Religion and Ethnicity in the Sri Lankan Civil War
IT IS FREQUENTLY asserted that, contrary to popular impression, the Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhala majority, which is mostly Buddhist, and the Tamil minority, which is overwhelmingly Hindu, has nothing to do with religion. That is supposed to be true either because the conflict can be shown not to be about disputes over religion, or because language and ethnicity--taken to play central roles in defining the identity of the opposing sides--somehow overshadow religion in importance. 1 Because the conflict is "really" ethnic, it cannot be religious. There is agreement that the struggle between the Sinhala and the Tamils is about nationalism, in that it concerns a dispute between the two ethnic communities over the political and cultural control of a given territory. But the claim is that it must be a case of "ethnic" or "linguistic" nationalism, not "religious" nationalism.
Such conclusions are superficially plausible. Buddhism and Hinduism have existed side by side for centuries in Sri Lanka, and even at the height of hostilities in recent years there has been no attempt by either side to suppress the religious expression of the other, nor, with some exceptions, to punish the opposition because of its religious identity. 2 Certainly, the conflict has not been about winning converts to Buddhism or Hinduism. Moreover, ethnic and linguistic identity are profoundly important in distinguishing the two sides.
The basic problem with such conclusions is that they are inhibited by an overly narrow view of the possible relations between ethnicity and religion, a view that in the case of Sri Lanka, ignores or distorts important historical realities. This