Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 4.35.23 PM

Image taken from Protect the Buddhism – බුදු දහම ආරක්ෂාකරමු Facebook group.

In recent months there has been an increased outpouring of virulent anti-Muslim sentiment by persons claiming to speak for all Sinhala Buddhists. Organized groups led by Buddhist monks have held public meetings, distributed pamphlets, and made press statements. Articles in mainstream Sinhala and English newspapers have propagated ethnic and religious hatred. In addition, there have been hate campaigns via SMS, email, and face book. The consequences of this rhetoric were most apparent in the Dambulla Mosque incident where a group led by a Buddhist Monk threatened the mosque with destructionon the 20th of April 2012. More recently there have been attacks against Muslim businesses. On 24th January this year, for instance, a “demonstration” in Kuliyapitiya was orchestrated; it seems, for the sole purpose of insulting and inciting a reaction from Muslims.

The attacks on Muslims have been directed at everything: the certificationof food products as halal; the practice of hijab, abhaya and nikab among Muslim women; the beard worn by Muslim men; the azaan or call for prayer from the mosques; the Muslims’ practice of closing businesses for Friday prayers; the prevalence of certain sectarian differences among Muslims;and the ongoing debate regarding methods of slaughter for the consumption of meat. The hate rhetoric invokes the violence in certain Muslim identified countries, action of the Saudi Arabian regime, and jihadi terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The rhetoric is formulated as a concern about “Islamic Extremism” and its threat to Sinhala Buddhism.The content of this anti-Muslim rhetoric of hate is informed by globally prevalent stereotypes regarding Muslims that have proliferated as a consequence of the American led “War on Terror.”

Muslims’ distinctive dress and heightened religious and ethnic identity arethe outcome of worldwide Islamic reform. Some of the hate seems to be directed at these changes within Muslim communities. However the rhetoric also reflects an absence of knowledge regarding the actual lived experiences of most Muslims in Sri Lanka. Most of the hate rhetoric calls upon local Muslims to defend the actions of their co-religionists elsewhere in the world. These positions attempt to interpret Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage in a highly restricted manner with the purpose of denying individuals from other ethnic or religious communities their rights as equal citizens guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

This hate campaign has intensified over the last few months and the Government of Sri Lanka has done nothing substantial to condemn or to make clear that inciting hatred against minority communities will not be tolerated. The press reported recently that the President called on these groups to refrain from inciting hate; and the President’s Independence Day address criticized such incitement. This is indeed a good sign, but more is needed. At a minimum the government should investigate accusations of hate speech/writing and prosecute when necessary.

It is disturbing that this kind of misinformed display of hate has been tolerated for this long in our society. Even a few years ago these sorts of sentiments would have been unacceptable and would have been easily identified as fringe positions that have no real support within the larger community. Where are the moderate voices among our social political and religious leadership? Where is the saner counsel and why has it not prevailed? It is time that those of us who are disturbed at this turn of events make our voices heard. It is time that we rallied and stated our position against these sentiments before it is too late.

Sri Lanka is currently recovering from a brutal war and entering an extremely crucial time in its history. Today we are confronting a host of difficult issues regarding the nature of our state and society:maintaining the structures to ensure good governance, relations between majority and minority communities, and the challenges of poverty and development.

The fundamental questions that we need to address for the much needed reconstitution of our fractured polityare being eclipsed by the easier processes of demonizing a readily available ethnic/ religious “other”. What is of course disturbing about this phenomenon is that it is all too familiar from another time in our history. The demonizing of Tamils occurred in a similar manner.It should not be forgotten that it is a combination of the fear mongering and violence of July 1983 and the unleashing of state terror that escalated the Tamil struggle into one of the most costly wars of our history. We are still to address the wounds of those years of conflict let alone recover from them; this preoccupation with yet another form of otherness is a symptom of this neglect.

At a time when we need to foreground our common humanity rather than the differences spawned by a long and difficult war, we must not permit thebaser elements of our society to be our only voices. This post war period presents an opportunity to embrace the richness of our diverse cultural identities. Sri Lanka belongs to all her people—Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim (Moor and Malay), Burgher; minorities and the, majority. It is this diverse mix of cultures that has enriched Sri Lankan art and architecture, culture, food, politics and history for many centuries.We, the Sri Lankan people should not allow a xenophobic minority to define who we are.

Endorsements for the Statement:

1. All Ceylon Fisher Peoples Trade Union
2. Centre for Human Rights and Development
3. Center for Social Concerns, Jaela
4. Center for Women and Development
5. Center for Policy Alternatives
6. Centre for Women’s Research
7. Ceylon Teachers Union
8. Ceylon Federation of Labour
9. Child Vision, Puttalam
10. Council for Social Democracy
11. Commercial and Industrial Workers Union
12. Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA)
13. Food, Beverages and Tobacco Industries Union
14. Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union
15. Future in Our Hands Development Fund, Badulla
16. Government Printers Union
17. Health Services Trade Union Alliance
18. IMADR Asia Committee
19. Independent Port Employees Union
20. Insurance Employees Union
21. International Center for Ethnic Studies
22. Islamic Welfare Organization, Samanthurai
23. Justice for Victims
24. Kantha Shakthi
25. Kinniya Vision
26. Law and Society Trust
27. Lawyers Collective
28. Lawyers for Democracy
29. Meepura News
30. Mothers and Daughters of Lanka
31. Mosque Federation Ampara District
32. Muslim Woman Development Trust, Puttalam
33. Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum
34. National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO)
35. National Free Trade Union.
36. National Peace Council
37. People Help Foundation, Mannar
38. People’s Forum – Mutur
39. Progress Union
40. Red Flag Women’s Movement, Kandy
41. Research and Action Forum for Social Development, Puttalam
42. Rights Now Collective for Democracy
43. Rural Development Foundation, Puttalam
44. Sainthamarathu Welfare Organization
45. Secretariat for Muslims
46. Social Scientists’ Association
47. South Asian Free Media Association Sri Lanka Chapter
48. Sri Lanka Development Journalists’ Forum
49. Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum
50. Suriya Women’s Development Center Batticaloa
51. United Federation of Labour
52. United Health Services Union
53. University Teachers for Democracy and Dialogue
54. Uva Shakti Foundation, Badulla
55. Uva Wellassa Govi Kantha Organization, Buttala
56. Vikalpani Women’s Alliance, Malabe
57. Women and Media Collective
58. Women Development Center, Badulla
59. Women Development Social Federation, Pottuvil
60. Women Resource Centre, Kurunegala
61. Women’s Education and Research Center
62. Women’s Coalition for Disaster Management –Batticaloa
63. Young Asia Television