In the aftermath of a pyrrhic victory over the LTTE and in a mood of triumphalism, President Mahinda Rajapaksa lectured to an anxious nation that there would henceforth be no more Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, and no more majority and minority in his country but only Sri Lankans. Those who listened to those words at that time or read them afterwards heaved a sigh of relief.
After a little more than one quarter of a century of physical and mental trauma inflicted upon the nation by a reckless civil war, there was every reason for the people to believe that those words of the President would be the harbinger for a bright future in which there would be genuine democracy with its embedded qualities of freedom of expression, rule of law, equality of opportunity and justice.
Disappointingly, the political and administrative developments since then have made it clear that the President’s words were no more than political rhetoric. The war wounds still remain unhealed; the national Legislature has lost its democratic aura and credibility; the Judiciary – the ultimate refuge for the grieved in a democratic society – has lost its independence; nepotism and corruption are rampant; dissent to reigning views is suppressed; and the economy in the name of globalization is increasingly falling under foreign ownership.
Much has been written and commented upon these developments and to discuss them again is not the intention here. What follows instead is a focus on another worrying phenomenon that has all the hallmarks of a similar occurrence that took place almost a century ago but in a different political and economic environment. The spectre of 1915 is looming large on the horizon. Is the country marching backwards?
The mosque in Sri Lanka, and for that matter all over the world, is the most conspicuous marker of Islamic religion and Muslim culture. Just as its multiplicity announces to the world the growing strength and religiosity of Muslims, so does any violence targeting the mosque translates automatically, at least in the eyes of Muslims, into a kind of Islamophobia. Historically, the market, like the mosque, is also closely associated with Islam and Muslims. Makkah, where Islam was born in the 7th century, was a market city situated at the cross roads of several caravan routes. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born amongst a trading clan and he understood how the market works. The Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, and the hadiths, the sayings and practices of the prophet, are replete with market terminology and principles of trade and commerce. Among the Rightly-guided caliphs, Uthman, like several others after him, accumulated his riches through the market and from trade. In short, Islam was born and grew around the market, and trade and commerce are the most representative professions of that religion
Accommodated them in Kingdoms
In Sri Lanka, it was trade that brought the early Muslims to the shores of Sarendib, and the mosque came along with them. Their arrival was not one of trade following the flag but trade leading the crescent. The Sinhalese monarchs of ancient and medieval times were more than happy to welcome their arrival and accommodate them in their kingdoms, especially at a time when there was an acute shortage of a native merchant class. Muslim traders, most of whom were Arabs at the early stages, proved to be an invaluable asset to Sinhalese monarchs to establish diplomatic relations with the Muslim world. Hence, the local rulers had no qualms in allowing Muslims to practise their religion as long as it did not disturb domestic peace and inconvenience the followers of Buddhism. To practise Islam however, a mosque is essential to accommodate worshippers, because the religion exhorts praying in congregation, led by an imam. Thus, as opportunities for trade and commerce increased and the market expanded, more Muslims arrived and with more Muslims, the number of mosques also must have multiplied. The market-Muslim-mosque congruence operated harmoniously in a tolerant Buddhist environment.
The advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century spelt disaster to this congruence. Christian bigotry and economic rivalry forced the Portuguese to expel the Muslim businessmen from the occupied territories and to severely restrict the economic activities and religious practices of those who remained. The expelled sought refuge and were accommodated in the independent Kandyan Kingdom. The market-Muslim-mosque congruity resumed its existence in new surroundings. In course of time, Muslims as a community became indigenized, their market expertise won State recognition, and their mosques became another decorative piece in the kingdom’s religious and cultural kaleidoscope. Although the anti-Muslim trend in the maritime districts eased somewhat during Dutch rule, it was only under the British regime and after 1815, when the whole island fell under the new colonial yoke, that the Muslim community had its previous freedom fully restored and were allowed to settle anywhere in the country and engage in any occupation of their choice. More Muslims, especially from the Indian subcontinent, arrived, adding to the total number of Muslims. Immigration and natural increase with sporadic conversions from other religious groups increased the numerical strength of the Muslim community. Of a total population of just over 4.1 million in the 1911 census, Muslims counted 6.9%.
The plantation-led capitalist economy that developed in the 19th century created new opportunities for trading and commerce. The Muslim community that had a historical proclivity to engage in these professions utilized those opportunities and maximized the rewards. However, the country’s trading and commercial sectors were not the monopoly of Muslims. There were also others. For example, the 1911 census enumerated 51,020 Sinhalese, 19,850 Tamils and 29,239 Muslims as traders. Of the Muslim traders 18,037 were 19th century arrivals. This means, of a total of 100,109 traders, the indigenized Muslims constituted only about 11%. Yet, the Sinhalese traders could not compete, not only in the export-import sector but also in the large retail sector which were in the hands of the Muslims. The 51,020 Sinhalese traders were part of a rising class of Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie which resented economic competition from foreigners and minorities. It was this class, conjoined with Buddhist nationalists like Anagarika Dharmapala, who campaigned against the ubiquity of Muslim businesses and brought about the first Sinhalese-Muslim racial riots in 1915. In that episode, it was a religious-related incident surrounding a mosque that provided the immediate trigger. Although the anti-Muslim violence died down in the following years, Dharmapala had already warned that “there will always be bad blood between the Moors and the Sinhalese” (Dharmapala, 1965:541). Generally speaking, ‘anti-minority feelings of the Sinhala traders persisted in the consciousness’ (Kumari Jayawardena, 1986: 26).
Reduce influence of minorities
In post-colonial Sri Lanka, even though the Muslim community, unlike the Tamils, always supported the ruling Sinhalese regimes for pragmatic reasons, the anti-Muslim consciousness of the Sinhalese did not fail to burst out into open violence, especially in times of national economic adversity. At times, the undue influence that Muslim Parliamentarians could exert in national decision-making was another reason that angered the Sinhalese. In fact, one of the reasons that impelled President J.R. Jayewardene to change the Constitution from the Westminster model to a hybrid Gaullist model was to reduce the influence of minorities, particularly of Muslims, in the national legislature. It was to counter that move the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formed as a political party. Yet, six decades after 1915, between 1976 and 2002, there had been a total of 30, mostly localized, Sinhalese-Muslim riots in various parts of the country (M.S.M. Anas, V. Amirdeen and A.J.L. Vazeel, 2002/2008). Once again, after the defeat of the LTTE, sections of the Sinhalese Buddhists under the leadership of the militant Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and its new offshoot, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the nation is witnessing a new phase of Islamophobia.
Tolerated by elected government
The resumption of anti-Muslim campaigns to boycott Muslim businesses, avoid eating in Muslim restaurants, and stop selling property to Muslims; rallies led by militant Buddhist monks to attack mosques and demanding the government to close them down; and political leaders re-labelling Muslims as aliens and urging them to go back to Arabia – all echo the same anti-Muslim sentiments of the 1915 Sinhalese Buddhist agitators. The 19th century phase of this Muslim resentment and its current phase have one thing in common, that is, an open economy. The difference is that the earlier phase was suppressed by a colonial regime but the current one is tolerated by a popularly elected government. The mosque and the market are in a serious state of crisis.
The post-1976 era coincided with the ushering in of an open economy that is currently being vigorously promoted by neo-liberal economic policies modelled on ‘Washington Consensus’ and monitored through Bretton Wood agencies. Although by nature open market economies create economic inequities, its late 20th century reincarnation has worsened economic inequities and created and bred ‘ethnic hatred and global instability’ (Amy Chua, 2003). This is a worldwide phenomenon engendered by the so-called market democracy under the aegis of economic globalization. Sri Lanka is no exception.
It was economic inequity in the 19th century that led to the riots in 1915, but that inequity reflected an urban-rural divide in which poverty remained largely a rural phenomenon. The ubiquitous retail Muslim trader in the villages and country towns inevitably appeared as the epitome of this inequity and became an easy target for the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie and nationalists to vent their anger against colonial capitalism. In contrast, the current scale of inequity, in spite of respectable growth rates after 2009, has no such divide but a national phenomenon. It is systemic. Then why have the Muslims become the target of attack this time?