The recent mobilization by the Sinhala extremists against the Muslims of Sri Lanka renews the fears among Muslims. One of such mobilization is the poster campaign prior to the new year. The attached poster urges Sinhala-Buddhists to buy things ONLY from the Sinhala-Buddhist owned shops to celebrate Sinhala New Year. The poster is claimed by “We Sinhalese” previously an unknown Sinhala nationalist group.
There are two key elements in Muslim identity and mobilization in Sri Lanka. One is Islam and other is market. Since the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers who brutalized Muslims of the North and East, the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists begun to focus on Muslims whose leaders actively supported the war against the Tamil Tigers. Muslims, according to my survey for my ongoing research on Muslims, believed that they would enjoy peace and justice in the post-Tamil Tiger Sri Lanka. However what experience suggests that Muslims have become new targets of Sinhala extremists. The question is why Muslims (after the Tamils)?
The poster urges Sinhala-Buddhists to buy things ONLY from the Sinhala-Buddhist owned shops to celebrate Sinhala New Year. The poster is claimed by “We Sinhalese” previously an unknown Sinhala nationalist group.
There are no easy answers, but interesting narratives to advance the agendas. Sinhala extremists would point to increasing what they call fundamentalism among Muslims. Actually, there is a lack of clarity about the allegations. If one would say Muslim women wearing Hijab was/is the symbol of growing Islamic fundamentalism, wearing Hijab is associated with one’s basic right. Some would point to the growth of mosques in the island. This accusation does have some merit. But one needs to remember that during the war with the Tamil Tigers, Muslims did not confront challenges from the Sinhala extremists to this effect. If Mosques were being built illegally, due process needs to be followed to address the concerns. Muslims continuously show their loyalty to the country. Their politicians have trust in democracy and know well that Muslims cannot resort to tactics and politics advanced by the Tamils to win their rights.
On the other hand, the Muslim democratic representations need to play ‘genuine and responsible’ political roles in the national affairs. In this regard, Muslim political forces should seek policies both to calm the fears of Muslims. Also, Muslim politicians need to understand the consequences of employing symbolic religious slogans to win the votes of the Muslims who value religious identity over other traits. It is very likely too much dependency on religion to just win elections could transform the society into the stage where commitments to non-violence can be discouraged. It may be hard for political parties to freeze some easy access to power, because they formulate policies,
In Downs’s (1957: 28) language, ‘to win elections’. But bad choices of Muslim politicians more likely would trigger instability and chaos in the East among the Muslims and Tamils at the masses level.
It is very important point that the recent threats and actions by the Sinhala-extremists against the Muslims not only help marginalize Muslims, but also it provides very convenience condition for external forces, including some Tamil nationalist diasporas and their “intellectual” organs to manipulate the conditions for their own gains.
In Sri Lanka, the process of modernization produced violence and chaos rather than trust and stability. Sinhalese leaders formulated some anti-Tamil policies to attract the sympathy of the Sinhalese. The result was violent Tamil mobilization. On the other hand, Tamil polity controlled by the violent Tamil movements denied justice to the Muslims. Thousands of Muslims were expelled forcefully from Jaffna in October 1990; 300 Eastern Muslims were killed at prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and Muslim wealth confiscated in the Jaffna, Baticolaoa and Amparai districts of the North- Eastern Province
Sri Lanka needs s to learn lesson from its past. There’s an African saying that if you don’t learn it by your own experiences, you will learn it by accident. The Sinhala-Buddhist extremists should know the fact that the actions of those against the minorities will seriously backfire.
*A.R.M. Imtiyaz is currently a visiting professor at the Department of Political Sciences/Asian Studies, the College of Liberal Arts, Temple University, USA. His primary research interest is in the study of ethnic conflict, both in Sri Lanka and in other countries. His articles have been published in several journals and presented at the international conferences on ethnicity. He served as a lecturer in Political Science at the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka from 1995–2002.