It is unthinkable that an earthly being would ever get the police approval to hold a rally of nearly twenty thousand angry Buddhist youth in Aluthgama, just three days after a communal scuffle between the local Muslims and Buddhists. Had the congregation been the university students or trade unions, the police would definitely have asked the Court for a restraining order. However, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) held that rally that was followed by a bitter ethnic conflagration.
But, its General Secretary, Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thera is non-repentant. In his temple in Kirulapone, he tells this writer that he was suing for peace when his supporters, who were leaving after listening to his provocative speech, which had all the fury and instigation of a hate speech, were attacked by Muslims. “Then all hell broke loose!” he said.
His version of events could sound hardly convincing for many; even the Buddhists in predominantly Muslim towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala, blame the monk and his ultra nationalist Buddhist organization for causing troubles there.
Pushed to the wall
Perhaps, for the first time, the monk and the BBS have found themselves pushed to the wall. Even the government, which has been amenable to the BBS has distanced itself. The ideological fellow travellers feel the BBS has pushed the envelope further. The President, who visited the troubled town, has vowed to take action against the rioters. Gnanasara Thera said the President may be plotting to lock him up. He told this writer that the entire government, the Opposition and his ideological bed fellows such as Wimal Weerawansa are all plotting to bring him down.
But, for the moment, he is untouched. Any other lesser man could now be languishing in jail, or being interrogated by the CID and TID over instigating religious troubles.
Still, Gnanasara Thera is, in part, the government’s creation, which has turned a blind eye to extremism spewed by the thera and his organization.
Now the same government which relies on the help of the Middle Eastern countries against the UNHRC mandated investigation has found the monk and his virulent anti Muslim activism have compromised the government’s position in the Muslim world. The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation has raised concerns over the riots, the first such public statement issued by the OIC on Sri Lanka.
BBS has been thriving in the government’s failure to challenge the extremism spewed by the group. The government’s inaction, sometimes, amounted to a tacit approval. The government which has used religion to prop up its regime found the BBS a useful accessory to heighten the religiosity in the country, which would blind the average folks from the erosion of the more elitist oriented independent institutions and democratic rights. Now it is payback time.
Sri Lanka has had a problem with Buddhist extremism. In the past, it was mild and flared up occasionally. However, since the advent of late Soma Thera, Buddhist ultra nationalism is on the rise and has now been taken to a new high by a host of groups, including the BBS, Sinhala Ravaya and some other individual monks, whose increasing bigotry pose the greatest challenge to the national unity of the country, since the LTTE.
Sinhala Buddhist extremism is true and real, but, it is only a part of the story, though a whole set of people, from bleeding heart liberals to sinister Wahabis would pin the blame on it for the troubles in Aluthgama.
In the case of Aluthgama, they are right. But the extremism of the BBS and others is a reaction to the Islamic extremism. In that sense, BBS could be Sri Lanka’s equivalent to the English Defence League or the Dutch Far Right Freedom Party.
The problem is that, in Sri Lanka, like in many other places, the moderate Muslim majority is not prepared to combat the rising extremism within their communities, a phenomenon taking place as of now due to the influence of imported austere brand of Wahabi Islam. To make matters worse, the Muslim political leadership, is least interested in tackling the issue and, in fact, thrives in the heightened state of religiosity of the community, which would prompt them to serve as a bloc vote in the elections.
However, the fact of the matter is that the traditional moderate Islam in Sri Lanka has come under pressure from this austere brand of imported religion. Beruwala itself was a flash point in this theological confrontation in 2010. Tawhid Jamath, which follows the literal interpretation of the Quran and Hadith has expanded its tentacles in the East and in the Muslim towns in the South. Madrasas which preach this rigid brand of Islam has mushroomed and the local Muslim youth who visit Pakistan and the Middle East for religious teaching, on their return to the island, open up new mosques that preach fundamentalist Islam, which is in collusion with the moderate traditional Sufi infused local Islam.
More local women have hidden themselves inside Burka, the all encompassing Islamic garment, which was unseen twenty years ago in the country. As Australian Sri Lankan Muslim academic, Amir Ali puts it, “Sri Lankan Muslims are self alienating due to the pull of the imported Islam.”
The moderate majority Muslims are also the victims of this dreaded social phenomenon. However, their failure to speak up against the imposition of an imported Islam has galvanized the extremism of the BBS. Political leadership in Sri Lanka does not serve as a deterrent to religious radicalization. If history is any proof, as the old school Tamil political leaders of TULF did, they are more likely to fish in troubled waters. The SLMC and the Muslim leadership would not dare to challenge the Islamic extremism for the very reasons that the Rajapaksa Government did not dare to criticize the Bodu Bala Sena. For both, religion is sacrosanct and a vote magnet.
However, the indifference to extremism of both sides would help it expand its tentacles, radicalizing all communities. If anyone wants to envision the end picture of such procrastination and the state of denial, one does not need to look further than Pakistan, or a host of Middle Eastern countries. Terror and horror that religion in those countries are capable of unleashing would make Gnanasara and his fellow travellers of BBS look like a bunch of convent nuns.