Sri Lanka’s Muslims Under Siege?

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Sri Lanka’s Muslims Under Siege?

The end of the civil war brought hopes that the country could become united. But attacks by radical Buddhists suggest Sri Lanka faces a new challenge to internal harmony.

Colombo’s suburb of Dehiwala is probably best known for housing the Colombo Zoo. But late last month, it became the site of a wild protest at a small mosque, a protest that has many Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka worried.

On the morning of May 30, police officials reportedly informed the leader of the Dehiwala branch of the Association of Muslim Youth of Seylan that an illegal demonstration was likely to take place at the group’s mosque. Sheikh Ramsy was instructed to cancel madrassa lessons.

True to the warning, by midday, some 200 demonstrators led by several dozen Buddhist monks allegedly converged on the small Islamic center and began throwing stones and rotten meat over the gate at the mosque. Fortunately, most projectiles landed harmlessly in front of the mosque. Protestors shouted slogans demanding the closure of the mosque, claiming it was performing daily animal sacrifices, a charge the mosque denies.

“This charge is really unbelievable and shows how little they know about the religion of Islam. We only conduct sacrifices associated with the Eid ul-Adha and often the meat is distributed to poor families,” Sheikh Rasmy explains.

The incident is the latest in a string of serious incidents involving extremist Buddhist provocations against Muslims in Sri Lanka. In April, for example, a number of Buddhist monks disrupted Muslim prayer services in the village of Dambulla. The attackers claimed that the mosque, built in 1962, was illegal. Weeks later, monks are said to have drafted a threatening letter aimed at Muslims in the nearby town of Kurunegala, demanding Islamic prayer services there be halted.

Reza, a clerk at the Darul Iman Islamic Book House in Colombo, says he is confused by the outbreak of intolerance. “We in the Muslim community aren’t used to anything like this. But the last few months have seen new tensions across the country. We aren’t sure why this is happening now. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus we have all lived together for a long-time.”

During, the 30-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the central government, the island’s Muslims, though Tamil-speaking, sided with the government against the LTTE. This was in part a result of thousands of Muslims being ejected from Jaffna in the early 1990s. During the conflict, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority courted the island’s Muslims, and many Muslims rose to prominent bureaucratic positions, while a handful even served in the Sri Lankan armed forces.

A Muslim bureaucrat in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that the status of Muslims has changed since the end of the war in 2009. “The government view of Muslims has changed since they defeated the ‘Tigers’. We are no longer seen as a loyal asset,” the official says. “Now we’re seen as a liability. I know Muslims who have inexplicably lost positions in the customs office and regional agencies in the past year.”

Muslims interviewed for The Diplomat said that discrimination in the provision of government services was second only to inflation as a challenge for the island’s Muslim community.

The vast majority of the island’s Muslims are the descendants of Persian and Arab traders who settled on the island. Official estimates put the Muslim population of the country at around 7 percent, although Muslims believe their share of the population is much higher, perhaps as much as 17 percent of the total population. In Sri Lanka, such numbers are important because funding from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs is spent proportionally on each religion.

The Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs agreed to speak off the record about religious issues on the island, and dismissed the incident at Dambulla as “unimportant,” maintaining the mosque in question was an illegal structure.

“Any religious structure must be approved by the ministry, the local government and the appropriate divisional secretary,” an official says. “Anyone who hasn’t followed these procedures is building an illegal structure and it becomes a police matter.”

According to the ministry official, the three-step approval process for new religious structures was implemented in 2010. Speaking in their office, the official noted that religious freedom was ingrained in the Sri Lankan Constitution. “We are a democracy. That is what separates us from Saudi Arabia or the Maldives. People are free to practice their beliefs in Sri Lanka as long as they respect the laws.”

But the same official also sidestepped the question of the source for Sri Lanka’s rising religious tensions, pointing only to “interested parties” being behind individual incidents. Officials at the ministry also stated the policy of the ministry was to address complaints of discrimination from all sides. Such an ambivalent attitude toward sectarian issues is reflected at higher levels of government as well. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had, at the time of writing, yet to issue a statement about Dambulla or Dehiwala, despite the fact that Sri Lankan diplomatic delegations often tout the island’s Muslim heritage to attract foreign investment.

As a result, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have largely taken a self-reliant approach to resolving the challenge. On the night of June 11, assailants again threw stones at the Dehiwala mosque. Following this latest incident, the mosque and others in the area moved to improve security.  Using money raised from within the local community, Sheikh Ramsy has decided to install protective metal screens to protect the mosque from future attacks.

However, the island’s Muslim leaders are aware that building barriers isn’t a long term solution. As a result, Sri Lanka’s All Ceylon Muslim Congress, the most popular political party for the island’s Muslims, has tried to build bridges within affected communities to avoid future violence. Risad Badhiutheen, one of the party’s leaders, has visited Buddhist temples and met with monks in the Dehiwala area in order to ease tensions.

Muhammad Omar, a trishaw driver attending prayer services at the mosque, notes that “Everywhere, people have problems. These [religious tensions] are the problems of Sri Lanka. We can’t rely on the government. The community must come together.”

Persian traders to Sri Lanka named the island “Serendib,” from which comes the English word “Serendipity.” But, for the moment at least, the island’s religious minorities are hoping for happier times ahead.

Joseph Hammond is a freelance writer and former correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.