The upsurge of Islamophobia in Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Sinhala nationalism

Throughout the 20th century, a predatory Sinhala nationalism developed as both the state and the Sinhala political elite consolidated power through chauvinistic nationalist mobilization. The ideology was predatory as it sowed animosity and sanctioned violence in its narrowest form against non-Buddhist and in its broader form against non-Sinhala speaking communities in the island. In 1915 the Muslim communities in the South braced themselves for a major pogrom as a direct consequence of the ascending aggressive Sinhala national consciousness. What began as attacks on the commerce capital establishments of South Indian Muslims in Kandy, spread quickly against all Muslims in the South. Moreover the growing nationalism which in the course of independence found a patron through the nation-state, increasingly incited Sinhala mobs to indulge in systematic attacks on Tamils and their property in the sporadic but numerous anti-Tamil riots which ravaged the island. The overall effect of these successive riots was that of destabilizing the Tamil speaking communities who lived in the southern regions of the island.

The nationalistic ideology presented the non-Sinhalese as invaders and intruders all who posed threat to the Sinhala people and Buddhism. For the state these multi-centric elements constituted obstacles and sources of resistance to the nationalistic project of creating a Sinhala Buddhist nation state. The nationalistic propaganda and its entrenched impact upon the Sinhala national psyche have progressively desensitized the majority of Sinhala people to the protracted genocide the Tamil nation have been subjected to for decades. Today, five years since the bloodbath ended on the shores of Mullethivu, the North-East of the island is under a hegemonic military occupation which presides over unfettered persecution, colonization, militarization and Sinhalization.

For every four civilians there is a soldier as 16 out of 19 Sri Lankan military divisions are stationed in the traditional homeland of the Tamils to the North-East. Large tracts of land in the East and the North have been illegally and forcefully appropriated by the state and its military forces. Subsequently the military defeat of the LTTE and the military occupation enforced upon the Eelam Tamil nation has facilitated a rampant and triumphant Sinhala nationalism to emerge which naturalizes and legitimizes national oppression. This is best exemplified during the lavish celebration of the conclusion of the Mulluvaykal genocide on May 19 2009 as Victory Day. Since the end of the war, in the Sri Lankan nationalist psyche, the Tamil nation being heavily repressed is deemed too weak to pose any impending danger. Since the Sri Lankan state has consolidated power by harboring Sinhala supremacy and espousing triumphant nationalism, the need for another "other" becomes imperative. The violence which was unleashed towards the Tamil nation and their homeland fostered an ideology of predatory and triumphant nationalism thriving on violence which in the post-war scenario ramified to target minority communities within the island. To steer the Sinhala masses under such intoxicating nationalism allows the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) to dodge the consequences from the impacts of the neo-liberal economic policies and their liaisons with imperialist powers. The steering inflation, privatization, and centralization of power within the President, his family and the hegemonic militarization is attempted to be camouflaged by the dangers posed by these "others".

The growing violence against Muslims

On 20.04.2012 around 2000 Sinhalese led by monks demonstrated in front of the Dambulla Mosque demanding its demolition as they claimed the site was holy for Buddhists. Throughout the night the mosque was attacked with firebombs (1). Since the attack, the Buddhist fascist-monk organization called Buddha Bodu Sena (BBS) has spearheaded a pulsating Sinhala nationalism which is often orchestrated against the Muslim communities in the south of Sri Lanka. The mosque attack was followed by an anti-halal campaign launched by the BBS, which demanded the Halal Certificate to be banned as they perceive it as a Muslim practice imposed upon the Sinhala Buddhist customers. Beside this they were also decrying the slaughtering of cows as being inimical to the Buddhist religion. One monk even went so far as committing self-immolation for the cause and furthered the momentum to the anti-Muslim agitation. The attacks aimed at a predominantly Muslim economic activity also resemble the anti-Tamil riots which eventuated in destabilizing the economic and political power bases of the Tamil population (2). There have also recently been various attacks upon the Muslim people, their property and businesses. The Muslim attire for females, the niqat and hijab have also become a focal point for an ongoing campaign seeking its ban (3), and reports have emerged of Muslim women being harassed as a result. Muslim run businesses were targeted and more public meetings headed by BBS spread vicious racism against the Muslim community. The GOSL response to such development and their complicity in anti-Muslim violence is exemplified in the statements of the Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapakse who blames Tamils and Muslims for the rise in Buddhist extremism, incidentally legitimizing Buddhist chauvinism and ensuring its enactment with impunity (4). In the midst of this phenomenon President Mahinda Rajapakse was also noted to absolve the monks from violence, thereby effectively cloaking the fascist sections of the Buddhist clergy and its role in the protracted genocide against Tamils and the recent spate of systematic attacks against Muslims (5). The violence spearheaded by BBS and the Ravana Balaya continued through 2012 and 2013. The most recent reported attack was on 09.05.2014, when a Sinhala mob of 250 people led by Buddhist monks attacked and torched a Muslim owned shop in the southern town of Aluthgama (6).

It is noteworthy to briefly analyze some of the responses from the Muslim community. The established Muslim Political leadership condemned the attacks but was quick to brush these off as the workings of a micro-minority within the Sinhala nation. They assured that Sri Lanka would consider the marvelous lobbying executed by Muslim leaders in the service of Sri Lanka ahead and during the 24th session of UNCHRC in 2013. Such tendency to absolve was also reflected by others who pledged their commitments to the state. In this discourse there were attempts to elucidate the patriotic history of the Muslim communities and the virtues of Sinhala-Muslim bonds in order to assert their loyalty to the Sinhala nation state. To exemplify such a discourse I reproduce an excerpt from an article written by a Riza Yehiya on the popular citizen journalist website ”Groundviews” on 24.04.2012

“The Buddhist –Muslim relation in Sri Lanka is more than ten centuries old and this bond has hitherto been not broken despite the 500 years of colonial rule, the post colonial period and beyond. The Muslims did not succumb to the divide and rule politics of the colonial powers and they distinctly identified those that are alien from those that are their countrymen……This attack is not against the Muslims, this is an attack against the sovereignty of the state judging by the way these are emerging. Since Buddhists cannot be taken head-on, the strategy is possibly to polarize the Muslims and the Buddhists so that would create justifications to paint the majority Buddhist community as racist to achieve the grand plans of those who are pulling strings.” (7).

The Muslim-Buddhist bond is stressed, the service of the Muslims to the Sinhala state is emphasized and he ironically alludes to the possibility of these recent attacks as being the work of foreign elements in a bid to absolve the state. Such discourse calls for compassion from the majority based on loyalty of the Muslims to the country, thus neither the state nor the role of Buddhism within it was scrutinized or implicated in the chauvinistic violence of the past and present. There were also arguments which placed its resonance on the Muslim participation in the Sri Lankan state's campaigns against Tamil ”Terrorism”. Such rhetoric aims at appealing to the Sinhala nationalistic psyche by reassuring that Muslims do not seek links with Tamils nor aspire for any political rights which can destabilize the state and its status quo. The Muslim political elite thus follow an institutionalized political tradition of being complicit in Colombo’s agenda, as witnessed on numerous occasions in the past. Although there has emerged more critical condemnation of Buddhist extremism such as from the main civic body of the Muslims and the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, they are also still crayoned by state centrism (8).

The evisceration of Tamil and Muslim connectivity

In contrast to the political elite, Muslim Tamil National Alliance leader Azath Sally related the anti-Muslim violence to the genocide of Tamils, and identified it as systematic. In his efforts to mobilize the persecuted Muslim community he also sought to collaborate with the Tamils. The historical venues for such an alliance are based on shared language, territory and an interlinked history between the Tamil speaking Muslims and the Eelam Tamils. Nonetheless such a historical bond has been subjected to a long period of counter insurgency (COIN) strategies and political machinations from the state which has created animosity and friction between the two groups. In the mid-1980s the Sri Lankan state materialized such a COIN strategy by establishing the auxiliary force know as Home Guards (HG) and made extensive attempts to recruit religiously radicalized Muslim youths into the unit. The HG was an integral part of counterinsurgency tactics designed to incorporate Muslims into the state perpetuated ethnic cleansing of Tamils in the East, particularly in Amparai and Batticola. Such a process created and sustained a cycle of violence in the east with attacks and reprisals proliferating between Tamil militants and Muslims which benefitted the state’s overall agenda of weakening the Tamil national resistance and vitiating Tamil-Muslim solidarity. Consequently this COIN tactic proved successful and was evident in the eruption of the 1985 Tamil-Muslim riots in Amparai in which Muslim HGs and police played a central role. Moreover in the backdrop of the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1989 and 1990, President Premedasa sanctioned the creation of a COIN unit informally referred to as ‘Kalu Kotiya’. This unit operated in the East and in particular in Amparai, and was directly involved in mobilizing newly emerging religious fundamentalist elements within the Muslim community against Tamils, culminating in the 1990 Tamil-Muslim riots. Furthermore the unacceptable expulsion of tens of thousands of Jaffna Muslims in 1990 within 48 hours by the LTTE accentuated the processes of polarization between Tamils and Muslims.

Nevertheless the possibility of a renewed Muslim - Tamil alliance is an outright threat to the state as it was then. As a result on 02.05.2013 Azath Sally was illegally detained by the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). POTA was initially the means utilized by the state to silence a growing Tamil nationalistic mobilization ever since it was introduced in 1979, and the arrest of Afzal Sally marks an era where the Muslim people are in the wake of being subjected to the same genocidal state processes as the Tamil nation.

To consider the growing violence in isolation and excuse the state from such instances is to blind the Muslim people from the semiotics of state nationalism and Sinhala chauvinism. The discourse propagated by the Colombo centered Muslim political elite and intelligentsia veils both anti-Muslim violence and the protracted genocide against Tamils from being understood as an integral part of the Sinhala nationalistic statecraft which in essence aims to create a Sinhala Buddhist Nation State. Besides mystifying the nature of the violence targeting their people , such a discourse propagated towards the Muslims also excludes venues for Muslims and Tamils to build solidarity. Thereby such discourses amounts to state fetishism and serves only in absolving the Sri Lankan state from genocide, chauvinism and national and religious oppression.


Athithan Jayapalan is a student in social anthropology and studied in Oslo and Pondicherry universities. Born in Jaffna, he currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

Reference :

2) For more information on the commonalities between the persecution of Tamils and Muslims, See:
5) For Rajapakses appraisal of the Buddhist clergy see:


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.