Is there the problem of Co-Existence in the Sri Lankan society?

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

The sweeping rate of post war changes in Sri Lanka in its sociopolitical and economic domains are so severe that the normalcy that prevailed during the war is being disturbed. Before and during the war the majority community defined the Sri Lankan conflict not as an ethnic conflict but as a conflict born of structural misalignment in the politics and society that marginalized the minority, especially the Tamil community. With the end of the war, the ensuing changes indicate that the prevalent structural misalignments are being strengthened and inscribed on stone to perpetuity marginalizing all minorities to the advantage of the majority. This is evident from the callous disregard shown to the implementation of the LLRC recommendations that attempt to remedy this socio-political and economic anomaly that damages the aspirations of the minority communities and the larger interests of the country. Compounding this is the emergence of the Buddhist extremist groups like Bodu Bala Sena(BBS) and Ravana Balaya(RB) that adds new dimensions to this equation, thus reinforcing the status quo. This challenges the existence of the minority communities especially the Muslims and threatens co-existence. They are of the view that the Muslims must adjust their values, aspirations and ethos to suit the parameters set by them in order to be accepted as a peacefully co-existing community. In other words, they want the Muslims to mutate to fit into their specifications to be accepted or else they would be named, shamed and ostracized as terrorists, separatist and marginalized as a pariah community. This is a new phenomenon in the body politics of Sri Lanka where miniscule groups allied to the power structure playing duplicitously to impose an agenda that damages Buddhist/Muslim cohabitation thereby damaging the long term interests of the country.

The majority Buddhist community do not consider BBS or RB as threats to the long term interests of Buddhism and the country since anti Muslim or anti Tamil agenda driven by Buddhist extremism seemingly do not affect the short term interest of the majority community. Therefore in the immediate and short term they are not concerned and do not feel the emerging conflict damaging Buddhist /Muslim bond. Their majoritarian mindset makes them oblivious of this impending danger. On the other side, Muslims view this as a premeditated plan to put a wedge between Buddhists and Muslims in order to destabilize the whole country so that instability would help perpetuate corrupt power politics, cronyism and despotism in the country.

Compounding this, the Muslim view of the current situation is skewed, as majority of the Muslims believe that this problem is to do with the issues of Co-Existence and all of a sudden the talk of the town is centered on nurturing co-existence. Muslims in this country have lived more than 1200 years and they are the progeny of Arab fathers and Sinhales/ Tamil mothers long before the advent of western colonizers. Muslims are identified as a minority because of their religious and linguistic identity. This identity does not make them alien and they are part and parcel of the Sri Lankan social fabric in all sense. Therefore, judging the present orchestrated threat from a co-existence perspective is a false premise. How did the Muslims and Buddhist live together for more than 12 centuries if there is no co-existence, respect, reciprocation? Pinning current challenges on co-existence makes a mockery of our intellect. The nomenclature of ‘co-existence’ is a western construct and we need to understand its etymology to better use it where relevant.

Etymological Dictionaries define ‘Coexistence’ as “joint existence”. As “peaceful relations between states of different ideologies.” More relevantly as a Cold War term since 1954. The origin of this word Co + existence dates back to the years 1640-50.

The construct, emergence and relevance of this word should be contextually understood etymologically prior to freely using inappropriately leading to confusion giving altogether a different meaning inappropriately.

The western societies were mono ethnic, mono racial and mono religious and prior to the 15th century CE, the Europeans as a society had little contact with the rest of the world as most of the cradles of civilizations were in the east starting from the rivers of Nile, Indus, Euphrates & Tigris, Hwang Ho in China and the Islamic civilization. These civilizations were melting pots of mankind where a variety of people communicated and integrated together building pluralistic societies. Emergence of western civilization was prompted by crusades and piracy that culminated in the industrial revolution and colonialism. Crusades, piracy and colonialism armed by the benefits of the industrial revolution made the Europeans a global power that colonized parts of the non European world from 14th to 19th centuries. This created a situation of the white man dominating the rest of mankind.  It is during this period that the prevailing factors brought people of diverse ideologies subjugated by the west to live together in the same place during the same time but with different ideologies and values coerced by colonialism.  Emergence of the word ‘co-existence’ is synchronous to western colonialism.

In the tail end of western colonialism, the powers that colonized non Europeans became the cradle of civilization and that led the people from colonies to migrate to European capitals for education, employment and cultural assimilation. This especially helped post war Europe to rebuild their nations and to run their factories and farms with labour from the colonies. Non Europeans were used to menial jobs done at cheap wages and poor working conditions and living in ghettoes. Over time these non European labourers got assimilated to the European societies and were considered a threat to the indigenous population due to their diversities of colour, religion, culture and language etc. This became untenable by the western governments since the non European labour force were considered a main contributor to their economic growth at cheap costs. Therefore considering the advantages of cheap labour, the western governments advocated co-existence, pluralism and multi culturalism amongst their citizenry as a strategy to keep their economies stable at cheap cost.

The threat to co-existence in western societies was at grass root level and the European society considered the non Europeans as aliens and marginalized them at every opportunity that they had. Therefore the state in order to maintain peace, harmony and economic stability were forced to make robust laws to enforce co-existence as a strategy.

As opposed to the European experience, Sri Lankan situation is totally different. Sri Lanka does not have issues of co-existence. There is no visible or deliberate grass root level animosity or discrimination by the majority community or majority of the people and as opposed to this, animosity and discrimination is spawned by people in power and their allies like BBs & RB to create issues of co-existence in time to come. So that it will give the political elite a pretext to use racist and communal politics to perpetuate their power at the expense of people.

Taking note of this, the Muslim community must be vigilant not to miss the wood for the trees. They should strengthen the already available bond with the Buddhists and fight false propaganda against Buddhist/Muslim interests and forestall poisoning the minds of the Buddhist and Muslim children to prevent the problem of co-existence being force upon us as Muslims and Buddhists.

  • serendiptious87

    This is a very interesting article Riza; thank your for sharing your thoughts with us and bringing a Muslim perspective to the issue of co-existence. I too have been troubled by recent events, but I am not convinced that it can be simply explained by “Buddhist extremism.” I hope I can discuss some counter points and contribute to the discussion in someway?

    As you may well know, there has been a palpable increase in Muslim fundamentalism in Sri Lanka over the last decade or so. An austere, more Saudi Arabian strain of Islam has begun to creep into Sri Lankan society and this is very visible and noticeable to non-Muslims (via dress forms, demand for halal certification, use of the Arabic language, proliferation of mosques, ‘ghettoization’). Now, I haven’t done a survey to ascertain the view of the greater population, but I would venture to state that some of the Arabic culture that has been ‘imported’ by a significant number of Sri Lankan Muslims has been rather disconcerting to many non-Muslims who have been used to a more liberal Islam in Sri Lanka. I don’t think that it would be hyperbole to state that covering one’s entire body from head to foot has never been part of Sri Lankan culture – whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay or Burgher. Neither has been strict gender segregation. Neither has it ever been a problem when it came to eating each others food; infact sharing food could be described as a longstanding Sri Lankan tradition. People also did not worry about whether something had a halal certificate, instead we respected each others dietary requirements (no pork for Muslims, no beef for Hindus and many Buddhists). Perhaps the Saudi Arabian brand of Islam which has been reared in a country that prohibits all other religions and had no ethnic diversity (until it imported workers) is unsuitable for a country such as Sri Lanka?
    It must be said that the first signs of recent hostility towards Muslims did not emanate from Buddhists but rather from various different Muslim sects that have found their home in the island. The first to find themselves in the crosshairs, so to speak, were the Sufis and the followers of “traditional Islam” in Sri Lanka, who are regarded as following a wrong brand of Islam by the Salafi/Wahhabi/Thowheed folks. Mosques were attacked, graves were dug up and fellow Muslims were murdered in mosques for the crime of following a different sect of Islam. These acts of violence were not carried out by “Buddhist extremists” but rather, by “Muslim extremists.” The truth is, there have been more acts of violence and harassment carried out on Muslims in Sri Lanka by Muslims themselves, rather than by any other group in the island. Unfortunately, this fact has not gained the opprobrium it deserves from the Sri Lankan Muslim community at large and no steps have been taken to stem extremism from within. The same situation exists outside of Sri Lanka – the Shias and the Sufis are massacred on a weekly, almost daily basis not by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Jews but by fellow Muslims themselves; and yet there is no outcry against this by the Muslim world.

    I agree with you that the bond between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka should be strengthened. Perhaps one way of doing that is by discussing both Buddhist extremism AND Muslim extremism in the island, and seeking ways of coming to a reasonable solution that would enable both communities not to step on each others toes. It would be tempting to say ‘lets go back to the good old days’ but I’m not really sure that would solve anything.

    • Inoka Karu

      Off the cuff,
      Whether the Muslims are fighting among themselves or Tamils among themselves-why is it that BBS/Ranana have a free hand?

      • serendiptious87

        Everyone seems to have a free hand in Sri Lanka to engage in extremism and violence, maybe because this is due to the weak to non-existent implementation of the law.

    • Mr. Who

      As a Sri Lankan Muslim, I would like to address some of the points you raise in your reply.

      // As you may well know, there has been a palpable increase in Muslim fundamentalism in Sri Lanka over the last decade or so. An austere, more Saudi Arabian strain of Islam has begun to creep into Sri Lankan society and this is very visible and noticeable to non-Muslims (via dress forms, demand for halal certification, use of the Arabic language, proliferation of mosques, ‘ghettoization’) //

      Let’s suppose for a moment what you say is true. Are you implying Muslims cannot practice a new strain of Islam without discrimination from Sinhala extremists? As long as Muslims don’t do some thing illegal or harmful to the society, who is to say what version of Islam muslims can practice or not. This sounds exactly like what the Sinhalese extremists are saying, i.e., we cannot co-exist unless you exist the way we want you to exist.

      But anyways, unless you can justify each of the claims, your statement remains a gross generalization. There is some influence from Saudi flavor of Islam, but the examples you cite are not necessarily results of this influence.

      If there is an increase in wearing American style denim jeans among Sinhalese, you wouldn’t say the whole package of Americanism is creeping into Sinhalese society. When it comes to dress and fashion, muslims around the world get “inspirations” from the Arab world as well as from the west. This doesn’t mean the change dress code is due to a change in religious understanding. Covering up the entire body has always been a practice among practicing muslim women in Sri Lanka and Indian sub continent. Same goes to segregation of events. These are not new things due to Saudi influence.

      Demand of ‘halalness’ (Islamically permissible status) of food was always demanded by the practicing muslims. Although BBS’s BS has widely demonized halal certification there is one and only one reason why businesses make use of the certificate. And that is to make their products more competitive both in terms of reach and price. There is no correlation between halal certification and saudi flavor of Islam. Also Muslims would be happy to have any labeling method as long as it clearly demonstrates no non-permissible additives are in the product. It would be prudent to note that the modern production methods may include animal derived ingredients in what seems to be vegetarian food. (e.g. biscuits, chocolates)

      You mention ‘use of Arabic language’ to be some sort of indication that fundamentalism has crept into Sri Lankan Islam? The holy book of Islam is in Arabic, and any muslim who has even rudimentary learning in Islam will know enough arabic to perform their most basic religious actions. Incorporating Arabic in daily life of Muslims regardless of their origin has been going on since inception of the religion itself.

      Proliferation of mosques and ghettoization needs to be explored. If there is truly a case of over building of mosques, this needs to be addressed in a civilized and legal manner. Ghettoization usually occurs when a group of people feel they are under a threat or excluded. Calling it a product of fundamentalist Islam is really counter productive.

      // It must be said that the first signs of recent hostility towards Muslims did not emanate from Buddhists but rather from various different Muslim sects that have found their home in the island. The first to find
      themselves in the crosshairs, so to speak, were the Sufis and the followers of “traditional Islam” in Sri Lanka, who are regarded as following a wrong brand of Islam by the Salafi/Wahhabi/Thowheed folks. //

      How many such incidents has been there? I vaguely remember two. There hasn’t been such incidents since then. It would be safe to say such incidents were truly isolated. But extremist Budhhists would have us believe that there are “evil” Wahhabi lurking behind every tree. Attacks by extremist Buddhists on the other hand is ongoing and the count is currently 69. (see for details)
      By the way, the “traditional Islam” as you call it also uphold covering of body, gender segregation and eating halal food.

      //The truth is, there have been more acts of violence and harassment carried out on Muslims in Sri Lanka by Muslims themselves, rather than by any other group in the island.//

      Where are the evidence? Reports?

    • Thunder

      I appreciate your ideas and thank you for understanding the situation very well. This is a good point that you have understood ,where you have clarified the battle between Muslims in and out side the country to point out what they are really doing around the world , which is a very good exposure by a Muslim gentlemen . We all know what happened in Iraq and what is happening now . As some Muslims say if they are really united and generous to each other ,why do they firstly fight as Sunny and Shia ? Why rich Arabs cannot help to poor Muslims living around the world . So, there isn’t any thing that people has been said , don’t you think so ?
      And if I come back to the crisis that we have in Sri lanka that is quite clear that what we face now what has been planted between us by certain extremists belong to both religions . Do you believe that 83 riots were carried out by majority singhalese, ? No at all , those who involved with riots were all singhala mobs and few extremists . But it was not singhalese interest which was proven lately .therefore we agree that every religion and race has extreme group of people , what we have to realise is to live as much as away from them and their motivations .
      Thank you .

  • Riaz Nawoop Khan

    Riza, Muslims helped the Sri Lankans kill 300,000 Tamils in the last 30 years thinking they are safe with Sinhalese.

    Even during 2009 genocide of 146,000 Tamils, Muslim leader Hakeem was going around the world lying about it. Now he is saying that he is satisfied with Muslim attack investigations without charges.

    Even now Tamil Muslims are not engaging with Tamils and the powerful Tamil diaspora. Instead of talking about uniting minorities, massaging Rajabakse family legs is suggested as escape strategy.

  • Anagarika Mohammed Christoper

    Muslims all over the world are creating
    unrest among freedom loving citizens. Muslim Kalife is a kingdom they want to
    rule the entire world. Turks tried it sometime back in the history. Now, Saudi
    rulers are secretly doing it by financially helping Muslim extremes in
    countries like Srilanka. Look around; since when you saw hijabs and niqabs in
    Srilanka? Although Turks turned around from extremism, other Muslim countries
    are embracing Wahhabism; the Saudi brand of Islam. Any form of theocracy is
    harmful to a free society. We see it in Iran and former Afghanistan. When
    clergy is doing politics they behave like dictators. Muslims in Srilanka should
    mix with the majority culturally. Don’t do extreme things like restricting
    women’s freedom and special ritual for slaughtering animals. Co-existence means
    be nice to all and don’t antagonize anyone. Please don’t segregate; instead

  • serendiptious87

    J Fernando, thank you for your reply. But can you prove that there is state patronage of Buddhist extremism? Do you mean that there has been few, if any who have been taken to court for acts of violence against Muslim targets? But then, there has been few, if any who have been brought to justice for Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka; does that mean that Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka has state patronage?

    For example, who has been brought to justice for the killings that took place at the Beruwala mosque? For the Sufi mosques attacked in Kattankudy/Kalmunai? For the graves that have been dug up? For the beating of Muslim girls who apparently watched pornography at an internet café? Who has been brought to justice for the harassment of the Shias and Sufis in Eastern Sri Lanka at the hand of certain Sunni Muslim groups?

    Perhaps you do not “recall” these attacks because they are not put on the front page of newspapers, and because many Muslims themselves prefer to let these incidents slide because to discuss them would be to ‘air dirty linen’ in public, so to speak.

    • georgethebushpig

      Dear Serendipitious87,

      “But can you prove that there is state patronage of Buddhist extremism?” Are you unaware that the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence inaugerated a newly built BBS-led Buddhist Leadership Academy in Galle on 9 March 2013?
      Would you also ask for proof of state patronage if the DefSec had opened up a new Wahabi mosque that was intolerant of other religions and that went around destroying Buddhist temples and churches with impunity?
      The argument you put forward (in various forums) trying to equate some form of mythical “Muslim extremism” (same quotes as J Fernando) in Sri Lanka with the very real and damaging BBS/RB violence on Muslims, Christians and even Buddhists themselves, is simply unadulterated obfuscation!
      I’m interested to see how you will respond to Mr. Who’s response below.

  • U Grant

    More power to these Buddhist organizations for confronting the fundamentalist propagation of Islam and Islamic values in a multi-ethnic, vibrant, culture. There comes a time when this nonsensical muslim propaganda has to be recognized and be brandished to the dustbin of history. I suppose we all have to hold up our noses and accept mosques in every inch of our country and be overwhelmed by everybody dressing up head to toe in niquabs and other religious gear. In a country where 90% of the people observe three other religions, we have to shut up and accept these intransigencies to our society. No chance jack!

    • georgethebushpig

      Dear U Grant,

      Your support to Buddhist fundamentalists ostensibly to combat other fundamentalists would be hilariously funny if only it didn’t have such a corrosive effect on the very society you seem to so cherish!


  • Concerned Citizen

    Mr Fernando. If there is state patronage of extremism, then Sri Lanka would end up like Saudi Arabia, where only one religion is allowed to be practiced. If you look around in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world, you would see Muslim Jihardists and Christian Evangelist at full throttle, both of which are extremist groups that DO NOT not tolerate even the existence of other faiths. On the contrary the Buddhists always respected and coexisted with other faiths, but since the Jihardists and Evangelists are engaged in illegal practices like establishing “places of worship” (note the quote as its not something I accept), without approval from the Council or the neighbourhood (this approval is imperative in western societies), a few brave Buddhist have seen the danger and come to the forefront to expose such illegal activity. But some create violent incidents and try to silence them by placing the blame on these Buddhists. However, the Mainstream Muslims and Christians are with the Buddhists and have understood the reasons for Buddhist objections.