Essays on Sinhala Buddhist Extremism towards the Muslims in Sri Lanka

 Iselin Frydenlund** presenting a review article in the Journal of Religion and Violence, Vol. 6, No. 2, 201830 … reviewing Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka. Edited by John Clifford Holt. Oxford University Press, 2016. 254 pp. Hardcover $105.00 /ISBN: 9780190624378. Paperback $35.00 / ISBN: 9780190624385.

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, attacks on religious minorities have grown in number and intensity in Buddhist majority Sri Lanka. While the civil war had strong religious overtones—with Buddhist nationalist monks strongly opposing Tamil nationalist demands for a separate state—religion was never at the heart of the conflict. Rather, Sri Lanka’s civil war was the result of failed nation-building, exclusivist ethnic nationalisms, uneven resource distribution and political instability. There certainly was an overlap between ethnic and religious identities, but the fault lines followed ethnic rather than religious affiliation, and ethnic loyalties were given primacy over religious ones, resulting, for example, in a division of the Catholic Church along ethnic lines. Sri Lanka’s Muslims—who speak Tamil, but self-identify as a distinct ethnoreligious group—did not fit into either the Sinhala or the Tamil nationalist projects, and only as late as the 1980s sought their own political representation, through the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Generally speaking, the Muslim urban elites pragmatically have aligned themselves with the Sinhala political elites, making the Muslims closer to the Sinhala and Buddhist dominated state than to Tamil separatism. As Haniffa points out in this volume, the “Muslims have historically self-identified as the ‘good minority’” (168).

With this in mind, the strong anti-Muslim sentiments from 2012 onwards came as a surprise to many. The recent wave of attacks on religious minorities indicates, moreover, that communal conflicts in Sri Lanka have taken on a clearer “religious” articulation, as the groups under attack define themselves with reference to religious orientation and not by ethno-linguistic nationalist aspirations. This also includes Christian evangelical churches, but Holt’s decision to limit this volume to Muslim minorities is justified as the anti-Muslim sentiments have been massive. Given that Sri Lanka does not have a historical legacy of serious Buddhist-Muslim conflict, the current wave of extreme anti-Muslim sentiments and anti-Muslim violence begs for scholarly attention to re-orientations in Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, as well as to new Muslim identity formations—and the relations between the two—within Sri Lanka’s social fabric. This volume, then, written by American and Sri Lankan scholars, offers a much-needed analysis of various dimensions of this new conflict pattern.

Through eight chapters, in addition to Holt’s introduction, the book presents an important effort at offering new data and perspectives to the emerging academic field of Buddhist-Muslim relations, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in the wider region. As indicated by the title, the book addresses Buddhist anti-Muslim sentiments and violence through the lens of “religious conflict.” However, Holt warns the reader that this book does not identify a specific Buddhist rationale for aggression against Muslims, pointing out that radical Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) make very few references to Buddhist moral traditions and buddhavacana (“Buddha word”) to legitimate their anti-Muslim stances. In his introduction Holt rightly emphasizes the economic and political motivational factors for post-war Buddhist radicalism, although, in this reviewer’s opinion, the premise that it is possible to analytically separate “Buddhism” as a moral category from “Buddhism” as a social, political and economic force deserves more scrutiny. The book importantly places the current rise of anti-Muslim sentiments within a specific political setting of postwar Sinhala triumphalism and increased authoritarianism of the Rajapaksa regime, which spread its protective wings over groups such as the BBS. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s notorious political culture of fear, rumor and impunity for the perpetrators of violence marginalizes alternative voices that challenge anti-Muslim hate speech in the public domain.

The first four chapters provide historical perspectives on Muslim and Sinhala Buddhist identity formations since British colonialism. In the opening chapter, Nuhman offers a comprehensive overview of Sinhala Buddhist, Tamil and Muslim identity politics. To Nuhman, these identity politics are ultimately not about “religion,” and provides a strong argument for why religion should be understood only as a “surface manifestation of socio-economic and political competition” (19). Also, the chapter introduces the general reader to internal Muslim developments, including recent religious impulses from global Islamic piety movements such as the Tabligh Jamaat. This adds a much- nuance to the interplay between “Buddhist extremists” and “Muslim minorities” (as given in the title), as it includes transnational perspectives on Sri Lanka’s Muslim minorities. Along similar lines, Dennis B. McGilvray’s chapter offers an excellent historical analysis of shifting “Muslim” identities, from a particular caste group, to “Islamic Tamils,” to a more racialized identity as Arab-descendant “Moors,” to the current religious identity as “Muslims.” Contingently constructed, these various aspects of “Muslimness” have, as McGilvray shows, both positive and negative consequences for people who identify as Muslims on the island.

Moving away from the historical trajectories of Muslim identity formations to the historical conditions for Buddhist monastic politics, Jonathan Young offers an important argument about Buddhist monks’ political engagements. Focusing on the pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary settings, he argues against common misconceptions that the venture of Buddhist monks into politics is the result of modern re-orientations against “traditional Buddhist practices.” While I could not agree more, the chapter would benefit from a clearer analysis of why and how understanding monastic engagements in “virtuous governmentality” is relevant for current anti-Muslim sentiments. Elaborating on the role of anti-Muslim sentiments in Buddhist nationalist politics, Benjamin Schonthal in his chapter offers a valuable overview of three distinct phases of Buddhist nationalism. He convincingly shows how the BBS does not represent an entirely new project, but one that builds on “older discursive templates” (98) of the need to protect Buddhism as a social and material entity in this world (buddhasasana). While previous configurations focused on Christian educational dominance, or later, on Tamil separatism, current Buddhist nationalist formations identify Muslims as the big threat. As Schonthal rightly points out, this is framed as a legitimate economic grievance against increased economic inequalities and global capitalism.

The next two chapters deal with the modus operandi of the BBS. [Tudor] Silva points to the importance of rumor, transmitted through both oral and written mediums, in creating moral panic against the “Other.” Through a detailed discourse analysis of BBS anti-Muslim messages, he shows how the BBS constructs Muslim communities as “foreign invaders,” who through alleged demographic/sexual, economic, and cultural “invasion” threaten the Sinhala race and the Buddhist religion. In his contribution, Friedrich provides a detailed study of how the BBS capitalizes on the controversy around the sacred site at Devangala. As with so many other controversies in the north and east of the island, minority presence in and around heritage sites is regarded as a threat to the perceived intrinsically “Buddhist” quality of space. With great attention to detail, Friedrich shows how political conditions matter for which claims to antiquity are ratified, and how Muslim claims to historicity are not deemed of interest by the Sri Lankan state.

most serious anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka in recent years was the so-called Aluthgama riots in 2014. Many commentators have compared Aluthgama to the July 1983 killings of Tamils in Colombo. In her important attempt at understanding the Aluthgama violence, Haniffa convincingly shows us how—in spite of similarities with the 1983 anti-Tamil violence in terms of systematic organization and state complicity—the Aluthgama riots were a “political act of a different order” (170). The main difference, she points out, is that in contrast to the 1983 anti-Tamil violence, the Aluthgama violence did not occur during simmering separatist nationalism and Tamil guerilla warfare. Although anti-Muslim critics cry out about threats from “jihadi terrorists,” calls for political Islam and/or Islamic militancy are virtually non-existent in the island. Therefore, Haniffa points out, in the case of Aluthgama, it was no longer necessary to have an evident political reason for violent action. This insight is deeply worrisome.

In the last and eighth chapter, Holt offers the reader an explanation for violence against minorities, which, interestingly, deviates from his previous position on this question, as well as from the economically oriented contributions of Nuhman, Schonthal, Silva and Haniffa in this volume. Holt makes the argument that there is a particular “religious syntax,” which cannot be separated from contemporary interethnic violence. In making an anti-reductionist claim for the importance of symbolic meaning, he claims that ritual time and space can be “existentially constitutive” (201) as explicatory factors sui generis. For instance, the 1915 Muslim-Buddhist violence is conceptualized as a collision of “ritual cultures” (202) and competition for sacred space. Holt convincingly demonstrates how political projects are communicated through a religious language, but shows less empirical evidence for how this syntax in itself contributes to violence, or why it does not always lead to violence. Consequently, his concept of religious syntax should not be understood as a causal explication for violence, but rather as a call for attention to symbolic language for the articulation of violence. Given that Holt in the introduction argues against a Buddhist rationale for anti-Muslim sentiments, this religious syntax, as I read it, is more to be seen as an empty vessel, or structure, but this remains an undertheorized point in the text and is in need of further elaboration. One possibility for further exploration would have been to dig deeper into the relevance of traditional Buddhist tropes, such as protection of the buddhasasana, in producing violent emotions, thereby contributing to a specifically Buddhist violent syntax.

While not providing a single coherent perspective on Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Sri Lanka, the volume’s chapters, read together, provide crucial insights into the multi-layered and complex aspects of Muslim-Buddhist relations. It is to the volume’s credit that it also recognizes that the recent Muslim-Buddhist conflict leaves the Muslim communities with some puzzles to be addressed regarding their self-identification and belonging on the island. As McGilvray points out, perhaps a helpful strategy would be to emphasize their Sri Lankan roots rather than looking to the Middle East, or to “Global Islam.” The new round of anti-Muslim riots in February–March 2018 shows that anti-Muslim violence was not only the product of Sinhala triumphalism after the end of the war in 2009. Rather, it seems to have taken on new intensity as the 2020 presidential elections approach. Buddhist-Muslim conflicts therefore are more likely than not to mark Sri Lankan social and political life in the years to come. This volume is an important first step in mapping out Buddhist-Muslim conflict in contemporary Sri Lanka, and future research needs to take this first step further in looking for comparative patterns across the Buddhist world, and furthermore, to address these issues from regional or even global perspectives. The book will be of interest to anyone working on contemporary Buddhism, Muslim minorities, Buddhist-Muslim relations, Buddhist radicalism, “Islamophobia,” and religion and violence more generally.

** Iselin Frydenlund is at the MF Norwegian School of Theology

LIMITED BIBLIOGRAPHY added by The Editor, Thuppahi;

Gerald H Peiris 2017 “A Study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka,” 14 September 2017,


Ali, Ameer 2015 “Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 35: 486-502

Gunasekera, Suranjith, Silva, Kalinga Tudor & Saifdeen, N. T. F. (undated) Interplay between competition for scarce resources and identity issues in the May 2001 Riots of Mawanella

ICES 2015 The Chronic and the Acute: Post-War Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, http: _Report _Final

Law & Society Trust 2015 Where have all the neighbours gone? Aluthgama Riots and its aftermath, A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela,

Peiris G. H. 2006 “The Muttur Tragedy: A Re-examination,” The Island of 22 November 2006.

SLMC 2015 Report intended to be submitted to the UN High-Commission on Human Rights, titled Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, January 2013 – December 3013. See,

Zuhair, Ayesha 2016 Dynamics of Sinhalese Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Post-War Sri Lanka,  

OTHER WORKS …. partial and incomplete listing

Shamara Wettimuny 2019 Anti-Muslim Violence Present and Past,” 14 July 2019,

Ameer Ali, ACM 2019aThe Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,” May 5, 2019,

Ameer Ali. ACM 2019b “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 …. and still proceeding,” 6 May 2019,

Michael Roberts 2019Slippages: Where “Muslim” is an Ethnic Label as Well as a Religious Typification,”   3 May 2019,



Filed under accountability, atrocities, Bodu Bala Sena, chauvinism, communal relations, conspiracies, cultural transmission, discrimination, disparagement, doctoring evidence, economic processes, fundamentalism, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Islamic fundamentalism, landscape wondrous, legal issues, life stories, news fabrication, photography, population, power politics, religiosity, religious nationalism, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

3 responses to “Essays on Sinhala Buddhist Extremism towards the Muslims in Sri Lanka

  1. San De Silva

    Great article, Michael!
    I enjoy your excellent blog – one of my favorite blogs!

  2. sach

    Iselin Frydenlund, one of the workers in the Norwegian liberal peace industry should have consulted Norwegian foreign office officials about sponsoring BBS

  3. sach

    Addition: Those who claim to have researched on anti Muslim sentiment among the Sinhala people should investigate the whole world. Then they will see there is a rise in anti Muslim sentiment around the world. One of the starting points of the anti Muslim wave which targetted civilians happened in Norway. When a Norwegian nationalist killed a bunch of Muslims. Nothing like this has happened in Sri Lanka. What you see in Sri Lanka , the anti Muslim sentiment that you see in a global level has reached Sri Lanka.

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