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The Easter Sunday attacks were brutal and unprecedented. It surfaced communal prejudices and certain phobias that Sri Lankan society lives with. There is a paradoxical narrative that may help us understand some of these phobias and prejudices. This narrative is paradoxical because it is driven by suspicion towards conservative Islamic practices that are in some contexts mirrored by conservative Sinhala Buddhist attitudes. Though there seems to be admiration among some of the conservative Sinhala Buddhists for some of these conservative Islamic practices, they simultaneously object to certain other conservative Islamic practices. In brief, there seems to be a tendency among conservative Sinhala Buddhists to admire and embrace some of the conservative Islamic practices while at the same time “othering” the conservative Islamic community if an analogy is used to explain this paradox, it is equivalent to weapons: despite fearing weapons of the enemy, the other side will always want to acquire the same or more harmful weapons to outdo the other.
The objective of this article is to shed light on this paradoxical narrative which will surface some of the phobias and prejudices we have been grappling with as a society.
Suspicion of and support for conservative attitudes and practices
බෞදියාව! (Baudiyawa). This was an interesting term that grabbed my attention when scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. Combining the two terms සෞදිය (Saudi Arabia which is Saudiya in Sinhala) and බෞද්ධ (Buddhist or Bauddha in Sinhala), the term seems to point to a Buddhist country that mirrors Saudi Arabia in the way religion wields an all-encompassing influence over a society’s culture and legal system. It is the Buddhist equivalent of Saudi Arabia. This narrative contains both Sinhala-Buddhist suspicion towards Islamic conservatism, and types of support or admiration for the manner in which Islamic conservatism, and specifically the Sharia, dictates all avenues of life in a place like Saudi Arabia. A few examples can help illustrate this paradoxical narrative.
Suspicion and support for Sharia law
There seems to be both support and suspicion of harsh and strict laws in the Sri Lankan mindset, especially among some conservative Sinhala Buddhists.
Support for strict and harsh law, or some types of punishment practiced under the Sharia, is often seen in the face of crimes such as murder and sex crimes against women and children. When such crimes are reported, I have observed the public and sections of the mainstream media calling for the death penalty and sometimes directly calling for the Sri Lankan government to implement strict punishments they see being practiced in some of the middle Eastern countries. Some of the Facebook memes I have come across directly call for the implementation of laws that mirror harsh punishments under Islamic law. These supporters justify such claims on the basis that there is a perceived absence of such crimes in Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, where Sharia is enforced. Some editorials have demanded severe punishment including stoning to death, suggesting that Sri Lanka needs to follow strict punishments.
While there is some support for implementing capital punishment and some other elements of Islamic law in Sri Lanka, there is also simultaneous suspicion and phobias of its possible influence on Sri Lanka. For instance, on social media, we can often see criticisms and fears of alleged attempts to introduce Sharia in Sri Lanka. These opinions stem mainly from those appearing to be conservative Sinhala Buddhists as well. For example, some of the memes circulated on social media in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks stated: ‘say no to Sharia law’. These suspicions were further reinforced following media reporting on ‘Sharia Universities’ in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.
On the one hand, some conservative Sinhala Buddhists seem to support strict laws and punishment in some of the Middle Eastern countries. Yet on the other hand, these same voices are suspicious and fear the perceived influence of Islamic law in Sri Lanka. While there seems to be support among conservative Sinhala Buddhists for some of the conservative attitudes and practices under Islamic law practiced in some of the Middle Eastern countries, they simultaneously seem to be suspicious of the perceived influence of such laws in Sri Lanka. What they seem to be supportive of is not Islam, but of practices and attitudes that are conservative. These conservative, and arguably regressive attitudes and practices that happen to be reflected in some Islamic societies appear to be aligned with some of the thinking adopted by some Sinhala Buddhists.
To cover or not to cover
Another aspect of the paradox I have often observed is the endorsement and criticism of clothes that fully cover a woman’s body, like the clothes worn by some Muslim women. I sometimes observe comments on social media where men, who mainly claim to be from Sinhala Buddhist background, perceive the fully covered outfits worn by Muslim women, including the abaya, as a dress that protects women from sexual harassment. These individuals also make the argument that women, especially Sinhala Buddhist women, need to cover themselves.
What puzzled me was how some men with Sinhala Buddhist backgrounds, whom I have seen expressing anti-Muslim sentiments, praise clothes that fully cover a woman. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, we saw a strong rejection of the abaya and niqab (this was also extended to the hijab) on the basis that it was a threat to national security. However, before the attacks, clothes that fully cover women were endorsed; how Muslim women dress themselves was sometimes cited as the example of what others should aspire to.
As a teenager, I used to freely walk into Buddhist temples, including the Temple of the Tooth Relic, not having to worry about what I was wearing. Whether it was a sleeveless top or a knee-length dress, there were not a lot of restrictions on what we could wear. However, this is no longer the case. Anyone who walks into many Buddhist temples now must be mindful of many factors. Is the outfit white? Is the hair tied up? Do the clothes cover the body adequately? The list goes on. For example, the first thing that caught my attention at the Dova Temple last year was a board that had a verse in Sinhala advising temple goers on what to wear. It advised them to not only come in white with neatly combed hair but also to not wear clothes that have “windows” and to not be nude.
In December 2018, I observed a board at the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth Relic which listed outfits and headgear that cannot be worn when entering the premises. Religious sites have become places that can only be accessed by those adhering to a dress code. In Jakarta in 2018, I went to visit a mosque and witnessed how some of the visitors in sleeveless clothes and short dresses had to cover themselves before entering a mosque. It can also be argued that these dress codes are recommended out of respect for the religion. However, I was struck by the similarities between Islamic dress codes and the dress code restrictions in our Buddhist temples. Such dress codes appear to be, yet another example of how conservative Islamic practices can be emulated by some conservative Sinhala Buddhists.
Prejudice after the 2019 Easter Attacks
The aftermath of the Easter attacks in 2019 also surfaced some deeply embedded prejudices in Sri Lankan society.
First, the notion that Sri Lanka is a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ country was strongly emphasised in the aftermath of the attacks. When Ven. Gnanasara Thera pointed out on TV that the ‘owners of the house’ live as ‘outsiders’ and that this is ‘our country’, he was not referring to a country belonging to all, but one that belongs only to Sinhala Buddhists demarcating a line between Sinhala Buddhists and ‘others’.
As a token of solidarity after the attacks, some social media users requested that mosques be decorated with Vesak lanterns during Vesak this year. The underlying assumption of such requests seems to be the acceptance of a Sinhala Buddhist society. While some Sinhala Buddhists seem to be asserting their own identity on Muslims, Muslims in turn must show that they were being accommodative. For instance, we saw pictures of some Muslims going to Buddhist temples while others were helping with Vesak décor. One picture of a Muslim politician and his family in white attire, like that worn by Sinhala Buddhists going to temples, went viral on social media. This politician and his family were upheld as a role model for Muslim society.
Second, the ban on the niqab appears to have given a license to some to be overtly racist. The numerous criticisms we saw of the niqab and the attire of Muslim women became ‘acceptable’ in the context of national security concerns. Racism continued with shops putting up ‘no entry’ signs for women wearing niqab. Women wearing the hijab or niqab were subject to different types of discrimination. Moreover, a movement emerged calling for Sinhala Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and products, and opt for ‘Sinhala only shops and products’, again reinforcing the notion of a Sinhala Buddhist nation.
Third, some media channels and newspapers reinforced these prejudices. When former Minister Mangala Samaraweera pointed out that Sri Lanka was not a ‘Sinhala Buddhist country’ but rather a nation belonging to all Sri Lankans, some of the press and media channels were critical of the statement, claiming that Sri Lanka is in fact a Sinhala Buddhist nation.
Puzzle behind prejudices and paradox
Ours is a society that seems to be divided along religious and ethnic lines. Prejudices and phobias of various religious and ethnic communities seem to be further adding to these divisions. What is fascinating is how some of the regressive and conservative attitudes and punishments that feature within Islamic conservatism are embraced by some conservative Sinhala Buddhists as good practices. At the same time, they seem to be fearful and suspicious of other conservative practices and attitudes that are reflective of conservative Islam. Choosing some conservative ideas over others as values that are to be promoted or embraced is a paradox. This paradox is ever more confounding in the aftermath of Easter Sunday Attacks.
What could drive this paradox, where some conservative practices are embraced over the others?
On the one hand, a deep underlying insecurity over the threats to Sinhala Buddhism (which remind us of Tambiah’s thesis of a majority with a minority complex) could be identified as one potential driver of this paradox. In this context, the need to “protect” values and ideals attached to Sinhala Buddhism from the “other” may be the main force behind this paradox. The “other” in this scenario becomes the conservative Islamic community from whom “protection” is required. On the other hand, while the insecurity may explain the suspicion and phobias, we may need to reflect on what explains the support for some of these conservative practices of the “other”. Such paradoxical support may be connected to a militant ideology in which strict punishments and penalty are deemed necessary. Paradoxically, the types of strict laws and practices seen in countries in which the “other” is dominant, become the very means through which conservative Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka seek “protection” from the “other”. Thus, the paradox where conservative Islamic practices and attitudes are embraced and admired over other conservative Islamic attitudes and practices – equivalent to the analogy of weapons – is connected to a sense of insecurity which also results in “othering”.
It is a year since the Easter attacks happened in Sri Lanka. Prejudices and phobias seem to intensify resulting in a further polarised society. The paradox – equivalent to the weapons feared for and simultaneously sought after – will persist unless underlying prejudices and phobias are addressed and resolved.
(Deepanjalie Abeywardana is the Head of Media Research at Verité Research (Pvt) Ltd. Ideas expressed in this article are solely the views of the author and not of the organisation.)