Sri Lanka's Muslims bear brunt of Buddhist extremism
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Sri Lanka has been rocked in recent weeks by a growing wave of anti-Muslim sentiment led by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks. According to one expert, the small island nation is suffering a profound and worrying identity crisis.
On the evening of March 28, a Muslim clothes trader watched as his warehouse was ransacked by an angry crowd of some 500 Sri Lankans. Buddhist monks among the attackers were filmed throwing stones at the Fashion Bug outlet in capital Colombo.
According to BBC reporter Charles Haviland, several people including a number of journalists recording the scenes were injured.
It was not an isolated incident. In the past few months, the number of attacks on the minority Muslim population (9 percent) in the Buddhist-dominated country has been growing.
As well as targeting shops, Muslims have reported vandalism against mosques as well as calls for a boycott on their products and services.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a junior coalition partner in the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has denounced the “hate campaign” being waged against Muslims which the authorities are blaming on a hard core of extremist Buddhist monks.
Islam ‘the invader’
The notion of hate campaigns goes against the grain of Buddhism’s image as a religion of peace and tolerance.
According to Raphael Liogier, a Buddhism specialist at the Aix-en-Provence Institute of Political Studies, Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist community (70 percent) fears that Islam is muscling its way into the social and cultural fabric of the island.
“Sri Lanka’s entire identity is Buddhist,” explained Liogier. “Buddhism isn’t just a religion, it’s a profound cultural identity, a national identity.”
This identity is being undermined by Islam according to some hardliners, says Liogier.
“These fanatical Buddhist monks consider Muslims to be invaders who are threatening Sri Lanka’s soul,” Liogier said. “They believe they need to resist it.”
The epicentre of that resistance is radical political movement “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS).
Considered an “ethno-religious fascist” group by Sri Lankan diplomat and political scientist Dayan Jayatilleka, BBS was created ten months ago and is experiencing “worrying success”, according to Liogier.
Exploiting an undercurrent of resentment within the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka, the BBS has extended its appeal into mainstream politics.
On March 11 the group’s political muscle was behind an order to remove the Muslim “halal” label from foods sold in the country - despite the fact that nearly all the meat in Sri Lanka is killed according to Muslim rules simply because it is the cheaper method.
For the Buddhist monks, being reminded every day that their meat was “halal” was an affront to their cultural identity.
The Muslim “All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama” organisation accepted the removal of the “halal” labelling from meat, stating that it did so to encourage religious harmony.
But despite the concession, Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority risks being put on the back foot by the growing Buddhist fanaticism in the form of the BBS.
“As with all religions, Buddhism has an extremist fringe that exploits collective paranoia,” said Liogier. “And in Sri Lanka it is the Muslim community that is bearing the brunt of this extremism.”
It remains to be seen if the tension in Sri Lanka is a flash in the pan or a sign of growing intolerance towards a persecuted religious minority that is spreading throughout Southeast Asia.
“What worries me is that we are seeing the same tensions and the same violence towards Muslims in Burma,” said Longier. “I worry that the Buddhist identity crisis affecting both Sri Lanka and Burma is deepening and that it will become a phenomenon seen across Southeast Asia in the coming decades.”