Islamophobia and Sinhala phobia in Sri Lanka

We, in Sri Lanka, have been living side by side yet, do not have enough intercultural knowledge about others. Buddhist children do not know anything about Islamic culture, Muslim children do not know anything about Buddhist culture or Tamil culture. Yet, we expect Sri Lankans must respect religious sentiments. 

by Dr SLM Rifai

All Sri Lankan communities have been living in fear for the last three weeks. This fear helps neither Muslim community nor Sinhalese community. It will take some years for this nation to recover from economic downfall and suffering due to all this unrest. I will briefly discuss the impact and implication of this fear both communities in this short article.

While British parliament is debating how to define the terminology of ‘Islamophobia’, some racist elements in Sri Lankan parliament are inciting Islamophobia attacks on innocent Muslim community across the country. Some racist MPs in Sri Lankan parliament have been inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslim community for sometimes now. Aluthgama attacks, Digana attacks and now Kurunegala attacks all did not come out of blue sky. These are well-planned attacks with some political support and incitement. Neither Sri Lankan government nor the Sinhalese public endorse the actions of these racist elements in Sri Lanka. I do not make any generalization on this issue. 99% of Sinhalese public are getting on well Muslim and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. Likewise, 95% of Sinhalese MPs do not subscribe to any extremism at all.

On 16 May, the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, “declared that a process for establishing a working definition of Islamophobia. Two experts will lead this work in close collaboration with the cross-government anti-Muslim hatred working group (AMHWG) and the Government will consider advisers’ recommendations on an effective definition. Speaking during a backbench debate on the issue, Mr Brokenshire welcomed the work undertaken by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims to develop a definition.” This request is made by the communities secretary to protect the fundamental rights and human dignity of Muslim minority community in the UK. While British government is taking all measures to protect minority communities from racial discrimination and Islamophobia attacks, some racist elements in Sri Lankan parliament are encouraging racist attacks on Muslim community in Sri Lanka. It has been revealed that there are some racial elements behind all these attacks in Sri Lanka. what a difference between British and Sri Lankan politics. Some political elements in Sri Lanka use racial attacks on innocent Muslim community to increase their vote bank.

Since Ester Sunday attack, many innocent Muslim youths have been detained on suspension. Some of them have nothing to do with ISIS. Some of them have been arrested without any substantial evidence. The Majority of Muslims today fear that any time, police or CID could raid on their homes, shops and mosques. They fear verbal abuses from Police officers. The Muslim lady teachers fear to go to schools with their headscarf. The Muslim shop keepers fear to open their shops. Arabic college students and teachers fear that their colleges will be raided any time. The Muslim patients fear to go to hospitals for fear of racial harassment from hospital staff. Likewise, most of the Muslims in Sri Lanka live in fear for their lives and properties. In short, for the last three weeks, the Muslim community has been living under immense fear and intimidation. This is despite the fact Muslim community has nothing to do with this ISIS group. Sri Lankan Muslim community has been condemning this radical group for a long time now. We all know this is an abnormal and exceptional situation and yet, a lot could have been done to reduce unnecessary tension among public.

Moreover, some Sri Lankan police officers, STF, and army officers have failed to appreciate religious sentiments of Muslim community on their raids into mosques and Muslim houses. It is reported that some of these officers have entered the mosques in their shores and have failed to respect the sanctity the Holy Qur’an and other religious books. Moreover, some Sri Lankan media have been exaggerating about all this. Some Sri Lankan media has been waging a media war against Sri Lankan Muslim community for the last three weeks. Media people have been impartially spreading some rumours and lies about Sri Lankan Muslim community since Easter Sunday incident. All this has generated some sense of Sinhala-phobia in the minds of some Muslims. Although we cannot make a generalization on this issue, but most Muslims begun to have this fear during these three weeks.

We cannot bluntly blame police, CID and army for this at all. They are doing their official duties in this checking and searching. Yet, the defence Ministry should have given them some training on “intercultural awareness”. This would have eased and mitigated the Sinhala phobia among Muslim community. Today, professional armies and police officers should have intercultural skills to respect the religious and cultural sensitiveness of different people. Profound knowledge and skills on this area will help police and military to avoid unnecessary trouble and encounters. That is why, US and European military forces always have a “cultural awareness program” before sending their armies to any foreign countries.

We, in Sri Lanka, have been living side by side yet, do not have enough intercultural knowledge about others. Buddhist children do not know anything about Islamic culture, Muslim children do not know anything about Buddhist culture or Tamil culture. Yet, we expect Sri Lankans must respect religious sentiments. Some time ago a few tourists, Tamils and Muslims were arrested for disrespecting some Buddhist relic across the country? How would people know not to climb a sacred mountain or sacred stone unless they are told and educated about them? We assume that they must know about Buddhist relic and artefacts.

How could we resolve this intercultural or inter-religious conflict? I think we must introduce a comparative religious study into our national curriculum. We must educate our next generation in four main religions in Sri Lanka. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It must be made compulsory from primary education to secondary education. Each child must learn about these 4 religions. It is not to convert children from one religion into another rather to educate them culturally and intellectually so that they could live peaceful in our multicultural society. I think that many western countries have succeeded in this respect. This will help them to enhance their knowledge about different religions and cultures. As result of this, we will respect other people’s religious sensitiveness and traditions. We do not have such a broader educational syllabus in Sri Lanka. Moreover, our universities could include some undergraduate and postgraduate courses in this comparative religious education too. All this will help to build a Sri Lankan national identity in Sri Lanka. It is entirely up to the ministry of education and higher education in Sri Lanka to reconsider about this humble proposal. I do not know if Sri Lankan policy makers in education will have an appetite to make such a change in Education.

(Views expressed in this article are the author's own) 

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