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Insight into Anti-Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka

India Realtime, August 14, 2013

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- There was an uneasy standoff in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo this weekend after a group of Buddhists attacked a mosque and injured several Muslim worshippers.

Analysts say an anti-Muslim campaign by Buddhist nationalist groups in Sri Lanka is being fueled by fears about the swelling Muslim population.

Muslims account for only 9% of the island nation’s population of 20 million, the 2011 census found. But the community is the fastest growing. Between 1981 and 2011, Sri Lanka’s Muslim population grew 78%, from 1.04 million to 1.86 million. In that period, Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community grew 38%, from 10.9 million to 15.8 million.

“There is fear that the Muslim population will engulf the Buddhist majority, fear that they will dominate businesses and occupy larger share of the native Sinhalese land,” said S. Chandrasekharan, director of South Asia Analysis Group, a New Delhi-based think-tank.

Unlike Myanmar, where clashes between Buddhists and the minority Muslim community have been running for decades, the tension in Sri Lanka has surfaced only in recent years, analysts say.

Buddhist nationalist groups also complain Muslims are secretly sterilizing Sinhalese, the Associated Press said.

Tilak Samaranayaka, an Australia-based commentator on Sri Lanka, cited census data to argue that many Sinhalese-Buddhists had been coerced to adopt Islam. In a column in the Colombo Telegraph in March, Mr. Samaranayaka wrote that 101,319 people said they had converted to Islam when surveyed in 2011, up from 65,755 surveyed in 1981.

Other observers say there isn’t enough evidence to suggest the conversions were forced.

“Perhaps - given the ethnic diversity in Sri Lanka - most of these conversions could be by virtue of marrying into Muslim communities,” said B.S. Verghese, an analyst at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi based think-tank.

“If allegations of forced conversions routinely surface in the local press, Buddhist groups may retaliate believing their religion is being attacked,” he added.

Conflicting ideologies could also be a cause of tension. Earlier this year, for example, the Bodu Bala Sena, a Sri Lankan Buddhist group, spearheaded a nationwide campaign against the Islamic practice of halal-slaughtered meat.

Buddhist monks, who preach non-violence, view the practice of halal or slow death, as inhuman. Islamic law, on the other hand, says meat that isn’t prepared using the halal technique is unfit for consumption.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sri Lanka’s main body of Islamic clergy, withdrew food items bearing halal certificates from markets in March.

“We are giving up what is important to us…. in the interest of peace and harmony,” the president of the Muslim group said, according to reports. The move was criticized in Muslim countries and viewed as a clampdown on Islam.

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