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Lessons From the Past: Contextualizing Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Riots


In today’s political climate of Islamophobia and identity politics, Sri Lanka’s tumultuous history may provide some key lessons.  


Many people, when asked, would not be able to place Sri Lanka on a map. The small teardrop-shaped island nation off the coast of South India is often overlooked both on the map and in the news. But to the socially conscious observer navigating today’s political climate, tainted with populist sentiments, scapegoating and fear-mongering and particularly in light of the current climate of global Islamophobia that has gripped the world, Sri Lanka’s tumultuous history might be worth closer examination. It serves as a case study for how a country time and time again shoots itself in the foot when it uses fear and division as political currency and allows insecurity to direct its policies.


A highly sought-after strategic asset in colonial wars between the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British, Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. The British departed soon after, leaving behind a parliamentary structure inappropriate for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. It placed power in the hands of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority during a period of bubbling Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, the majority embittered by the policies of the previous colonial regime which were seen as favouring the Tamil minority. Populist leaders of the time capitalized on this pro-Sinhala, anti-Tamil sentiment sweeping the island and passed discriminatory laws such as the Sinhala Only Act, which effectively disenfranchised the country’s large Tamil-speaking minority. These actions ultimately culminated in the enshrinement of Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s Constitution, securing Buddhism and by extension Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, at the forefront of the island’s politics to the ensured detriment of its minority populations.


Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The Western world has seen its own fair share of populists and demagogues attempting to inflame prejudice and intolerance for political gain. In 2015, Canada saw the ousting of a certain federal Conservative leader who ran, in part, on a platform centered around “barbaric cultures” and who stated that he believes “Islamicism” to be the biggest security threat to Canada. In 2017, the U.S. saw the election of a certain TV reality-star-turned-politician with a horrible habit of re-tweeting anti-Muslim videos and who stated on television that he believes “Islam hates us”. The West is in no way immune to the dangers posed by demagogues who employ fear-mongering and division as political tools—tactics we might otherwise associate with less politically developed countries.


After 50 years of conflict with its Tamil minority population stemming from its discriminatory policies, 30 of which were enveloped in a brutal war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka’s failure to learn from its mistakes and acknowledge the racism underpinning its laws and institutions has manifested itself in yet another attack on a minority community, this time taking aim at the island’s Muslim community. Flare-ups of anti-Muslim violence by Sinhalese mobs have occurred with increasing intensity on the island since 2014, fuelled by misinformation spread by hardline Buddhist monks and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups. On March 6, 2018, a state of emergency was imposed by the government after police forces failed to contain or take action against anti-Muslim riots that occurred in the central city of Kandy. These riots saw the burning and looting of Muslim businesses and homes, the destruction of their places of worship and violent attacks resulting in death.


To the Tamil community here in Canada and abroad, Sri Lanka’s recent ethnic riots are nothing new, stirring up uncomfortable memories of the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and, most significantly, July 1983, now referred to by the Tamil community around the world as Black July. Black July was, in large part, responsible for catapulting the island into more than 30 years of brutal war, resulting in the massive exodus of Tamils from the island and the sprawling diaspora community around the world today, the largest of which can be found in the Greater Toronto Area. Only a few short decades ago, Black July saw the burning, looting, and destruction of Tamil homes and businesses across the island and the assault, murder, and rape of innocent Tamil civilians, while state police watched on and the government remained silent. History has a horrible way of repeating itself if left unscrutinized.


There has been adequate coverage of the anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka among Canadian and international news outlets, some of which have rightfully noted the connection between anti-Muslim violence and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism on the island. However, the reporting has been disappointing, devoid of the necessary historical context required to fully understand these riots. It frames the anti-Muslim riots as occurrences in Sri Lanka that are isolated from the racism and inter-ethnic conflict that has characterized the island for over half a century, as if the current state of ethnic and religious extremism by the majority is separate and apart from the anti-Tamil riots of Sri Lanka’s past and the immense violence which stemmed from it.


Sri Lanka is a reminder that Islamophobia, and discrimination more broadly, are not bred in isolation; they are born out of larger patterns and systems with well-entrenched roots that have sustained and lent legitimacy to the continued supremacy of one force over another. Islamophobia, as it is framed by some politicians, is always placed in opposition to something else, usually an existing force that sees itself as threatened and manifests its insecurity in the ugliest of ways. In Sri Lanka, that force is Sinhala-Buddhism nationalism. In the Western world, that force is a little harder to identify. It is the carry-overs of colonialism, disguised within our long-standing political and capitalist structures that have maintained the global inequality we live in today. It is masked in the language of “values” and “morals” that have allowed key political powers to unilaterally determine who holds all the cards and who gets a seat at the table.


The term Islamophobia refers to the current climate of dislike or prejudice against Islam and Muslims, but Islamophobia itself is not the issue that needs to be addressed. We should be careful not to confuse the root issue with the climate it has created if we are to productively direct the conversation towards a solution. The term ‘Islamophobia’, on its face, points the issue outward, asking us to look at and assess Islam. It asks questions like, “Should we be afraid of Islam?” or “What is frightening about Islam?” But these are the wrong questions. By framing the issue as a fear of Islam, we have detracted away from the root cause, namely a deep-rooted insecurity among a majority that feels power and control slipping through its fingers. Perhaps we should be calling the issue “Sinhala-Buddhist Insecurity” in the case of Sri Lanka, or “Western Democratic-Capitalist Insecurity” in the case of the Western world. Perhaps we should point the issue inward, calling us to reflect and reframe the question by asking, “Why are we so afraid of Islam? What threat, vulnerability, or insecurity do I perceive about myself that makes me so frightened of that which I do not know or care to understand?”


Such introspection unfortunately does not occur immediately. In Sri Lanka’s case, it takes more than half a century. The sad irony in Sri Lanka is that these anti-Muslim riots have occurred during a period of “accountability and reconciliation” between the Tamil minority and the state following more than 30 years of war that saw hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilian casualties, the use of torture and rape as weapons of war, indiscriminate aerial bombings of civilian targets, and several other human rights abuses. As Canada navigates its own process of accountability and reconciliation with its Aboriginal and Indigenous communities, Sri Lanka serves as a useful example of accountability and reconciliation done wrong. Accountability and long-term sustainable reconciliation will always fail under a “get over it” mentality. Time does not heal all and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge one’s failings and wrongdoings only rubs salt in open wounds. Accountability and reconciliation must be ongoing, honest, and introspective. More importantly it must manifest itself in tangible outcomes that demonstrate an acknowledgment of past failings and the racism that underpins its laws and policies, and that demonstrate an immediate and direct intention to remedy those inequalities. Sri Lanka, being so consumed in its insecurity, has unfortunately failed on this front.