A recent letter to the editor published in a Sinhala Sunday newspaper caught my attention. It reveals the plight of a Sinhala Buddhist woman married to a Muslim. With the increasingly virulent hatred directed against our Muslims, the couple has been put under pressure to separate. As of late, they have received death threats. The police have not been helpful. Right now, they live separately, but are not considering legal separation.
A Muslim woman writing to this newspaper recently wrote that after the Aluthgama anti-Muslim riots her Sinhala neighbours came to assure her of their support. She mentions too, the Sinhala origin of the majority of Sri Lankan Muslims, as it’s a system of inter-racial marriages which helped increase the very small numbers of Muslim migrants from India and elsewhere.
A Sinhala-Buddhist man writing to a Sinhala Sunday newspaper said he was so disgusted by the current wave of anti-Muslim hatred that he has ceased to be a practicing Buddhist.
All these cases can be considered as reactions against the organized ostracisation of the Muslim community.
This hatred of Muslims is nothing new. Back in the 1980s, I was passing Zahira College, Colombo 10, when crowds began pouring out after mid-day prayers, and I heard a Sinhalese bystander comment: “Once we deal with the Tamils, we have to deal with these.”
Those words were prophetic. Now that the Tamils have been ‘put in their place’, the machinery of hatred is geared towards the Muslims.
But the situation isn’t comparable. Anti-Tamil sentiment had a clear focus – the Tamil Tigers, their war, terrorism and the demand for a separate state
The Muslims are not waging war against the majority. They have political demands but nothing that runs into extremism. Why, then, is this increasingly organised effort to ‘put them in their place?”
"Simply put, the Muslims are seen as the Jews of Sri Lanka. They have the financial clout. Interestingly, no one has any statistics available of what percentage of our businesses are Muslim-owned. But the bogey looms large in the mind. The Muslims have the money, depriving the Sinhalese of many opportunities. This is one of several myths about Muslims which arouse hatred"
Simply put, the Muslims are seen as the Jews of Sri Lanka. They have the financial clout. Interestingly, no one has any statistics available of what percentage of our businesses are Muslim-owned. But the bogey looms large in the mind. The Muslims have the money, depriving the Sinhalese of many opportunities. This is one of several myths about Muslims which arouse hatred.
In reality, Muslims don’t control either the Sri Lankan banking or the economy, whereas European Jews had a large say in banking when Hitler came to power. The Sinhalese have made significant inroads into the gem trade, traditionally seen as a Muslim monopoly. Someone should research the gem trade in Ratnapura, to find out what percentage of the big gem traders are Muslims. The monetary power of the Muslims has in fact been overblown in the popular imagination because the earliest Muslim migrants were traders, and it was the principal hallmark of the country’s Muslim community until the Sinhalese developed a liking for business and commerce themselves. Any survey of today’s Muslim population would reveal that most of them are in fact not professionally in the commercial sector.
Muslims are seen as an uneducated, bigoted minority. The famous debate between the late minister M.H.M. Ashroff and the late Buddhist fundamentalist monk Rev. Gangodawila Soma Thera shows the superior theological knowledge and debating skills of the Muslim intellectual, leaving the reverend in the shade.
Besides, it’s worth asking precisely what the Sinhalese majority have achieved intellectually over the years with their superior education and intellectual powers. We have a muddled political culture driven by bigotry and hatred, keen on exacting revenge on anyone – regardless of race and religion – who dares oppose its whims and caprices. We are almost at the point of becoming an international pariah, and an economic satellite of China, with our universities unable to compete even with their top counterparts in India, leave alone the West.
Another sore point with Sinhala extremists is the Muslims’ neglect of birth control. I recently asked a Muslim who’s a Sinhala teacher by profession for his views regarding this, and he said that birth control wasn’t allowed by his religion. Simply because something is not allowed by religious dogma laid down centuries ago, there is no reason to follow it blindly. Enlightened Muslim governments abroad have allowed and promoted birth control. A case in point is Egypt where birth rates began to soar after the fundamentalist Moorsi regime came into power, banning birth control.
And yet, many of the middle and upper class Muslims I see in Colombo have two-child families. It’s the poorer segments that tend to have more children. But this reality is valid for all Lankans, including the Sinhala Buddhists. But the extremists hold that, by not allowing birth control, the Muslims would one day become the country’s majority.
Officially, the Muslim population stands at 7.4% today. When I went to school in the 1970s, it was around the same figure. The total number of adherents to Islam exceeds 9%, but that includes the Malays, who are regarded as ‘Muslims’ by the Muslims. The sharp increase seen from the earliest Muslim migrations (Seventh century AD) till the days of the Kandyan kingdom were for peculiar socio-political and economic reasons, the Kandyan kings allowing inter-racial marriages with automatic conversion. These conditions no longer exist. But many people have fallen for this racist myth.
As a result, Sinhala extremist elements began discouraging birth control in a tit for tat move, and many Sinhalese families now have more than two children. This is especially true of the poorer classes. We are heading again for a population time bomb. All communities should stop being myopic and look at the larger picture, the burgeoning world population, an estimated 7.174 billion in 2013. We are heading for a global crisis in environment, food, housing and health care. No man or woman is an island.
What is significant is that, according to the 2012 census, the Sinhalese make up 74.88% of the total population, and the Sinhala Buddhists consist of 70.19%. Compared to the 1981 census, this is an increase, not a reduction. Those fears of Buddhists eventually becoming a minority are unfounded. But the total increase in population is now very high compared to our available resources. What the government should do is to call an all-party, multi-ethnic conference and discuss the birth control issue. The responsibility of promoting birth control among the Muslims should be given to Muslim politicians. It’s their call. But an overall national birth control policy is the government’s responsibility. Rather, it’s the duty of any responsible government, and it’s highly irresponsible to let extremist Buddhist monks decide whether birth control should be allowed in their areas. This is the first government ever to actively discourage birth control nationwide.
As for marriage, the rule that conversion is a must in any multi-ethnic marriage is increasingly ignored. This is widely seen in the West and those secular societies, but many examples can be found in Sri Lanka, too. In reality, it isn’t just the Muslims who demand conversion. Many Sinhala or Tamil marriages, where Buddhists or Hindus marry Christians or Catholics, result in a ‘passive’ conversion. If not the spouse, then the children would follow the father’s faith. People should be officially encouraged to tolerate each other’s religious and cultural identity, without any obligation to convert.
The point is that none of these examples should lead to hatred between communities. The Sinhalese hatred against Muslims rests on these two points – conversion by marriage and increasing population, and their financial clout. The Muslims are traditionally known for their business acumen. But in today’s world, business skills are acquired in colleges and universities rather than being hereditary. Any Sri Lankan of whatever ethnicity will require a business degree nowadays to launch a successful career in commerce.
If the Sinhalese are seen to be backward compared to their Muslim brethren regarding business skills, burning down Muslim businesses is hardly the answer. Our Muslim community is by and large moderate and very considerate. Practices such as child marriages or female genital mutilation common in certain Muslim states are not known here. I have never met a Sri Lankan Muslim with four wives, or even two. Rare cases of polygamy can be found across all ethnic groups. Politically, their demands are reasonable. Since independence, it’s the Sinhalese and the Tamils who have been responsible for all terrorism, subversion and political violence. The Muslims have been passive. But if these Sinhala extremist attacks continue, we could soon be stuck with a local version of Boko Haram, and that seems to be what the Sinhala extremists are aiming at.