After decades of persecution by the Sinhalese and Tamils, Sri Lanka’s Muslims are abandoning local syncretic Islam and turning to a more radical version.
The Islamic 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 radicalisation of young Muslims, and the threat that extremist Islamic groups pose to the island nation.
Suicide 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.
A history of persecution
Commonly 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.
Muslims are 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.
In Sri 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.
On August 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.”
During the 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.”
Sri Lankan 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.
Riots have 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.
From persecution to radicalisation
Following 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.
The 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 Islam.
From the 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.
After the 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.
During this time, then-President Mahinda Rajapakse 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 radicalization.
The 2014 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 Islamist outfits.
From late 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 country.
Sri Lankan 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.
Following 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.
This article was originally published by the Fair Observer here.