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Opinion

Beware of what lies beneath

By Arjuna Ranawana

Multi religious commemoration service for Sri Lanka’s Easter victims in Washington DC/ MFA

It was mostly Christians who are dead in strikes by Islamic fanatics on Easter Sunday but the growing chorus of anti-Muslim rhetoric is coming by and large from the Sinhala Buddhist Right wing.

This morning Churchgoers streamed back into the Churches of St Anthony in Kochchikade, St Sebastian in Katuwapitiya and the Zion Church in Batticoloa.

This was the first time many re-entered those places for the first time since the massacre.

There were armed soldiers outside and extraordinary security measures.

The killers got what they wanted; headlines around the world for an extreme cause and a gross exhibition of their cult of death.

Those multiple strikes left nearly three hundred people, many women, and children, sixteen Sunday school kids alone at the Zion Church dead.

At the same time, Both Sri Lankans and foreigners died at Easter Sunday breakfast in three posh Colombo hotels.

The shock, the anger, and the sorrow are all too real and it will remain.

Christians turned the other cheek

Commendable actions and words by Church leaders and the Muslim community who have disavowed extremism have prevented a retaliatory blood bath.

This nation should not forget the forgiveness the Christian leaders of all denominations led by the Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith have shown.

The tearful, gracious acceptance of this outstretched arm by the Muslim leaders and their parishioners is heartening.

In Sri Lanka this is rare and I hope is a sign of a more mature society.

It is also a true reflection of the fact that by kinship and language, our ancestry and custom the fabric of Sri Lankan society is so closely interwoven that healing is possible, even in the face of such atrocity.

We should be well on our way to healing.

We should be deeply relieved.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith meeting Muslim community leaders with All Ceylon Jamiyyath-e-Ulema President Mufti M I M Rizwi in Negombo/Archbishop’s House
Anti-Muslim sentiments are bubbling to the surface

But are we? For me what lies beneath is very troubling as there are open attempts to create anti-Muslim violence not necessarily by Christian groups but by hardline Sinhala Buddhist organizations.

For the past eight years or so an anti-Muslim sentiment is growing among both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities regardless of their religious persuasion. Much of this, it is believed, is fostered by business rivalry.

Galagodaththe Gnanasara thero at Aluthgama before the riots/Groundsviews.org

We saw this manifested in Aluthgama in June 2014 when a minor incident grew into a full-blown clash between Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim mobs.

The situation was whipped up by the Sinhala Buddhist Right-wing Bodu Bala Sena led by the jailed demagogue Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero.

The BBS led mob marched into other nearby areas and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Muslim owned businesses.

Muslim mobs retaliated and the violence spread.

The government at the time banned the media from reporting the incident and police took no action against the BBS.

It was widely speculated that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered police inaction as he was publicly associated with the BBS.

Fresher on the minds is the violence at Digana in the Kandy district where the murder of a Sinhalese truck driver by four intoxicated Muslim youth escalated into several days of ethnic rioting that killed at least one disabled man.

Hundreds of millions of rupees worth of property was damaged and police were spectators while the mobs ran loose.

Eventually police took action as the leadership, prompted by media, ordered the perpetrators arrested.

Many of the people responsible for whipping up the mobs were rounded up.

They included Amith Weerasinghe the leader of the violently anti-Muslim organization Mahason Balakaya.

Doing the rounds on social media in the past week there are lists of Muslim owned businesses whom these agitators want boycotted.

Those who are making up the list are also ignorant of real ownership as several of the establishments that are in it are not sole proprietorships, quite a few most definitely not Muslim-owned, are public listed companies or multi-nationals.

Also widely shared are clips from questionable sources in English where anti-Muslim elements in the United Kingdom are spreading lies such as that Sharia law has been imposed in those countries and only Halal food is served in government-funded schools.

But those inaccuracies really don’t matter. They are the usual fake news that is spread.

What is worrying is that these are indications of a deep seated anti-Muslim prejudice that is ingrained in Sinhala society.

There are informal networks of Sinhalese professionals and business people who discourage their friends and family from selling property to Muslims or conducting business with this community.

In some parts of the country, such as Kiribathgoda, Muslim businesses have not been allowed to set up by local traders’ associations.

In neighboring India the rise of the Hindu majority Bharathiya Janta Party was also marked by attacks on Muslim owned businesses.

It seems that this anti-Muslim movement is almost disappointed that there was no violence against the Muslims after the Easter Sunday attacks.

The hysteria was egged on by Television news channels – particularly Derana – which showed a succession of detections of large knives allegedly found in mosques.

A parade of police officers proudly showed off their finds on TV which Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake dismissed as “fit for a museum.”

Almost tragically the Tamil community, particularly in the East, have jumped on the anti-Muslim bandwagon.

Women’s activists in the east have told RepublicNext that Tamil youth are engaged in harassing Muslim women.

The Tamils who have historically complained of majoritarian violence should have then come to the defense of the Muslims, but that has not happened.

On the part of the Muslims, their leaders have called for deep introspection.

“We have to re-think how we interact with the other communities, how we do business and should be more open,” says the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Minister Rauff Hakeem.

That certainly is a step in the right direction.