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OPED: Anti-Muslim hate campaign intensifies in Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, May 6 2013 (IPS) - The genie is out and it is difficult to put it back into the bottle, say concerned Sri Lankans as anti-Muslim hatred spreads far and wide, evoking fears of a major ethnic riot which the country last witnessed in July 1983.  But the voice of the concerned citizens is a murmur against the raucous anti-Muslim hate speech.

At dusk on Friday, April 12, a small group of concerned Sri Lankans gathered for a candlelight vigil outside a state-owned building which houses the head office of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a group that has become synonymous with the anti-Muslim hate campaign. The protesters charged that the BBS and its hardline monks were tarnishing the image of Buddhism and violating its precepts such as compassion and non-violence.

Barely an hour into the peaceful protest, police broke up the vigil and dragged a few outspoken among them to a police jeep while BBS office staff took pictures of the crowd.

Angry protesters, among them members of the social-media group ‘the Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’, claimed that the police action once again proved that the anti-Muslim hate campaigners had state patronage.

Visakha Tilekeratne, a member of a civil society network working to create a Sri Lankan identity, says the vigil was a good move, though it was badly organised. “The protest was a good thing because the Bodu Bala Sena’s true colours came out and the government’s bias was exposed,” she says. “They may have succeeded in dispersing the demonstration. But people have begun to question the BBS. This is a blessing in disguise.”

But she also admits that the seeds of hatred have been planted deeply even in tender minds – children. Members of civil society have to play a big role to reverse the trend, she says adding that like-minded people have come forward to form a network called “Citizens for Secure Sri Lanka” to strengthen moves to create a “Sri Lankan” identity irrespective of religion, ethnicity or language.  She says they were concerned because 65 attacks on Muslim and Christian places of worship have taken since a mosque in Dambulla came under attack 12 months ago.

But BBS denies the group is anti-Muslim. Its Chief Executive Officer Dilantha Vithanage says his group’s main focus is to protect Buddhism. “We are not a Buddhist army. Ours is a non-violent intellectual force that seeks to protect Buddhism,” he says.

But others disagree. They say the BBS’s hand is visible in regular attacks on mosques and Mulim-owned businesses, the latest being a mob attack on one of the well-known fashion stores in suburban Colombo in March.

“We have not harmed a single person. Instead, we have made peace among communities,” Vuthanage says challenging anyone to prove that the BBS has taken part in violence or condoned it.

But people who have listened to BBS speeches or watched YouTube clips of its rallies disagree. In one such clip, a monk claimed that an underage Sinhala girl was raped in the head office of the fashion store. The Muslims say this was the lie that led to the attack on the store. In yet another tape, a monk urges the Sinhalese not to eat Muslim food, because the Quran says that Muslims should spit three times into food before serving it to non-Muslims. Another untruth. When confronted, Vithanage says these were remarks uttered by guest speakers and his group has little control over them.

But Muslims and civil society activists say the BBS has floated several front groups and their hate-speech has done irreversible damage to the coexistence between ethnic groups.  They say they have reason to be worried about the situation because the country’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is seen to be backing the BBS.

Described as the most powerful Sri Lankan, he was the chief guest at the opening of a BBS training centre in the southern city of Galle in March. The Defence Secretary also played a key role in resolving a dispute over the ‘halal’ label on food items. But the Muslims say the solution he helped worked out was in favour of the BBS which spearheaded the anti-halal campaign.

However much Secretary Rajapaksa says he has little to do with the BBS, the Muslims are not convinced. A retired Muslim businessman from Matara, a city south of Galle, refused to be interviewed on phone because he feared the phones were tapped. Other Muslims believe that state intelligence officers have been keeping a tab on mosques. “They wanted to know which mosque recited ‘Qunut an-Nazila’ {a special petition to God during times of crisis},” a Muslim youth said. The mosques have since discontinued the practice.

At the centre of the anti-Muslim hate campaign is the increasingly noticeable Muslim identity in this Buddhist majority country. In the country’s commercial capital, Colombo, there are more mosques than Buddhist temples. The crowd at the Galle Face esplanade in the evenings makes any foreign visitor wonder whether Muslims are really a minority in Sri Lanka. The sight of Muslim men in long beards and ‘Arab thaub’ or Pakistani Shalwar Kameez and Muslim women in black Abayas at this sea-front leisure park is conspicuous.

Adding to the Sinhala Buddhists’ worries are the latest census figures, which record a significant increase in the country’s Muslim population. Muslims now constitute nearly 10 per cent of the country’s 21 million population. The Sinhalese make up 70 per cent and the Tamils 17. These worries have given rise to groups such as the BBS and Sinhala Ravaya in the past year or so. Their message is: Buddhism is under threat in Sri Lanka, the chosen land to preserve the Buddha’s teachings in their pristine form.

Scores of anti-Muslim social media sites claim that the Muslims control the economy, procreate at a faster rate than other communities, build mosques from funds from Gulf countries and Muslim men marry Sinhala girls and forcibly convert them.

These websites urge the Sinhalese not to sell property to Muslims and to boycott Muslim businesses. Some even warn that the products the Muslims sell contain substances that affect the fertility of the Sinhala people.

With little action from the Government to check on these anti-Muslim websites, the Muslims fear the hate-campaign will sooner or later trigger a backlash like the July 1983 ethnic riots against the Tamils or the recent anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar, where the Buddhist group 969 has raised similar concerns about a ‘Muslim threat’ to Buddhist culture.

Peace activist Tilekeratne and the BBS’ Vithanage say they do not believe an ethnic riot is on the cards. But many Muslim leaders fear a major clash is just a stone throw away. It almost happened in Kuliyapitiya in February when anti-Muslim demonstrators protected by police carried an effigy of a pig naming it Allah. Angry Muslim youths wanted to hit back, but elders restrained them, saying the protesters could be defeated if they were not provoked.

The Muslims say the Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups which have succeeded in removing the Halal label now want a ban on Niqab. BBS’ Vithanage says they want Niqab out. “The government imposed a ban on dark tinted glasses in vehicles for a particular reason. Such considerations should be there for Niqab also,” he says.

According to a Muslim lawyers’ collective which maintains a hotline to support victims of hate-campaign and compiles incidents of attacks on Muslims, the latest anti-Niqab incident took place at Colombo’ National Hospital, where a female doctor angrily removed the niqab of a Muslim patient and threw it away.

With sections of the private media also whipping up the hate, civil society members, engaged in bringing about ethnic harmony, face a hell of a task. Only about three hundred people turned up for a Colombo rally on Sunday April 28 to promote the message “hate has no place in Sri Lanka”. However, the positive sign was that among the crowd were prominent figures, academics, diplomats and politicians. At this rally former diplomat Dayan Jayatilleke told the media that because of the activities of some ethno-fascist groups, it had become increasingly difficult for diplomats like him to defend Sri Lanka abroad.

As a solution, Moulavi As-Shiekh M.S.M. Fazal (Madani), says the situation the Muslims in Sri Lanka are facing is similar to what the Muslims faced in the early days of Islam in Makkah.  “We should not create a differentiated identity through our appearance. Other people should not look at Muslims as a different community or a strange community. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) always dressed like everyone else in the community.  Within the Islamic dress code, one should try to identify himself or herself with the community where he or she lives in. This helps promote harmony.  What may be suitable for a Muslim majority country may not be suitable for a country like ours where Muslims are a minority,” he says. Controversial though his remarks may be, there appears to be some food for thought in what he says.

(The writer is International Editor of the Wijeya Newspaper Group, Sri Lanka and deputy editor of the Sunday Times. He writes a weekly column for Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka. He is also a lecturer on international relations)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tissaj1 Tissa Jayasinghe

    BBS is a tool in the hands of Norway and USA.This is not a secret. Main idea is to destabilize Sri Lanka

  • Mahinda G

    The BBS brought some of the matters which were of concern to a majority of the public into the open, such as the ‘Halal Certification’ of nearly all merchandise at an annual fee affecting all consumers including the 90% non-Muslims, lack of visibility of the disbursement of the certification money so collected, mushrooming of unauthorized mosques and prayer houses even in places earmarked as Buddhist sacred areas, bulldozing of lands coming within the Digavapi temple’s archaeological zone by Muslim encroachers, Muslim encroachments into the temple lands of the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil, the recent adaptation of Muslim fundamentalist attire such as the the niqab, and cheering for the Pakistani cricket team when they play against Sri Lanka, thereby differentiating themselves from the rest of the population which naturally generates ill feelings and hostility.

    I disapprove of the BBS decision to hold public rallies to discuss these issues as it could lead to confrontations and clashes. The BBS needs to be congratulated for having direct talks with ACJU to reach an acceptable arrangement on the ‘Halal’ certification issue. Although they have distanced themselves from the hurtful posters and utterances of guest speakers,they still need to take responsibilty for such posters and utterances of participants at their meetings..

    It is always best to bring issues of concern into the open and have the leaders discuss same freely and reach an amicable arrangement.. If the advice of Moulavi As-Shiekh M.S.M. Fazal (Madani) is followed, peace and good relations could be further strengthened.

  • MahesL

    Agree witn Mahinda G’s comment that the BBS articulated objections to aspects of the Muslim community’s activities that were of concern to most Buddhists who felt helpless in the face of what they perceived as Muslim aggression. The answer did not lie in the manner and behavior by which the BBS presented their case, but what was articulated by them needed to be stated with civility. Hopefully this can now lead to a new and more civil level in the interchange of opinions.

  • Ranjith

    The BBS is an expected response to the militant Whabaism spreading in Sri Lanka.
    Just as much as the halal issue was settled it is up to the Muslims in SL to take a good look at the “developments”; taking place eg in Kathankudy, Kalpaitiya and in the places where the Muslims are located , and take the initiatives for peaceful co-existence .Not to act as three blind monkeys not to see etc and protect the culprits and lay the blame with the BBS as the writer of this article has done. It is sad but true that the Whabism is leading the country to an abyss