Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state, and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence; to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence; and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


When Sri Lanka passed its first so-called “autochthonous” constitution in 1972,[1] the country’s leaders granted Buddhism “foremost status.” This privilege was reiterated in the 1978 constitution, which also guaranteed the country’s citizens freedom of religion.[2] In 2007, as part of a judgment dealing with noise pollution, the Supreme Court said the island was a “secular state”[3] even though the vast majority of Buddhists now consider foremost status for their religion sacrosanct.[4] 

In neighboring India, a government headed by Indira Gandhi branded the country “secular” in 1976 via the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, and the Congress Party especially has promoted itself as a defender of secularism while playing the pro-Hindu card at opportune moments. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, has long equated secularism with minority mollycoddling, and its followers express their detestation of the concept by routinely spelling secular as “sickular.”[5]  

Secularism is an 18th century construct influenced by Europe’s Protestant Reformation. A widely corrupt Catholic Church that also liaised with repressive monarchies partly necessitated the separation of church from state. Scholars have rightly debated if a similar arrangement is feasible within South Asia, where rulers and kingdoms functioned as indispensable patrons of religion. Consequently, defining secularism has been a challenge for those in the region.[6]

The best option when promoting secularism in South Asia may be to acknowledge the importance of religion while insisting that it not be given “a role in social concerns” and the formulation of government policy.[7] Yet this is exactly what has transpired, with religious nationalism undermining pluralist practices in ways that threaten minority well-being. It has resulted in majoritarian politicking and attacks against religious minorities in the region. This is especially so in India and Sri Lanka, where notwithstanding claims of secularism and religious freedom, minorities face periodic violence. And thanks to the Islamophobia that thrives in both countries, Muslims, especially now, face a perilous future.

While scholars have debated the merits and demerits of the term “Islamophobia,”[8] it is generally considered a “shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam — and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”[9] The fear could stem from Islamist terrorism, which may make Islamophobia rational; but it is more often spread by depicting Islam as primitive, barbaric, misogynistic, and inferior to other religions (especially Christianity), with Islam being treated more as an ideology than a genuine religion.[10]  The latter especially helps justify the ethno-religious discrimination and violence generally associated with Islamophobia.  

Islamist terrorism tends to normalize Islamophobia. For instance, Pakistan’s willingness to use jihadi forces to destabilize India in disputed Kashmir[11] and the renascent Islamism connected to extremism worldwide cause anxiety and promote Islamophobia in states like India and Sri Lanka. In these instances, Islamophobia is induced from abroad. But a nationalist ideology rooted in religion can also fan it and unleash massive violence. This is what the Hindu nationalist ideology in India does by framing the country’s Muslims as a dangerous, predatory, and destabilizing “other.” Post-civil war, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists resort to similar accusations as they seek to extend majoritarianism and manipulate Islamophobia for political gain.  

Ramzada versus Haramzada

During India’s Independence Movement secularism was often conflated with nationalism when opposing the communalism Hindu nationalists exemplified.[12] The BJP and Hindu Right’s ideology of Hindutva — which demands all Indians, irrespective of their religious beliefs, subscribe to a Hindu ethos — has catapulted Islamophobia in India to new heights in ways that threaten the country’s democratic credentials. 

The violent Partition of British India exacerbated enmity between Hindus and Muslims. Thus, Partition and its attendant legacies constitute major reasons for the Islamophobia in India, although discomfiture stemming from Mughal-Muslim history even among secular Hindus predates Partition.[13] Those within the Hindu Right have had the hardest time reconciling with the subcontinent’s Islamic legacy, and hence why some among these Hindutvadis seek to differentiate between Ramzada (the Hindu children of the god Ram) and Haramzada (bastards).[14]  Majoritarianism ensures that the Ramzada will keep winning while Muslims especially are demonized, and the Indian Supreme Court decision in November that awarded the controversial Babri Masjid site to Hindus is testament to this.[15]  

Nationalist movements thrive by distorting and inventing history, which is why Ernest Renan observed that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”[16] But Hindutvadis have gone out of their way to get history wrong, making ridiculous claims in the process. Thus their insistence that the Taj Mahal is not a Mughal creation but was originally a Hindu temple built by a Hindu king in honor of Shiva and prayers to Lord Shiva should, therefore, be allowed on its premises;[17]and that cars, plastic surgery, in vitro fertilization, stem cells, and airplanes (travelling between planets around 7000 BC) were all invented in ancient India.[18] Diversity — in gods, goddesses, philosophies, and modes of worship — is Hinduism’s greatest strength but that threatens Hindutvadis who espouse a standardized, fundamentalist form of worship that can be weaponized to enable Hindu superordination and minority subordination.     

India’s imposition of secularism was not meant to diminish Hinduism. Instead, it was designed to accommodate minorities (especially Muslims) “even if this meant [Hindus] taking some cultural blows”[19] — such as putting up with cow slaughter and avoiding a uniform civil code.[20] But under the BJP, it is the minorities who are dealt blows. Muslims have, consequently, been assaulted and killed for eating beef even as they are accused of resorting to “love jihad” (a conspiracy to seduce Hindu girls and convert them to Islam) and “population jihad” (an attempt to overtake Hindus who are just under 80 percent of the population as per the 2011 census.[21]  And leaders like Gandhi who promoted a multi-faith India get pilloried as appeasers while Gandhi’s murderer is hailed as a “patriot.”[22] 

Besides revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August,[23] the Modi government has also declared nearly two million (mostly) Muslim residents in the northeastern state of Assam illegal immigrants and is building camps to house them.[24] It is probable that the citizenship test used to brand longstanding residents “illegals” will be replicated in other parts of India.  India’s Muslims number close to 200 million and are the world’s largest minority.  Persistent attempts to marginalize, humiliate, and subjugate this large a minority can only unleash massive instability and violence. 

Ultimately, the majoritarian Hindutva project is justified by claiming that while all Indians may consider the country their pitribhumi (fatherland), only Hindus — plus groups like Buddhists and Sikhs — possess it as a punyabhumi (holy land).[25] Minorities must thus appreciate their subordinate position and not make undue demands on the majority who are the authentic bhumiputra (sons of the soil). 

The Salafi/Wahhabi influence that promotes an austere, uncompromising, and puritanical Islam — which contrasts with the syncretic, Sufi-inspired Islam that took root in South Asia — has led to Arabized Muslim practices, and this has made it easier for Hindutvadis to project Muslims as alien to the subcontinent and justify anti-minority sentiment. Similar events influence the Islamophobia zeitgeist in neighboring Sri Lanka.       

Sinhalatva and Islamophobia

Despite the majority Sinhalese being mainly Buddhists and the Tamils being mainly Hindu, it was ethnic divisions that led to a nearly three decade long conflict between the two groups.  While Buddhist nationalists utilized religion to mobilize against Tamil separatists who on occasion murdered Buddhist monks and attacked places of worship, the island’s conflict was not a religious war.[26] But post-war, anti-Muslim sentiment that the separatist conflict helped mask has risen to the fore, and the result has been pogrom-like violence against the island’s second largest minority.

Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history has been interpreted/misinterpreted to claim that Sri Lanka is sinhadipa (island of the Sinhalese) and dhammadipa (island ennobled to preserve and protect Buddha’s teachings).[27] The ensuing Sinhalatva ideology, similar to Hindutva, claims Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese Buddhists and minorities live there thanks to the sufferance of the majority community.[28] The insistence that the island must maintain a unitary political structure, as opposed to a more devolved set up, and aspirations to make all nine of its provinces majority Buddhist stems from this ideology.

A Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist group called the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS), which sprang up in 2012 with apparent support from the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government,[29] is most responsible for the recent anti-Muslim sentiment. The BBS has maintained close links with Myanmar’s 969 Movement, which has promoted the persecution of that country’s Rohingya Muslims. The Hindutvadis, no doubt, also influence the group’s denigration of Muslims, although this goes unstated given the ambivalence Sinhalese harbor towards India — ambivalence stemming from being tethered to Indian civilization even while fearing Indian dominance and resenting India’s support for Tamil rebels during the early stages of the island’s civil war. This is partly why some nationalists now seek to cement links with Ravana, a protagonist in the Ramayana, as that provides the Sinhalese a much older lineage rooted within the island.[30]       

The BBS initially gained prominence by campaigning against halal (permissible under Islamic law) products being marketed, claiming that the halal certification that was granted by a Muslim entity symbolized the Islamist extremism taking root in the island. It also protested against Muslim women wearing the burqa and niqab (female face covering). As in India, the BBS and its ilk make outlandish claims designed to demonize the island’s Muslims. These include accusations that Muslims were heavily involved in selling narcotics, Muslim proprietors were forcing Buddhist employees to work on Buddhist holidays (which are typically national holidays) and thus preventing them going to the temple, Muslim men were seducing Buddhist women and seeking to convert them to Islam, Muslim clothing stores were selling underwear with Buddha’s image, and such businesses were also handing out toffees and selling female foundation garments that made Sinhalese women infertile.[31] 

The 2019 Easter Sunday Islamist terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka that killed around 260 people have exacerbated Islamophobia in the country. Muslims had alerted authorities about the extremists who carried out the bombings, but that has done little to mollify Sri Lankans. Catholic and Christian churches were among the targets, which led to Sinhalese and Tamil Christians being murdered.[32] This in turn has promoted an odd solidarity among Sinhalese and Tamil elites who typically bicker over the need to pursue ethnic reconciliation and accountability for alleged war crimes but join forces to protest, for instance, against Muslim politicians who may have known one of the Easter Sunday terrorists.      

The BBS has led or influenced much of the anti-Muslim violence Sri Lanka has experienced since the end of the civil war. Its agenda includes undermining Muslim livelihoods by destroying businesses and Muslim property and campaigning to boycott Muslim businesses. This focus on destroying Muslim property appears related to the widespread belief that Muslims are disproportionately wealthy and that their wealth has been accrued by fleecing non-Muslims. It is striking that the anti-Muslim rioting that has taken place, including some of the violence linked to the Easter Sunday bombings, targeted Muslim businesses, homes, and mosques sans the murder and sexual violence typically associated with anti-Muslim riots and pogroms in India.[33]  There is every reason to believe this could change as Sri Lanka’s Muslims are further demonized and dehumanized. 

For instance, in the run up to the November presidential election, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa supporters in some Catholic neighborhoods distributed flyers depicting the macabre scenes in churches in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings.[34] While designed to delegitimize the ruling government and promote the pro-security credentials of the Rajapaksas, it was perhaps also signaling that the time for revenge against Muslims was imminent. With Gotabhaya Rajapaksa now elected president, the Muslim community, which voted overwhelmingly for his opponent, has every reason to fear that Islamophobia could be ramped up.  

Sri Lankans of all ethnoreligious backgrounds have sought work in the Middle East, but returning Muslims have internalized Salafi/Wahhabi teachings and sought to spread them through various associations and madrassas. As in the rest of South Asia, the Arabization of Sri Lankan Islam is linked to claims of authenticity — meaning certain forms of Islam are more authentic than other forms that have been polluted with practices borrowed from other religions. The extent of Arabization is evident in a recent Values and Attitudes Survey in which 36.4% of the island’s Muslim population picked Saudi Arabia as a country they would like to live in.[35] The resultant quest for purification has not only added to divisions among various Muslim communities within the island,[36] it has created more distance between Muslims and other communities. 

Ultimately, the Salafi/Wahhabi influence that has led to the adoption of Middle Eastern practices has helped magnify ethno-religious tensions by making Muslims come across as an assertive “other” in a post-civil war setting where Sinhalese Buddhists feel especially emboldened.  It has provided the likes of the BBS, which has called burqa-clad women goni billo (a Sinhala term used to refer to a bogeyman with a sack), a powerful symbol to claim the island’s Buddhist identity is being threatened, an argument that has gained currency even among some run-of-the-mill Sinhalese who wonder if such purdah is designed to hide Sinhalese women who have converted to Islam.[37]

A Perilous Future

India and Sri Lanka may claim secular status, but the reality is that both today are consolidated Hindu and Buddhist majoritarian states, respectively. Given how religion is being deftly manipulated in both countries to wage a civilizational war against Muslims, while other minorities are left cowed, the extant majoritarianism will only widen and deepen. 

With Hinduism and Buddhism rooted in the Indian subcontinent and Islam originating in the Middle East, Hindus in Sri Lanka get seen as rivals while Muslims in both India and Sri Lanka are easily marginalized as interlopers. Never mind that the vast majority of Muslims in both countries converted to Islam and have coexisted with other faiths for centuries.  The fact, however, is that notwithstanding various crosscutting cleavages, democracy and demography favor majoritarianism in both India and Sri Lanka. This bodes ill for both countries’ Muslims and their societies.

 

[1] The British helped write the constitution that took effect when the island gained independence in February 1948.

[2] The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Articles 10 and 14 (1) (e), https://www.parliament.lk/files/pdf/constitution/1978ConstitutionWithoutAmendments.pdf.
 

[3] See Ashik v Bandula and Others (Noise Pollution Case), SC FR 38/2005 November 9, 2007, https://www.lawnet.gov.lk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/018-SLLR-SLLR-2007-V-1-ASHIK-v.-BANDULA-AND-OTHERSNoise-Pollution-Case.pdf.
 

[4] Indeed, whenever discussing the need for a new constitution Sinhalese Buddhist politicians have gone out of their way to emphasize that Buddhism will continue to be provided foremost status.
 

[5] See Gwynne Dyer, “India Is Starting to Look More Like Pakistan,” Bangor Daily News, August 21, 2017, https://bangordailynews.com/2017/08/21/opinion/contributors/india-is-starting-to-look-more-like-pakistan/.
 

[6] See Rajeev Bhargava, Secularism and Its Critics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).
 

[7] Romila Thapar, “Redefining the Secular Mode for India,” Himal Southasian 26, 1 (January 2013): 30.
 

[8] Tanya Basu, “What Does ‘Islamophobia’ Actually Mean?” The Atlantic (October 15, 2014).
 

[9] Runnymede Trust, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All: Report of the Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia (London: Runnymede Trust, 1997) 1.
 

[10] Ibid.
 

[11] Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
 

[12] Faisal Devji, “Nationalism As antonym of Communalism,” The Hindu, December 19, 2014,  https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Nationalism-as-antonym-of-communalism/article10949291.ece.
 

[13] Amalendu Misra, Identity and Religion: Foundations of Anti-Islamism in India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004).
 

[14] While the term Haramzade can apply to all non-Hindus, it is conveniently hurled at Muslims for supposedly threatening Hindu demographics.  
 

[15] Building a temple to Lord Ram has been a longstanding goal of the Hindu Right; and Hindutvadis became more strident in their demand after a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992. The temple to come will not merely symbolize devotion to Ram, it will also symbolize the triumph of majoritarianism.   
 

[16] Quoted in Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [1990] 1992) 12.
 

[17] Anand Patel, “Ban Namaz at Taj Mahal or Allow Shiva Prayers Too, Demands RSS History Wing,” India Today, October 27, 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/taj-mahal-friday-namaz-muslims-hindus-shiva-prayers-rss-1070869-2017-10-27.
 

[18] See “India Scientists Dismiss Einstein Theories,” BBC News, January 7, 2019, at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46778879; “Mythology and Science,” The Hindu, January 6, 2015, at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-mythology-and-science/article6757521.ece; Sidharth Bhatia, “Pawns On the Board,” Outlook (August 11, 2014) 25; Niha Masih, “A Hindu Nationalist Claimed that Test-tube Babies Were Invented Thousands of Years Ago. India’s Scientists Are Not Amused,” Washington Post, January 7, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/01/07/hindu-nationalist-claimed-that-test-tube-babies-were-invented-thousands-years-ago-indias-scientists-are-not-amused/.
 

[19] Manu Joseph, “Secularism in Search of a Nation,” New Age (Dhaka) (December 7, 2012) 9.
 

[20] Besides building the temple to Lord Ram and revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status (which the Modi government engineered in August), creating a uniform civil code is another goal of the Hindu Right. This too will eventuate, now that there is little standing in the way of the government pushing through its Hindutva agenda in parliament.
   

[21] An infatuation and fear of minority population figures is common among nationalists.  It was current Prime Minister Narendra Modi who branded the refugee camps in Gujarat (following the riots he failed to prevent while Chief Minister of the state) “child-producing factories,” quoted in “Poison of Demographic Prejudice,” Economic and Political Weekly, (August 29, 2015) 8.
 

[22] Amy Kazmin, “In Glorifying Gandhi’s Killer, Hindu hardliners Create a New Icon,” Financial Times (U.S. Edition) (June 11, 2019) 8.
 

[23] Jammu and Kashmir was India’s only majority Muslim state, but it is now de-listed as a state and divided into two union territories.
 

[24] Zeba Siddiqui, “As They Build India's First Camp for Illegals, Some Workers Fear Detention There,” Reuters, November 7, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-politics-citizenship-camp/as-they-build-indias-first-camp-for-illegals-some-workers-fear-detention-there-idUSKCN1VT00K.
 

[25]The terminology stems from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (New Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan, 2003 [1923]) 115-116.
 

[26] Indeed, the syncretic nature of Theravada Buddhism is clear when one considers how popular Hindu rituals and deities have been incorporated into the religion.
 

[27] See Peter Schalk, “Semantic Transformations of the Dhammadipa,” in Mahinda Deegalle (ed.), Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka (New York: Routledge, 2006): 86-92.
 

[28] Neil DeVotta, “Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka,” Policy Studies 40 (Washington DC: East-West Center, 2007).
 

[29] The BBS could not have operated with as much impunity during the Mahinda Rajapaksa years, when police personnel looked askance as BBS monks superintended attacks on Muslim establishments, unless there was an arrangement between leaders of the organization and government. Along these lines, see Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Gossip, Rumor, and Propaganda in Anti-Muslim Campaigns of the Bodu Bala Sena,” in John Clifford Holt (ed.), Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) 123.
 

[30] A la Hindutvadis, those linking Ravana to the Sinhalese also claim their ancestors travelled in aircraft and possessed nuclear weapons.  See, for instance, Dileepa Witharana, “Ravana’s Sri Lanka: Redefining the Sinhala Nation?” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 42, 4 (2019): 791.
 

[31] Neil DeVotta, “Religious Intolerance in Post-Civil War Sri Lanka,” Asian Affairs 49, 2 (July 2018): 290.
 

[32] Neil DeVotta, “Sri Lanka’s Christians and Muslims Weren’t Enemies,” Foreign Policy, April 25, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/25/sri-lankas-christians-and-muslims-werent-enemies/.
 

[33] For a grotesque account of such recent violence, see Tanika Sarkar, “”Semiotics of Terror: Muslim Children and Women in Hindu Rashtra,” Economic and Political Weekly 37, 28 (July 13-19, 2002): 2872-2876.
 

[34] Kishali Pinto Jayawardene, “The Politics of Blood and a Decisive Presidential Poll,” Sunday Times (Colombo), November 10, 2019, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/191110/columns/the-politics-of-blood-and-a-decisive-presidential-poll-377389.html.
 

[35] Center for Policy Alternatives, “Values and Attitudes Survey on 70 Years’ of Independence in Sri Lanka” (February 2019): 97, https://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/70-Years-of-Independence-Survey-Report-Social-Indicator.pdf.
 

[36] See, for instance, Bart Klem, “Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka,” The Journal of Asian Studies 70,  3 (August 2011): 730-753.
 

[37] Sandya Hewamanne, “Trouser Wearing Women: Changing Landscape of Fashion among Global Factory Workers and Contemporary Political Tensions in Sri Lanka,” in Lipi Begum and Rohit Dasgupta (eds.), South Asian Youth Cultures and Fashion (London: I.B Tauris: Forthcoming).