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January 09, 2005

The AP and Religious Strife

The AP reports that:

Two hand grenades hurled in a clash between Christians and Hindus killed at least three people and wounded 37 in a part of eastern Sri Lanka where international aid workers are helping tsunami victims, police said.

No aid workers were injured or near the explosions, officials said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in Sri Lanka to see tsunami damage, was in Colombo at the time of the blast.


He said Christians were angry that Hindus had demolished a church and may have carried out the attack in retaliation.

Clashes between Hindus and Christians are rare since both groups belong the Tamil minority and believe they are oppressed by the country's Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Sri Lanka's east coast was ravaged by the Dec. 26 tsunami and more than 30,000 people have been killed nationwide with 800,000 displaced. International aid workers have been setting up camps and guarding against the spread of disease.

The Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting for two decades for a Tamil homeland, have both Hindus and Christians among their ranks.

About 76 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people are Sinhalese while Tamils make up 18 percent.

First of all, the AP's concern for UN aid workers is touching. While I certainly don't want to see anyone killed, I have to wonder if, had UN workers been killed or injured, that august organization would have cut and run as quickly as they did in Iraq, or have whined about the US Navy not providing sufficient security.

But what really strikes me about this report is the difference between how the AP is reporting this religious violence, and how it reports Muslim-inspired violence. Contrary to popular opinion, there is such a thing as Hindu militancy. There's not much of it, and, to the best of my knowledge, there's no internal need within Hinduism to convert the world. So they make mischief by taking down churches and mosques on Hindu holy sites, and burning Valentine's Day cards. None of which, of course, justifies throwing grenades.

It appears from the report that the ongoing civil war, insurgency, whatever, is an ethnic conflict, rather than a religious one, since Hindus and Christians are fighting together. Also, Buddhists (at least in America) advertise their beliefs as compatible with other religions, so it's hard to believe they have a long history of oppressing them.

Also, look how little religious information is actually contained in the report. We know there are Muslims in Sri Lanka. After all, that was supposedly the reason that the government didn't want Jews Israelis there. But we're not told if they're Tamil or Sinhalese. The totals given add up to 94%. What are the other 6%?

According to the World Fact Book, 74% of the population is Sinhalese, 18% is Tamil, and 7% is "Moor," a term I thought went out with Shakespeare, but is singularly undescriptive here. Religiously, 70% is Buddhist, 15% Hindu, 8% Christian. Which means that at least 4% of the population is Sinhalese but not Buddhist, while at least 5% of the population is Hindu or Christian, but not Tamil. What are the sympathies of that roughly 4.5%? That would go a long way to characterizing the conflict.

So what we're left with is a report that focuses on an odd case of religious violence in an ethnic civil war, while at least partly casting that civil war as being religious. But when Aceh, and southern Thailand, and parts of Pakistan, and Nigeria, and Sudan, and Israel, and Saudi, and Iraq, and the Balkans, and schools in Russia, go up in flames, the cause is always ethnic.

Posted by joshuasharf at January 9, 2005 11:34 AM | TrackBack

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