Anti-Muslim campaign causes fears of a new wave of ethnic violence in war-torn Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A red-robed Buddhist monk calmly picked up stones and hurled them at a security camera. Then, as police looked on, his followers smashed up a popular, Muslim-owned clothing store.

Last month’s attack on the Fashion Bug chain near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, filmed by a local television station whose cameraman was attacked by the mob, was the most public outburst in a growing anti-Muslim campaign by Buddhist nationalist groups in the island nation.

The escalation in attacks and anti-Muslim rhetoric has caused fears of a new wave of ethnic violence in a country still recovering from a quarter-century civil war between the government, controlled by ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists, and a mainly Hindu ethnic Tamil rebel group.

“They just finished hunting the Tamils, without solving any of the issues, and now they are starting on the Muslim hunt. Virtually all minority communities are being threatened,” said Muslim political leader Azad Salley.

The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by Buddhist monks and is fast gaining ground among youth through raging speeches and ludicrous conspiracy theories spread on social media.

The leaders of the campaign complain that Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up almost 75 percent of the country’s 20 million people and control the government and the military, are under threat from the 9 percent of the country that is Muslim. They say Muslims dominate the nation’s businesses, are fomenting religious fundamentalism and are conspiring to demographically take over the country by increasing their birthrate while secretly sterilizing the Sinhalese.

A Muslim volunteer group, which does not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals, has documented 33 anti-Muslim incidents since September 2011. They include at least five attacks on Muslim places of worship, attacks on businesses and an episode where Muslim students at a government agriculture school were served pork, which their religion forbids them from eating.

Buddhist nationalists demanded Muslim religious leaders stop issuing “Halal” certificates, which certify that local products comply with Islamic tenets, charging that the fees paid for certification were passed onto unwitting — often non-Muslim— consumers and used to construct mosques. Certification was made free of cost last month.

They have also campaigned for laws aimed at the Muslim community. One would stop women from wearing a veil.

“I have a fundamental right when I go in the street to see the face of a person,” said Dilantha Withanage, an official of the prominent Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force.

Another proposed law would stop Muslim men from being able to marry up to four women.

“What we are fighting for is a single legal system in this country. If a Muslim has the right to marry four wives let the Buddhists also have that,” he said.

Sri Lanka allows citizens to marry according to the customs of the four main religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Withanage denied having an anti-Islam agenda, saying his group wanted only for Buddhism to get the credit for building up Sri Lankan civilization. Other religions can still be practiced, he said.

The attack on Fashion Bug came a week after a monk accused the company and other Muslim businesses of committing “sexual crimes” against Sinhalese female employees and converting them to Islam by marrying them to Muslim employees. The mob stormed the store on the pretext that a 15-year-old girl had been raped inside, an accusation that proved to be false.

Another monk told a rally that another Muslim-owned clothing store was giving free candy to Sinhalese women customers with ingredients that caused miscarriages and infertility. He said men’s belts sold by these companies caused kidney diseases and damaged customers’ testicles.

Text messages were sent en masse accusing another Muslim company of manufacturing sanitary napkins that turned women barren. The claims were passed around on Facebook and Twitter as well.

The campaign has frightened Muslims, who suspect the government is not just refusing to protect them, but is actively fomenting the tension, a charge the government denies.

Sri Lanka’s national telecom provider started selling the Buddhist Force theme song as a ring tone to help raise funds for the group. Following protests, the company apologized for any “emotional distress” any community might feel — but refused to withdraw the tone.

Suspicion that authorities were complicit grew after the police stood by and watched the Fashion Bug attack.

Amid criticism of police inaction, 17 suspects, including three monks, were brought to court. The court later released them, saying the parties arrived at an amicable settlement. The injured cameraman also withdrew his complaint, saying fighting his case might create social unrest.

The powerful defense secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, was recently a chief guest at a Buddhist Force event, where he defended the group.

“The venerable monks always came forward to protect our country, race, religion and culture. This effort is to bring them to a correct course, not to spread hatred,” he said.

Mohamed Saleem, a Muslim community worker in Colombo, called the defense secretary’s endorsement of an extremist group “worrying.”

“Are the Muslims equal citizens of this country or not?” he asked.

Presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake dismissed accusations the government was involved in an anti-Muslim campaign as the “usual finger pointing” by the opposition.

“I need to emphasize the fact that from the beginning, the government has treated every community equally,” he said.

He said the government would not restrain anyone’s freedom of expression, but would take action if they violated the law

The Muslims, descended from Arab traders who came to the island more than a millennium ago, are considered a separate ethnic group. But they have had a relatively amicable history with the Sinhalese majority and were persecuted by Tamil rebels for siding with the state during the war.

Kusal Perera, a Sinhalese political analyst, said he believes the anti-Muslim campaign is aimed at distracting Sri Lankans from the rising cost of living and other contentious issues. Sinhalese traders have also seen an opportunity to “grab the market” dominated by Muslim businesses, he said.

Mohammed Thanis, a resident of the eastern town of Kantalai, says the government is more concerned about retaining the votes of its Sinhalese base rather than taking action against anti-Muslim forces.

Opposition politician Mujeebur Rahman said the Muslim community has so far been restrained in responding, but he feared what would happen when that patience ran out.

“If they try to react, it can flare up into a major clash,” he said.