The place of blasphemy in Sri Lanka has always been at a crossroads, where the majoritarian or dominant narrative of Buddhism intersects with counter-narratives of various other religious minorities. The purview of this account will exclusively be confined to the blasphemy through Sinhalese-Muslim ethnoreligious relations, which are pervasive in the country.
It is necessary to revisit blasphemy in Sri Lanka through the scope of Sinhalese-Muslim ethnoreligious relations, given the unfortunate tension that has emerged between the ethnoreligious communities being discussed here. Within the given context, the idea of blasphemy becomes more layered and convoluted since the way blasphemy operates has its unique characteristics. Sri Lanka is a majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhist state even though its official and legal denotation says otherwise, and this is also a phenomenon that is common in the region of South Asia where there are similar nation-states with majoritarian ethnoreligious identities.
In a majoritarian nation-state like Sri Lanka, where the dominant narrative is shaped by Sinhalese Buddhist ethnoreligious sentiments, anything that would be a possible threat to this dominance would be lethally attacked. This does not mean the dominant religious narrative and its sentiments are never challenged. Of course they are challenged, but such challenging voices often seem to be offbeat and might not be able to outwit dominant narratives due to their position of power. This is the reason why many Buddhist monks can get away with making very disparaging and discriminatory statements about different sectors of the society. For example, a range of very common insensitive statements are Islamophobic, anti-Tamil or otherwise anti-minority in general, misogynistic, anti-LGBTIQ+, violence-instigating sentiments, and so on. In a nation-state like Sri Lanka, where there is a very sturdy dominant religious narrative rooted in its pre-modern era before colonization, any constructive and insightful criticism might be negated and invalidated – without any careful consideration whatsoever – as an assault towards the supremacy and legitimacy of the so-called Buddhist hegemony. Consequently, reprisals from those indoctrinated by Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony could go to any lengths to prosecute any seen as perilous, including the voices of Muslims and other ethnoreligious minorities.
The Sri Lankan Civil War, which was fought from 1983 to 2009 by the government of Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers), came to an end when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. Ever since, any minority ethnoreligious community that demanded their rights or voiced complaints about discrimination became a threat to the Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony – or at least that is what such hegemonic forces wanted to portray. The Sinhalese Buddhist hegemonic forces in post-war Sri Lanka did not stop there; they continued to attack minority religions, specifically Islam and Muslims in the country. This line of argument can be supported by the episodic communal violence against Muslims that has taken place since the end of the war. For example, a spate of anti-Muslim riots occurred in 2014, 2018, and 2019, which was in retaliation of the Easter bombings.
This hostility surfaced and resurfaced in different ways. The Islamic theocratic institution was repeatedly denounced by the dominant Buddhist theocratic institution of the country. Sometimes even fundamental Islamic principles were blatantly disrespected while the majoritarian state was turning a blind eye. For example, the attire of Muslim women were criticized by Sinhalese Buddhist commoners as well as agents of the Buddhist hegemonic forces. One of the most serious allegations was that certain attires commonly worn by Muslim women in Sri Lanka (also Muslim women around the world) that conforms to Islamic standards of modesty, such as Hijab, Burqa, and Abaya, were cited as a form of oppression imposed on Muslim women. This kind of crass criticism is a boorish attack towards the Islamic standard of modesty and piety.
This ideological premise has been built on a few foundations; one of the main ones referred to Islam as a conservative religious philosophy that has a contradictory existence in contemporary times. In other words, the hegemonic Buddhist theocracy claims that the Islamic religious institution is un-modern and archaic. Another dimension of this discourse is that Islam has never gone through a phase of modernization in Sri Lanka, as the kind of reforms that Buddhism went through in the 19th century British Ceylon. This leads to asking whether hegemonic Buddhism in Sri Lanka is modern? Indeed the current form of hegemonic Buddhism that exists in the country is a result of what it had to go through in the past: Buddhist reforms in the 19th century and the decline of the feudal system certainly led to what Buddhism is now. Though Buddhism in Sri Lanka went through certain reforms or a phase of modernization, it does not substantiate claims that only progressive changes resulted from those stages. The 19th-century Buddhist revivalism stemmed from the national Buddhist movement as a response to British Colonization and Christian missionaries. Though this movement revitalized, modernized, as well as politicized (though Buddhism had always been politicized in different ways throughout the history) Buddhism, at the same time this movement expressed bitterness towards minority ethnoreligious groups. This means certain revivalist and modernist evolutions that happened in Sri Lankan Buddhism over the years are not necessarily progressive because some contributed to the ethnoreligious cleavage between communities. As a symptom of this cleavage, we see that blasphemy is disregarded when the victim belongs to an ethnic minority religion and the perpetrators belong to the hegemonic religion. In such situations, there is neither a perpetrator nor wrongdoing.
Another important element of the premise is the condescending attitude of the hegemonic Buddhist institution that asserts it is modernist and liberal compared to Islam. This could be deconstructed concerning the same example which was being used above: the attires which are worn by Muslim women to conform to Islamic standards of modesty and piety. The hegemonic Buddhist institution and its followers often blasphemously call out Islamic faith for being patriarchal and misogynistic. This is a conclusion often arrived at by them only after a sloppy superficial appraisal of Islam. The Islamic principles of modesty and piety would often be misinterpreted, and Muslim women would often be conveniently stereotyped as passive, oppressed victims of Islamic patriarchy. However, the implication of such blasphemous statements is that Buddhists are the ultimate unofficial guards and liberators of women in this Sinhalese Buddhist nation-state. Hegemonic Buddhist forces take a paradoxically hypocritical stand on the issue of women’s clothing; on the one hand, they berate Muslim women for appropriating Middle Eastern articles of clothing that cover head to toe, and on the other hand, it is the very same hegemonic religious force that tends to be the moral police of Sinhalese Buddhist women who wear so-called provocative Westernized clothing. The question to be asked of the hegemonic Buddhist institution is, what do they expect women to wear if they are not supposed to cover or reveal?
The hegemonic Buddhist forces are keen to propagate their blasphemous sentiments against Muslims in the guise of empowering slogans to liberate Muslims whom they believe are the victims of their faith, Islam. The same forces proclaim that they are not against Islam or moderate traditional Muslims in the country, but it is their responsibility to fight Islamic fundamentalism. In fulfilling that responsibility, hegemonic Buddhist forces can take another faith for granted and be sacrilegious towards it.
The issue of blasphemy against Islam can be looked at from another perspective as well. The hegemonic Buddhism in Sri Lanka tends to have a very limited understanding of Islam, viewing Islam as a faith of singular form all across the world. But this idea of majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhists becomes somewhat convoluted because, on the one hand, they equate Islamic forces in Sri Lanka with the kind of Islam that is prevailing in the Middle East. At the same time, they force local Muslims not to be inspired by the pan-Islamic world outside Sri Lanka, and this is often done at the cost of questioning the legitimacy of Muslims within the country. Even in Sri Lanka, like anywhere else in the world, there are multiple forms of Islam, ranging from the most conservative form of Islam to the most liberal forms of Islam. Therefore, it is beyond ignorant to consider all Muslims or Islamic philosophy as a singular monolithic and uniform category. The Islamic philosophy, as well as Muslim communities, are much more layered, textured, and nuanced than the stereotypical understanding of them by the hegemonic Buddhist forces.
On a concluding note, what can be said is that blasphemy becomes even more convoluted when it is intersected with inter-ethnoreligious relations, as in the case of Buddhist-Islamic relations in Sri Lanka. This account specifically examined how blasphemy was moulded by hegemonic and counter-hegemonic power relations between Buddhism and Islam. Thus, when one religious institution is in a position of power, it exercises its power by propagating blasphemous sentiments against counter-hegemonic minority religious institutions. Towards the end of the civil war in 2009, Sinhalese-Buddhist hegemony achieved its success. The losing LTTE was a symbolic representation of the declining significance of Tamil-Hindu counter-hegemony, and as soon as the civil war ended, Islamic religious institutions became the next target of the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. Besides episodic anti-Islamic communal violence, there were never continuous conflicts between these communities. However, this situation has changed since 2009 when anti-Islamic communal conflicts started becoming frequent unlike ever before; such anti-Islamic riots were often instigated by dissemination of hateful or blasphemous statements targeting Muslims.
Neranjan Maddumage is a social researcher working in the civil society sector in the areas of gender and sexuality, LGBTIQ+ community, anti-Muslim communal violence, film and media studies etc. He is currently involved in civil society LGBTIQ+ community research and contributes as a resource person to awareness programs on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression). Neranjan holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the South Asian University, New Delhi, India, where he was a recipient of the President’s Scholarship, which was the highest scholarship awarded to Master’s students based on their academic performances.