Understanding The Buddhist Psyche Behind Islamophobia

Dr. Ameer Ali,
School of Business and Governance,
Murdoch University,
Western Australia

Islamophobia, as a mental phenomenon of fear and hatred against Islam and Muslims, is a Western product. To be precise, it arose in Europe soon after the birth and spread of Islam in and from the seventh century. The name Europe itself has its origins in Christendom’s confrontation with Islam around 9th century. Throughout the medieval era relations between Islam and Christendom had been mostly confrontational and bloody with intermittent businesslike and tactical friendliness. With the dawn of the modern era, European antipathy towards Islam and Muslims continued but in different form and mostly through literary output of Orientalists. From late 20th century however, Islamophobia became more virulent with political Islam becoming aggressive and violent in parts of the Muslim world.

When compared to this tumultuous history in the West, the arrival of Islam and settlement of its followers in Buddhist Sri Lanka circa 8th century, and the atmosphere of peace and amity, which prevailed for more than a millennium between the settlers who eventually became indigenized and the original hosts, was an unparalleled episode and unique chapter in world history.  The relations between Muslims and Buddhists were so tightly knit and friendly, which prompted one of the Buddhist monarchs of that era to write to his Egyptian counterpart that Sri Lanka was Egypt and Egypt was Sri Lanka. Unlike in Europe where there was Islamophobia, in Medieval Buddhist Sri Lanka there was a sort of Islamophilia. How then did this cordiality and coexistence between the two break down in the 21st century, even though signs of it were evident during the last quarter of the 20th? How did those signs miss the attention of governments and community leaders of that time and what impact did it have on the Buddhist psyche, which eventually succumbed to the Western disease?

To start with, the dawn of the modern era in 16th century marked a disaster to Buddhist Sri Lanka. The arrival of the Portuguese was to drag the country into the power struggles of Europe. From then on and until the next four and a half centuries the country came under Christian rule and Buddhism was pushed to the periphery. Although the Kandyan Kingdom remained independent till 1815, that too fell under the might of British colonialists in that year and the whole country was under foreign rule till 1948. There is no doubt that these conquests by alien powers and the foremost place accorded to Christianity wounded deeply the Buddhist soul. Anagarika Dharmapala’s Buddhist awakening movement in late 19th century was an attempt to recover at least some of the pride lost under colonialism. The Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim riots of 1915 was an unfortunate part of that attempt, but its scars were healed in no time and Buddhist-Muslim amity returned with vengeance. There was no sign of any Islamophobia after that.

With independence in 1948 and introduction of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, government power, after roughly four and a half centuries, once again fell into the hands of Buddhists. It was a moment for reparation of damages and recovery of losses incurred during the colonial era. Politics from then on, in essence, was a story of how Buddhism tried to regain its lost lustre and power in Sri Lanka. The wounded soul was in need of a heeling spirit and it came through politics. Politicization of Buddhism began in earnest and Ven. Walpola Rahula introduced the concept of political Bhikkhu and instilled the idea that ethnic Sinhalese and their language have no other country to survive and prosper except Sri Lanka, and that position should not be compromised under any circumstance. The Citizenship Act, Catholic Action and nationalization of schools, Sinhala Only Language Bill, fight against federalism, Sinhalese colonization of the dry zone, and the civil war – they all mark different phases in the growth of political Buddhism.

For a while, the civil war and LTTE’s fight for a separate state rekindled medieval fears of a possible Tamil invasion from the subcontinent. But the comprehensive victory over and total annihilation of LTTE by an overwhelmingly Buddhist army and navy, added a sense of pride to the Buddhist psyche. The strategic neutrality of India in that war evaporated that fear and planted instead the hope that Sri Lanka would hence be transformed into a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Yet, the same psyche also saw during the war years a new menace cropping up from another quarter, the Muslim community.

The war years in Sri Lanka coincided with the explosive aftermath of an Islamized (not Islamic) revolution in Iran in 1979, which heralded a new and aggressive wave of Islamic awakening with the slogan, “Islam the Answer”, and a popular demand for an Islamic World Order. The newly found oil wealth was assumed to provide the economic base for this grandiose project. But the problem with this awakening was that it was all inspired by a revolution from a Shia Muslim country, which deposed an American backed monarch and threatening to export its revolution to the Sunni sector in the Middle East. The West panicked, feared for the instability that such an awakening would cause if allowed to enter oil rich Arab Middle East, and searched for ways and means of dousing the Iranian revolutionary fire. It found an answer in Saudi Arabia. If Iran was revolutionary with Khomeinism, Saudi Arabia was ultra-conservative with Wahhabism – an 18th century exclusivist and intolerant religious ideology. Saudis were therefore given license to spread their doctrine wherever they wished, including the West. With the claim that Wahhabism represented the purest form of Islam, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity not only to Wahhabize the Sunni World, but also to make Saudi Arabia the unchallenged champion of Islam and Muslims.

In Sri Lanka, JR’s open economy opened its doors to Wahhabi penetration. Neither the national leadership nor its Muslim subordinates at that time had any clue as to how Wahhabism was going to destroy the millennium old amity between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Wahhabi orthodoxy not only created intra-religious battles within local Muslims, but also effected changes in their inter-personal, and inter-social relations in the name of religious purity and cultural identity. Arabized attire, ostentatious and crowded religious gatherings, sudden increase in the number of mosques and madrasas, use of loudspeakers to call for daily prayers, business signboards in Arabic, date palms to beautify streets, open insistence on halal food and drinks, frequent visits of foreign speakers to address local audience on orthodox Islam, and above all the formation of a separate Muslim political party: all this, while creating a mentality among Muslims that drew them towards self-alienation, made the Buddhist community suspicious of increasing Islamization. The Buddhist psyche having received several shocks in the past became nervous about another, and this time, from a close ally. The Easter massacre of 2019, with which the Sri Lankan Muslim community had nothing to do with, was a gift to political Buddhists to show to their community that their suspicion about Islam was rightly placed. Thus, the reasons for the current wave of Islamophobia driven by political Buddhism must be understood within this context.

To go back to the pre-1980 normality in Buddhist-Muslim relations there need to be serious self-introspection on both sides, and more importantly from the Muslim side, because Muslims would be the ultimate losers in any confrontation. Of course, politicians from either group would like the current status quo continues to make political capital out of it. But the country cannot afford this calamity. However, to treat this situation simply as a law and order problem, in the way the ruling regime appears to do, will make it worse and not better.


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