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Friday, December 03, 2021

Lost in Lanka

The Easter Sunday blasts laid bare deep schisms within Lanka, thrusting the country’s 9.7% Muslim population under the spotlight. The Indian Express travels through the country to find a community grappling with questions of identity and faith — both from within and outside

Written by Arun Janardhanan |
Updated: May 5, 2019 7:14:19 am
Colombo’s St Anthony’s Church, one of the targets. (Express photo: Arun Janardhanan)

As his teenage daughter steps out wearing a niqab, her eyes darting from behind the face veil, A L S Casim, 58, loses his cool: “Don’t you learn? What are you trying to prove? And to whom? Don’t you dare step out of my house with your face covered.”

Sitting at his home in Sammanthurai village, about 50 km south of Batticaloa in the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, Casim had until then been talking of his past — a Muslim who migrated to the Gulf in the 1990s to work as a driver and returned three years ago, his memories of the Sri Lankan civil war and how his friends and cousins worked as spies of the Army, cautioning about LTTE movements.

As his daughter rushes back inside after the scolding, Casim says, “I have never asked my daughter to wear this; my wife often wears a sari. But this girl wears the niqab because her friends do. She rarely plays music or watches movies… she thinks it is inappropriate. I don’t say anything, thinking it’s good if it at least helps her concentrate on her studies.”


Tough times for embattled minority

For Sri Lanka, a country ravaged by three decades of civil war, the Easter Sunday blasts have only ended up widening deep social fault lines. Their distinct sense of identity has meant that the country’s Muslims were once the target of both the LTTE and Sinhalese groups. President Maithripala Sirisena, who won with the support of minorities in 2015, will be watched for how he handles the situation and for whether he takes the Muslim community along.

Though Casim has never appreciated or understood why his daughter used a face veil, his conflict is now mixed with fear. The neighbourhood is tense — Casim’s house is barely 500 metres from the house where an army raid on April 26 seized uniforms and banners of the Islamic State (IS). It was in this neighbourhood that the terrorists behind the Easter Sunday blasts of April 21 allegedly shot a video, later released by the IS’s Amaq News Agency, showing seven suicide bombers pledging their support for the terrorist outfit ahead of their attack on Sri Lanka.

On April 21 morning, a series of blasts had gone off across Lanka. The targets were three churches — in the Kochchikade district of the capital, Colombo; in Negombo, to the north; and in the eastern city of Batticaloa — and the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. (Express photo: Arun Janardhanan)

A day later, on April 29, about 200 km from Batticaloa, 25-year-old Fathima is upset with President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to ban the niqab in the wake of the blasts that killed over 250 people.

Talking from her home on the outskirts of Kandy, Central Sri Lanka, Fathima insists she won’t go out without her veil. “The President banned it for security reasons. I can understand… I agree… but I cannot imagine walking on the road without a niqab… I would rather stay indoors,” she says.

Fathima’s husband is a cab driver, a Class 8 dropout who went on to get a degree in Quran from an Arabic college near Colombo, before working in Qatar for two years. Talking about the contradictions within their family, he says, “I never asked her to wear that. She used to wear it even before our marriage. She doesn’t listen to music or watch movies… no TV at home. But she doesn’t know I enjoy all these,” he laughs, the car stereo blasting numbers of Ilayaraja and A R Rahman as his Suzuki automatic taxi races to Colombo on a rainy morning.

Like with any other faith, these contradictions and changing values have been a routine part of the lives of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. But the recent blasts, blamed on young men blinded by a radical form of their faith, have put the same under the uncomfortable glare of the spotlight.

Fathima’s husband knows — and “understands” — what it feels to be watched. During his three-hour journey to Colombo, he is often stopped at checkpoints, his licence and ID cards checked. The army men smile at him, some sound apologetic and ask for details about his trip, admitting they are doing so because he is Muslim. Some pat him down and check his car. “I smile at them. We can’t blame them,” he says.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims constitute 9.7% of the island’s population as against 70% Sinhalese Buddhists, 13% Hindu Tamils and 7.4% Christians (who have both Sinhala and Tamil origins). While entirely Tamil-speaking, the Muslims rarely identify themselves as Tamils. It’s this sense of a distinct identity that, at the height of the civil war, made the community a target of both the LTTE and the Sinhalese groups. During the three-decade-long war, many Lankan Muslims worked as spies and private militia for the army.

Sometime in the 1970s, coinciding with Kerala’s Gulf migration, a number of Lankans took up low-paying jobs in the Gulf. With Saudi Arabia offering scholarships for religious studies, many Muslims also sent their children there — bringing in, many say, a new, Wahhabi form of Islam, distinct in character and doctrine from the religion that had until then been practised in Lanka.

Since the blasts, Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential election with the support of minorities, has, besides banning the face veil, said his police and army “would search every other house in the country” for terrorists. But he has so far not been accused of highhandedness by the Muslim community.

“If it was Mahinda (Rajapaksa, the former president, accused of using strong-arm tactics to bring an end to the civil war), I would have been sitting at home, fearing his army men. But then, this attack wouldn’t have happened if Mahinda was President,” says Sulfiquer Ali, an Uber driver in Colombo.

On April 21 morning, a series of blasts had gone off across Lanka. The targets were three churches — in the Kochchikade district of the capital, Colombo; in Negombo, to the north; and in the eastern city of Batticaloa — and the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo.

At least 38 foreigners, including Indians, were among the dead.


“The damage has been already done to us by a few from within,” says former Batticaloa MP Basheer Segu Dawood, his words slow, but sharp. “Muslims in Lanka are not a radical community. But men and women who went to Saudi Arabia for jobs and the youth who went for Arab education, they brought the ‘desert’ culture here. We follow South Asian Islam. Our Islam originally came from India. This may be a bad phase for Lankan Muslims… but these radical elements cannot sustain here for long,” says Dawood, a businessman whose ship had been bombed by the LTTE in 2007, after he refused to pay a ransom of 100 million Sri Lankan rupees.

On the evening of April 29, the Colombo police picked up eight Muslim youth from Tamil Nadu for their alleged links to the National Thowheeth Jamaath (TNJ), a conservative and radical group allegedly set by Zaharan Hashim, the 32-year-old suspected to be the mastermind of the recent attacks.

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Though India’s National Investigation Agency has been monitoring alleged links between Muslim youths from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and conservative Salafi institutes and masjids on the outskirts of Colombo — including probing allegations that some of the 21 youths who left Kerala to join the IS in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province visited these Colombo mosques — intelligence sources say there is no real concrete evidence to link these institutes and masjids with any kind of terrorist activity.

“Islam is one Islam. But many organisations like the Thowheeth Jamaath have now emerged and the youth working for them do so without knowing what Islam is. Thowheeth means ‘unity’, something that accommodates everything, something Adi Shankara also wrote about… The Prophet was against killings… We follow him, we follow people like Mawlawi Rumi (a 13th-century Persian poet) who propagated peace and love. I strongly believe it is Western intelligence that funds these Wahhabi-Salafi groups to destroy India and disrupt Sri Lanka,” says Dawood.

But even before the recent blasts, the community had been grappling with issues of faith and the limits it imposes on personal freedoms.

Sharmila Seyyid, a Sri Lankan Muslim writer who had to go into exile in 2012 after radical Muslim elements targeted her for arguing in favour of legalising prostitution, says, “There is a growing movement among Muslim women and men across the world to reclaim the narrative that Islam is a religion of justice and compassion, not a patriarchal and unjust one. The Muslim Marriage And Divorce Act, for instance, cannot continue to be another law that perpetuates injustice against Muslim women and girls.”

Speaking in detail about some of these ideological contests within his community, M U M Ali Sabry, a prominent Colombo lawyer and the President’s counsel in Sri Lanka, says, “There are debates within the community as to whether we should embrace Arab culture or stick to the traditional eastern version, on dress codes for women, on whether the marriage age for Muslim women should be in line with the national law that says 18 is the minimum age. Yet another challenge we face is the lack of mainstream Muslim political leaders. Unlike in the past, parties and leaders have begun identifying themselves as Muslim parties and leaders, further segregating the community and making its activities suspicious in the eyes of others.”

But despite these voices and attempts within Islam to look for answers, in this country scarred by civil war and still grappling with the demons of those times, the blasts have further widened the gap between Muslims and the rest.

With rumours of Islam taking on a more radical form in the country, the government had as early as in 2009 sent its officers for training to the US to tackle the ‘problem’.

Dilantha Withanage, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Sinhala Buddhist organisation, which was accused of engineering anti-Muslim riots in 2014 in Sri Lanka, says the country’s “new Islam”, with its conservative and radical practices, has left the remaining 90 per cent of the population vulnerable. “We are now vulnerable to Islamic terrorism,” he says, before proposing “solutions”. “Muslims in Sri Lanka have to go back to the 1970s. Muslim women used to wear saris then and they used to cover their heads with their saris. None covered their faces. We should ban the purdah and niqab permanently. The government should also ban halal certification (which certifies and guarantees that products and services meet the requirements of Islamic law and are suitable for consumption for Muslims), which forces 90 per cent of non-Muslims who run the business to get a certification from 10 per cent of the population — like in Arabian countries. All madrasas and masjids that are breeding grounds for Islamic terrorism should be banned. All Muslim political parties should be banned and they should work as mainstream parties,” says Dilanatha.

But for every radical voice like Dilanatha’s from among the majority community, there are those like Rathna Those who have been advocating a more moderate path.

Talking to The Sunday Express in Colombo, Thero, MP, Sinhalese Buddhist monk and one of the prominent nationalist leaders representing the right-wing Jatika Hela Urumaya party, says, “To tackle Islamic radicalism, we need a comprehensive political programme. While retaining the regional collaboration with India, we shouldn’t be biased towards China or India, which are competing with each other. What we have witnessed here is an offshoot of many political problems, like it happened in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The US needs to take the blame for helping these extremist groups grow over the years.”

In Lanka, some part of that blame must also rest with Muslim politicians. While pointing out that “we must remember that probably just 1% of Sri Lankan Muslims are on the path of extremism”, Priyantha Pathirana, a Sinhalese leader who played a key role in the deployment and movement of paramilitary forces during the civil war, says Muslim politicians must take the blame for “supporting radical thoughts in Lanka and marketing it in Gulf countries to earn money”. “For instance, Eastern Province governor M L A M Hizbullah has brought 100 million USD to build a new university, which is reportedly going to be a Sharia university. What does this convey?”

Now, the country’s University Grants Commission has reportedly refused to clear the university, which was already feeling heat from among the Sinhalese community.


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S Mohammed from Sainthamaruthu, on the east coast of Amapara district, says no true believer of Islam can condone the blasts. “Whether one is a Wahhabi or Salafi or Sufi, he cannot agree with the killing of people, especially at worship centres. This attack was severe and chilling but it was carried out by a small team of lunatics. They don’t belong to us,” says Mohammed, a Gulf returnee who now runs a travel ticket booking agency.

“Like during the war, we are again under the shadow of the military. My trip to Colombo yesterday had at least seven check points where the police frisked us. We cannot blame police. But then, it’s not easy to bring about changes on our own, is it?” he says.

In Colombo, a prominent woman lawyer from a Sinhalese Buddhist family, takes out her iPhone and types out ‘Arabic colleges’ on a Maps app. Holding up her phone and pointing to the destination balloons, she says, “How many are here? Go ahead and count. Hundreds? Why do we need these many Arabic colleges? Isn’t it scary? I doubt if the majority Buddhists have these many worship places,” she says, before launching into a tirade about how the “entire community is responsible” for the blasts.

Even in the face of such open hostility, Mowlawi Mohamed Thasleem, the 69-year-old chief imam of Colombo Grand Mosque, making him the most prominent cleric in the country, sees hope.

Thasleem says there is no denying that there is something disconcerting about the idea that a regular Muslim youth can be so misled as to fall into the hands of extremist groups and carry out deadly terrorist attacks. He says he has often come across youth from various parts of Sri Lanka and even India with a problematic understanding of the religion.

“We need to convince these youngsters that they have got their faith wrong… They would have got attracted to such ideology either when desperate or shattered, when they were most vulnerable. There is no solution but to talk to them,” he says.

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