Monday, October 20, 2014

Buddhism Vs Islam in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a small island nation in the Indian Ocean. It is a predominant Buddhist state with significant minorities of Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims in Sri Lanka make up about 8% of the population and comprise 3 distinct groups. These are Indian Muslims who are mostly Tamil, ethenic Muslims who are local Muslims and have lived in Lanka for generations and the Muslims from SE Asia who migrated from Burma and other places. All of them are loosely classified as Muslims by the Sinhalese who consider them as one ethnic group.

The situation in the island nation is however far from rosy as a resurgent Buddhism is letting loose a wave of anti Muslim sentiments. This is led by ultra nationalist Buddhist monks who one expert feels represent a profound identity crisis. This identity crisis has led to rioting against Muslims as was witnessed when a crowd of some 500 Lankans attacked a Muslim trader in Colombo on 28 March and ransacked his godown in Colombo. The crowd of 500 was led by some Buddhist monks who threw stones at the trader’s establishment. Similar attacks are now more the order than the exception in Lanka and the number of attacks on the Muslim population is growing.

There have also been reports of Sinhalese crowds led by monks desecrating mosques and at many places Buddhist monks are calling for boycott of Muslim products and services. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress which is part of the government of President Rajyapaksha has condemned these attacks which as per reports are led by ultra nationalist and conservative Buddhist monks. Ever since the birth of Buddha( 5th century BC) and spread of Buddhism, the religion is regarded a peace loving and tolerant religion.

 The notion of hate campaigns goes against the grain of Buddhism’s image as a religion of peace and tolerance. This centuries old notion is however changing in Lanka as also in Burma., Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist community (70 percent) fears that Islam is muscling its way into the social and cultural fabric of the island. Most Buddhist religious heads feel that Islam is anathema to the Buddhist way of life and if unchecked will result in an eclipse of Buddhist culture and its identity. The epicentre of that resistance is a radical political movement “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS). This extremist philosophy group was created 10 months ago and is achieving affair degree of success.
This movement is targeting Muslims in many ways and most Sinhalese are not averse to it. An example is the removal of the ‘Halal’ label from foods sold in Lanka. Most Buddhist feels that the label 'Halal' is an affront to Buddhist national identity. A beleaguered Muslim community led by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama agreed to remove the “Halal” label from all meats sold in Lanka. After this success the BBS has also called for the removal of the 10th century old mosque from the Kuragala Buddhist monastery in Colombo. The dropping of the ‘Halal' label is a major concession by Lanka Muslims but that has not doused the flames of Buddhist extremism and fanaticism which is led by Buddhist monks who are supposed to be custodians of the Buddhist ideals and philosophy.
The tensions seem to be growing and the Bodu Bala Sena has also come out strongly against the Niqab, worn by Muslim women. They feel that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear the Niqab in Sri Lanka. They point to France and other European nations where the Nikab or Burkha is banned. All these are signs that the Buddhism of yore is being replaced by a more militant version. This wave is sleeping across SE Asia and Burma is another example. The custodian of any religion is the clergy. In Buddhism also the clergy represented by Buddhist monks feels it is the custodian of the Buddhist ideals and philosophy. Hence it is spear heading the movement against Islam and Muslims, which they feel will save the Buddhist culture from disintegration The situation in Sri Lanka has to be watched closely. The Muslim community is under threat as Buddhism reasserts itself.