Islamophobia in Sri Lanka or the Sterilization Obsession

Coined in the Runnymede Trust’s seminal report in 1997, the neologism of “Islamophobia” has been endlessly used to express the irrational hostility towards Muslims and Islam. This antagonism has been a global phenomenon on the rise, especially after the 9/11 in which the Western world realised of its vulnerability to an extent never experienced before. It was then when a policy of ‘othering’ started to take shape towards Muslim communities. The rise of the radical right in many countries in the world, from China to Sweden, has enormously contributed to targeting Muslims as the potential or actual enemy to sideline or scapegoat for national ills.

Post-war Sri Lanka has not been an alien to such a global trend. Once the war that confronted Sinhalese and Tamils for 26 years was over, the Muslims replaced the Tamils as the official enemy of the nation by the extreme nationalist Sinhalese Buddhists who saw themselves as the self-proclaimed custodians of a culture they perceived was in constant danger due to the threat of external actors, formerly the Tamils and then the Muslims in the post-war era. The Muslims – also involved in traditionally historic conflicts with the Sinhalese, such as the riots in 1915 – were not considered as a menace until the Tamils were not thought of as a danger anymore and the majority jumped on the bandwagon of increasing Islamophobia in the world in the post-9/11 context. The demographics of both ethnic groups establish quite a big difference between them, since the majority Sinhalese Buddhists make up 74% of the country and the Muslim community as the second minority, barely represent a 9% of the population.

The landscape described above is sadly comparable to plenty of other countries, but, in Sri Lanka, Islamophobia has acquired a unique grotesque twist. What makes the discourse of Islamophobia in the island different from other countries is the recurrent mention to ‘sterilisation’ as one of the presumed main Muslim strategies to take over the world or, in the particular case of Sri Lanka, to end up with the Sinhalese Buddhists. The protagonist role given to sterilisation was at the foreground at least twice in the last two years, in Ampara 2018 and in Kurunegala 2019.

The first of these accusations happened on 26 February 26, 2018 in Ampara. The Muslim owner of a small restaurant was accused of dropping sterilisation pills (wanda pethi) in the food he sold to his customers. In what was clearly a coerced confession in very broken Sinhala released by police, the man admitted having served them. This was followed by a WhatsApp message spread by civil society actors stating that 23,000 sterilisation pills have been distributed by a pharmacist in Ampara and ending with the rhetorical but intentional question: “Who want to sterilise the Sinhalese?”. As a result, the mobs attacked the restaurant as well as several shops and hotels in the area. This was followed by a government decision to ban social media, shut down schools and declare the state of emergency. The riots spread to the Kandy district and ended on 10 March – resulting in some dead, some injured and a serious economic loss for hundreds of families.
On 23 May 2019, the Sri Lankan newspaper, Divaina, published that 4,000 Sinhala Buddhist women had been secretly sterilised by a Muslim doctor after delivery through caesarean sections. The name of the doctor was not given in the article – although it was quickly circulated on social media. While the identity remained initially unclear, he was claimed to be a member of the National Thowheed Jamath, one of two local Islamist groups that were responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people a month earlier. On 24 May, Dr. Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi, a gynaecologist from the Kurunegala Hospital, was arrested under Sri Lankan terrorism laws on accusations of acquiring properties with money of a suspicious origin while at the same time police called the 600 women who have lodged “complaints” about Dr. Shafi. It was later known that many of them just wanted to check they were fine (i.e. not sterilised) after having heard the alarmist rumours about the doctor who had assisted them. Though the process was long, complex and in many instances full of obscure factors, an investigation by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) which was presented in court hearings found that the gynaecologist had not performed any sterilisations. Indeed, some of the complainants had become pregnant several months later.

The findings by the police on the potential sterilisation cases showed a very clear pattern: Dr. Shafi was chosen as a scapegoat, a Muslim doctor in a country which was trying to get over the unbearable pain inflicted by Islamist terrorism. As we mentioned formerly, what’s peculiar is the chronic use of sterilisation as one of the common tropes associated to Islamophobia in Sri Lanka. If we stop to think about it, sterilisation goes further than conspiracies about birth rates. Sterilisation implies an agentive process in which subjects don’t just make use of nature to reach their goals (however evil those could be) but in which they act secretly on other subjects’ bodies against their will to prevent nature from doing its function. There is nothing illegal in having children, not even in begetting many children but there is definitely illegality in blocking or altering the reproductive capacity of citizens.

In both contexts mentioned, therefore, Muslims were depicted to be potentially dangerous for the country since they could break the dreams of parenthood of plenty of Sri Lankans and, ultimately, lead to the extermination of an ethno-religious group. That fear inducing strategy deeply permeated an extremely sensitive society devastated by the 2019 Easter attack. The politization of the events attempted to blame a Muslim community who has to bear the stigma of being constantly under the scrutiny of the rest of citizens as potential terrorists. As months went on, new socio-political or economic scandals have been brought to the fore but the reputations of two Muslim men (among others who suffered irreplaceable losses in reprisal attacks) were damaged forever.

Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in English and German Philologies, University of Granada. See her profile here.

© Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).