After Easter: Sri Lanka’s Muslim Community and the Question of Islamic Radicalism

By Bart Klem

Bart Klem is Senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. In 2011, his article, “Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka,” was published in the Journal of Asian Studies. In the #AsiaNow post below, written shortly after the Easter Sunday bombings of several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, Klem explains how these attacks fit—or, rather, do not fit—into the broader history of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, an oft neglected group, suddenly became world news on Easter Sunday with the Islamist bomb attacks on several churches and hotels. The forensic details of the attack, the network responsible, and the lapse of the intelligence services have been covered in news updates. The basic challenge of putting the attack in context is that it does not fit—the Easter attacks do not make Sri Lankan sense, but now that they have happened, they affect the dynamics of Sri Lanka’s continuing ethno-political conflict.

Two Misconceptions

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, two narratives surfaced in international media, but both are inadequate. The first presents the attacks as simply a new flashpoint in Sri Lanka’s long history of ethno-political conflict. This makes very little sense. The nature and logic of the violence are completely at odds with the dynamics of ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka as we know it.

The second narrative attributes the attacks to the radicalization of a besieged Muslim community joining the global Islamist struggle. This is at odds with everything we know about the Sri Lankan Muslim community, and it is very clear that their interests are not being served by these attacks.

The interpretation that does make sense is that these attacks comprise the coming together of two quite separate conflict trajectories—one around ethno-politics in Sri Lanka, the other around global Islamism—which are now getting embroiled with each other.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim Community

The fact that Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is understood to be an ethnic community, rather than just a religious one, is itself an articulation of the ethno-political conflict. Now about 10 percent of the population, the origins of the Sri Lankan Moors (those of the Malay and other very small intra-Muslim minorities are different) lies in the arrival of 7th-century Arab traders, who married local women—both adopting his religion and her culture, to put it simply.

In the East, home to the largest Muslim concentrations, Tamils and Muslims live interspersed and there is a large level of convergence in their social, cultural and religious practices. As shown by anthropologist Dennis McGilvray, the institutional trappings of mosques replicate the kudi (matriclan) structures of Hindu temple boards. Similarly, the historically prevalent denomination of Sufism embraces practices that might be associated with Hinduism, such as mysticism, worshipping saint tombs, and singing mantras.

Sri Lanka’s civil war changed the political trajectory of the Muslims. Many Muslims shared the ethnic grievances of the Tamils, and some youngsters in fact joined one of the Tamil separatist militias in early years of the insurgency. The reason that Muslims vehemently reject the label of “Islamic Tamils” and present themselves as an ethnic community has everything to do with their political environment: with the rise of both Sinhala and Tamil ethno-nationalism, the Muslim community was caught in the middle. In 1990, the Tamil separatist insurgency turned its violence on their Muslim neighbors, forcibly evicting them from the North and inflicting massacres on mosques in the East.

Muslim Reform and Radicalization

What is fascinating about the Muslim community is the relative absence of antagonism towards either Sinhalese or Tamils throughout the war. They suffered violence both from the government security forces and from the LTTE, but refrained from counter-mobilization. The organized violence by Muslim groups that did occur, tantalizingly, comprised Muslims attacking Muslims. This may seem absurd, but Muslims were attacking Muslims in a place like war-time Kattankudy, a tiny Muslim enclave surrounded by the threat of both the government military and the Tamil separatists.

This has everything to do with Islamic reform movements, and to understand that we need to consider the profound changes that took place in parallel to the civil war, as a result of the liberalization of the economy in the late 1970s and the subsequent rise of labor migration. Large numbers of Sri Lankans, both men and women from all ethnic and religious communities, have traveled to the Middle East for work.

In the wake of these migratory patterns, Muslim reform movements have gained ground. The historical signature of Sri Lankan Muslims comprises the Tariqa tradition and Sufism. From the 1970s onwards, Tabligh Jamaath secured significant foothold in Sri Lanka, an anti-political South Asian reform movement. Put simply, Tablighis strives to make Muslims better Muslims through education and exchange, not through radical mobilization.

From the 1980s onwards, Tawhid Jamaath gains significance (though there were some very small manifestations of this stream in earlier decades). Tawhid, which is an umbrella term for quite a wide variety of loosely connected groups, tends to have a different socio-economic profile than Tabligh (as detailed by Spencer et al, mainly chapter 5). It has focused on running its own mosques and madrassas (schools) and preaching puritan Islamic practices. And they are much more antagonistic towards other Islamic denominations. Throughout the war, Tawhid remained a marginal group in most of Sri Lanka, though they started to become dominant in Kattankudy. It is here that they targeted the local Sufi sects for being un-Islamic, and this resulted in violent skirmishes, including the tearing down of a Sufi mosque and the desecration of the corpse of a Sufi leader (both of which sent shock waves through Sri Lanka’s Muslim community).

A Breakpoint in Conflict

With this background in mind, the attacks of 21 April came as a complete surprise. A major Muslim attack on Christian churches and expensive hotels does not fit the plot. And the Tawhid that we knew was an umbrella of organizations with radical Salafi-inspired ideas preoccupied with Muslims—to the extent that they used violence, it was against them. If the National Tawhid Jamaath, the main group held responsible, is indeed associated with the Tawhid umbrella (which stands to reason), its objectives, targets and tactics completely diverge from Tawhid’s tradition in Sri Lanka.

The attacks do resonate with the patterns associated with global Islamist networks, and the interest of a movement like Islamic State to demonstrate its continued capacities after its territorial defeat in Syria. Police statements have confirmed links between the attacks and foreign Islamist networks. It is also clear that the discursive struggle over the representation of these attacks and the framing of these links is central to the battle being fought.

While it is important to point out that the two trajectories of conflict—ethno-politics in Sri Lanka, Islamism globally—have historically been completely separate, they are now interacting, and this has a wide range of potential consequences.

Firstly, the Muslim community is likely to become one of the main victims of this. The anti-Muslim climate was already there, and we saw violent attacks of radical Buddhist groups in recent years, but this may well get worse. The reported violence against Pakistani refugees, who live near Negombo (where the most fatal church attack took place) is a first manifestation of this. Like so many other aspects of this crisis, this is deeply ironic. After all, the reason most of these people are in Sri Lanka in the first place is that they are Christians, Ahmadiyya, or Shia and face intimidation and attacks from more puritan Islamic sects in Pakistan, who (like Tawhid) accuse them of not being (proper) Muslims.

Secondly, the renewed buoyancy of Sinhala nationalist politics and increasingly authoritarian government. This builds on quite a long history, but the fresh impulse of the Easter attacks is already discernible. After last year’s aborted coup, the present government is completely fragmented and stagnant. In the forthcoming wave of elections, the events of Easter (and the spin exerted on them) will almost certainly develop a political dynamic. The Rajapaksa family has already played the card that this would not have happened under their watch and will likely campaign on their credentials of strong, nationalistic leadership. It is ironic that their political come-back would be premised on an attack on Christians; after all, it was the Sinhala Buddhist profile of the Rajapaksa government that alienated the Sinhala Christian community, and this was arguably a major reason they lost power in 2015.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka may well come to be seen as part of the global narrative of Islamism and counter-terrorism. Ramping up efforts to pre-empt Muslim terrorism is likely to offer the government a variety of allies with their own Muslim antipathies—Hindu nationalists in India, the Myanmar military, sections of Israel’s Netanyahu government, to name a few, but possibly also Western governments. Under the previous wave of illiberal Sinhala nationalism, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government (2005-2015) faced international pressure. Now that Sri Lanka is part of the global campaign against Islamic radicalism, that may no longer be the case.