The anti-Muslim campaign of the fringe Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalist bigotry is regenerative. It is adept at finding a new ruse every now and then. The list ranges from Halal, cow slaughter, Muslim clothing stores, wada pethi (sterilizing tablets) and the latest ‘Save Wilpattu.’
All the past campaigns culminated in a violent upheaval, after which it went through a period of hibernation only to resurface under a new set of affected grievances.
The latest is ostensibly to protect the forestry of Wilpattu, but it is the same old Islamophobic campaign that has resurfaced after a lull of several months following the violent clashes in Digana and Amparai.
If the quiet on the ultra-nationalist front was mainly due to the police action and arrest of several key functionaries of Mahason Balakaya, a bigoted Sinhalese Buddhist fringe group, their latest activism comes after the court released those suspects from the remand prison.
Like the previous episodes of anti- Muslim bigotry, the latest campaign is promoted through the social media, through a number of facebook pages, twitter accounts and other social media pages. Some of the pictures of purported Wilpattu deforestation are in fact photos of land cleared for palm oil cultivation in Indonesia and Brazil, as BBC Sinhala website revealed recently. However, these photos are shared and retweeted in hundreds, some times in thousands, effectively creating mass circulation of a racially motivated fake narrative.
The language is often unabashedly racist and anti- Muslim. If the recent history is any guide, ramification of the on-line hate campaign will soon be felt in real life. State security agencies should monitor these groups and make arrests before it is too late.
Wilpattu is a complex problem where the right to return of the Muslim families who were chased away by the LTTE in 1990 is confronted by a new found, ( and somewhat feigned) concerns of environment protection. At the end of the war, families uprooted by the LTTE returned to a thick forestry that had overgrown in their original land. In 2012, a Presidential task force headed by then Minister Basil Rajapaksa recommended that the department of forest conversation release land for the resettlement of these displaced families. Each family received a half an acre for a house and an another acre of land for cultivation.
However as the resettlement was underway, Bodu Bala sena and other ultra- nationalist fringe groups launched a campaign, alleging that the Wilpattu forest was being cleared to resettle the returning Muslim families. Minister Rishard Bathurdeen who spearheaded the program that was partly funded by the Qatar Foundation was accused of clearing the forest and resettling his constituents.
Confronted with these allegations, then forest minister Anura Priya Darshana Yapa extended the buffer of the Wilpattu forest reserve. Subsequently in 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena issued a gazette notification, declaring Mavillu, Weppal, Karadikkuli, Marichchikadi and Vilaththikulam forests as the forest reserve of Mawillu under the 3A of the Forest Conservation Ordinance.
Given the divergent stakeholders and competing narratives, the government should provide a degree of clarity on the situation. It is also important to take into context the humanitarian concerns of the families who are being robbed of their original land due to the extension of forest buffer. Last week, an uproar erupted in Parliament when some opposition MPs alleged of deforestation of Wilpattu. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has announced that he will subject the report to an evaluation by a Parliament committee. The government has also agreed to a Parliament debate on the subject.
Islamophobia in the current campaign against Wilpattu resettlement should be identified and treated as such. Propagators of anti-Muslim hate in real life and in virtual life should be identified, monitored and arrested. New laws should be incorporated under the proposed counter terrorism laws to enable preventive detention of bigots for a substantial period.
However, it is also important to dissect the role of increasing Islamization within the Muslim community, which in effect ignites islamophobia, and uncertainty within the other communities, even among those who are otherwise, live and let live type of folks.
Creeping Islamization of Sri Lankan Muslims is all the more evident in certain pre-dominantly Muslim enclaves in the East and Puttalam. Lured by Gulf money, and an alien doctrinaire ideology, local Muslims in those areas are undergoing an Arabianization of their social, cultural and religious lives. A more generalizable but self- evident manifestation of this Arabization of local Muslims is the increasing number of Muslim women who wear Burka, the all- encompassing Islamic garment and Niqab, the face veil. There were handful, if any, who wore those clothing in Sri Lanka before the 9/11 and subsequent spread on Salafi Islam.
The self- interested advocacy of right to wear these garments are in vein as long as they ignore their right to not to wear the same.
Mushrooming maddrasas where Muslim youth are taught an austere version of Salafi Islam against moderate local Islam are also purveyors of Islamization. Increasing number of local youth attend these religious schools funded by the oil money from the Gulf states and their religious organizations.
Rather than mediating to sooth the pervasive influence of the foreign Islam, so called Muslim religious organizations such as Thawhed Jamath, tend to serve as accessories of Arabization of local Muslims. Muslim elders have withstood the calls by Muslim women to revamp the Muslim marriage law.
Mainstream political leaders who rely on Muslim votes for their reelection are not willing to question this unfolding Islamization. But, if the recent history of Europe is any lesson, there will be a time that everyone would regret for not raising alarm beforehand.
Among the few groups who raise their voice is Sinhala ultra-nationalists. They are emboldened and to a certain extent, is vindicated by the on-going self- alienation of some quarters of local Muslims from the mainstream.
As much as it should confront islamophobia, Sri Lanka should act now to reverse the on-going Islamization of its Muslims. Both objectives should be approached simultaneously.