The brutal civil war that ended nearly four years ago is now the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism from abroad. The ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Commission at Geneva is about to vote on a resolution initiated by the US, demanding an international investigation into the fate of tens of thousands of Tamils said to be killed in the last days of the fighting in the north of the island.
Against this backdrop, it is odd that the government is doing so little to clamp down on the anti-Muslim campaign. Should it gain support and traction, the results could be very bad news. Muslims are mostly concentrated in three areas: in and around Galle and Colombo, and in the coastal areas of the north-east. The latter are mostly poor fishermen, while urban Muslims are heavily represented in business and the professions.
Muslims in the north had been subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Tigers in the early nineties. Thousands were driven southward from their homes and farms in the mostly Tamil north.
One factor that is probably driving the anti-Muslim campaign is envy. Urban Muslims have fared relatively well over the years, and have cornered the lucrative gemstone market. Others have gone into real estate and construction. Many have made a name for themselves in the legal profession. And while a few have gone into politics.
A number of Muslim families in Galle and Matra pride themselves on their descent from Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka centuries ago. Others have come from the Indian coast. There is a small and wealthy Bohra community in Colombo. Many northern Muslims descended from Malays who settled along the coast.
Thus, Sri Lankan Muslims represent an ethnic mix who have helped in creating prosperity and diversity. So far, at least, they have got along well with their neighbours. However, despite centuries of living together, integration has been slow. Like most minorities, Muslims tend to stick together, maintaining their dress code and diet. Women usually wear some form of hijab, and many Muslim men wear beards and skull caps.
Even liberal Sinhalese accuse Muslims of not keeping their streets clean, and generally staying aloof from the mainstream. Many are puzzled by how and why anti-Muslim feelings have spread so quickly. After all, after the end of the civil war in 2009, it had been widely assumed that the restoration of peace would heal the ethnic wounds opened during decades of conflict. Sadly, the government has made little effort to reach out to a defeated and demoralised Tamil community.
One theory is that the triumphant Sinhalese fringe elements on the extreme right need a fresh target for their xenophobia. Some in the business community are eyeing the assets of their successful Muslim competitors. Politicians are seeking to tap into the strong sense of Buddhist identity that was pumped up during the last stages of the war.