As the second decade of the 21st century came to a close in December, Islamophobia in two particular contexts was dominating the headlines: Islamophobia of the Conservative Party as it contested and won the recent UK election, and the Islamophobic undercurrents of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). While both cases are undoubtedly important for Muslims and for all conscientious people to pay attention to, it is also important to not forget other cases that are not as prominent in discussions within the Muslim community and the general public.
Both the Rohingya and Uyghurs were severely marginalized for decades before their persecutors’ Islamophobic projects escalated, and even then, irrecoverable damage had already been done by the time the Muslim community began to pay any serious attention to their plight. Another such persecuted Muslim minority that does not seem to be on many radars are the Muslims of Sri Lanka. The Indian regime may be the Islamophobe-in-chief in South Asia, but alarming developments in nearby Sri Lanka should not be left in our blindspot. Islamophobia in Sri Lanka, too, is real and dangerous.
Sri Lanka today is home to more than two million Muslims, making up about 10% of the island’s population. Though it is generally seen as being on the “fringes” of Islam’s long presence in South Asia, it is often forgotten that even the invasion of Sind in 711ce by the forces of Muhammad bin Qasim was launched in response to an incident involving Muslims settled in Sarandip (the old Persian name for Sri Lanka, and origin of the English word serendipity). Muslim merchants had settled and intermarried on the island less than a century after the departure of the Prophet (pbuh). In the centuries that followed, seafaring Arab and Persian merchants criss-crossed the Indian Ocean, and Sri Lanka remained an important stop along this “Maritime Silk Road.” Two of the most famous Muslim travellers — the Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Batutah and the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho — both stopped in Sri Lanka. The island’s Muslim community kept close ties with the Muslims of India, especially the Mappilas of Kerala and Gujarati merchants. In time, most of the Sri Lankan Muslims came to speak Tamil and settled in coastal towns such as Beruwala, Kalpitiya and Jaffna.
Then came European colonizers, first the Portuguese and Dutch, and later the British. The Portuguese identified “Moors” in Sri Lanka as influential merchants, and over time, both the Portuguese and Dutch put strict penalties and restrictions on the island’s Muslims, forcing many of them to move inland from the coast. They thus settled in Sinhalese-speaking parts of Sri Lanka, where two-thirds of Sri Lankan Muslims live today. The Dutch also introduced Malay Muslims captured in Java into the mix. The British took control of the island in 1815, which they would maintain until 1948. It was during this period that Islamophobic sentiments were expressed in Sri Lanka for the first time. In 1915, a local dispute escalated into a series of riots in which 116 people were killed, many women were raped and more than 100 masjids were significantly damaged. Both the Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans made it clear in the aftermath of these riots that they viewed Muslims as “foreigners,” though Sinhalese Buddhists such as Anagarika Dharmapala (an influential leader of Sri Lanka’s independence movement) were particularly vocal about their dislike for Muslims.
Nevertheless, after independence the Muslim community generally aligned itself with the dominant Sinhalese bloc. As civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese regime broke out in 1983, the Muslims began to establish their own political parties for the first time, in an effort to chart their own course. However, though the war came to an end in 2009, the confidence it gave to certain elements in the Sinhalese Buddhist community to act with impunity remained. In the post-9/11 period and with Hindu supremacism on the rise in nearby India, Sri Lanka’s Muslims became a target.
The message was clear: Islam had to be purged from Sri Lanka because it was foreign to South Asia’s Vedic tradition. In recent years, Buddhist supremacist groups have launched massive campaigns calling for a ban on the niqab, the elimination of halal certification and slaughter of cattle, restrictions on the construction of mosques, the boycotting of Muslim businesses, and the regulation of travel to the Middle East. These campaigns have been tacitly, and at times openly, supported by the government.
The powder keg exploded in 2014, as Bhuddhist-instigated rioting angainst Muslims led to several deaths and left 80 people injured and 10,000 displaced (80% of them Muslim). The rally was instigated by Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist far-right group. The regime ordered Sri Lanka’s mainstream media to censor news about the riots, which they did. Similar incidents have occurred more recently, particularly in the form of widespread attacks against Muslims in 2018. The government had to declare a state of emergency and call in the army to control the situation. It was later revealed that some police officers were simply “looking on” as the riots played out. It is important to note that after the 2018 riots, Sri Lankans of different backgrounds, including many Buddhists, expressed solidarity with the Muslim community. But the overall picture is grim; between 2013 and 2017, Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, as in Myanmar, have carried out nearly 50 identifiable anti-Muslim attacks.
In Sri Lanka, Islamophobic rhetoric continues to spread virulently, particularly through social media. It is claimed that Muslims have organized a contraceptive campaign, delivered by means of tainted powdered milk and contaminated women’s underwear, to keep the Sinhalese birth rate low while the Muslim community expands. It is claimed that staff in Muslim restaurants are required by Islam to spit three times into the food before serving it to non-Muslims. Other claims include that Muslim merchants are fundraising for jihad, that in some parts of the country Sinhalese Buddhists need Muslims’ permission to go to the main road, that Muslims steal from Buddhist temples, and that Muslims are obsessed with forcibly undressing Sinhalese women. Social media plays its role: Facebook has refused to remove Islamophobic posts emerging from Sri Lanka, including one which said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.”
On Easter Sunday in 2019, churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka were bombed, killing 260 and leaving more than 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Muslim group named Jama‘ah at-Tawhid al-Wataniyah was held responsible, and many analysts pointed to the fact that this was not a foreign influence or broad conspiracy at work. Rather, it was reaction of certain misguided Muslims to years of demonization that they, as part of the Muslim community, have had to endure. While this does not justify the attacks, it is an imperative point in understanding them, and many Sri Lankan voices (including those I personally met) emphasized that the Tamil Tigers had emerged in a very similar way. To avoid the experience of more civil strife, they urged, it is important to not use this incident to further demonize Muslims.
While there were some retaliatory measures taken against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka after these attacks, it remains to be seen whether the different ethno-religious groups of the country are ready to move forward in a peaceful way. Until a sincere and sustained effort is made in that direction, Islamophobia in Sri Lanka will continue to be a major concern.