2 March 2013
By Thulasi Muttulingam
It is an internationally accepted charter that citizens of any country ‘belong’ to that country, even if they happen to be first-generation citizens of that country. In Sri Lanka however, citizens who are several generations old in the country are facing simmering tensions that are nothing new yet troubling in its increasing intensity.
“Thambiya, go back home to where you came from.” More than a few bewildered Muslims have heard this in recent times. But where did they come from? Most have been settled here for so many generations that they do not even know which part of the world their ancestors came from. Having intrinsically blended into the Sri Lankan culture and landscape for generations, they identify themselves with pride as Sri Lankans. They were born in Sri Lanka and are Sri Lankan citizens. So where do they belong if not here?
“When they tell me to go back to where I belong, I don’t know what they mean. Do they think I belong in a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Those countries would never accept me. I am not a Pakistani or Arab. I am a Sri Lankan just like my father and grandfather before me,” says Sameer (24), a management trainee.
Hate and paranoia
For many young Muslims who were born during the war, the country was less than paradise because of the rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, but at least, they were mostly spared. No community was happy about the war but the Muslim community apparently had their apprehensions even then.
“I always wondered if and when the hostility against the Tamils ceased, would it then turn to us,” says Nazla (19), a psychology student. “I went to a Sinhalese school and had many Sinhalese friends. I still do and still remain committed to a Sri Lankan identity. It’s just that we are often told, ‘You are a minority, keep to your place.’ What is that place? Do we not have equal rights? When they keep saying Sinhala-Buddhist country, it automatically makes us outsiders. This is a multicultural, multi-ethnic country, but when that is not accepted, we automatically get sidelined and so do our perceived rights.”
Her Sinhala friend, Malini (21), concurs with her. On her thoughts on the current tension against Muslims, she says, “It’s a war waiting to happen. Actually it’s a war that started a long time ago but got sidetracked due to the Tamils.”According to her, the tension could be traced to the ingrained fear-psychosis of her people, due to the fact that Sri Lanka has a long history of being invaded. They are afraid of colonization or subversion in any form. “Even my father was saying recently, the Muslims seem to be everywhere and in everything. The repeated negative images of Muslims as intolerant extremists prone to violence do not help. Many people have learnt to distrust and dislike Muslims based on these portrayals.”
Yet the Muslims of Sri Lanka do not have a reputation of being violent extremists. How then did they become the bogeyman to nationalist masses? Kasun (23), software engineer, says, “Post-war, there is no economic boom for the common man as promised. People are finally waking up to smell the roses. Those not having the promised smell need to be distracted fast. Through traditional and new media, we see messages such as, ‘Muslim businesses are prospering at the cost of Sinhala industries’, ‘The reason for high prices is all due to the Halal food certificate’, ‘Some Muslims support Pakistan during cricket matches. They are against us’, ‘They are working together and buying up all the land belonging to the Sinhalese’ and ‘The government has hidden the census data because there’s been a Muslim population boom’ being broadcasted repeatedly.
With this kind of paranoia being broadcast mainstream, the angry masses now have a scapegoat. Dinner table conversations invariably touch on topics of Halal certification and ‘Muslims these days’. This to me is just the powers-that-be cunningly using the Jews (traditionally mistrusted) to take the blame for everything.”
Amali (33), lawyer, has a different view: “Minorities anywhere generally tend to be driven to prove themselves in a way that the majority is not.
This, while making them successful, also draws the attention of jealous elements in the majority, which is what the turmoil in this country has always been about. Tamils tend to excel academically.
After the prolonged war, that has largely been taken away from them. In the meantime, the Muslims, always good businessmen have suddenly become big players industry-wide in Sri Lanka. So it looks like they are going to be shaken up too.”
The question however is whether the current trend is something that is being blown out of proportion or something to be worried about. Many young people, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims say that they do not want another war and that they hope this current tension can be contained.
Says Nuwan (27), marketing executive, “In any multi-ethnic democracy, you get racist elements voicing their radical, extremist opinions, usually shared by an insignificant minority. It’s when this minority becomes a majority that things start to get out of hand.” He adds that he doesn’t think the current tension is anywhere near that level yet but urges the authorities to act soon. “Those in power and in a position to educate the masses have to step forward to do their part. I don’t think anybody wants another war, but this kind of racial abuse needs to be checked before it gets out of hand.”
Preventing another conflict
Adilah (23), an undergraduate studying abroad, says she has never encountered racism personally. Thus the current scenario back in her country is something both new and troubling to her. “There are two possibilities concerning the events that have taken place. The first is that this could be vitriol and noise spewed by an isolated group of extremists and is now a mountain-molehill situation. The second is that this could snowball into something bigger and take on larger proportions of hate, racism and violence. I fervently hope it’s the former. I do hope that the concerned parties reach a reasonable solution rationally and that the dissemination of information to the public is done in a coherent, responsible manner. I’ve grown up reading accounts of the Indian Partition, the Holocaust and our own riots and know that fear and hate can prove to be a lethal combination. As a Muslim, I’d be afraid for the safety of my family back at home if tensions were to escalate.”
Shifani (23), a fellow Sri Lankan colleague of hers, adds, “I couldn’t believe it at first, because I’d always prided myself over the fact that Muslims who were ostracized in other countries post-9/11 enjoyed a lot of religious and cultural freedom in Sri Lanka. I know the animosity between different communities in Sri Lanka is nothing new but this is the first time it has affected me personally. Friends of mine tell me their friends are updating ‘racist’ statuses on Facebook and are going to secret ‘meetings’ that discuss how ‘Muslims are taking over Sri Lanka and must be stopped’.
“I know that if this movement is allowed to grow, it could very well turn into a sequel to the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, who have had to flee their homes. I think firm government intervention is needed to nip this in the bud right now. I’d also like to believe that most Sri Lankans are not racists and will not stand for this – every Sinhalese friend of mine has expressed their revulsion towards this movement.”
Neither her worry nor her optimism is without foundation. Those on social networking sites would be used to this by now; posts both for and against the Muslim issue. The question is, who is the majority? For a while it looked like the negativity (at least online), was overwhelming, but now several sites have been formed to confront that negativity heads-on. Many young people from different communities, especially the Sinhala-Buddhist community, are uniting to make it clear that their voices can’t be hijacked.
There is hope yet in the new generation. They were born into and lived through one ethnic strife. They absolutely do not want another.
Let’s Unite Against Fascism in our paradise!