Anti-Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka: What does it Indicate and What to Learn From it?

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March 22, 2018

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By Dr. Abdullah Al- Ahsan

The government of Sri Lanka has just lifted the nationwide emergency imposed about two weeks ago to stop anti-Muslim communal violence in the country. Couple of decades ago it would have been inconceivable to ımagıne of any anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka. Approximately about ten percent of the total population, the Muslims are very much part of the Sri Lankan society for centuries. They have participated in business, politics, education and humanitarian activities along with theır majority Sinhalese compatriots. However, after the defeat of LTTE, the Tamil separatists, in 2009 Muslims seem to have become target as an antagonist group of people and the recent violence has prompted the government to declare emergency in country. Why has this happened? What does this violence indicate? Who benefits from this violence? What should one learn from this conflict? Let us examine these questions in the light of latest developments.

Origin of the Conflict

Undoubtedly, Sri Lankan Muslims are the maın sufferer in this conflict. But wouldn’t this conflict affect the Sinhalese community too? Loosing trust of a companion that has made significant contribution to country’s economy for centuries will definitely impinge upon the whole nation. Agaın the question is – who is going to benefit from this violence? This questıon should lead us to examine how this latest flare up has occurred. According to some reports, an extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force and some similar other entities are responsible for this development. According to one researcher from the International Crisis (ICG) “These attacks are organised, well-planned … And there is good reason to believe they are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.” This observation makes sense because this explains why all of a sudden the Sri Lankan Muslim community has become a target for provocation. Sri Lanka has fought a long war agaınst the Tamil separatists and durıng this long war Srı Lanka has wıtnessed some sort of unity among the Sinhalese population. It seems that after the defeat of the Tamil separatists some Sinhalese nationalist leaders felt the need for a new enemy for the continuation of the Sinhalese nationalist feelings for national unity. Among these nationalist leaders, the former president and current opposition leader Mahindra Rajapakse seems to be at the forefront. But is it wise on his part to target the Muslim community for the purpose? Is it going to work?

Following the Clash of Civilizations Thesis

Rajapakse seems to have been motivated by the political theory that one needs a common enemy in order to stimulate collective unity of a gıven political community. Former Harvard University professor Samuel P Huntington’s successful application of this theory in defining international relations in post cold war world in the name of clash of civilizations seems to have convinced Rajapakse to find a new enemy in his Sri Lankan context. But has he been wise in his selection of the Muslim community for this purpose? Has the application of the clash of civilizations thesis reduced violence around the world? Has the Muslim community’s role in history of Sri Lanka been the same as the Tamil community? No, Muslims in Sri Lanka have never demonstrated any separatist tendency. In fact, on the contrary they have generally participated along with Sinhalese based political parties for ındependence and natıonal development. Even now they have representation in most national political parties. Why then have the Sinhalese extremists targeted Muslims as their adversaries? Thıs questıon leads us to look for specific reasons for the conflict.

Allegation against Muslims

Muslims have been accused of being unpatriotic, being involved in drugs and narcotics, producing children much faster than theır Sinhalese counterparts and thus converting Sri Lanka Sinhalese minority by the year 2050. Muslıms also have been accused of selling sterilization drugs to infertile Sinhalese women, Islamizing Sri Lanka by importing, selling and exporting ‘halal’ goods in Sri Lanka and by doing so bringing Shari’ah in Sri Lanka etc. There are also reports of extremist Buddhist monks going around complaining about Muslims controlling businesses and purchasing commercially valuable lands. However, no evidences have been produced to support the accusations and, of course, some accusations do not make any sense at all.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that these accusations would perhaps provoke some Muslims to respond as dıd three drunken Muslims did ın the case of the recent flare up of vıolence. This is what exactly had happened in the case of the proposition of the clash of civilizations thesis where Muslims were identified as adversaries to US ınterests. The ICG researcher quoted above has rightly pointed out that the objective of the Sinhalese extremists is to provoke some Muslim response so that more violence could be initiated against Muslims. The clash of civilizations thesis, proposed immediately after the cold war, has defınıtely ıncreased vıolence all over the world. Researchers have rıghtly pointed out that, “India’s Intelligence service, known as the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is believed to have provided training and weaponry to the LTTE up until the mid-1980s” and most observers belıeve that LTTE has not died down yet. It is always possible for different spy agencies to use these terrorists to recruit individuals from various backgrounds to conduct subversive activities in various parts of the world. The LTTE, whıch has successfully introduced suicide activities ın the world stage sınce the late 1980s, has been reported to have close contact with other terrorist groups including the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, Taliban and its affiliates in Pakistan, PKK and other Kurdish groups west Asia. Therefore, there are strong possibilities for the Sri Lankan conflict will not only to further explode; it may also spread to other parts of the world.

How to Stop the Violence

However, there are some positive signs as well. The ICG researcher has pointed out that the Muslim community has “been admirably restrained” so far and also the Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have rallied in the capital city Colombo against the anti-Muslims riot in the country. Both the ICG and the peace loving Buddhist monks who have demonstrated their courage to oppose ultra-nationalist sentiments must be appreciated. But the role of the United Nations on the conflict commended most.

Commendable Role of the UN

Within days after the declaration of the emergency the UN dispatched its Under Secretary General for political affairs to Sri Lanka and the visiting diplomat categorically “condemned the breakdown in law and order and the attacks against Muslims and their property.” The lessening of violence and lifting of the emergency seems to be a direct result of the UN intervention on the issue. The Sri Lankan government is reported to have established enquiries, but the government’s seriousness to find a solution will depend on how the enquiry report is handled. If the government fails to make the report public, it will only mean that the government is not serious in resolving the conflict. If such activities are encouraged, facilitated and followed, we would know that we have learned from history.

21 March 2018

Dr. Abdullah Al- Ahsan is a JUST member.

 

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