The Political Economy of Prejudice: Islam, Muslims and Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka Today: Some Reflections


From the Say No to Halaal Facebook group

Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is increasingly finding itself the target of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists: a campaign against halal, attacks on mosques, boycott of their businesses, hate speech, intimidation and threats. Many concerned social activists, researchers and commentators have attempted to grapple with current manifestations of this phenomenon with a view to shaping meaningful and effective responses by furthering our understanding of its socio-political and economic dimensions.  This reflection is shared in the same spirit.

I focus on two related aspects. Firstly, I highlight why it is important to term (and view) the spate of recent acts not just as anti-Muslim, as many tend to do, but also as anti-Islam. Viewing Sinhala-Buddhist extremist rhetoric only as ‘anti-Muslim’ actually overlooks the underlying prejudice against Islam itself that fuels this campaign. Secondly, the piece simultaneously argues for going beyond a mass-appeal-centred view of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to account for its links with currently dominant political economic configurations and their interaction with social segmentation and ethno-religious identity-based differentiation in Sri Lanka. I conclude by arguing why the politics of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists constitutes a politics of dominance.

The anti-Islam dimension in Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism and why calling it that matters

It is common to hear actors such as the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) claiming that they are not against Islam or even Muslims as such but only against certain fundamentalist Islamist ideas and their advocates. They make a distinction between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘traditional’ Muslims, claiming that Buddhists have lived in harmony with the latter for centuries. While this distinction is itself problematic, it is also a deceptive manoeuvre. For in reality, the BBS and its ilk have rallied against practices such as halal, which are far from a mark of fundamentalism. It is important to note that one can indeed oppose positions taken by certain Muslims without necessarily being anti-Islam; in Islam as in other religions there is internal criticism and contestation on various issues of doctrine and practice, including on fundamentalisms. However, the targets of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists today are some of the most widely shared elements of Islam in Sri Lanka—places of worship, halal, Friday prayers, etc. Moreover, they have done so in a manner that signals a desire for dominance (more on this towards the end).

The truth is that fundamentalist forces like the BBS are both anti-Muslim and anti-Islam in character and these two strands must be recognised as distinct though obviously related. This is important, not merely for the sake of analytical accuracy but also to help shape responses better. By overlooking the anti-Islam dimension we may also be reducing, albeit inadvertently, the scale and complexity of the problem. Considering the anti-Islam dimension highlights how certain key elements within Islam’s doctrine and belief structure are characterised as inherently dangerous rendering all practices suspect and all adherents legitimate targets.

Amongst the many similarities between the Sinhala-Buddhist right wing, and birds of a similar feather elsewhere, including Hindu nationalism in India, is the sustained campaign to underline that Islam is more prone to fundamentalism and extremism than any other religion. In other words, just as tolerance is apparently written into the DNA of Buddhism and Hinduism, intolerance is apparently written into the DNA of Islam and therefore Muslims are prone to illiberalism and even violence.

Another related aspect is the consistent demonization of the idea of sociality and fraternity found in Islam. The doctrinal stress on ‘brotherhood’ and unity of all Muslims—a nation without borders, so to speak—is quite central to many interpretations of Islam. This so-called ‘unity’ within Islam is itself posited as a threat and is used to stir up fear and insecurity regarding a national minority behind which lurks a giant global demos—“the destructive hordes of Islam”, to put it like Anagarika Dharmapala did. This is also connected to the myth of demographic conquest, more on that later. However, apart from some core Islamic beliefs that maybe shared (in some cases even this is debatable) there is significant divergence in the religious and secular worlds of Muslims in Sri Lanka (themselves internally differentiated) and in many other countries, especially in the Arab world (itself very fractured). Just consider also that political violence in the name of Islam has in fact claimed mostly Muslim lives or that Muslim migrant workers from Sri Lanka or elsewhere are treated as badly as any others in the Gulf; young Rizana was not even given a chance at justice in Saudi Arabia.

The anti-Islam dimension in this context is also doing the work of stereotyping and essentialising what is a heterogeneous belief system. Islam, like every other major organised religion in the world, is an interpretive sphere marked by disagreement over various elements of practice and even doctrine. Not everything that Muslims do is Islamic and not all Muslims may agree that some aspect of practice or doctrine is Islamic for the same reason. In fact, simply because someone follows Islam does not mean he or she always considers being Muslim as his or her primary identity. However, essentialising Islam is central to the anti-Islam project because it can then also be used to justify calling on Muslims everywhere to explain the actions of anyone who professes to act in the name of Islam anywhere. This recent Daily News article, which connects “disparate events in the Muslim world, taking them out of context and then applying them to Sri Lanka” is a good example.

Let us consider the anti-halal position. It does beg the question as to whether it is linked to Muslims wearing their Islamic badge to a marketplace of otherwise apparently socio-culturally unmarked consumers? Or does certification of commodities as halal amount to a ritual stamping of goods meant to be socio-culturally undifferentiated? However, in reality, a socially undifferentiated marketplace is itself a myth—a full moon has a significant impact on commerce as well as what you can buy in super-markets in Sri Lanka; thus, whether or not one is Buddhist one cannot buy alcohol or meat. Marketing and advertising, branding, and packaging are all to often standard bearers of culture, ethno-religious symbols, and nationalist sentiments—the market is not and has never been a zone free of identity politics and culture. Meanwhile, the ritual stamping of Sri Lanka’s political, economic, socio-cultural and physical geographies with Buddhist relics, ruins and temples as well as flags, statues, pictures, symbols, pilgrimages, etc.—now a fairly lucrative market in itself—is in overdrive.  Even a critique that halal certification was commoditised —i.e. became a means of making profits for ACJU or Muslim businesses—conveniently ignores, among other things, the economic motivations of all producers in reaching out to Muslim consumers not to mention the widespread commodification of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism itself.

Beyond the anti-halal mobilisation, the anti-Islam dimension in this context is doing the work of reproducing the myth that Islam ‘imposes’ economic behavior and patterns of consumption that are designed and always operate in ways that enable some sort of communal accumulation of surplus. However, it also taps into the underlying prejudice that Islam’s belief system is in conflict with the ethos of individualist, capitalist consumerism being illiberal as it is—the clash of civilisations redux. Critiques of consumerism grounded in Islam strike a slightly more discordant note with many liberals for it is seen to bring with it an additional baggage of intolerance, an overbearing sociality, orthodoxy and support for modes of communal accumulation.

The view that Islam is “alien” and Muslims “Shylockian” (Dharmapala again) has a long history in the sub-continent and is connected with narratives of Muslim political and economic conquest through war (in India) and through trade (in Sri Lanka) respectively.  While Christianity too has been targeted in the sub-continent it is arguably connected to narratives of spiritual conquest i.e. conversions, to which are tied to ideas of ‘being led away’, ‘forcibly converted’ etc., which explains why missionaries and the evangelicals are especially prime targets. However, spiritual conquest is somewhat different, not least owing to its reversible nature i.e. reconversion (actively pursued for quite sometime now by Hindu nationalist groups in India). It is also set apart from political and economic conquest, which also allow for stoking sentiments of defeat, loss, and humiliation. In addition to all this, there is the narrative of demographic conquest, connected uniquely with Islam and the structure and rules of family it apparently ‘prescribes’ (including family size and polygamy) which in turn powers myths about Muslims reproducing themselves into a majority, which are in wide circulation in the sub-continent and elsewhere in the world. All of this implies that Muslim sociality (Muslim community structures and organisations), religious practices and institutions, businesses, and persons are all likely legitimate targets.

In other words, the ant-Islam dimension does a significant amount of work in Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist discourse, which needs to be identified and recognised. We must call out the BBS and their ilk on being both anti-Islam and anti-Muslim because whatever the political economic dimensions they cannot be separated from the prejudice that has lurked for a long time. Just by way of clarification, I am not suggesting that those who use ‘anti-Muslim’ as a descriptive label are unaware of the issues raised above, I am only suggesting, for all the reasons given above, that it is important to make that awareness more explicit.

Religious identities, politics and economics: Lessons from elsewhere in South Asia?

Looking at the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam dimensions helps us unpack prejudice, important because prejudice permeates economic, social and political barriers of class, caste, religion and gender and is central to mass appeal and popular emotional traction. However, this is not to suggest that mass emotional appeal is all there is to explain, we certainly need analyses of the political economic projects that are served by such prejudice. However, such analyses must bring together understandings of the social bases, political configurations, economic interests and identity-difference politics driving current-day Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In doing so it is important to account for the realities in which political allegiances, economic ideologies as well as social segmentation and differentiation interact.  To clarify what I mean here are a couple of illustrations from Bangladesh and India—these are just two picked from amongst a large number of others to consider.

Mushtaq Khan’s analysis of the political economy of secularism in Bangladesh points to the concert between ideology, religion and clientelist surplus appropriation. He argues that ideology, whether around secular or religious nationalism, works more like “labels distinguishing competing middle-class-led patron-client networks in their on-going and periodically intensifying struggle” over power and resources. He underlines how loyalties based on group identity (religion, language, etc.) serve as avenues for economic mobility and effective instrumentalities of political mobilisation of multi-class factions. In other words, strategic political mobilisation around ethno-religious nationalism and identity can generate vertical alignment and solidarity (however unstable) and horizontal cleavage and conflict.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan has underlined how Hindutva gained momentum in India from its ability to provide prospects of social cohesion and secure identity along with promises of social and economic mobility. Even though the solutions presented to the needs of multiple social sectors “corresponded to the interests of the ruling classes”, the “material-ideological ‘bargain’” was attractive in a context of changing modes of petty commodity production and increased social upheaval as a result of subaltern political assertions, viewed as ‘divisive’. Moreover, he notes how Hindutva’s impulses of an “essentialised individualism” (a good Hindu) embedded within a totalising idea of community (a socially undifferentiated ‘Hindu Rashtra’) chimes with neo-liberalism’s stress on the utility maximising individualism and exercise of free choice in an undifferentiated marketplace. At the same time, Hindutva’s conception of the primacy of the nation as the origin and guarantor of rights rather than the state is in harmony with neoliberalism’s role for the state as a manager rather than redistributor.

The post-war context in Sri Lanka offers significant scope for potential gains and conflicts over re-alignments of networks of patronage and clientelist redistribution, which along with ethno-religious relations was in many ways over-determined by the war. And the dominant players in this competition will only be too happy to align themselves with the so-called moral and spiritual regeneration of the body politic i.e. ethno-religious nationalism and extremism, if it will give them an edge in cementing their socio-political bases (perhaps better seen as multi-class factions?), economic privileges and crucially, reconfiguring the social and eventually even the socio-political and legal substance of citizenship itself.

In conclusion

While underlining the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam dimensions, some cautions are in order. An over stress in the response on the anti-Muslim dimension may actually suit elements like the BBS, who will claim that they do not have any prejudices against Islam as such but are only drawing attention to actions of certain ‘bad’ elements within the Muslim community. On the other hand, over stressing the anti-Islam dimension presents the danger of a slippage into full-scale identity politics and privileging narratives of identity and prejudice not grounded in the political and economic realities. And amongst the dangers of such identity politics is that it can be used not just by hegemonic but also by dominant vested interests amongst subaltern communities to further their own leverage and power, marginalising progressives (in particular feminists), advancing the cause of orthodoxies and hardening boundaries. Religious nationalists and fundamentalists everywhere, across ethnic and religious divides, share many such manoeuvres and operate in mutually reinforcing ways, rendering them indispensable to each other.

Precisely because such manipulation and a reductionist politics of identity are a hall-mark of all religious nationalisms and chauvinisms, a political economy lens is absolutely vital. However, the latter will itself be incomplete and less relevant if it does not also account for the complexities of identity formulation and difference. We must continue to strive towards more fine-grained analysis of what we are living through, choosing our frames with care because it defines the problem itself and therefore how we think and respond.

One last crucial set of points needs to be made. One is not suggesting that non-believers, ‘outsiders’, or for that matter those who believe or practice in non-conformist ways have no right to initiate or engage in a debate or question any beliefs or practices in a particular religion, be it Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or any other. However, any one seeking to raise such questions, whether from the ‘inside’ or the ‘outside’ must be assessed, at the least, in terms of: a) their stated and unstated motivations, including the nature of potential social, political and economic interests in the outcomes of the debate; b) the extent of inter-group inequality, i.e. the overall relationships of power within the polity, and their own recognition of and location within it; c) the distortions and influence of the state and its institutions, recognising that they are never ‘neutral’ players; and d) their own commitment to democratic principles and justice.

Public debates about religious beliefs and practices are an important part of deliberative democracy. However, this also demands that those wanting such a debate demonstrate a commitment in word and deed to the basic principles of democracy, including within their own imagined communities. The Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists, the focus of this analysis, do not pass this test— they have clear political and economic vested interests in pursuing an ethno-religious nationalism, are not committed to genuine inter-group equality and have the power to bend a pliant state machinery in their favour. Moreover, they have shown that they have little respect for democratic principles such as rule of just law or non-discrimination, on the contrary they have shown that they are willing to use any means possible to have their way.

Intolerance, absolutism, lack of respect for democracy, and, totalising and exclusivist ideas of religious identity and its linking with citizenship, etc. marks out actors like the BBS. And their targets are not just ethno-religious minorities but also those ‘within’ who do not conform. What they are really seeking is an assertion of their dominance and this is inseparable from the reality that the present-day Sri Lankan state is itself a biased arbiter, being significantly oriented towards them. One need not look too far back in our history to comprehend the dangers this presents.


Mushtaq Husain Khan (2000) The Political Economy Of Secularism And Religion
In Bangladesh,
in Basu, S. and Das, S. (eds.) Electoral Politics in South Asia, Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan (2008) Neoliberalism and Hindutva: Fascism, Free Markets and the Restructuring of Indian Capitalism, Radical Notes Paper Series, Aakar Books.

  • oopla

    Great article. In the section else where in South Asia it will be equally good to see parrallel analysis of the construction of the Buddhist state by Bhutan by the exclulsion on Nepali Hindus, the construction of Islamisict states of Bangladesh and Pakistan and its suppression of non Islamic minorities too. A comprehensive analysis of this would show more clear patterns emerging in South Asia