Recurring Violence Against Muslims: What Is It All About?

By Mohamed R. M. Farook (Colombo Telegraph)

Peace is more important today than any of the earlier eras because of the positively advantageous characteristics in the post-modern world with its attendant advancement in technology, socio-political vibrancy and religious freedom. Yet violence erupts mainly either on political or religious issues. Violence is the antithesis of peace. If we desire peace, harmony and peaceful coexistence among communities then violence has no place and should be abhorred. Yes, the vast majority of people from all communities in Sri Lanka – Buddhists, Muslims and Tamils – are not inclined towards violence of any type or form. They love peaceful coexistence which is openly visible to everybody from their daily interactions among one another on an individual and collective scale in their personalized transactions in their neighbourhood, routine, social, purchasing / marketing / selling activities throughout Sri Lanka. What else we need to be inclusive and like / love and be kind to one another? Yet violence ‘exists’ and has emerged in recent times, particularly against Muslims, in different locations starting from Aluthgama (2014), Gintota (2017), Ampara, Digana, Teldeniya and few other areas in Kandy (2018). Can one find the causes / reasons for this sporadic ‘attacks’ on Muslims and their properties – homes and businesses? The answer is ‘YES’ and also ‘NO’.

The world has changed from a religiously and culturally based internalized communities to high tech societies banging on the concept of Global Village and with that human thinking too has changed from human and humanely based thinking to technology- directed thinking which has given rise to self-seeking pursuits devoid of empathy and wellbeing of others within one’s own community and other communities. This is the scourge of the present day behavioural pattern particularly in the South Asian regions. The outcome (or output) of this phenomenon is that a large number of people from every community lacks the essential fundamental knowledge of their own religion and practise only rituals and thereby do not know the important aspects of treating / respecting the followers of other religions. Similarly the present generation does not know the cultural / traditional aspects that had transcended through years within the three communities that respected each other and was the cornerstone for peaceful living. Thus conflict leading to ad hoc chaos. We, for that matter any analyst / researcher, may not be able to identify all the reasons / causes of the violence or may miss out the vital ones as some of them may be known only to the perpetrators themselves. Yet we can point out some leading events that definitely could have contributed towards the unwanted calamity that got unfolded.

A few years ago some Sinhala Buddhists (SB), for reasons known to them only, propagated the ‘false notion’ that Sri Lankan Muslims (M) will overtake the SB population by about 30 to 35 years in time due to SB families having lesser number of children than M families. With the official statistics of 70% SB and 09% M in a total Sri Lankan population of 21 Million, and assuming that the reproduction processes of SB and M are, say, two (2) and five (5) per family respectively, even by one hundred years from now, the Muslims will not be able to overtake the Sinhala Buddhists through population growth. Forget overtaking, the Muslims will not be able to reach even 12% of the population say within hundred years. It is the Sinhalese peasants who had a larger number of children per family than the Muslims. The one, two or three children per Sinhalese families are confined to their educated and elite class and never to their rural population. With the present day complex lifestyles, high cost of living, woes of bringing up children, the hassles of schooling and living as nuclear family, everybody, irrespective of race or ethnicity, is going for small – two / three – children families. The myth of Muslim population expansion gets exposed.

After this canard they started the Halaal issue and from stage to stage from Colombo, through Kandy, Kurunegala and other places, Buddhist monks indoctrinated the Buddhist audience present with falsehood against Islam and Muslims. While some would have believed in what these monks said, a reasonable majority of the SB rejected such propaganda and in fact were questioning the behaviour of the monks as per the teachings of Buddhism. Next came the interference in and incitement at Muslim businesses that got culminated in Aluthgama violence (in2014) followed by Gintota (2017), Ampara, Digana, Teldeniya and other areas in Kandy recently – a sad spectacle for the otherwise hospitable, helpful and kindhearted Sri Lankans in general and especially the Sinhala population in particular.

What all these show is that a very small minority of Buddhist monks has influenced a group of Buddhists (youth) to their (monks’) ways of thinking of initiating and developing hatred against Muslims – an unnecessary and uncalled for endeavour by this minority group of Buddhists. This goes on and is an unhealthy and dangerous social behaviour that affects not only the Muslims but also the perpetrators themselves, the Sinhala Buddhists at large, others and finally the Sri Lanka as a country in the long run. What have the Muslims done for you (the Buddhists) to go against them? They are in business because they could not get employed in the state sector or in established commercial enterprises as they did not have educational qualifications due to either their (or parental) neglect on school education or their inability to get admission to leading schools – and finally became drop-outs through de-motivation and / or frustration.

Whereas the majority in a country especially in the South East Asian region are somewhat complacent with their strengths in their numbers, enjoy official / state patronage and have a perceived self-confidence in their livelihood, the minorities get into the notion that they have to be hardworking to survive economically / financially. This is the story everywhere in the world be it Britain, Belgium, America, Philippine, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Sri Lanka – minorities are hardworking and their business activities, small, medium or large have invariably helped the people and the economy of the respective countries – a plus point for any minority in any part of the world. Why be jealous of the Muslims of Sri Lanka? Benchmark them for your progress in your personal life as well as in business. Thereby together the Sinhalese, the Muslims and the Tamils can rise up morally and economically for the benefit and progress of all concerned! This may appear as a Utopian suggestion – yet let us give a try shunning violence and stretching the hands of friendship.

The ground realities may not be conducive to our suggestions above. In that case let us look at the ground realities which are many and varied from utter dislike / hatred towards the Muslims for no faults of their own except the faulty perception by the misdirected tiny minority hate mongering Buddhist youth backed by misguided Buddhist monks. Their dislike for, the anger they nursed along, and the brutal harm they planned and unleashed on the Muslims variously got projected, for / against, in social media and through the mouths of trouble makers and rumour mongers. One suggestion for a solution for this is for the Muslims, affected and others, to call them (the ‘empowered’ Sinhala youth and the monks) through all available means immediately to initiate discussions to resolve the issues of both sides – The Sinhalese and The Muslims. It may be difficult at the beginning, but let us start it as soon as possible for the sake of progress of all communities and the forward march of our country – Sri Lanka. If there are other ways of addressing this issue of ‘misunderstanding’ and / or ‘misconception’ let us go into those too. All suggestions must be welcome and no stone left unturned to resolve this issue of violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Be that as it may, let’s look into the livelihood patterns of each of the three ethnic / racial groups. Each of the three main communities in Sri Lanka had and still continue to have distinct liking at specific sectoral / educational / vocational involvement for their livelihood. The Sinhalese aspire for the public sector employment, get into the positions and thereby are the decision makers, general administrators and political rulers in Sri Lanka. The Tamils (Jaffna) have taken the path of education seriously and do well in their careers within Sri Lanka or overseas provided opportunities come in their way. The Muslim community traditionally had been in trading / commercial activities and they continue and new businesses spring up too. Further, due to various encouraging factors such as better social status and also the glamour of being in business today (with the attendant risk involved notwithstanding), freedom of being independent earner, better earning potential than wage employment and importantly governmental support and incentives for self-employment, people from all three communities have ventured into businesses of various types which we see throughout Sri Lanka. Thus the past notion (may be a reality then) that Muslims are / were the dominant group in business does not prevail now. Yet Muslim businesses (retail) are conspicuous in their traditionally held Muslim towns such as Akurana, Beruwala, Mawanella, Thihariya, Kalmunai, (to name a few) and had expanded within these towns. Muslim businesses do not exist in the new towns such as Ampara, Nugegoda, Maharagama, Homagama, Kiribathgoda, Embilipitiya etc. Thus it is the Sinhalese who are more in businesses today than the Muslims (or even the Tamils) – this is what it should be and what it is as the Sinhalese constitute the majority. This situation must be clearly understood to erase the myth that Muslims are the dominating group in business and thus create unwanted confusion in the minds of the Sinhalese.

Whatever their religious / ethic group, all business persons (except a very few who committedly practise their religious commands in business ethics) today are of a mind-set to make quick financial gains, disproportionate profits and look out for opportunistic situations to exploit the customer whoever they may be. This is in all trades from greengrocers, grocers, farm producers and all other businesses. This opportunistic exploitation has nothing to do with market mechanism of supply and demand. This is based on the business persons’ greedy outlook combined with the exploitation of the trust the innocent customers have in the business persons along with exploitation of lack of knowledge on the part of customers on quality, prices, availability of the same or substitute goods at other places, and finally the level of anxiety of the customers in their purchasing process – all these combined give the businesses, irrespective of their (businesses’) ethnic / racial orientation, the strengths to exploit their customers whoever they may be. Therefore it is wrong and dangerous too to arouse the feelings of the Sinhala Buddhists to the warped and twisted notion that Muslims are the dominant group in business and they exploit their customers – all businesses at various levels and degrees exploit their customers.

Having said of the many issues that could have been the reasons for the violence against Muslims without any normative inputs, up to this point, from this write-up, it is important to focus on the unfounded and unprovable advocacy by the lead Sinhala Buddhist political figures and some other Buddhist personalities that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists. There is no truth in this statement. Of course the Sinhala Buddhists are the majority in Sri Lanka. This notion is advocated essentially for the purpose of gaining political advantage from the Sinhala Buddhists vote base and nothing else – and also may be based on chauvinism in the minds of such Buddhists. This notion must be countered and abandoned to seek a way forward approach to the multi-ethno-racial pluralistic Sri Lanka that is what we are today and had come through ages in order that Sri Lanka would march forward as a nation in all aspects internally and globally through genuine and committed cooperation of all her communities with the motto that Sri Lanka belongs to all its citizens – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

Another important matter is the role of the State in safeguarding every community, whether minority or majority, to any form of danger that may emerge through propaganda, incitement or violence. The state’s re-active approaches of paying compensation to the damaged properties and the slow apprehension of the middle-rung culprits who committed the violence / crime leaving the masterminds to live with impunity are no solutions to the said issues by a democratic government. The government should always be pro-active and have standby controlling mechanisms to prevent communal violence among its multi-racial and multi-ethnic society in whichever part that violence may emerge, round up the perpetrators and take legal actions against them. All governments of the day had been slack and people witnessed one-way communal violence on Tamils in 1956 and 1983 and on the Muslims in 2014, 2017 and 2018. In these series of violence every community was a looser and there is no one to be said as the winner. We all must learn lessons from these nasty events and thus abhor violence. Although the Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees the freedom of religion to every religious group, the Constitution should be strengthened further through an additional clause guaranteeing every community from violence of any sort.

Finally, to get a better understanding of the violence against the Muslims, we also must look into the Muslims’ overall behaviour as an individual, as a collective or community, as business people, as political figures and clergy-based organizations – all these could individually and in concert send various signals that could be interpreted in different ways by the Sinhalese which could be detrimental towards the Muslims. Muslims in their individual capacity have good relationships with the Sinhalese (also Tamils) in their personal interactions. Their dresses of head scarfs, Shalwars, Abaayas (full body cloaks) and even the face-cover (Niqaab) have been in existence for long time and has become accepted dress code by others and there seem to be no repulsion or repugnance by the individual Sinhalese. It is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which created a fuss about Muslim women’s dresses going to the level of calling the Muslim women wearing the long cloak as ‘goni billas’. Every person, irrespective of their religion, has the freedom to wear whatever they wish provided the dresses do not reflect public nuisance through indecency. It is surprising to note that BBS does not say a word about the mini shorts (skirts) worn by young girls exposing greater part of their thighs and also wearing tops that expose unnecessarily the female breasts and the cleavage. What is the logic? Decent ways of dresses should be ‘insulted’ and indecency accepted in the name of fashion for the perverted desires of the onlookers!

The behaviour of the Muslims as a community is different from their individual behaviour. This is because the community is unnecessarily controlled by leaders of the Mosques (trustees), other religious (Islamic) organizations and also by socio-political associations among many others. Each of these entities has their own agendas and work on them without looking into the consequences on implementing the agendas. They stress or emphasize on the rights of the Muslims without looking into the responsibilities of the Muslim community towards the other communities. This is where any problem would start. For example, there is no issue in making use of the public address system (loud speakers) by mosques in their call for prayers in predominantly Muslim areas but have to restrict its use in areas where other communities also live. Further the members (elected, nominated or otherwise hold official positions based on the criteria of their respective constitutions) of the governing body of these mosques and religious associations do not in many instances discharge their duties as per the true Islamic guidelines as the mosques and all the associations are divided on the basis of different sects (forming into sects is against the teachings of Islam) and propagate their own ‘corrupted’ versions and the congregation is divided and are in most cases unable to raise their individual voice even as a minority collective which version might be the correct one to do. Most of the socio-political Muslim organizations exist to serve the purpose of political parties and / or other entities, local or foreign, which may support them in various ways including financial help. Thus by looking at these Muslim organizations including the Mosques, it will not be a surprise if the Sinhalese and also the BBS see the Muslim community as an inward looking community without compassion and empathy towards others.

As we have stated above, almost all businesses are exploitative towards the customers and Muslim businesses are no exception. Business persons have their religions and every religion does teach their adherents of doing business in the right manner (Business Ethics). Muslims have the Islamic guidelines in businesses and have to follow them if they are to be in the fold of Islam. Though a vast majority of Muslim businesses do adhere to their Islamic guidelines to the level as they perceive as possible and may by necessity resort to some harmless tactics or gimmickry in closing business transactions, Muslim businesses also have a quota of black sheep among them who have brought the bad image to the Muslim businesses thus making others stereotype all Muslim businesses in the black sheep category. Whereas Muslims, approximately up to the mid twentieth century, were upheld positively on single or very few positive interactive criteria (halo effect), today it is stereotyping from the few ‘bad’ Muslims to the entire community. This is one factor that makes Muslims face hate speech and violence.

Many of the Muslim political personalities and politicians have shown themselves as greedy for ministerial portfolios and jump from one regime to another for the sake of financial gains and show no concern for the Muslim community. Thus the Muslim community is leaderless and helpless and are susceptible to all types of danger from within their own and also from hate mongers and perpetrators of violence. The main clergy based Muslim organizations are more concerned with the religious works they are performing and are conspicuously uninvolved in finding solutions for the violence against Muslims. But they are helping the affected Muslims by collecting donations and dispatching same to the affected areas – this is the ‘need of the hour’ measure and in no way would alleviate the emotional distress of the victims.

Let the proponents and perpetrators of hatred and violence, re-think and reflect on their mission against Muslims and see that whether that mission of theirs could help the Sinhala Buddhist and Buddhism to be better or worse off tomorrow! Think seriously, reflect positively, and resort to non-violent ways of addressing the issues concerned so that all communities in Sri Lanka would live in an atmosphere of Sri Lankan brotherhood – and, God Willing (Insha Allah), this ought to be possible.

M. R. M. Farook – Chartered Engineer

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