Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community is coming under intense pressure from a hard-line Buddhist monk organization allegedly linked to certain powerful individuals in the President Mahinda Rajapaksa-led administration.
The Buddhist Power Force, more commonly known as the “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS) in the native Sinhala language has lashed out at the country’s second-largest minority, which makes up 9.2% of the population, demanding an outright ban on several Muslim practices including the traditional dress code of women and halal dietary guidelines.
Just days after pressuring the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the apex religious body of Islamic Theologians in Sri Lanka into withdrawing the halal certification provided to companies in the country, the BBS is now targeting the traditional Muslim garb including the abaya (long black cloak), niqab (face cover) and hijab (head cover).
Addressing a news conference in Colombo, the group’s general secretary, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, said the Muslim attire was creating all kinds of social and security issues.
“We will fight until this attire is banned from this country, so that there is no chance to unofficially enforce the Islamic Sharia Law in Sri Lanka, which is a Buddhist nation,” he said.
In the days since the announcement of the anti-Muslim campaign, several Muslim women have complained of harassment from unidentified men. On March 15, four young Muslim women dressed in the black cloak and head cover were dragged by their dress across the road by several men at the main Railway Station in Colombo. Several passers-by came to the rescue of the four women by chasing the men, who eventually fled.
“A Muslim woman who had been walking down a road in an afternoon was spat at by a man, who used foul language and asked her to leave Sri Lanka and go back to some Arab country,” an acquaintance of the victim who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Asia Times Online.
BBS, which identifies itself as an organization that opposes what it defines as Islamism, Sharia law and Islamic extremism, intensified its campaign against Muslims in February demanding the abrogation of the halal process.
The BBS alleged that the fee charged by the ACJU to provide the certification was collected to fund Islamic extremism in the country. The group also went to the extent of accusing the Islamic theologian body established in the country in 1924 of funding Islamic militant organizations such as al-Qaeda.
The BBS has failed to provide any substantial proof to their claims; that hasn’t stopped their continuing rhetoric. The allegation over halal certification has been flatly denied by the ACJH, which has stressed that only a nominal fee is charged for the certification process to cover operating costs such as logistics and human resources.
As an effort to maintain harmony in the country, the ACJU last week announced that it has decided to stop issuing the ”halal” logo to all companies, stating that the certification will only be provided free of charge for products catering to the export market as and when requested by the manufacturers.
“We are making a sacrifice because we value the centuries of peace that have existed between our communities,” ACJU president Ash Sheikh Rizwe Mufthi told a news conference in Colombo convened to announce the halting of the halal certification process.
The BBS has expressed displeasure over ACJU’s decision to continue to provide halal certification for the export market and is demanding the scrapping of the entire process. The halting of the certification has created difficulties for entire Muslim community, who now face a loss of confidence in whether their food is in accordance with their religious principles.
Terming the halal process “Islam extremism”, an executive committee member of BBS, Dilantha Vithanage has claimed that Muslims are systematically taking over the country with extremist habits and has called on the Buddhist community, which counts for 74.9% of the country’s population, to boycott all Muslim establishments including shops and restaurants, on grounds that contributing to their income will increase Islamic extremism.
Small independent groups with alleged links to the Bodu Bala Sena have threatened to throw rotten eggs on Buddhist women who defy these orders and shop at Muslim-owned shopping centers. Anti-Muslim campaignshave also sprung up on social media sites such as Facebook.
Meanwhile, the BBS has set their sights on a historic rock cave mosque in Kuragala, 135 kilometers east of the capital, Colombo. The mosque’s existence dates back to the 10th century. Gnanasara claims that it should be removed because it is situated in a vast Buddhist monastery complex.
The government is yet to come out openly and condemn the victimization of the Muslim community, and even Muslim ministers in the government are quiet despite the continuous harassment of their community. Sri Lankan police chief N K Illangakoon has said that he will ensure the safety, security and equality of everyone, no matter to which race or religion they belong. However, there have been various instances where the police have failed to act on complaints lodged by Muslims against repeated forms of harassment and intimidation.
Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, has publicly associated himself with the BBS despite mounting criticism against the group. The BBS is also strongly backed by theJathika Hela Urumaya, a partner of the ruling coalition.
Analysts expressed concern on grounds that just months before Sri Lanka celebrates its fourth anniversary since ending the quarter-century long bloody war with the Tamil Tigers, the country is showing signs of yet another ethnic conflict. Addressing a mass rally in Kandy, some 100 kilometers from Colombo, BBS’s executive committee member Dilantha Vithanage vowed to continue his organization’s “struggle” on behalf of the Buddhist community.
Meanwhile, veteran left-wing Sri Lankan politician Vasudeva Nanayakkara has expressed concerns over the increased activities of the BBS, warning that their activities can lead to riots in the country. The Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a body comprising of over 57 member countries, this week wrote to the Sri Lankan government expressing its concerns over the escalating ethnic tensions in the island.
*Munza Mushtaqis a journalist based in Colombo and a former news editor of two English newspapers in Sri Lanka. A version of this article id first appeared in Asia Times Online.