New Internationalist

The rise of red-robed Islamophobia in Sri Lanka

A year ago this week, on 20 April 2012, a 2,000-strong mob led by Buddhists monks stormed a mosque in Dambulla, central Sri Lanka, during Friday Prayers. They damaged both the building and property within it, including religious artefacts and texts. The Mosque had already been fire-bombed the previous evening. The mob claimed that the Mosque was situated within a sacred Buddhist area and had been constructed illegally. The reality was that the Mosque, a small, corrugated iron structure reachable only via a narrow path, barely visible from the street, had been used by the local Muslim community for over half a century without question or incident.

I was living in Sri Lanka at the time and after visiting the site of the Mosque a few days after the event, I began to follow the repercussions of the incident. What I found most shocking was that these attacks seemed to occur not only with absolute impunity but with at least some degree of official support. These attacks were committed in the presence of the police and yet no action was taken to apprehend the culprits. Moreover, two days after the incident, an order came from the Prime Minister for the Mosque to be demolished.

One year on, such instances, coupled with muted official responses, have long stopped being shocking and have become an insidious norm. Anti-Muslim fervour is now rife among the majority Sinhalese population, stirred and fed by the firebrand propaganda of extremist Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – The Buddhist Strength Force.

Since the Dambulla incident, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community have been subjected to repeated attacks, including rotten meat being thrown into mosques during prayers, mosques being tagged with obscene graffiti, death threats, arson and Muslim-owned businesses being vandalized by marauding mobs. These attacks briefly reached international attention in March 2013 after footage emerged of a monk hurling stones at a Muslim-owned clothes shop in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, in full view of the police and media.

These attacks have been driven by a series of high-profile hate campaigns targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and their practices. As Javid Yusef, founding  Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims in Sri Lanka explained to me, the BBS have manufactured ‘distrust of the Muslims among Sinhala Buddhists by spreading untruths, half truths and lies among the populace’. These have included advocating a ban on both Hijab and Halal meat certification and campaigns encouraging the Sinhalese community to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses (based on claims ranging from the false: that shop-owners have been concertedly converting  their female Buddhist employees to Islam, to the nonsensical: that  shop-owners were giving free miscarriage-inducing sweets to their Sinhalese customers).

The BBS has frequently advocated vigilantism and in one rally which boasted a crowd of over 10,000, the organization’s secretary, Gnanasara Thero, called on followers to become ‘an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism’.

In the midst of this ever escalating Islamophobic sentiment, the Sri Lankan government, whilst not officially patronising the BBS and its associated Sinhala-Nationalist mobs, has shown few signs of disowning the group or taking any serious action against it. The police have been shown, time and time again, standing by as stone-throwing mobs attack Muslims and Muslim property. On the few occasions in which arrests have been publically called for, the accusations have been dropped prior to any arrests taking place. Moreover, the government has bowed to pressure over the Halal issue resulting in an effective ban on Halal certification.

Perhaps more worrying is the increasing evidence linking the BBS with those inhabiting the highest echelons of power. On 9 March 2013 the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS was officially opened by Defence Secretary (and brother to the President) Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the ominous words: ‘The venerable monks always came forward to protect our country, race, religion and culture.

The extent of the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in whipping up Islamophobic sentiment remains unclear. However, what is clear is that the government is acutely aware that supporters of the BBS make up a core element of its primarily Sinhalese-Nationalist support base and as a result is willing to pander to the group’s increasingly repugnant demands.

What is also clear is that these venomous attacks on the Muslim community have opened new wounds in a country still riven by deep inter-communal divisions and distrust after 27 years of civil war. In Javid Yusef’s words, there is now a ‘fear psychosis among the Muslims… relations between the [Sinhalese and Muslim] communities have been dented to such an extent that a great deal of work has to be done to repair the damage.’

Lewis Garland is freelance journalist and social justice activist. He has written on a range of issues including the rights of asylum seekers and returnees and post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He previously worked for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka.

Twitter @lewisgarland

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  1. #1 Matt in London 15 Apr 13

    ... and another otherwise fine teaching being corrupted in the name of hatred and politics, like so many before. As a practicing Buddhist myself, my thoughts are with those affected by the violence, whether the Muslim community of Sri Lanka or the Rohingyas in Burma. The hate preachers wearing those robes are certainly not worthy being followed, and I hope the general population will soon see them as what they truly are.

  2. #2 renuka 15 Apr 13

    It is government sponsored terrorism. The Mahinda Rajapakse Terrorist Organization under the guise of Boru Bala Sena. Yes, BORU Bala Sena. These monks are rogue monks since when did Buddhism promote terrorism? Buddhism preaches retribution and if that holds true the entire Rajapakse family will indeed suffer for all the atrocities committed to innocent people.

  3. #3 Ariyadasa Yapa 15 Apr 13

    Lewis Garland and his friend Javid Yusef should understand that Halal is not a method of quality control based on any scientific basis but a religious belief and Islamic method of killing animals and humans by slitting throats. There is a business secret also behind this religious propaganda for making extra money on Halal products to finance the expansion of Islam. Imposing hijab on mouslim women which was not practiced in Sri Lanka in the past is way of showing the visible strength Islam . Sri Lanka is mainly a Buddhist country with some moderate Islamic practice and now slowly moving towards the Islamic extremism with the strength of oil wealth in the ME. Sri Lanka cannot afford to loose its historical cultural and religious identity just like in Bangladesh and Pakistan which were ancient Buddhist kingdoms now ruined by the Islam with endless violence.Venerable monks always protected the identity of Sri Lanka from those western colonial day from 1505 since the first invasion by Portuguese then the Dutch and then the British. The Hon. Defense Secretary is perfectly correct and it is the paramount duty and the responsibility of the Sinhalese people to protect their identity in this small island which is the only home for Sinhalese people on this earth.

  4. #4 BunkerRat 15 Apr 13

    Sri Lanka is a predominantly a Sinhala-Buddhist country. No Sri Lankan should hesitate to say it loud and clear to anyone. It seems that the tolerance, smiles and friendship of the Sri Lankans are now being tested by the extremists, while the foreign vultures are looking to fish in troubled waters.

    To the minorities looking for 'special' recognition, I have a friendly message:
    If you don't like the heat... get out of the kitchen!

  5. #5 OneSriLanka 16 Apr 13

    To Ariyadasa Yapa: If the Buddhism that you are trying to protect and promote is that of violence, intimidation and religious intolerance which is currently being toted by the so called Buddhist 'monks' then you are disgracing the basic tenets of Buddhism itself. What happened to the idea of ahimsa?

    To BunkerRat: None of the minorities in Sri Lanka are looking for any sort of 'special recognition or treatment'. The only thing we ask for is respect and decency to be upheld and to not be treated as 2nd class citizens in our own country. I find the defence line of 'we Sinhala Buddhists have nowhere else to go' as being completely unfathomable and hypocritical at its core. My ancestors came to the country in the 15th and 16th centuries. I know nothing about them except for the fact that I carry their surnames. Where am I to go??? Off to Europe to claim asylum based on my 10 times removed grandfather? I have one nationality and one homeland, I am just as Sri Lanka as you are and you have no right to question that or tell me otherwise.

  6. #6 Don Sri Lankan 16 Apr 13

    It is a well known fact that Sri Lanka is a Majority Sinhala Buddhist Country and every one knows that and people respect that, including Christians, Hindu's, Muslims and Tamils.
    However, the extreme nature and the Thuggery attitude shown by BBS and other extreme groups like Ravaya is not the proper reflection of thousands years of Buddhist preaching.
    What is disturbing is that the representatives of these extreme groups are thugs, drunkards and drug addicts. When the poverty level of the country increase the poor has no choice but to look at joining extreme forces like this. Unfortunately this also has the politically motivated backing by few including arms dealers and drug mafias who has other motives to create confusion and chaos in beautiful country like Sri Lanka where multi communities from Christianity, Hindusm, Islam and Tamils along with Sinhalese Buddhist have lived side by side.

    It is also sad that within majority peace loving people of Sri Lanka we have BBS, Ravaya, BunkerRat and Yapas.
    The end result is we are bringing up our future generation, the young ones exposed to such extreme behaviour which will have lasting consequences for generations to come.
    We must acknowledge that there are more than 1 billion Christians in the world, more that 1 billion Muslims and then next to us more than 1 billion Hindus and Tamils in India. Do you want to antoganise all these people when Sinhalese Buddhist are only approx. 13 to 14 million?? Do you what one day India's Tamils and Hindus to walk over to Sri Lanka and take over? Surely not. How many Sinhalese Buddhist are dependent on most of the Christian, Hindu and Muslim countries? Many and more than million.
    Sri Lanka has no place for any sort of extremism, whether they are BBS, Ravaya, JHU, Muslim
    Congress, Jihad's, Al Qaida, Christian missionaries.
    All true Sri Lankan must join hands including Sri Lankan Christians, Buddhist, Muslims, Hindu's and Tamils to stop these nonsense ones and for all and move our country forward. We need to join hand to eliminate them from the face of our mother Lanka.

  7. #7 BunkerRat 16 Apr 13

    @onesrilanka:

    Please look around. A section of extremist ’Tamils’ is asking for the north and east to be recognized and declared as theirs. They want this and that powers and their own king. Some extremists from the 'Muslim' department is asking for halal, hijab and sharia. The 'NGO' groups are asking for special access, permissions, status as they do not recognize our elected leaders! HUH! Another section of extremists from the ’Catholic’ sect wants to have a big scorecard with a high number of coverts from our country!

    Of course the majority of them are peaceful... but how can you say some of them are NOT extremists, having their own agenda to push forward asking for any special recognition?

    That's why you need to expect a reaction too... from the 'extremists', this time from the Sinhala-Buddhist side to counter the perceived threats?

    Note the word... ’reaction’ and live with it.

  8. #8 Sensible 16 Apr 13

    Short and sweet. BBS and their supporters are the biggest threat to Buddhism as preached by Lord Buddha. Either they should learn Pure Buddhism or give up calling themselves Buddhists because their words and actions are an insult to Lord Buddha.

  9. #9 Nuke77 16 Apr 13

    Let's talk about any country in Middle East... Will they even let any non-Islamic religious text to enter those countries through airports, let alone building non-Islamic religious plces like Churches or temples... Will Saudi Arabia allow a Christian church of Hindu Temple be built anywhere in their country???? What is wrong with Sri Lanka points our an illegally built mosque in a land belonging to a temple? You are spurring and churning trouble for Sri Lanka because you are paid to do so by dirty hand.

  10. #10 Yosuf 16 Apr 13

    Last year the new year was different It was full of fun and happiness for many like me . This year with the hate speeches
    spread all over, the muslims felt the difference. To those few who are on the offensive with blessing of the Authorty, I remind them that without unity there is no diversity.
    If we cannot share the cake,( the Kavum too) then we all face a problem.We are promised with many things but not delivered.Extremism in any form must be rejected. Will the Govt go with the minority among the Majority. Play politics?

  11. #11 tuan 16 Apr 13

    @dude ARIYADASA YAPA,
    Let me clarify you about Halal (permissible).FYI,Halaal Logo was only for muslims and muslims are not allowed to force down upon once throat than themselves.Most of the business entities in sri Lanka wish to obtain Halaal certifciate in Sri Lanka,enable them to attract a segment of customers.Why do you think business entities in SL wanted to obtain ISO9000 or sri Lanka standard logo?Its only to attract there image inorder to attract customers.why is Sri Lanka Government still insisting ACJU to issue halaal certificate for sri Lanka export products to Middleast?FYI,halaal (or permissible)is not only confined to what we eat BUT it also refers to what we wear,how we earn(Halaal earning) or or how we conduct our life with our family and firnes(In a halaal way).The fuel we consume from Middleast is an Halaal product,if not we may have to travel on BAKKI KARATTHA.Further over 1.5 million of sri Lankans are earning a halaal living in Middleast.If Halaal(Permissible)is bad why not ask BBS to ask sri Lankan government not to Import any halaal fuel or send our women to middleast to serve the Arab masters?If BBS demands same,you think our leaders will survive.Our Bankrupt leaders need halaal earning from poor housmaids for our countries survival because our country is dragged in to economic disaster because its led by some racist idiots whose survival depends on creating divisiona amongst our Community.OPEN YOUR DEAD BRAIN AND THINK.Further what you quoted out of quran is out of context.You think our business entities can get either ISO 9000 or Sri lanka standard certification free?so what made you think ACJU should do it free.?.Sadly Buddhism is hijacked by some Buddhist thugs doesnt mean all singhalese are bad.People who get caught to these traps as set of uneducated racist barbarians whose brain had no capacity to distinguish between right and wrong than hatred towards a fellow countrymen.IF BBS is so holy they should be worried about Casinss,drug peddling,alcholism.rapes,screwed up judiciary,increase crime rates etc.happenning in our Country.

  12. #12 Baabeeq 16 Apr 13

    Hello Nuke 77 , are you born in Middle east country ? are you a citizen of Middle east Country ? But I born in Sri Lanka, I am citizen of sri lanka, i have right to build mosque anyhare in sri lanka

  13. #13 mohamed 16 Apr 13

    You extremeist try to make another LTTE in Sri Lanka. If this government bend to BBS like groups, they will face consequence very soon...

  14. #14 Athula 16 Apr 13

    It is a handful of extreme unbuddhist elements who are on this path probably with some impunity, but majority of real monks and Buddhists are definitely against BBS and their beliefs.
    I hope they BBS will soon be brought to justice or Sri Lanka will become another Taliban like regime in the Buddhist world. It's up to the government to accept the place ’extremists’ in the Buddhist world or reject it.

  15. #15 Kandyan 16 Apr 13

    Well written. The actions of the BBS clearly contravene the basic pillars of Buddhism such as tolerance, humility and compassion. What is more saddening in this scenario is that even moderate Buddhists who have followed these principles their entire lives, are being easily brainwashed by the justifications and emotionally driven rigmarole put forward by the BBS and similar groups.

  16. #16 nalaka 16 Apr 13

    Many of ancient buddist temples like ’Muhudu Maha viharaya, Kuragala’ destroyed by the Muslims in sri lanka. Buddhist people struggles to protect their rights and ancient values from these kind of Muslims. SO why dont you tell about those things. Even BBS not discuss these things, people never ever reveal about these Muslims bad behaviors against Buddhism.

  17. #17 eureka 16 Apr 13

    We need a systemic change to halt this 65-yr problem.

    The damage control exercise of ''appoitng commissions'' must be dealt with:

    i.Reports of the following are with the President without access to the public:
    A List of Commissions of Inquiry and Committees Appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka (2006 – 2012), 12 March 2012, http://www.scribd.com/doc/85007346/A-List-of-Commissions-of-Inquiry-and-Committees-Appointed-by-the-Government-of-Sri-Lanka-2006-%E2%80%93-2012

    ii.Successive Sri Lankan governments have been doing the same for decades:
    Sri Lanka: Twenty years of make-believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, Amnesty International, 11 June 2009, https://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA37/005/2009/en

  18. #18 Psycho 16 Apr 13

    I feel undresed, by the act of these goon monks who are working against the basic tenant of Buddhism.

  19. #19 NAK 16 Apr 13

    ’He previously worked for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka’
    shows where his bias against buddhists coming from. With regards to the Dambulla incident he himself admits it is just a corrugated shack used for prayers and not a proper mosque. Also,he deliberately withholds the fact that the prime minister offered to build a proper mosque on government land at govenment expence. The same goes for the rest of article full of lies and half truths. From what the writer appear to make out the muslims in this country right now must have closed all their businesses and cringing in fear of BBS,which is clearly not the case.

  20. #20 Almay 16 Apr 13

    Most westerners have failed to understand that Muslim fundamentalists react violently to non believers interpreting or misinterpreting the Quran. It is a fact that this religion does not tolerate other religions and reject flexibility and modernization. Because of this, the fundamentalists have become a threat to the co-existence of different religions. You also have failed to realise that Sri Lankan Buddhists always accommodated pluralism, but now they feel that they do not get the same from these Muslim Fundamentalists. Peace-loving people are scared and suspicious of fundamentalists and some Sri Lankans want to act before it becomes a real problem to Buddhists and Christians. Sri Lankans who react against this Islamization have ample evidence and reasons to fight against this threat. People who write not knowing ground realities commit injustice to their own people (innocent people getting killed in Boston, New York, London and
    Other European cities).

  21. #21 pete 16 Apr 13

    The Sri Lankan ’buddhist mobs and their stupid leaders are playing with the fire.If the harassement of the muslims goes on, sooner or later the muslim countries will get angry and retaliate. If the muslim countries kick all Sri Lankan guest workers out , there suddenly will be several 100000 's of Sri Lankans returning without any jobs, and the great amount of money these send back to the island will suddenly stop, which will be detrimental for the islands weak economy. But i think the government of Sri Lanka, who are a bunch of idiotic gangsters , mass murderers and war criminals, are so stupid, that they can not see ,what is at stake.

  22. #22 OneSriLanka 16 Apr 13

    To BunkerRat: I'm sorry you're saying what? That the 'NGOs' are asking for special access?? Groups like the UN, Oxfam, Plan are all adhering to the basic principles of the Humanitarian Charter and attempting to afford a long suffering people with some semblance of aid and normalcy in their lives. The facts are malnutrition rates in these areas are double that in the rest of the country, primary school enrolment rates are poor at best and the most important aspect of all is that these people have absolutely no say in where their lives are headed. They are at the mercy of a government who instead of promoting justice and equality are instead fanning the flames of religious extremism.

    Extremists from the Catholic 'sect'? Who exactly are you referring to? Do you understand the meaning of the word sect? If you are going to attempt to promote the protection of your own religion please refrain from so blatantly shitting all over someone elses.

    You are talking about the idea of reaction in this sense which goes directly against any of the teachings of Lord Buddha. This type of behaviour feeds into the 3 poisons at the heart of teachings; that of greed, hate and ignorance. What you are talking about here has nothing to do with Buddhism, let's be honest, it's about a chauvinistic type of patriotism which will bring about nothing but pain and destruction to an already fractured nation. Face the facts, the country will never be 100% Buddhist. So stop crying about it and deal with it in a harmonious and peaceful way.

  23. #23 Charlotte Hay 20 Apr 13

    Great article, really shocking for those who believe Buddhism to be a peaceful and tolerant way of life. As an aside however I don't think the issue of Halal certification is necessarily related to religious intolerance - the practice of ritual slaughter is a barbaric act of cruelty towards living beings, and any society, but especially one that promotes peace and respect for all living creatures (as Buddhism is supposed to), is perfectly entitled to ban such a practice in my opinion.

  24. #24 Nadia 23 Apr 13

    This is exactly what Christians in Egypt put up with on a regular basis! But from Islamists.

  25. #25 Nadia 23 Apr 13

    This is exactly what Christians in Egypt put up with on a regular basis! But from Islamists.

  26. #26 william duckworth 30 Apr 13

    I find this article to say the least amazing!!Muslims have the gall to complain about anti Islam activities.!! We here in the U.K. have these ’peaceful’ Muslims advocating violence,death and even a Muslim take over of Europe,and these people live HERE,They even have ’patrols’ warning people that they are in a Muslim area and thats in LONDON!!.I would advocate returning them all (millitants) back to their country of origin as they are a threat to any society that is foolish enough to take them in .

  27. #28 Jacobson 10 Jun 13

    Its said that if a dog bites a man it is not news,but if a man bites a dog it is news.So when muslims attck,harass ,intimidate non muslims it is not news(It is expected),the unexpected thing is non muslims attacking muslims..and that is big news !

  28. #29 Ruwan 26 Mar 14

    All religious extremists in Lanka must be banned which includes the Islamic extremist group thaweed jamaat in the east of the country, which the writer has conveniently failed to mention. Buddhist extremism is not the only extremism in Sri Lanka

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