By Abby Seiff, Quintus Colombage and Niranjani Roland
April 28, 2015
When Fathima Faheema is nervous, she wrings her headscarf; pulls the edges shyly over her mouth.
It is only after some prodding that she admits her reasons for converting from Buddhism to Islam.
“Because of love,” she whispers, sending her neighbors into peals of laughter.
In some parts of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese woman’s conversion and interfaith marriage might have sparked outrage. But here at Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa village, it barely raises an eyebrow.
“My husband’s parents didn’t have any problem with it,” said Faheema, 26.
“I’m from another village … my father and mother were against the marriage earlier but now they’re ok with it and they come and visit,” she said. “If there are any Muslim holidays here, my parents always come now.”
Across Sri Lanka, observers have warned of a growing wave of religious intolerance and extremism. Evangelical Christians have raised ire for their conversion practices while local media has decried the “Wahhabi invasion” and rumors of growing Muslim fundamentalism. But it is among the country’s majority Buddhists where the real danger of such zealotry can be seen.
In recent years, a slew of hardline Buddhist groups have sprung up, headed by fervent monks and backed with not insignificant political funds.
Preaching hatred and warning of Muslim “invasions,” monks from Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Force), Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya and an unknown number of other organizations have whipped the population into a frenzy.
Anti-Muslim riots broke out in June 2014, killing at least four and injuring more than 80 people.
The previous year, Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, after holding large rallies accusing Muslims of a range of crimes. Christians, too, have seen several attacks on churches and places of worship amid similar propagandist claims.
In a country where 70 percent of the population is Buddhist compared with about 10 percent Muslim and eight percent Christian, the effect is stark.
Though precise figures are hard to measure, in 2014 the United Nations rights office counted some 88 attacks on Muslims and 55 on Christians in just eight months.
Last month, when it released its annual rights report for Sri Lanka, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) warned that extremism remained a significant problem.
“There were a high number of incidents targeting minority Christian and Muslim communities,” the report said of 2014.
In a joint UN rights resolution, noted the report, the UK and other nations “expressed alarm at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minorities in Sri Lanka”.
“Although communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims decreased towards the end of 2014, tensions remained, and sporadic attacks on Muslim and Christian places of worship and businesses continued to take place,” the FCO account concluded.
In September, the UN’s rights office offered a similar take.
“Like his predecessor, the high commissioner is deeply alarmed by the escalation in religious extremism and increasing attacks against Muslim and Christian minorities, largely led by militant Buddhist groups,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
Failure to end “incitement to hatred and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities … will only undermine the prospects for peace and reconciliation,” he warned.
Amid this stark setting, however, some Sri Lankans are taking matters into their own hands by simply refusing to take part.
In Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa, where Muslims and Buddhist farmers have lived side by side for decades, the rhetoric extremist monks are selling is profoundly unwelcome.
Last June, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) arrived to hold a series of meetings in Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa and nearby villages. The reception was far from sunny.
“The BBS organized a meeting in a temple near here, some went — not me — but people decided we don’t want trouble. We’ve heard about them and we don’t want them here. We [Buddhists and Muslims] can live together,” said DM Ratnayake, a 47-year-old Buddhist farmer.
“Even the chief Buddhist monk here refused to host the meeting. He said ‘we don’t want to have that at our temple’,” recalled Abu Haniffa, the head of the local Islamic education society and a former mosque president.
Ratnayake, who was born and raised in Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa and counts Haniffa as a close friend, thinks the key to such solidarity isn’t particularly complicated.
“We go to school together, we work in our paddy fields together. If the owner is a Muslim, the Buddhists come to help. If we have a Buddhist festival, we invite Muslims. During Sinhalese New Year [earlier this month], all the Muslims came to our house. If anyone gets married — Buddhist or Muslim — everyone comes.”
That cohesion likely undermines the typical footholds required for BBS and similar groups to foment unrest within communities.
Paul Fuller, an independent researcher studying Buddhist extremism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, said such groups need certain conditions in place.
“In my own research into what I have termed 'ethnocentric Buddhism' a number of factors are at work: the sense of a Buddhist identity strongly allied to Sri Lankan identity; the protection of nation and religion; the notion that the Buddha's teaching [Dharma/Dhamma] are in decline and therefore need to be protected; the idea that these very teachings are the purest form of the Buddha's teaching,” he wrote in an email.
“The rhetoric of movements like the BBS need the unknown other.”
In Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa, that unknown “other” doesn’t exist — farmers work together, neighbors rely on one another and children are schooled together.
“We studied together, we work together, that’s why we live together in harmony,” said Mohammed Shafran, a 23-year-old Dambagolla Mahapa Kada Wewa villager who recently finished his training to become an Imam.
Many residents, a number of which were educated there themselves, point to the local Buddhist primary school as a key source of “harmony”.
On a recent visit, children dressed in neat uniforms thronged the school grounds, wild with post-holiday excitement. Older students tried tending a garden while the younger ones ran in and out of classrooms. Some boys wore kufis; some girls wore headscarves.
The slight differences in dress appeared to faze no one.
“We don’t ask the Sinhalese students to learn Islam, but when they live together, they learn multiculturalism. They live in harmony, there’s no conflicts at all,” said Kumara Madugalle, an English teacher who has been working at Sri Sumana Maha Vidyalaya School for seven years.
Of the school’s 200 students, about a quarter are Muslim. Many opt to take Buddhist classes and Madugalle proudly noted that: “at O-level sometimes their grades are better than the Buddhist students”.
On the walls of the administration office, hand-drawn graphs outline the successes and progresses of both religious groups.
“All the teachers here are Buddhist,” said Madugalle,“but we consider it something private and personal. As human beings we should respect religions. Even the Lord Buddha told us that.”