By Dharisha Bastians –
Hardline groups are gathering momentum throughout the country, threatening at the very least, minority submission to majority will and at worst, vicious communal violence
Conquer anger by love, conquer evil by good, conquer the miser by liberality, conquer the liar by truth – Dhammapada
The ancient Sufi shrine of Jailani lies off the beaten track in the village of Kuragela, in the Ratnapura District. Sufi scholars say the hermitage shrine is believed to be where Sufi Saint, Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir Jilani meditated for 12 years after making a pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak, the sacred mountain revered by Buddhists, Muslims and Christians alike.
Dennis B. McGilvray in a published paper about the Jailani shrine says that the site is said to have been a place of Muslim refuge and Sufi meditation from the beginning of the fourth century of the Islamic era (about 10th Century AD), with a discovered tombstone and Arabic inscriptions in the area supporting that view.The quiet cave mosque is a deserted place for the better part of the year, but during the kandoori festival to commemorate the death anniversary of Saint Muhiyadeen, Jailani plays hosts to large crowds of Muslim pilgrims for several weeks of prayer and meditation.
If several hardline nationalist movements gaining ground in the country today have their way, by 30 April this year the cave mosque in Kuragela will be “returned” to the Archeological Department and one of what McGilvray says are four Sufi pilgrimage sites in the island may simply cease to be.
It is not the first time that Jailani has become a potential flashpoint and bone of contention between the Sinhala and Muslim communities. A claim that the area was a Buddhist archeological site first surfaced in the early 1970s, during the tenure of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The Department of Archeology immediately reconstructed a small chaitya adjacent to the cave and fenced it off. Further reconstruction was suspended by cabinet order after the shrine’s trustees lodged a petition.
Bone of contention
Certain Buddhist hardline groups claim that the rock caves are the site of a Buddhist monastery dating back to the second century BC. On 6 February, the Sinhala Ravaya and the Bodu Bala Sena, both hardline Sinhala Buddhist movements, met with officials from the Archeology Department, Defence Ministry and the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama and decided that the Jailani shrine would be handed back to the Archeological Department once all the Islamic monuments and buildings at the site are demolished. According to the Sinhala Ravaya, the Department of Archeology has agreed to the proposal and officials from the defence establishment would ‘take necessary action’ if the hand over does not take place. Once handed over, the Department will continue its stalled research into the site’s Buddhist history. Former Chief Trustee of Jailani and Muslim politician, A.L.M. Aboosally, now deceased once noted that the research completely ignored the Arabic inscriptions at the site and claimed the Department of Archeology was “only interested in Sinhala and Buddhist archeology.”
The fact that Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam is at odds with the more widespread and conservative Muslim sects means that the proposed demolition of the Jailani Shrine is not eliciting much reaction from the Muslim community at large. Compared to the outcry against the raid of the Dambulla mosque last year and the Anuradhapura mosque in 2011, the proposed destruction of an ancient Islamic pilgrimage site is barely registering. It is ironic that the first Islamic shrine to be destroyed with official sanction is also a sacred place for one of the most moderate and naturalized sects of the Islamic faith in Sri Lanka. Sufi Islam calls for the renouncing of worldly things, money, title and prestige and promotes the dedication to worship and retiring from others to meditate and worship in solitude. Sufism is the Islam of the poet Rumi, the Islam that spread to the farthest corners of the eastern world, where it has perhaps found resonance with the religions and philosophies of the far-east – including Buddhism.
The attempt to erase Islamic history in Kuregala is part of a larger reclamation movement that saw the monk led Bodu Bala Sena on Sunday (17) issue an ultimatum to the Government that the Halal Certification of food products be banned by the end of March. About 2000 people attended the rally, where hardline monks charged that Muslim extremism was sweeping across the island and threatening to wipe out the Sinhala race. The monks asked the crowds to place their right hands on their hearts and pledge to protect the Sinhala race and the Buddha Sasana from the spread of Muslim extremism.
The Bodu Bala Sena’s General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero told the crowd in Maharagama that democratic values were destroying the Sinhala race. He said it was a worldwide principle that minorities must reside in a country without threatening the majority community.
The movement also unveiled its ‘Maharagama Declaration’ that made it clear it was not going to stop at the Halal ban and exposed the organization’s other agendas. The ten point resolution calls for a ban on Lankan migrant workers to the Middle East, seeks a moratorium on mosque-building, the deportation of foreigners in Sri Lanka engaged in religious activities and a legal suspension of certain contraceptive methods that the group says are aimed at slowing the growth of the Sinhala population.
In speeches charged with explosive rhetoric against Muslim teachings, rituals, attire and way of life, the Bodu Bala Sena called on its supporters to become a civilian police force to protect the Sinhala Buddhist race from being swallowed whole by creeping Muslim extremism. ‘Halalification’ of the food market is the first step towards radical Islamification of the Sri Lankan state, the Bodu Bala Sena representatives claim.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is not a novel thing in Sri Lankan society. A degree of snide mistrust towards the Muslim community has been tangible for some years; sentiments expressed sometimes in jest and sometimes with dead seriousness about the perceived ‘explosion’ of the Muslim population. The Muslim community’s tendency to congregate and live communally, their food choices and rituals are alien concepts to other communities and in observing and critiquing them, rather than celebrating that diversity, political correctness and the virtues of tolerance are sometimes cast aside. The growing Muslim population in the East are of particular concern to the Sinhalese and Tamils of that area, with potential flashpoints in Pottuvil and Arugam Bay for instance, where Buddhist priests lead the call against encroachment by the burgeoning Muslim settlements within the precincts of historical and archeological sites. The battle for land to hold a growing demographic in the East is a cause for genuine concern, not only because of the potential for communal backlash as a result of this scarcity, but also because the encroachment is becoming a serious environment threat especially in the Lahugala and Panama areas. This feeling of insecurity palpable in certain parts of the island coupled with the inherent urban mistrust of ‘the other’ is being skillfully adapted to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria in the urban centres, by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya. The most dangerous trend created by the hardline Sinhala Buddhist movement is the mainstream emergence of openly anti-Muslim sentiment. The Bodu Bala Sena has made it permissible for ordinary Sinhalese to openly adopt positions and express opinions that could be perceived as deeply offensive and hostile to the Muslim way of life. In certain schools and temples, Sinhalese children are being warned of the need to boycott Halal food and Muslim enterprises that stock them.
‘By products’ of rhetoric
And as the anti-Halal movement gains traction online and on the ground, more and more Sri Lankans, some of them neither Sinhala nor Buddhist are beginning to buy into the propaganda. Blinded by media play of the issue and the Bodu Bala Sena’s skillful concealment of its bigotry behind the creation of the Halal controversy, average Sri Lankans fail to realize the potential of the growing extremist movement to strike a match that will engulf the nation once more in the inferno of communal violence.
At the beginning and end of each of their meetings and rallies, the Bodu Bala Sena group is careful to issue disclaimers that they mean no harm to any community by their agitation campaigns. But the rhetoric has begun to do sufficient damage already.
Whispers of a certain type of violence being directed at members of the Muslim community are rarely making headlines. The letters issued to some 50 shop owners in Narammala in the Kurunegala District were published in full in the Tamil press. The letters have asked Muslim traders to vacate their business premises by 31 March or face death. The letters arrived in the post. A police investigation is reportedly underway. Kuliyapitiya in Kurunegala was another site of ugly anti-Muslim demonstrations some weeks ago. A Muslim residents in a village in Horowpathana in the Anuradhapura District, were asked to leave their homes two weeks ago, the an opposition member from the area claims. The village has been inhabited by Muslims for over a hundred years, according to Muslim civil society activists.
It is unsurprising that such incidents are being reported from Districts such as Anuradhapura and Kurunegala, where Muslims form the second largest demographic following the majority Sinhalese. Naturally, the Muslim presence in terms of trade and religious activity is significant in the area, making them fertile ground for the beginnings of a potentially violent trend towards the Muslim community. The Bodu Bala Sena dismisses these ‘minor’ incidents at their media briefings as being the obvious by product of a social movement in which one community feels marginalized by another.
Other reports also persist, of Muslim men being assaulted in the early hours of the morning as they walk to the mosque for prayer, in Kurunegala and even a suburb of Colombo. Muslim owned enterprises – even those that do not stock food products – have begun to see a drop in sales. At the corner shop in the suburbs, traders are beginning to stock both Halal and non-Halal dairy items. Bodu Bala Sena representatives have already stormed a hotel and Government hospitals, one for supposedly playing host to a Buddha Bar and the other NGO-run sterilization campaign.
On Sunday, during the Bodu Bala Sena Rally in Maharagama, a journalist from the Navamini newspaper was questioned and harassed by the crowd and handed over to the Maharagama Police which proceeded to detain the journalist for four hours. Once the rally concluded, a BBC film crew that was shooting in front of the No Limit clothing store that was attacked following a similar demonstration in January were set upon by crowds of people leaving the rally and prevented from getting to their vehicle to leave the site of the confrontation. When the police arrived, they appeared to heed the advice of the mob and continued to keep the BBC crew barricaded until a senior police officer arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowd and finally allowed them to leave. The two incidents smacked of at least a certain kind of reticence on the part of the police to take a position against the mobs of Bodu Bala Sena supporters, even when it was clear the target of the crowd’s wrath were not engaging in unlawful activity.
The silver lining in an increasingly dark cloud is that the four Mahanayakes of the main Buddhist monastic orders are rallying to ensure that any perceived injustice towards the Sinhala Buddhist community is settled through civilized engagement and discourse. Second tier priests from the three orders held lengthy discussions on the issues with priests from powerful monks from Kotte chapter at the Valukarama Temple in Colpetty on Tuesday. The question of whether appeals from key Buddhist leaders to the Bodu Bala Sena to temper the rhetoric and approach the issue with tact will find favour with the hardliners or further alienate them from the moderates remains to be seen.
None of these developments on the ground with regard to growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country is going unnoticed internationally either.
As some analysts point out, Sri Lanka continues to be heavily dependent on support from Islamic states at the UN and other multilateral fora. Member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference have been vital to safeguarding Sri Lanka’s interests in many a diplomatic battle. Sri Lanka’s consistently pro-Palestinian policies, at times even at the cost of other relations, have held the country in high esteem among these nations. Yet these long fostered ties could get strained very quickly if Sri Lanka is perceived to be antagonistic towards Muslims, even worse if the extremist elements are seen to be getting official or semi official sanction.
It is not without irony that Sri Lanka now has to depend on its good neighbourly relations with Bangladesh to fight its battles at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) mere months after the BBS launched a protest in front of the Bangladesh Mission in Colombo while police personnel stood mutely on the periphery. The rowdy mob that threw stones and denounced the Bangladeshis over an attack on a Buddhist temple in that country may not have realized that Dhaka would be so vital in our dealings with the Commonwealth as the chair CMAG, but a Government with some perspective on its foreign relations probably should have.
A Halal compromise?
In the face of all these challenges now mounting against the Muslim community in the island, the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulema appears to be willing to capitulate on Halal and other issues. On Tuesday, ACJU representatives met with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who urged the Muslim organization to consider applying the Halal Certification in a way that it does not impact consumers of other communities. In fact, Muslim leaders themselves are now echoing the call by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who said in Parliament recently that the Halal certification process should be undertaken by a Government agency in order to quell the protests and charges of corruption being levelled at the ACJU by the hardline groups. The proposal has merit, since the Government’s Sinhala Buddhist credentials are strong enough to withstand any charges of discrimination or injustice aimed at the majority community.
But any potential victory on the creative Halal issue – is going to drive the Bodu Bala Sena and other groups to apply similar pressure on various other issues – including a ban on the burqa and legislation to allow Sinhalese men to marry up to five women, according to the organization’s Twitter page. They will pursue these agendas in the knowledge that a Muslim Community which fears reprisal and violence will submit and that the Government in power is largely sympathetic to their cause.
For the time being, the Government and the Opposition are trading charges on the unseen forces actually backing the Sinhala hardline groups. UNP Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera at a media briefing last week slammed the groups saying they were attempting to style themselves on the Taliban and spread extremism and hate against the Muslim community. Samaraweera alleged that the Bodu Bala Sena was being funded by the Defence Ministry’s Secret Fund, which he said he knew was in existence for covert operations and its disbursements took place outside the ambit of parliamentary financial oversight. Bodu Bala Sena reacted with a press conference of its own, denying state or NGO funding and slamming Samaraweera as being a faithless traitor. The Bodu Bala Sena organization is located on the second floor of the plush new Buddhist Cultural Centre on Havelock Road Colombo, run by Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera a leading monk in the organization.
The Government meanwhile believes that the incidents being reported from Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and other parts of the island are essentially the work of an opposition that is keen to stir up trouble and pin the responsibility on the regime. They believe the letters written to traders in Narammala were written by UNP or JVP activists to ‘stir the pot’. It also sees a foreign hand in the activities of the hardline group possibly arising from the fact that at least one of its senior non-clergy leaders was previously employed by a Norwegian funded NGO.
All these counter claims notwithstanding, the Government is showing its hand strongly in what is at the very least the covert encouragement of such hardline groups, their rhetoric and the causes they espouse.
Last week’s rally was replete with references to the Rajapaksa Government being a Government of the Sinhala Buddhists and the presidency being one created and propped up by the majority race. The Government is yet to contradict this position and whether this is because it tends to agree or because it does not want to give credence to the sentiments expressed by the Bodu Bala Sena is uncertain. Just like it is uncertain why the Maharagama Police decided it appropriate to detain a journalist for four hours when a crowd at a rally informed them that he had no place there because he was a Muslim. Or why the Police assisted the post-rally crowds to detain the BBC film crew in front of the clothing store.
A friendly regime
What is certain however is that the regime is thus far at least, considered friendly towards the Bodu Bala Sena cause, by the group’s representatives. This claim is given further credence by the fact that the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a major coalition partner in the Government, is openly backing the Bodu Bala Sena’s anti-Halal, anti-Muslim campaign.
This kind of tacit political approval and covert assistance is a pattern demonstrated once before. Thirty years ago, this country experienced its unique version of a Crystal Night, when violent mobs took arms against Tamil homes and businesses, murdering, burning, looting and terrorizing to avenge crimes committed on a far off battlefield in the north. The scars of that ignominious week remain with the country to this day, delegitimizing Sri Lanka’s claim to being a multi-ethnic, pluralistic society – perhaps forever. Like all defining moments in history, Black July was not a spontaneous, reactionary uprising against the Tamils. It was preceded, analysts say, by years of vilification of the Tamil community and a perception actively encouraged by the political leadership of the time that the Sinhala community was losing jobs and opportunities because of the elevated position of Tamils in society. Hate and fear are powerful forces and if the stage is set appropriately, the spark to light the flames can be ignited at the right moment.
Thus the Bodu Bala Sena presents a fundamental threat to Sri Lanka’s post-war future. A future in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed soon after the conclusion of the war in 2009 there would be no such thing as a ‘minority’ community. Yet here we stand, four years later, dangerously on the edge of full-fledged religious tension, in a society that not only makes clear distinctions between majority and minority communities, but even seeks to suppress and destroy minority identities.
Memory is tragically short in Sri Lanka. 1983 and its precedents hurled the country into civil conflict; polarizing, divisive brutal conflict that robbed Sri Lanka of its soul for three decades. Thirty years later, the country is staring down the barrel of its old mistakes, apparently determined to remake them. As Bodu Bala Sena rhetoric permeates further into the Sri Lankan consciousness, the prospect of hostility and violence between communities draws ever closer.
Political apathy at this juncture is not merely negligent, it is criminal.