The Asymmetric Relationship of Buddhist-Muslim Bond in Sri Lanka

Photo via IBN Live, taken by Reuters

The Buddhist –Muslim relationship in Sri Lanka is centuries old.

It grew from the pre-Islamic Arab relationship with Sri Lanka and continued beyond the advent of Islam. Principally, the Arabs who built vibrant trade relation with Sri Lanka put their roots here and made Sri Lanka a second home. With the advent of Islam in the 7th Century, the Arabs became Muslims; hence the Arab-Muslim relationship with Sri Lanka became ever stronger and prominent with the ascendency of Islam as a global power. As a result, the relationship that originated as commercial links extended beyond to other areas like internal and external trade, defense, diplomatic relationship and Arab-Muslim settlements and domicile etc.

This relationship has grown over a very long period of time and as a result, grew together with the Buddhist population to almost fifty percent (50%) of the life time of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This relationship with Buddhism developed and nurtured with trust and good understanding between these two communities. Islamic culture and values embraced Buddhist culture and values where it did not impinge with core Islamic beliefs. This helped to cement further the communal bonds between the two communities. Apart from linguistic and some cultural and religious differences, bulk of the ethos of life of Muslims in Sri Lanka had confluence with the Buddhist community. The inherently strong Buddhist philosophy of life built on love, compassion, belief in impermanence, abstemiousness, renunciation of materialism and uprightness accorded very well with the Islamic value systems that built a common chord between them. (See here The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire by Alexander Berzin,)

Similarly, on the economic and political front, the Sinhala-Buddhist sense of independence, freedom and love for Buddhist virtues and ethics were found to be complimentary with their Muslim counterparts, in their sense of independence and freedom, moral virtues and ethics. Hence this commonality of values bonded both communities to stand together against western imperialism that was threatening the nation from time to time. In respect to this, the role played by the Muslim leaders at the threshold of Independence to Ceylon in 1940s evidences the mutual trust and bond between the Sinhalese and Muslims, wherein the British Colonial administration sought Muslims’ view being a constituent part of the Sri Lankan society about granting independence to Ceylon. Commendably, the Muslim response was instructive. They requested the colonial administration to leave Sri Lanka and that the Muslims standby with the Sinhalese in their quest for Independence and that the Muslims would mutually resolve any outstanding issues between the Sinhalese and Muslims.

During the Middles Ages and up to the time of the 1st World War, the Muslims were a global power and they had the capacity and the reach to influence pressure regionally and globally. During this time the Muslim Empire reached up to Delhi in India in the Asian sub-continent. Remarkably, the conquest of India was spurred by an incident where Hindu pirates attacked a ship travelling from Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan passengers on Hajj pilgrimage carrying token gifts from the Sinhalese Kings to the governor of Iraq of the time. This piracy on the Sri Lankan Hajj pilgrims spurred the assault and led to capitulation of India under the command of Muhammed bin Qasim². Apart from this, there were other historical incidents which substantiate the good relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims, like the presence of Muslim military advisors and mariners advising the Sinhalese rulers against the Portuguese, Dutch and British conquests, presence of Muslim physicians and Trade counsels,  Muslim soldiers in the Sinhalese army and their participation in battles against the western invaders.

The Muslim empire which extended from North Africa in the West to India in the East and from the south of France in the North to the Southern parts of Africa in the south during the Middle Ages, considered Sri Lanka as the most favoured and friendly nation. Therefore they had no ill intentions of conquering Sri Lanka. It was also evident historically that whenever there were internal feuds within the empire among the higher echelons of power, there were instances of political refugees choosing Sri Lanka as the favoured destination for their escapade and some of who domiciled here. These historical factors show the presence of a two-way relationship. On the one hand the Muslim Empire considered Sri Lanka as their most favoured and friendly nation and on the other the Sinhala-Buddhist power and society in Sri Lanka took the Muslims as their friends and protégé. This two-way relationship helped both communities to nurture a sustained relationship that stood the test of the vagaries of time. This time tested relationship is the bedrock of understanding between these two communities that neither is a threat to the other and that the sustainability and security of both lies on the strength of the bond between them. This paradigm of relationship has brought about bond that carries an unwritten pact on each other to protect and guarantee mutual security. This as a result has built asymmetrical security to both communities. The Sinhala Buddhist community as the majority in the country accord mutual respect, recognition and protection to the Muslim minority community which is a part and parcel of a global majority. On the other hand the minority Muslim community being a part and parcel of global Muslim community stands by the local majority Sinhalese and garners mutual respect, recognition and support of the Muslim world. This asymmetric relations drawing synergy from each other’s strength ensuring sustainability and security to both. This has been continuing ever since the Muslims became a world power in the 8th Century till today in the uni and/or multi polar world. Due to this factor, Sri Lanka commands respect and reciprocity in the Muslim world. This is in spite of the fact that some of the Muslim countries’ alliances being with the powers that are not favourable to Sri Lanka though, do not deter their support to Sri Lanka. Conspicuously today, Sri Lanka relies on the Muslim World for its energy supply, employment, economic and global politics to buttress Sri Lankan economy and state particularly at a time when the regional and global powers are not in Sri Lanka’s favour. Incredibly, this special relationship of the Muslim world with Sri Lanka should be viewed in the historical perspective of the Muslim minority role as outlined above. By virtue of Muslim presence and their vibrant link with the Muslim world, Sri Lanka gains an asymmetrical advantage compared with other non Muslim countries of similar profile in respect to population, social and economic development, size and geopolitics etc.

The Muslim community being part and parcel of the Sri Lankan social fabric, their historical bond with the country and particularly their relationship with the Sinhalese power structure and the Maha Sanga made the social psychology of the Muslims accord with the mainstream majority Buddhist community. This common bond between them starkly contrasted with their diametrically different religious fundamentals and yet the time tested relationship was strong as ever. However, deplorably, this religious difference was exploited by the British colonialist and their affiliates of the time to put a wedge in the time tested Buddhist-Muslim relationship as a strategy of divide and rule. To a lesser extent, the British colonial administration and their affiliates of the time somewhat succeeded in dividing these two communities as a strategy to prevent the communities from becoming a challenge to western imperial grand plan of exploiting and controlling resources in the colony. In spite of this external machination causing division, the relationship was resilient. However, to this day, this threat by imperial grand plan yet persists and the current attempt to polarize the communities by setting Muslims against the Buddhist should be viewed as a harbinger of post modern form of control, exploitation and colonization by polarizing societies as a strategy.

The seeds of division sown by Western powers of the time still haunt our societies and have rendered us as unsustainable societies incapable of nation building to date. Following decolonization, the post colonial Sri Lankan political leadership imbued with western psychology and mindset, trained and nurtured  in the western colonial ethos and values ruled the country no better than the western colonial masters. Very many of the post colonial Sri Lankan leaders used Sinhala and Buddhist façade as an outer veneer but truly within them there lay hard core colonialist, feudal mercantilist ethos very much inconsistent with what Sinhalese-Buddhist culture that stood for. They used Sinhala and Buddhism as vehicles for their ascendance to power whilst the Sri Lanka society was crumbling down every day with the socio-economic and political burden laden upon them as a result. Fuelling chauvinism, advocating religious/racial superiority and appearing as messiahs for Buddhism and the Sinhalese as a strategy to maintain stable voter bank has cost the country dearly rendering it unsustainable. Such behaviour by post colonial leaders has done no good to the nation except but to protect their personal, family or group interests.  Today self interest based political culture advocacy has grown to the extent of threatening the very foundation of the Buddhist society which was built on the foundation of true Buddhist values and traditions during the last two and a half millennia.

Compounding this, politicizing Buddhism as a launch pad for personal growth of the political elites is destroying it. Today Buddhism is coming to be seen as the vehicle of the corrupt in Sri Lanka, like Christianity in the Middle Ages, where religion aligned with the powers to justify the corruption of the rulers. This is bad marketing for Buddhism. Similarly, the more the politicians become bankrupt; they tend to be more and more religious. They use religion as a tool to conceal their bankruptcy and draw their energy from the religious and cultural vigour of the people to re-launch and re-brand them. This is a dangerous trend; this damages social and moral the foundations of society and leaves it beyond resurrection. This is a vicious cycle where politicians corrupt religion and make people follow such corrupted religion that is incapable of deliverance which results in people finally blaming religion for their failure and end up as an amoral society needing draconian laws to control them. Similarly, politicians also manipulate religion as a tool seeking perpetual obedience from the people as a tool of social control in the name of religious obedience/obligations. The sublime philosophy, ethics and values of Buddhism must influence the people and the power and not the other way round. The Buddhist values and ethos hitherto inbuilt into the society, culture and politics which had been evolved by traditions and nurtured by the Maha Sanga since past should be enlivened, there is a need to cull the alien influences brought upon it by the five centuries of western domination and post colonial political hypocrisy of the local leaders.  Buddhist values, ethos and virtues have to be brought about to guide mankind, to help self realization, to mould righteous conduct and character in the lives of the people and to answer social ills brought about by materialism to revamp the present society and polity on the bedrock of Mettha, Muditha, Karuna and Upekha.

The Muslim community empathizes strongly with its Buddhist counterpart; these are testing times for Buddhism which is being hijacked by political powers in the name of protecting it since independence. Due to the inherent asymmetrical bond with the Buddhists, Muslims consider that any threat to Buddhism is a resultant threat to Islam as well in Sri Lanka; therefore they sense this as an emerging threat needing a joint response. Muslims consider that Buddhism and Islam are the two major religions that stand united strongly against materialism, hedonism, consumerism and exploitation that are threatening mankind today. At this time imperatively Buddhist – Islamic partnership is vital for humanity’s survival at the global plane. Substantiating this claim, “Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia: Working towards Justice and Peace” Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in June 2006, made this concluding remark in the Dusit Declaration (See here)as follows:

“The hegemonic power of global capitalism is the new ‘religion’ which threatens to undermine the universal, spiritual and moral values and world views embodied in Buddhism, Islam and other religions. This is why Buddhists, Muslims and others should forge a more profound unity and solidarity which will be able to offer another vision of a just, compassionate and humane universal civilization. It is with this mission in mind that we hereby announce the launch of a permanent Buddhist-Muslim Citizens’ Commission for Southeast Asia.”

On the local plane, Muslims being an embedded community in a well structured Buddhist society with a very high degree of commonality in values and ethos enmeshed with the Buddhist society, views the threat to Buddhism tantamount to be a threat to Islam and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Therefore, Muslims view that the current tirade against Islam and Muslims in Sri Lanka by a segment of the Buddhist society is not indigenous but an alien or foreign orchestration by a third force that wants to attack the asymmetrical power balance that buttress the Buddhism and Sri Lanka. For the Muslims, the stronger the Buddhist community is in terms of its pristine values and culture gives a favourable environment for Muslims to live with higher degree of social and moral values in life.

Today, that certain segments of the media and some Buddhist clerics are spawning the thought that Islam and Muslims in Sri Lanka are a threat to Sinhalese Buddhism is a unique invention that no previous Buddhist scholars, leaders or laity have ever found. This is a foolish aspersion mocking  the intelligence of the people of this country.  This is similar to India advocating the presence of British Naval Base in Trincomalee as a threat to Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Remarkably, it was at the tail end of British colonialism in Ceylon and it  was symbolism of British power than a threat. India subsequently through Non-Alignment policies influenced Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake to kick the British Naval Base out. From this they garnered geopolitical advantage   over Sri Lanka as a result. Similarly calling Muslims a threat to Buddhism is imaginary than real. Potentially a third force local, regional or global wants to enfeeble Sri Lanka by creating divisions between well bonded Muslims and Buddhists to garner their own advantages. This may be from the local political power centres which may be thinking of ‘creative destruction’ for their own distinct advantages to insulate their political bankruptcy etc or external forces in collusion with local counterparts to prevent stability from setting in after three decades conflict so that once the homogeneity of the society is broken people would be feeble to resist exploitation and plunder in the name of development and global economic integrations. Whichever way it goes, it is a dark cloud gathering for Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Unless Buddhists and Muslims realign their postures to mutually protect each other with conscious efforts to identify the third force and reveal to the society the facts, this simmering problem can potentially turn volcanic engulfing the whole country.

In a time like this, the potent weapon that can fight this threat is creating awareness at all levels of society, unity, understanding, and uprightness, strict maintenance of law and order and social control. This threat challenges the sustainability of society and social sustainability cannot be achieved without awareness, unity, respect & reciprocation and strengthening of inter communal bonds that give resilience to society to stand testing times.