decades of persecution by the Sinhalese and Tamils, Sri Lanka’s Muslims are
abandoning local syncretic Islam and turning to a more radical version.
State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks across
Sri Lanka. This raises many questions about the existence of IS affiliates in
the country, the rapid radicalization of young Muslims, and the threat that
extremist Islamic groups pose to the island nation.
bombings have a long history in Sri Lanka. In their separatist war, the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) conducted suicide
attacks from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. However, the bombings of April
21 are a new phenomenon that has not only rocked the country, but also shocked
the whole world.
History of Persecution
referred as the Moors, Sri Lankan Muslims are the third-largest ethnic group
after the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Muslims comprise nearly 10% of the total
population of 21 million. Most of them earn livelihoods through trade and
business. Sri Lankan Muslims claim separate ethnicity from both the Sinhalese
and the Tamils. Most trace their ancestry to the eighth-century Arab traders
who settled in Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunni Shafiis
who speak Tamil, Sinhala and Arabic. Some of them are Malay Muslims and have
their own language.
widely distributed across Sri Lanka, with two-thirds living in the Sinhala
Buddhist-majority region of Central, Southern and Western provinces, and the
remaining one-third living in the Tamil-dominated coastal areas of north and
east. Substantial Muslim communities live in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
The Muslim political leadership comes from the Western province. The reason is
simple. This province is home to the Muslim mercantile class and its educated
elite, while the Eastern province is inhabited by Muslims who are primarily
farmers, fishermen and, to some extent, small traders.
Lanka as a whole, Muslims suffer from low literacy rates and systematic
discrimination. As a result, only few Muslim politicians have managed to secure
ministerial jobs or diplomatic positions. During the 26-year Sri Lankan Civil
War, the Muslim community was “the target of discrimination, political
violence, massacres and ethnic cleansing” by the rebel Tamil Tigers and the
government-backed Sinhalese nationalists.
3, 1990, LTTE gunmen entered the Meera Jumma mosque of the Muslim-majority town
of Kattankudy, “locked the doors to prevent escape and began firing into the
crowd” of 300 worshippers. Using automatic weapons, they killed more than 100
people. Additionally, the Tamil human rights group reported on the LTTE’s
massacring of Eravur town, near Batticaloa, in which 120 were killed. The most
shocking part of this attack was the “cutting of a pregnant lady’s stomach [and
the] baby is said to have been pulled out and stabbed.”
1990s and 2000s, the LTTE killed 1,050 Muslims and forced 120,000 of them to
leave their homes, lands, businesses and possessions behind in the north. The
government has largely ignored the internally displaced Muslims, and there “has
been no government inquiry into the LTTE’s massacres and expulsions of Muslims
or meaningful apology.”
Muslims also suffered from periodic attacks by government-backed Sinhalese mobs
in the 1990s and 2000s. In February 1999, a Sinhalese mob attacked the Bairaha
outlet, threw grenades at Muslim houses and burned down their shops. A member
of parliament from the local ruling party, Jinadasa Nandasena, instructed the
police not to be present in the area on that night. In another similar incident
in April 2001, two Muslims died and hundreds of houses, shops and vehicles were
destroyed by Sinhalese mobs. The clash began when some 2,000 Sinhalese attacked
Muslims who were protesting against police inaction after three Sinhalese men
assaulted a Muslim shopkeeper.
a long history in Sri Lanka. In 1915, fierce riots between Muslims and
Sinhalese broke out over a Buddhist procession passing by a mosque. More
recently, riots broke out in 2014 and 2018. These violent episodes over the
years are not widely known to the outside world. Muslims claim they find it
difficult to live and carry out their business in Sinhalese-dominated areas of
south and western Sri Lanka. It is fair to say that many feel persecuted.
Persecution to Radicalization
the increase in attacks on Muslims during the civil war of the 1990s, security
became a top priority for the community. They began to arm and protect
themselves from both the LTTE and the Sinhalese mobs. They got some weapons
from security forces and purchased other armaments from the Karuna faction
after its split with the Tamil Tigers.
acquisition of weapons did not help much, though. Informal Muslim groups were
ineffective in defending the community from Tamil Tigers or Sinhalese mobs. In
fact, radical Muslim groups who acquired weapons engaged mostly in
“intra-religious” disputes. They declared the Ahmadiyya sect as “un-Islamic”
and opposed Sufi Muslims, who represent a more spiritual and ascetic form of
1990s, Sufis have been undermined by the growth of Tablighi Jamaat, who began
sending groups of preachers to mosques and other places of worship. They
encouraged Muslims to observe religious rituals rigidly and act more devoutly.
These radical Muslims insisted on strict dress codes for women by importing the
use of the niqab (face veil), abaya (a long dress that covers the entire body
of a woman) and jubba (a long flowing garment worn by Muslim men), which were
unknown to ordinary Sri Lankans before the civil war.
defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the government in 2009, Sri Lankan Muslims gained
some respite. However, they gradually replaced their indigenous Islamic
practices with Middle Eastern ones. In doing so, Sri Lankan Muslims moved to
more ultra-orthodox forms of Islam.
time, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa began to stoke Sinhala Buddhist
triumphalism to increase his power. For him, Sinhala ethno-nationalism was a
strategy to consolidate the majority voter base. His move further marginalized
the Muslim community that emerged as a new enemy, creating fertile grounds for
Sinhala-Muslim riots increased the division between the two communities to its
highest level. On June 12, 2014, due to confrontation between Muslims and
Buddhist monks during a Buddhist cultural celebration, four Muslims were
killed, 80 were injured and 8,000 Muslims were displaced. The attacks by
Sinhalese mobs led to the emergence of the Islamic State group in Sri Lanka. It
provided a perfect opportunity for radical Muslim clerics to disseminate the
rhetoric of the persecution of Muslims in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the
world. These clerics started encouraging their followers to target non-Muslims
and “kill them in the name of religion.” These speeches came from groups such
as the National Thawheed Jamaat, Sri Lankan Thawheed Jamaat and other local
2014 and early 2015, radical Islamists like Salafi groups from the Middle East
became more visible. They promoted religious education, segregated spaces for
the two genders, restricted women from public life and adopted a more rigid
interpretation of Islam that was unknown to the history of indigenous Muslims
in Sri Lanka. In 2016, four men were arrested for punishing a woman who was
found guilty of having an affair with a man. The sentence of guilt was declared
at a mosque instead of a court. Such practice violated Sri Lankan Muslim family
law and imposed a narrow interpretation of Islam for the first time in the
Muslims, once a peaceful and tolerant community, are now widely susceptible to
religious extremism and radicalism. Even as the talk of “espousing Jihadi
practices” at home continued, Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam became the first Sri
Lankan Muslim to die in Syria in July 2015, putting in stark view the Islamic
State’s outreach in this island nation.
the Easter Sunday attacks, Sri Lankan authorities have been looking for at
least 140 people linked with IS. Zahran Hashim, the suspect leader of the
attacks, is said to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Hashim was
known to Sri Lankan intelligence for disseminating hatred and giving
inflammatory speeches over the last few years. While Hashim is in the news for
being the mastermind of the attacks, Sri Lanka faces more important questions.
How can the
country prevent the rise of homegrown Islamic terrorism? How can it stop the
expansion of ultra-orthodox Islamic ideology among young Muslims? How can it
stop communal division not only between Muslims and Sinhalese or Tamils, but
also Muslims and Christians?
So far, the
government has banned the Niqab, expelled 200 Islamic preachers from the
country, and launched a transnational investigation with the support of six
foreign agencies. Even as it takes such actions, the government must protect
innocent Muslims from the harassment of Buddhist nationalist groups. Their
backlash will only give further fuel to radical Islamists and hurt the cause of
peace in a once idyllic island nation.
Deedar Raheem Khudaidad is the founding editor of
FutureOutlooks.com, based in Melbourne. He holds a master’s degree in
views expressed in this article are the author’s own