Ignorance and Populism Puts Sri Lankan Muslims in the Crosshairs

by Farzana Haniffa, East Asia Forum, Australia, October 4, 2019

There is no locally-relevant social or communal cause that could explain the Easter Sunday 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka. Christian–Muslim relations are largely cordial. Mobilisation of Buddhists through anti-Muslim rhetoric after the war’s end in 2009 led to several incidents of anti-Muslim violence with large-scale riots in Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018. There has been no retaliation to these attacks by Muslim groups.

A nun arrives as a Sri Lanka's commando soldier stands guard in front of the main entrance to St. Lucia Cathedral as survivors and families of victims of Sri Lanka's Easter Sunday bombing arrive for a special mass for those who lost their lives, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 11 May 2019 (Photo:Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo).The bombings were carried out by a local group enamoured of the ideology and methods of the so-called Islamic State and looking to be endorsed by them. For most local Muslims, this act of terrorism was incomprehensible. Muslim ‘radicalisation’ had been mobilisation in support of one or other religious or reformist group that directed its ire at other similar religious groups mostly from the same village, kin or class group. In Sri Lanka, the figure of the potentially murderous jihadist was better known for its effectiveness as a rabble-rousing instrument than as a credible concrete threat.

It is tempting to argue that anti-Muslim activism brought the jihadist project into being. But it is more likely a combination of the pressure brought to bear on Muslims by Buddhist-identifying bigots and the availability of rhetoric and avenues for radicalisation in a global context.

Every single Muslim in the country was called to account for the bombings. Changes in Muslim religious practices that had occurred in the past 30 to 40 years were understood to be preconditions for the radicalisation. Suddenly any Muslim practice that was considered objectionable could now be pointed out and the state participated in rendering some Muslim religious practices illegal.

The rhetoric identifying Muslimness as a problem was used by the rabble-rousers, senior journalists and the left-leaning and liberal intelligentsia. Everyone was immediately an expert on Wahhabism, and the entire Muslim population of the country and the transformations they had gone through in recent decades were understood in those terms.

Anti-Muslim violence broke out in the Kandy district in 2018. This incident happened under a political regime that had emerged to electoral victory on a platform that eschewed inciting ethnic animosities. The state response was lackadaisical and cemented that anti-Muslim riots were now a political staple.

Bombings occurred despite intelligence indicating the possibility of attacks and that the ongoing feud between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had affected the country’s security response. The President and the Prime Minister resorted to blaming one another and looking for scapegoats. The divisive sentiments propagated by the country’s post-war anti-Muslim movement were permitted and encouraged.

For Muslims, the shock and distress of the bombings was overridden by the realisation that they now had to act as penitents. The All Ceylon Jamiatul Ulama, a body representing Muslim religious leadership, saw that some symbolic expression of self-censure was required. They asked that Muslim women refrain from wearing the niqab.

The government also announced a ban on different forms of face covering. This is one of several measures to strip Muslims of practices considered excessively religious. The Madrasa curriculum is being amended to include secular education. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act — deadlocked in disagreements between activists, Muslim politicians and the Ulema — is being pushed through.

Monk activists and minor politicians used the moment for political mileage. A monk, who was also a member of parliament, insisted that two Muslim leaders who were alleged to have connections with the suicide bombers immediately resign from their positions. This resulted in the resignation of all Muslim members of the cabinet in protest.

The tensions reached a fever pitch in mid-May and violence broke out in the towns of Kuliyapitiya and Minuwangoda in the country’s North Western Province Many were then reminded of the readily available political instrument of ethnic riots that have been exploited in Sri Lanka since independence, with the necessary ingredients of anger against Muslims cultivated well prior to the bombings.

In progressive forums the rhetoric shifted to the prevention of racism against Muslims. Many commentators across the political spectrum realised that in the fallout from the bombings, minimising hate against Muslims was important.

Politicians’ and pundits’ knowledge of the country’s Muslims is not based on interaction or informed reading but through global media representations filtered through Islamophobia and geopolitical priorities far removed from Sri Lanka’s own interests. The local anti-Muslim movement’s own contribution to this knowledge is significant. If commentators and policymakers base decisions on this form of knowledge alone, the future of Sri Lanka’s security and of the country’s Muslims seems dire.

The economic consequences of the attacks are also everywhere. Muslim businesses are still barely patronised and smaller shops have shut down. No one is renting to Muslims and long-standing tenants have been asked to vacate. There are websites and social media groups urging boycotts and listing Buddhist-run alternatives.

The economic impact of the bombings is not specific to Muslims. The tourism industry has ground to a standstill. Many establishments have drastically cut staff. Food suppliers, transport companies and entertainment providers are feeling the pinch. The tourist season in the Central Province town of Kandy has just resumed and the arrivals seem promising. It remains to be seen if the numbers will touch the previous years’ highs.

With presidential elections scheduled for November, it is required that politics be minority-friendly. Anti-Muslim violence, however, is possible in the aftermath. The manner in which politicians manoeuvred and manipulated people’s distress after the bombings without providing the country with a narrative of resilience, recovery and togetherness was clear to many.

The populace at large is slowly becoming privy to a critical understanding of the country’s crisis. Many also realise that the country must be primed not only for the challenge of overcoming this security threat but also for avoiding another descent into a war over ethno-religious politics.

Farzana Haniffa is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, the University of Colombo.

This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s leadership moment‘, Vol. 11 No.

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