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Religious Extremism: The Post War Reality in SriLanka

by Rameez Aboobacker

There is a lot of debate and controversy in the public discourses over the last few days following the malicious attack on a Mosque in Dambulla by a group of extremist Buddhist led by monks in robes, hampering to perform Muslims’ Jummah prayers on Friday, 20th April 2012, and demanding the demolition of the mosque immediately since, what they regard, it is located in a Buddhist sacred area, but the Muslims, on the other hand, rebut the claim saying that the mosque is in existence over the last 60 years with a legal registration.

Sign in NYC, NY-Dec 2010

The mosque was also fire-bombed the night before, but fortunately no body was harmed.

This incident, considering the gravity of the issue, became a hot topic of public debates not only in the local media, but in the global media as well, and the Muslims across the country became extremely alarmed over what happened to their religious symbol, a mosque in Dambulla and began to raise their concerns.

In fact, this unfortunate incident shocked and confounded the Muslims across the country and their political representatives since they have recently extended their unstinted support to the government, which was grappled with enormous issues in the domestic and global arenas, in its pursuit of defeating the resolution moved by the US in Geneva as it was constituted as an infringement on the sovereignty of the country by the global forces.

Furthermore, Muslims’ political representatives and the members (clerics) of All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema lobbied vigorously to garner the support of Muslim nations in Geneva to defeat the resolution and they have explicitly succeeded in their attempt of doing so, though the resolution was passed in the end against the Sri Lankan government. This being the case, what happened in Dambulla to their religious symbol baffled the Muslims.

Just like the other countries around the world, Sri Lanka is also not immune to the religious extremism that emanated especially in the post independent era. The following section deals with extremism and its dynamics in politics.

Extremism and its dynamics in politics

Despite the fact that it is very difficult to define the religious extremism in absolute term, it can be represented that the people who are too religious or too strict in their religious orientation are regarded as extremists.

It is also noted that the extremists are lying on the fringe as they draw their religious orientation within a literal perspective, not necessarily bothering about the contextual perspective. As such, the extremists can be characterized by the following traits:

1) rigidity

2) exclusiveness

3) excessive kind of spiritualism,

4) anti-materialism

5) intolerant of other religion or religious orientation, and

6) anti-western in nature.

The world witnessed a great deal of calamities as a result of the provocative actions of these extremist forces.

For instance, Jewish extremism in its quest of establishing the kingdom of God is pushing for dispossessing the Palestine and the West Bank at the expense of perpetrating a heinous crime against humanity, decimating the unarmed and innocent Arab civilians. Christian Zionist movements, Taliban, Moist, Jathika Hela Urumaya, to name a few are some of living examples of the extremist forces in the contemporary world as they are aptly suited to the traits outlined above.

In the world history, the extremism, however, has also emanated in the form of Nazism as well as democracy in order to perpetuate its ideologies in the world.

Religious extremism in Sri Lanka

It is significant to note that Sri Lanka had enormously suffered over the last 3 decades due to the civil war that occurred between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam(LTTE) on account of number of factors.

One of the factors that laid a solid foundation to the civil war was the implementation of ‘Sinhala Only Act’ in 1956, primarily mooted by the Buddhist extremist forces. It is also believed that the Prime Minister SWRD Bandarnayake was shot dead by a member of these extremist forces in 1958 for embarking on a dialogue with Tamils over the power devolution

This Buddhist extremist ideology in Sri Lanka is fundamentally founded on the following dimensions:

1) advancing the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ideology

2) upholding the Sinhala as the official and national language and propagating Buddhism as the official religion, and

3) protecting and promoting the national economy of Sinhalese.

These characteristics more or less fall in line with the traits of extremist groups signified above. Besides, they have shown intolerance to other religions or religious orientation and resorted to violence as a means of perpetuating their ideology in certain instances.

This is a cogent manifestation of the Sinhala Buddhist extremist ideology. Interestingly, not all the Buddhists in the country subscribe to this extremist ideology as the majority of Sinhalese are peace loving, fair minded and pluralistic in nature.

Thus, it should be emphasized here that this Buddhist extremist orientation is not representative of all the peace loving Sinhalese Buddhists in the country who are bounded by the teaching of Buddha on social justice, tolerance, non-violence and so on.

Interestingly, these Buddhist extremist forces have not been able to appeal to the Sinhala masses with their policies over the years and their entry into politics have not brought any conspicuous and significant success in politics.

However, hegemony of these extremist forces became so in the present government in which one of their representatives is also holding an influential cabinet position and they rendered their irrevocable support to the government in its attempt to defeat the war on terror that came to end in 2009.

Clearly speaking, these extremist forces have been able to wield its enormous influence within this regime as they are constituted as a coalition partner. There are a number of factors influencing upon the sudden decision to storm the Dambulla mosque by these extremist forces with the proposition of sacred land issue.

Factors of the attack on the Mosque

There are many reasons that can be attributed to the attack on the mosque in Dambulla by the extremist forces on the pretext of its being constructed in the Buddhist sacred zone.

Firstly, there is a popular impression among the people in Sri Lanka that Muslims are prosperous in terms economy and assertive in expanding their geographical and economic means across the country. An anecdotal report of the 2012 census indicates that the Muslims have become the first minority in Sri Lanka, outnumbering the Tamils. There is no reason to believe that this perception might have spared these extremist forces.

Secondly, Muslims have the habit of expanding or renovating their mosques when it is not accommodative to all devotees (mosque goers). It is believed that the attempt made by the administrators (mosque trustees) to renovate the mosque physically might have enraged the extremist forces.

Thirdly, in the name of Buddhist sacred land, they might have resorted to expel the Muslims and their religious and business locations from Dambulla, which might provide a room for Buddhists to firmly establish their economy in the area.

Fourthly, these extremist forces, whose ideology is founded on the basis of advancing Buddhist nationalism and the economic prosperity of Buddhists in the country, might increasingly have alarmed over the presence of large number of Muslims in the Buddhist sacred land, Dambulla.

This might be constituted as a fear psychosis of the extremists contemplating to lose the Buddhist land if the present trend of Muslims’ occupation in Dambulla continues to persist. Finally, these extremists are under the impression, especially in the post war context that the end of civil war is end of conflict and the issues of minorities and thus, they can continue to marginalize them as much as they can.

In their sustained pursuit of subjugating the minorities, firstly they have overwhelmingly succeeded decimating the LTTE, and secondly they may tend to do the same with Muslims, and thirdly with Christians and others as well. This mentality has something to do with the psyche of extremists and is clear manifestation of rigidity, exclusiveness, and intolerance

Argument on Buddhist Sacred land or area

It is a valid argument of the perpetrators that the unauthorized building should be removed out of the Buddhist sacred land. However, Muslims are of the view that Mosque has been in existence long before than the decree or resolution on Buddhist sacred land introduced in 1981 and they have a valid legal documents to prove their claim.

Even if the argument of perpetrators is valid, in some sense, that the unauthorized building is illegal in Buddhist sacred area, one wonders why they took a long time, almost 31 years since the introduction of the decree, to either remove or relocate the mosque in Dambulla, let alone the argument of Muslims that the mosque is 60 years old.

On the other hand, although Kataragama has also been demarcated as a sacred area where one would find that the Buddhist Temple, Hindu Kovil, and Mosque located in close proximity to each other, there is no report of clashes between these religious institutions in Kataragama so far and arguably, the sacred thesis has never been applied there either.

Moreover, as the Buddhists in the country and around the world respect and regard their religious symbols (Temples and other holy elements) as sacred, Muslims also do in much the same way as the Buddhists, regarding their Mosques. In fact, if this sacred thesis is advanced, and then no one with rational thought can deny or refute the claim of Muslims’ perception of sacredness of their mosques. That is to simply say that the label ‘holy land’ applies to the ‘holy mosques’ and ‘holy temple’ (kovils) too.

On the other hand, even if the extremist forces claim that Buddhist sacred area should be exclusively demarcated with only Buddhist sacred buildings, then other non-sacred places such as bar and posh hotels should be removed immediately. Other significant critique of this vexed issue is that had the extremist forces perceived that this mosque was illegally constructed in a sacred area, it should have been legally challenged to establish the fact that the construction or location of the mosque was illegal and be removed immediately.

Instead, taking the law in one’s hand to demolish the mosque in a violent and callous way means that the person or group completely disregards the law and order of the country and thereby these perpetrators become entitled to be prosecuted under a number of offences in the country’s judiciary system.

Contrary to all arguments, Minister of land and land development, Janaka Bandara Tennakon accented that the mosque lies outside the sacred area declared by a gazette notification in 1981. This contention of the minister discounts all the arguments made by the extremist forces concerning the existence of the mosque.

Government’s approach

Sadly, these extremist forces have attempted to vandalize the mosque in the presence of the law enforcing officials who were idly watching as they became helpless to take measures to bring the situation under the control. However, it should be applauded that the timely actions of armed forces averted a mass destruction on the mosque.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s abrupt decision without the consultation of Muslim stakeholders to order mosque’s removal in Dambulla and to relocate elsewhere out of the sacred area escalated uproar and tension among the Muslim community across the country and has become a cause of worry on the part of Muslims over the lopsided policies of the government on religious freedom of every ethnic group which has been guaranteed in the constitution of the country.

While the Prime Minister wanted the mosque relocated as is located inside the sacred area, Minister Janaka Bandara Tennekon categorically asserts that the mosque lies outside of it. Therefore, it is crystal clear that the government is in a great confusion over this issue. One may inevitably wonder what the exact policy of the government is on this fracas.

Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the government to take a firm and principled stance to ensure the legitimate religious freedom of minorities in this country without being subdued by these extremist forces.

Surprisingly, this is not an isolated incident in the post war context. Last year a Muslim shrine was destroyed in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, even sadly in the presence of legal enforcing officials. There are numerous reports of Hindu temples and Christian churches being destroyed in some parts of the country by these extremist forces too in the recent past.

Conclusion

Some argue that the politicisation of Buddhism as the state religion and the intervening influence it has in politics and social affairs continues to threaten non-Buddhist minorities and hinder peaceful coexistence of all communities.

Moreover, failure of the government as a responsible entity in the center to prevent all attack on places of worship, whatever faith, and to fail to take measure to ensure that all religions are accorded with the same treatment and respect will demonstrate a negative perception of the government not only in the domestic level, but in the global level as well. Meanwhile, turning a blind eye by the government to succumb to these kinds of extremist forces, which is a part of the government now, to carry out its ideologies even to the extent of resorting to force and violence as a means will add manifold dimension of entrenched thesis of what we notified above.

Therefore, it is appropriate on the part of the government to timely intervene into the Dambulla Mosque issue to restore the trust among the Muslims, minorities and majority peace loving Buddhist in the country, without exacerbating the issue by calling on the Muslims to relocate the mosque. It is also of paramount importance on the part of the government to take measures to curb the growing trend of intolerance of these extremist forces and to act immediately to build confidence among all communities to ensure that the minorities feel secure in every way as people of this country. In the post war context, this is of the utmost importance for reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.

It is also imperative on the part of the government to foster an ideal of ‘cultural pluralism’ or ‘melting pot’, especially in the post war context in the best interest of developing the country, regardless of differences based on ethnicity, religion, class, caste and so on. At the same time, this is the high time for religious and community leaders to initiate inter-faith dialogue at all possible levels to ensure that the people of all religions are equipped with an objective understanding of all the religions in Sri Lanka.

(The writer, lecturer in Sociology at the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, is currently a PhD research scholar at the National University of Singapore.)

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