If you have not been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean for the past couple of months, you've probably already heard about the recent tension growing in Sri Lanka over an official movement rising against Muslims. I'm not going to talk about what it might mean for the country, or go on a tirade against the government or against Sinhalese supremacists, because honestly I don't know enough yet about politics or our country's history for such an impressive critique.
What I will say is that I am genuinely frightened.
At first, I thought it was nothing, or rather that's what I wanted to believe, that it was just a small group of radical extremists who would soon be quelled by the majority of rational minded individuals that I wanted to believe make up most of Sri Lanka. Then I heard about a mosque or two being attacked. Then I heard about 'secret meetings' attended by about 500-1000 'true Buddhists' who believed Muslims were a threat to the country. Then I heard about friends of my friends who were posting anti-Muslim hate speech on their Facebook and starting up online groups against Muslims.
All along, I could hear my mind expressing its denial about it, saying 'no, it's fine, they're still a minority, if the rest of us are just vocal about our resistance and use the right amount of media, this thing will die out and we can forget it ever happened.' This is probably because all along I've been buffered by a circle of friends, online and off, Muslims and non-Muslims, who have been constantly expressing their revulsion and intolerance towards these anti-Muslim sentiments. While so many people around me were complaining about how their Sinhalese friends had suddenly 'turned' into intolerant racists, especially on Facebook, I (fortunately) could not say the same about a single friend of mine. But there is a whole other world outside my little social bubble.
Every day I hear about someone getting a new chainmail forward, someone starting up a new group, someone receiving a racial slur on the street - little tidbits of anti-Muslim feelings, only tidbits but together they form a big ominous shadow of some scary monster inside my head whose growl is getting louder and louder. Is the fear from my imagination or is it reality? I can't tell for sure. Right now, parallel to this is a counter-movement of people writing features in the newspapers, starting up online campaigns, setting up real life projects, to bring the communities together and to try and fight this thing. The numbers on either side are vague - nobody knows who is 'winning'. The government meanwhile has said that it is 'looking into it' and Muslim representatives in the government are 'in talks' with the Prezzy who himself has allegedly asked Bodu Bala Sena who is supposedly behind all this to put an end to it - not that any of that, at the end of the day, sounds very reassuring at all.
What are they so mad about? That the Muslims want to eat Halal meat? I've heard that a lot of this has its roots in false education - a lot of people, for example, don't even know what Halal means. It isn't a code name for some big bad plot to take over the country, it's just a simple religious ritual that takes place when an animal is killed for food, where a prayer to God is said and it is killed in as painless and as fast a way possible. If the problem is the fact that the animal is killed itself, then take it up with all the meat-eaters in the country, not just Muslims, but Burghers, Tamils and Sinhalese too. What bothers me is that we have not really done much to deserve such an anti-Muslim panic - some say Muslims are 'demanding' Halal certificates from certain restaurants or that they are labelling everything 'Halal' and unjustly taking control of the market by catering to Muslim customers - but these sound like such poor, ambiguous reasons for such an extreme movement as one that is spewing hate and intolerance and extolling racial supremacy.
I want to believe that Sri Lankans as a whole will not allow anything bad to happen to the Muslim community - that there will be enough media pressure, protest and hopefully some semblance of government intervention that can keep this at bay. But for the first time in my life, I'm terrified. A friend of mine said to me, 'There were countless innocent Tamils who faced extreme racism, were killed and displaced for years now - nobody spoke for them, so what makes you think anyone is going to stand up for you?' A friend got a chain-forward today that was supposed to be a dumb joke - it was an advertisement (nice Photoshop job I might add) of a 'Halal condom', that was 'dipped in Zam Zam' and 'would keep Satan away during intercourse', and the package was titled by an Arabic 'In the name of Allah the most Gracious the most Merciful' which I have been so accustomed to seeing on the covers of the Qur'aans we grew up reading from. I don't even know if this is part of the anti-Muslim hostility spreading in the country, it very well could just be a teenager's random prank in bad taste and could have nothing to do with it at all, but it scared me. I asked my friend if he said anything to the person who sent him the email, my friend told me he didn't and that it wouldn't make a difference anyway.
What I am afraid of is - if this does turn into a thing, and there is an active group walking through the streets and asking Muslims to leave their homes or else - will anybody stand by us and defend us? I know so many Sri Lankans do not approve of this thing, but none of us 'approved' of the cruelty that the Tamil community has had to face either, did that stop them from receiving it?
When I'm back home in May I want to be an active part of the movement that is removing misconceptions about the Muslim community and trying to battle this thing by promoting national togetherness, maybe even try to convert it into a strong collective media program that can rally the masses against it. A lot of people say I'm just being naive though. I get 'Racial conflict is an awkward thing to talk about on a mass media level, nobody's going to allow you, it's bad for the country's image' (exhibit A: I hear Ras Ceylon's pop song about Sri Lanka 'healing' after its civil war 'Heal Lanka' has been banned from the airwaves). or 'The government isn't doing anything to actively put an end to these racist groups and their meetings so they are probably complacent about it, they're not going to intervene and stop the shit from hitting the fan.' or 'This animosity has been going on since ever, a sequel to our last civil war that has been a long time coming, they won't stop till Sri Lanka is a pure Sinhalese nation.'
But then if I'm being naive, what's Plan B? Sit and wait and hope for the best? Terrorism to me has always been this thing on TV, with the soldiers with the guns and the dramatic pictures of children crying and homes half destroyed, even in our last civil war it barely touched me in my little suburban Colombo bubble of comfort, save for the checkpoints and reading in the papers about a bus that exploded. For the first time I feel like it has crossed into my house, because as we sit here and wait to see how this will unfold, I can sense in me and my family a vague feeling of foreboding, and terror.