COVID-19: The Crossroads for Sinhala–Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka

SAGE Journalsby Mohamed Imtiyaz Abdul Razak & Amjad Mohamed Saleem, Journal of Asian & African Studies, London, June 2021

Covid 19 Sinhala-Muslim Relations


Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, and the government of Sri Lanka comprising the majority of the Sinhalese Buddhist community came to a bloody end in May 2009. Muslims, whose political and civil society elite had largely supported the Sri Lankan state and security forces, welcomed the end of the war and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers given the history of the community with the LTTE. The expectations by the Muslims (and other communities) that peace would return to the country, were quickly dashed as it appeared that a new extremist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist movement targeting religious minorities especially the Muslims would emerge as the country grappled with post-war reconciliation. The rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric, hate speech, and incitement to violence against the community has pushed some Muslims to think that they have become the new focus for Sinhala-Buddhist extremists in the wake of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. With suspicions of the complicity of the state apparatus in the anti-Muslim campaign, there are serious concerns around the role and place of minorities (non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist) in the future makeup of the country. While there is no concrete evidence on the state’s support for such an action, it is clear that the reluctance of the state to bring to justice those responsible for hate speech and incitement to violence since 2009 raises some serious questions about impartiality. In addition, with the increase of detentions and scrutiny of the Muslim community’s post-Easter Sunday attacks and the recent treatment of the Muslim community in the response to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, including shutting down of key Muslim towns and the enforcement of forced cremations (which goes against Islamic teachings of dignified burials), there is much to ponder of an anti-Muslim strategy being mainstreamed and institutionalized by the state. This paper will seek to situate the present response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the state and its particular actions affecting the Muslim community amid a wider backdrop of a rise in anti-Muslim hatred and action. In order to understand this, the paper will seek to understand the reasoning behind why Muslims who supported the war against the Tamil Tigers, have now become the enemy for Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. It does this through primary and secondary data gathering including interviews conducted between July 2020 and February 2021. In so doing this paper will explore the development of Muslim political and religious identity by looking at a historical perspective. This paper makes the argument that a holistic approach needs to be developed to avoid a new conflict taking place in Sri Lanka and to avoid violent Islamist extremism taking hold.

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