Islamic period when Arab dhows sailed to the Far East to trade. On the way, the traders established a colony around the coastal city of Galle where a thriving Muslim community exists to this day. Many are engaged in the lucrative gemstone business, a cause of envy for many of their non-Muslim neighbours.
Dotted along the coast are communities of poorer Muslim fishermen, seen by many Sinhalese as dirty and uncaring about their neighbourhoods. The general perception is that they have large families, and make little effort to integrate. In our local town is a small-time Muslim jeweller we send guests to. His young son has a long beard and wears an Arab jubbah. After graduating from high school, he began working in the local mosque instead of trying to get a well-paying job at the new tourist hotel that had opened recently. His sister, a very bright young girl, was almost thwarted from trying to go to university by her conservative father. I think our intervention helped her to apply. This is just one example of the distance that has opened up between the two communities.
Of course things are very different in the far more cosmopolitan Colombo. But even here, one sees more burqa-clad women than ever before. Inter-faith marriages are rare, except among highly sophisticated circles. Another irritant is the fact that while Muslims slaughter and eat beef, few Sinhalese do. A couple of years ago, a Muslim-owned supermarket that sold halal beef was attacked by a mob.
But this pales into insignificance before the recent violence witnessed in Kandy district. Kandy is a very popular tourist destination, and is home to the Temple of the Holy Tooth. When a group of Muslims attacked and seriously injured a truck driver in a road rage incident, a mob led by a rabid monk from the BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) incited an anti-Muslim rampage that saw many houses, shops and vehicles torched. A 10-day state of emergency was declared and a curfew imposed to curb further violence. But the police were seen as being slow to act in the initial phase of the riots.
Indeed, the government is viewed as far too tolerant of the hate speech many BBS monks indulge in. They have spewed hatred against the Rohingyas who have arrived as traumatised refugees from Myanmar, and their general approach can be summed up by the slogan: “Sri Lanka for the Buddhists.”
And yet the island has been home to multiple faiths and communities for centuries. Apart from the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British — all of whom left their DNA implanted in the population — there are Muslims and Hindus who have made Sri Lanka their home over the centuries. Exact details for the Tamil presence here are blurry, but according to some archaeologists, they have lived on the island since around 2,000 BC, establishing their own kingdoms, and fighting wars against the Sinhalese. So clearly, the rivalry between the two communities goes back a long time.
It would seem that human nature being what it is, racial, ethnic and communal hatred is hard to erase, no matter how gentle and peace-loving the prophet who tries to teach us that human life is too precious to sacrifice.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018