Bodu Bala Sena and the global context of Islamophobia

Chandre Dharmawardana

BBS OATHThe Bodu-Bala Sena (BBS) is a political movement crystallizing mainly around Sinhala-Buddhist advocates of strong anti-Islamism. The knee-jerk reaction of opportunist political observers is to regard this as an example of a majoritarian populace behaving brutally, after having `caused Sinhala-Tamil terror’ by allegedly provoking the Tamils with ‘Sinhala-only’ discrimination. The BBS has also provided fodder for anti-government critics as well as the usual `I told you so’ liberals who believe that mass movements can be corrected by a little bit of sermonizing by `good monks’ holding vigils around the Lipton circus.`Candle-light vigils’, which are more typical of European protests and Friday-church assemblies, are not a hall mark of South-Asian or Buddhist culture. A `metta Bhavana (a meditation to disseminate compassion)’, a community chanting of `Pirith (Pali stanzas)’, cracking of coconuts seeking the blessing of Murugan etc., would have been typical of Lanka’s indigenous culture.  Can platitudes, vigils, Bhavana, and sermonizing help? The existence of the similar, or even more virulent, Islamophobic movements in far more affluent (allegedly liberal) western countries with Catholic or protestant majorities proves that we have to look far beyond Buddhist militancy to understand the phenomenon.

Zealotry 11 - CopyThe BBS in Sri Lanka is a symptom of the increasing anger of a militant part of the populace to an unfamiliar face of Islam. Islam in Persia under the later Moguls had an exquisite culture encompassing cosmopolitan values. Such Islamic Nations were signposts of liberalism compared to the religious bigotry, anti-Semitism and racism of Europe well into the 20th century. But the types of Islam and Muslims arriving in the West today carry a different stamp. Europeans have reacted negatively to loud-speaker prayers five times a day, tent-like dresses, sharia and other practices going back to the middle ages.  Demands for male-female segregation in schools, gyms, special facilities for prayer several times in public institutions as part of the right to practice Islam etc., are also economically too costly and impractical. Any open discussion or allusion to Prophet Mohamed in the same open way that one discusses Jesus Christ or Moses is not tolerated by militant Muslims, even within a literary milieu, as Solomon Rushdie learned the hard way.

American journalists had begun to react against militant Islam many years BEFORE 9/11. Thus the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 held that: “These [Wahabi] groups consist of a very tiny but well-financed and well-armed minority. They propose with these attacks the creation of terror in the hearts of the masses. … By creating anarchy and lawlessness, these groups can enforce their own harsh, intolerant brand of Islam. … Such groups do not represent the common view of Islam, held by the vast majority of Muslims and Islamic scholars, for whom Islam exemplifies the paragon of civilization and perfected morality. They represent what is nothing less than a movement to anarchy under an Islamic label. … Their intention is not so much to create an Islamic state, but to create a state of confusion in which they are able to thrive (Mateen Siddiqui, “Differentiating Islam from Militant `Islamists’)”.

 Similar sentiments have arisen in Lanka more recently, buttressed by the feeling that Buddhist places of worship and businesses have been encroached upon  by militant Muslims. Tsunami reconstruction efforts directed to the creation of exclusively Muslim settlements were fortunately brought to the law courts before they led to violence.

Deegavapi, Kurugala, Panama and a number of other places have also been the subject of litigation where the courts have condemned Muslim encroachments into historical sites. However, correcting the error and instituting the lost rights have been slow or ineffective due to local political influence. Such places breed sporadic violence as long as the verdict of the courts is not implemented.  Enclaves of Saudi-funded Muslim quarters appearing in municipalities like Beruwala or Kattankudy, as well as the increasing demand for the Sharia law ,have even created inter-Muslim feuds. Dambulla has been a disaster for everyone, while the hooliganism in Papiliyana clearly establishes the failure of law and order in politically-charged cases where economic hegemony is sought under the cover of religion.

The current levels of anti-Islamic backlash in `liberal’ democracies like Denmark, Canada, and France are hard to believe. One may begin to believe in conspiracy theories that claim that the CIA and the FBI are actually inventing `terrorists attacks’ implicating young Muslims who are rapidly gunned down before they can be given the usual civil rights in front of a judge. An Islamophobia is built up and sustained not only inside the country, but in a foreign policy which strongly supports all the legal or illegal actions of Israel.

In the US, the covert attack on Muslims is led by US agencies using the `home-land security act’. How Muslim communities have been `officially’ attacked has been documented in the`dispatches’  by investigative journalist Rick MacInnes-Rae of the CBC (see According to some reports, the US agencies break up Muslim communities by arresting a few young people citing unnamed `secret’ security concerns, when parts of the community distance themselves from the others, or from Mosques and Madrasās.  Individuals and communities are hounded by security agents. All this justifies the right to arrest and hold suspects indefinitely without any evidence, but merely on police suspicion. The IRS is deployed to heavily tax Mosques and other Islamic establishments to bankruptcy or raise interminable questions about their tax status, forcing them to use very expensive defence lawyers.

The reaction in France has been firm, open and legislative, with the Hijaab, Micab and similar public religious symbols banned. The public face of Islam is forced to `avoir le visage conformant a la culture francaise’. Denmark and Holland have introduced similar, but less over-whelming legislation to satisfy the demands of majorities. Canadian police has now the power to detain individuals in prison indefinitely, without evidence or revealing the indictment, merely on suspicion that someone is `suspicious’.Ppreviously, the Canadian Mounted Police and the CIA colluded to carry out `extra-ordinary renditions’ of some Muslims. The case of the completely innocent Maher Arar, who was dispatched out of the country and tortured, is well known. Any Muslim, a brown-skinned person or even a white Caucasian who visits a Middle-Eastern country several times or even once may get a visit from the police who would want to know what is `none of their business’. Civil libertarians have wondered if the western governments have been `manufacturing’ cases of terror to justify increasing curtailment of personal rights and freedoms. The so-called guardians of `human rights, i.e., the `Human-rights NGOs’ have been strangely silent about their own government’s actions. Instead, they espouse causes only if they are funded by some well-heeled lobby group — be it Serbs, Armenians or Tamil Tigers.

The type of `terror’ that occurred in the Boston marathon had become a daily affair in Sri Lanka in the years prior to May 2009 (when the LTTE was finally vanquished). Anti-terror legislation had been used in Sri Lanka within the envelope of `emergency laws’. However, they have not become part of civil legislation, as is now the case in the USA and Canada. On the other hand, Lanka has failed to maintain and enforce order within its existing laws, with corrupt but powerful local politicians working hand in hand with the underworld. This is not surprising in the wake of a war lasting four three decades. However, the public needs to see definite signs of improvement in the state of civil law and order.

A very serious failing in the past has been the lack of swift and direct intervention by the police when communal or ethnic clashes, or religious clashes happen. In addition, the governments of the recent past have failed to introduce  legislation that would calm the fears of the majority and ensure equity and fair-play to the minorities. The latter is a consequence of (a) the misguided demand for constitutional devolution ignoring the public fear of separatism and the threats from Tamil Nadu (b) a government, the present one, depending on groups of MPs with antagonistic views (e.g., Marxists, Right-wing religious zealots, liberal-democrats, neo-cons, ex-Eelamists, parochial fascist-thugs and drug barons) to maintain its strong showing in parliament. The post of the so-called chief minister of a provincial government, introduced via the 13th amendment, has increased the arbitrary power of politicians and diminished the capacity of equitable law enforcement in the country.

What should Sri Lanka do? It too should debate the issue of how best to ensure minority rights (not merely in the context of militant Islam) versus majority fears,  and  legislate to satisfy the wishes of the people. This does NOT require the participation of the TNA or the Muslim groups etc., in some `parliamentary select committee’. The justness of the laws created will depend on the  standard of education of the legislators, their level of exposure to the wide world, and on their capacity to ensure that foreign vested interests (be they religious or political) do not pump money into the country and buy up support for foreign agendas, religious or political. Once the laws are passed, the laws have to be strictly enforced fairly, firmly, and without corruption or political favoritism.

However, given the total violation of civil liberties via the `security laws’, surveillance powers etc.,  that are being enacted in the West, consolidating power into the hands of powerful military-police-corporate entities, it is unlikely that countries like Sri Lanka could evolve into societies that respect individual civil liberties.

ALSO SEE Hate has no place in Lanka,” —


Filed under accountability, cultural transmission, democratic measures, discrimination, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, legal issues, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, NGOs, patriotism, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, religious nationalism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

6 responses to “Bodu Bala Sena and the global context of Islamophobia

  1. Mano

    I like the author’s review of BBS as a social reaction.
    It was after JRJ opened the country to `robber barrons’, evangelists, –any body who had money that everything in Sri lanka came for sale. Premadasa-Chandrika-ranil carried on the same mercantile policy. So wealthy money bags from the US south (fundamentalsit evangelists) as well as Saudi-funded militant Islamist groups came in and upset the equilibrium and good understanding that existed among the religious groups
    (and even t\ethnic groups, if we include India’s funding of the Nothern insurgency). The JHU even attempted to introduce an anti-conversion bull but rajapaksa did not want to fight ther tigers and the religious zealots at the sametime, and so he scuttled the JHU bill.
    But Bodu bala Sena is the reaction of Buddhists when faced with the rapid growth of a different kind of Islam nourished by the possibilities of the free the money inflow and these processes, and many obnoxious NGOs will disappear.

    • You say and I quote “but rajapaksa did not want to fight ther tigers and the religious zealots at the sametime, and so he scuttled the JHU bill.”

      I am sorry I cannot agree with this. The tigers are no longer there and more than three years have passed. So why won’t rajapakse push that bill through? Why? Why? Why? Why ad infinitum why? These are interpreted as anti-Buddhist activities and have hurt the Buddhist majority permanently.

      L. Jayasooriya


    In India we have had Muslim-Hindu (minority-Majority) clashes since 1948 and even earlier. Everyday we have clashes and killings much bigger than anything coming from Sri lanka. But everyone ignores them because it has become commonplace. However, when a couple of people get killed in Boston all the world takes notice.
    Hindu or Muslim lives in India are disposable and no one notices the inter-state, inter-ethnic, inter-caste, inter-religious violence that we have

  3. SH

    Well written, factual and impartial article. One cannot emphasise enough though, the political thuggery in Sri Lanka (I am not singling out SL here) that is a major cause of our “lawlessness”.

  4. Janaka Perera

    Advocates of multiculturalism should recognize the fact that it has limits. If multiculturalism comes into conflict with the values and traditions cherished by the majority and raise suspicions in the minds of the latter there is bound to be friction. This recalls the story of the foolish father and son who lost their mule while taking it to be sold at the village fair. The two of them listened to everyone on how to handle a mule (each person expressing contradictory opinions) that in the end the animal fell off a bridge and drowned. There is limit to appeasing everyone although a government may want to ensure ethnic and religious harmony

  5. jaxon

    The day taliban destroyed bamian buddhas,the day of destruction of nalanda may be centuries apart ,but it shows one thing muslims and islam never change,they will be extremists till the end of the world,because islam teaches their god ,who no body has seen so far will meet you in heaven or hell after your death, This is something no living or dead person can confirm .and islam capitalises on that technicality .If one day all islamic nations become another somalia ,then too muslims will believe

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