The recent spate of Anti Muslim violence that took place in the east and central part of Sri Lanka at the end of February brought to realisation the worst fears that many of us working in the space of community relations have had.  The fact that for a number of years there has been a feeling that although relative “calm” had descended on the island at the end of the decades-long civil war in 2009, this was just surface-led. It was inevitable that some sort of communal violence would return. After all, the conflict indicators showed that Sri Lanka faced trouble every 10 years after independence.

In all appearances, it was clear a recurrence of the 1983 pogrom was narrowly averted with the 2018 violence, as organized mob violence with a plan and strategy to target Sri Lankan Muslims, united on social media and fed with local intelligence about where they lived, attacked and destroyed premises belonging to the minority Muslim community including mosques.

What was clear from the 2018 violence, was that the predictions of the Muslims being the targets of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist in the post 2009 era have not only taken place but run the risk of creating an enabling environment for future conflict in two ways: the spreading of myths about the community that scapegoats the community in terms of representing them as a threat to the Sinhala-Buddhist economic dominance and racist population politics (Wettimuny 2018) and the indifference and silence of the silent majority (Gunasekara 2018). The violence against the Muslims recently in 2018, 2017 and 2014 is nothing new and represents repeated Anti Muslim violence that has taken place in Sri Lanka over the past three to four decades (Nagaraj and Haniffa 2017). 

It is clear that this collective indifference, coupled with a fog of misconception of the Muslim community and the visibility of the Muslim identity are the fault-lines of the problems between the two communities  in the country. However, the different periods of  violence are more than that, in terms of examining whether the violence are an “an example of an ingrained Sinhala Buddhist mentality, or in fact reflect a history of ideological and political reconfiguration” (Gunawardena 2018), or in effect  something more like economics.  What is clear though is that the distinct experience of political and ethnic violence experienced by the Muslims in the context of Sinhala-Muslim tensions requires greater empirical attention and theorizing than it is has received.

Since 1915 there have been repeated incidents of Anti Muslim violence by Sinhalese and despite this, there has not been a call to arms by the Muslims unlike the 1983 Anti Tamil pogrom which led to the consolidation of power by the LTTE.  This in itself reflects a slightly different approach to how the Muslim community seeks to solve their issues with the Sinhalese and hails to that legacy of ‘accomodationist’ politics.  There is though a temporal, spatial, political, economic and social dynamic to the anti- Muslim violence and to some extent, the violence of 2018 represents a ‘perfect storm’ where such different competing factors such as economics, inter-ethnic relations, religious sentiments, mythology and so on, all consolidated together. So there can not be one cause for the violence but multiple causes that need to be understood and worked on and a separate study is needed to really understand these dynamics.

Yet, the fact that 103 years on from the first Sinhala-Muslim clashes that took place in the country, we had come full circle back to Kandy with the clashes can not be under estimated or over emphasised.  As it then pushed the Muslim community to realise that they were at a crossroads in their relationship with the Sinhala and also as a minority in the community, so to the current wave of violence in 2018 represents a symbolic statement of a real cross roads for the Muslim community vis-à-vis- their relationship with the Sinhalese community and the rest of the country.  Regardless of the single or multiple causes for the violence, the mere fact that the violence took place on the scale that it did and with the complicity of state actors poses important questions for the future of the expression of the Muslim identity as well as the representation and expression of their identity and identity in general in Sri Lanka.

Fear of Small Numbers

Appadurai (2006) writes that for extreme violence to occur against ethnically different but nonetheless neighbouring groups, there must be a confused mixture of high certainty and grave uncertainty within the in-group about the intentions of their neighbours.   This in all intents and purposes exactly defines the approach of the Sinhalese to the rest of the minorities in Sri Lanka.

This type of confused mixture of certainty and uncertainty is caused by a couple of factors (Ibid): 1) the empiricisation of minorities via census data and other forms of survey.  This creates an empirical count of the “other”; 2) Minorities remind the majority of the failure to collectivize a national unity; 3) minorities end up being the site that nationalisms find an outlet for their own anxieties about global insignificance. In other words, minorities blur the idea of nationhood because they aren’t the majority; therefore, the majority often maps the globalized ephemeral onto their reality in the social imaginary.  “The worry this produces is that the ordinary faces of every day life (with names, practices and faiths different from one’s own) are in fact masks of everydayness behind which lurk the real identities not of ethnic others but of traitors to the nation conceived as an ethnos” (Ibid, 91). 

So as has been seen on the ground, the Sinhalese have displayed all of the above (as defined by Appadurai) in terms of their engagement especially with the Muslim community.  From the fear of the increasing visibility and numbers of the Muslim community, to a narrative that Muslims are not part of the nation, one can see that this confusion has been built up over time and fed into a narrative of an ‘ethnocide momentum’ (Appadurai 2006) where Sri Lanka’s idea of national ethos has been shaped especially in the last 30 years, from the rhetoric of war, sacrifice and the subordination of local traditions.  With the end of the war, the concept of sacrifice was brought even more to the fore with the ‘anxiety of incompleteness’ (Ibid) based on the fear of small numbers. Thus the Muslim minority threatens the nationalist majority of the Sinhalese because they remind the majority that the unsullied and complete national whole doesn’t exist.  There is thus a ‘fault’ with Muslims and to fix this, they either must be “assimilated”, integrated or there must be extreme and spectacular violence that can be mobilised to overcome the volatile deficit of that ‘incompleteness’.

The violence of February comes on the back of what has been a relentless and sustained campaign of anti-Muslim rhetoric. This has involved public meetings, the distribution of pamphlets and the publishing of articles in mainstream Sinhala and English papers, which have borrowed rhetoric used globally to demonize and stereotype Muslims. In the face of “fake news,” the propagation of myths is wide and wild. For instance, the week preceding the flare up of violence in Kandy, a tense situation erupted in the east where Sinhalese had accused Muslims of serving them food with infertile pills. Such was the seriousness of the claim that the United Nations Population Fund, the World Health Organization, and the Government Medical Officers Association had to issue statements to refute this.

It would be naive to blame the violence just on faith. There are other factors that combine to make this flare up and its causes deep and problematic. The majority misperception is that Sri Lankan Muslims are successful businessmen and, therefore, economic interests mean there is an attempt to squeeze Muslims out of the market. From the halal boycott — a move by a hardline Sinhalese Buddhist group — to the extensive damage and looting that has been inflicted on businesses, it is clear that there was an economic dimension to the violence aimed at hitting the Muslim community.

There is also an attempt to decrease the visibility of Muslims. For hardline Sinhalese, Muslims are seen as a threat to Sinhala identity and ultimately Sri Lanka, which manifests itself in the rhetoric around dress codes — in particular what is deemed as Arab clothes such as the thawb for men or the abaya and niqab for women — and the attacks on mosques.

The dominant tale of this kind of fearful symmetry between the fear and power of small numbers is further not helped by a minority is on its own trajectory for its identity expression.  The Muslims were pushed to respond in one way and in so doing reinforced the polarisations. So to some extent the fault comes from the majority community in how they perceive engagement with the minorities but equally there is fault from the Muslims in how they responded to this situation.  By pushing for the ‘other’ identity in the face of hegemonic aspects and as part of a colonial process, the Muslims chose religion and then sought agency by the institutionalisation of social, ethnic, religious and political identity.  It is the last aspect which they relied on over the last 30 plus years in the wake of the conflict and a way of legitimising their interest.  However, what they couldn’t and didn’t realise is that identity is multiple and it is difficult to unite a group no matter how much the image is of homogeneity, actually into something else.  It is even more difficult to do that under religion and then to combine that religion with ethnic and political entities

So, what needs to be done?

Clearly there is a lot to be done politically. The present government entered office on the agenda of good governance and equality, and it was largely supported by minority voters, including the Muslim community. There needs to be trust built once again with the government and between the government and Sri Lankan Muslims. In addition, however, there needs to be work done at the grassroots level. There is currently a lot to be done around improving social capital. Hence, a change of narrative and thinking has to be the order of the day on top of any structural alignments toward ensuring that such bouts of violence do not happen again. There also has to be a change of narrative about who Muslims are and where they belong in Sri Lanka.

By hardline Sinhala Buddhists declaring Sri Lanka as a “Sinhala-only country,” those perpetrating this mindless rhetoric of Sinhala supremacism presuppose the acceptance of Sri Lanka as a land sacred to Buddhism and with Buddhists as its chosen people. According to this vision, minorities, including Sinhala Christians, are not co-owners or even guests (because guests have to be given certain privileges and rights). Rather, they are second-class serfs (untouchables) who should thank the benevolent majority for being given the chance to live there.

In so doing, this completely rewrites the rich history of a country whose mosaic is made up of different ethnicities, faiths and cultures. They have chosen to rewrite a history of the accumulation of unfinished business, the piling up of debts and the stacking up of fortunes and misfortunes. Whilst it is true that Sri Lanka is the only place in which there are Sinhalese and where the Sinhalese language is spoken, this does not equate to ownership of the island solely by one race or another, nor does it speak of the rich inter mingling of all races and faiths that influence much of Sri Lankan culture, food, art and music today. It also does a huge disservice to the Buddhist way of life, which is about peace, tranquility and tolerance of others. Declaring Sri Lanka as Buddhist does not preclude it from having minorities of other faiths and ethnicities coexisting with equal rights.

It is here where one can start talking about multiple identities as elaborated by Sen (2006).  The encouragement and retention of multiple identities means that people have several enriching identities: nationality, gender,
age and parental background, religious or professional affliation (Sen 2006). It is the recognition of this plurality and the searching for commonalities within this pluralism that will lead to greater respect and ultimately understanding and acceptance. Thus these new solutions will have to challenge people to accept diversity and create equal opportunities for diverse communities, ethnicities, traditions, cultures and faiths. This is in fact something that echoes what Barth (1969) acknowledged in terms of the need to possess and celebrate multiple identities and that is problematic and reductive to limit the individual to having one superordinate ethnic identity.  By reducing these pluralities we in turn risk reducing the dynamics, potential for creativity and future transformation and emergence of ethnic groups and identities.

So for the mainstream Sinhalese there needs to be a recognition of the plurality of the nation in terms of Non Buddhist and Non Sinhala people.  Equally the minorities need to rethink the concept of multiple identities and pluralism.

For the Muslim community there thus  needs to be a holistic re-imagination of Sri Lankan Muslim identity, expression and agency and an approach to the conversation.  This firstly starts from a re-imagining of the historical narrative.  The Muslim narrative is and has been the fact that ‘Muslims have been existing and co-existing with other communities in Sri Lanka over the last 1000 years without any problem’.  This in itself is a problematic statement.  It presupposes that there is a noble race of people called ‘Muslims’ who decided one day to move to Sri Lanka, 1000 years ago, fell in love with the country, decided to settle, intermarry with the local people and it is their descendants who are living today in Sri Lanka making up the population of Sri Lankan Muslims and whose constituents are facing the problems of racism and xenophobia.  This reasoning is completely simplistic, assumes homogeneity for a religion that thrived on heterogeneity, and simply does not consider the complexity of relationships and lived experiences between communities. This reasoning also assumes that Muslims are one race which again is not true.  Muslims are a heterogeneous community from different races, ethnicities, languages and countries all bound by the simple, universal principles of Islam and its teachings. 

The narrative of Muslims has to change in Sri Lanka starting from this simple fact.  Islam came to Sri Lanka 1000 years and not Muslims.  The latter are made up of a number of people who sought to believe in the former including definitely Arab traders who came and settled in the country, interacted with the locals and married local women (from the Sinhalese and Tamil community); Sinhalese and Tamil communities who converted to Islam; Muslim communities who came from Malabar in south India; communities who came to Sri Lanka as part of colonial migration and slave trade including the Malays, Memons and Gujaratis and other forms of migration and trade during the ages.  Thus the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is a mosaic of people who are Moor (if they want to claim Arab heritage), Memon, Malay, Bhora, Pakistani, Afghani, Tamil and Sinhala.  Even the Moor label is slightly disingenuous because it assumes a direct and pure link with Arabs instead of acknowledging the intermarriage over centuries between communities.  

 So the narrative has to move away from a label of “Muslims who have come from a 1000 years ago” to something that holistically represents in a true form the spectrum of Muslim ethnicity.  We can’t continue to have this narrative which then presupposes everything else including a need for institutionalisation of identity based on race and which becomes confused with a need for religious expression. There is a mélange of identities, ethnicities and cultures that make up the Muslim community, not the homogeneous identities that both the Muslim community and those outside of it choose to define.


The recent events are also a wake-up call to those who have been engaging in reconciliation work in Sri Lanka. For too long, there was a binary notion from the international community about the decades-long civil war being between two parties: the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Yet the history of the conflict is much more than that. Though not direct parties to the war, Sri Lankan Muslims suffered during the conflict, and it is important to note that for full reconciliation to take place, it needs to be holistic and comprehensive. This means everyone should be considered from all parts of Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is not about north and south.

The violence in Kandy shows that a lot more needs to be done at the grassroots level. It is fine to talk about political solutions, but if people at the grassroots still do not trust or know each other, then political solutions will just be a band-aid to a deep burn. The vitriolic rhetoric that has been spread is testimony to the fact that we need to start once again from scratch in developing a discussion that is not only top-down, but bottom-up too. There needs to be parallel efforts to build trust between people and communities through multi-faith interactions and crossing ethnic divides.

This is the role that civil society and, in particular, religious leaders should be playing in order to bring out about reconciliation. The aim should be to rebuild trust through reducing suspicion and infusing human values, with an understanding of the need to move away from apportioning blame for deceit and destruction. Trust can only be rebuilt when a space is created for effective dialogue and understanding. This space is one that starts at local levels with community organizations, leaders and intellectuals. It is not the sole responsibility of the political establishment, but of everyone interested in this endeavor.

Rebuilding trust is about honoring unity and celebrating diversity, working toward equity and justice, and ensuring the eradication of social prejudices in building a collective identity. We cannot abrogate our individual responsibilities in this task. The simple question to ask ourselves is: How much do we know of and understand our friends/colleagues who come from a different faith and ethnicity? By knowing, understanding and respecting each other’s faith and community, we move from just tolerance to acceptance. These are the first signs of a mature, diverse society and democracy. It is the first part in accepting the social contract of citizenship of a nation.

Solutions are needed for the restitution of a fractured polity, which involves a healthy acceptance of minorities. Hence, there must be legal and constitutional structures that not only guarantee equal rights for citizens and freedom of religion, but also legislates against incitement for racial and religious hatred and discrimination. No one argues about removing the privileged place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka or doing away with rights of the majority. But it is expected that the spirit of Buddhism has to ensure tolerance and respect for others, and with legal safeguards in place to enforce this.

Sri Lanka is at a crossroads of uncertainty, with bitter interethnic rivalries fanned by divisive politics. Constitutional amendments and projected development, however, are not enough to make hearts forgive and forget. Sri Lanka needs a platform for genuine and objective discussion in the hope of moving forward and achieving reconciliation. This has to start at the grassroots and involve all aspects of society. Reconciliation has to ultimately work through the hearts of individuals who harbor pain from the long years of their inability to meet basic human aspirations or from the loss of loved ones and properties as they became innocent victims of calculated and indiscriminate violence between fighting forces.

We are nearly 35 years on from the horrible riots of July 1983 that sent the country down a treacherous path, because it is exactly the same scenario where anti-Tamil propaganda was pumped over in the years. We are also 103 years on from the first Sinhala-Muslim riots and violence that took place in exactly the same place: Kandy. Despite the multiple incidents of anti-Muslim violence that have occurred since 1915 without any such armed reaction from the community, lessons should be taken from history in terms of the ramifications of not addressing the causes of conflict.

If we want to aspire to tackle the root causes of the ethnic and racist rhetoric and violence, then the challenge is to actually learn from what has happened in order to have a county that respects its diversity and is united in its principles and values that are influenced by Buddhism. Otherwise, we condemn future generations to the vicious cycle of hatred, intolerance and violence that will destroy Sri Lanka, not unite it.

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