Sri Lanka: The Politics of Islam

Early reports suggest New Zealand terrorist Ahamed Samsudeen radicalized while living in New Zealand. However, his actions and the circumstances surrounding his refugee claim have thrown – most tragically and unwelcome – the Sri Lankan Muslim community into the national spotlight.

They have also had an impact on his community at his home in Sri Lanka, as anti-Muslim activists seek to use his story to further escalate inter-communal tensions.

But this community is poorly understood and often confused in international reporting with the wider Sri Lankan Tamil population.

While Sri Lankan Muslims often speak Tamil as their first language, they are seen as a distinct identity group from Tamils ​​(mostly Hindus) and the Sinhalese majority population (mostly Buddhists).

The distinctive identity and history of the Sri Lankan Muslim community provides an important context for Mr. Samsudeen’s violent actions and his refugee claims.

Sri Lankan Muslims “rubbed shoulder to shoulder” (uren ura gäṭī) with their Buddhist, Hindu and later Christian neighbors since at least the 9th century.

In pre-colonial societies, they acted as merchants, ministers, academics, administrators and community leaders, valued for their specificity and the transregional networks in which they operated.

But a distinctive identity for Sri Lankan Muslims was not historically inevitable.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Muslim rulers questioned whether they should align themselves more closely with the Tamils.

However, to better represent their own interests, they intentionally maintained their distinction from non-Muslim Tamils, and even aligned themselves with the Sinhala majority on some key issues.

Throughout the twentieth century, however, Tamils ​​and Muslims increasingly found themselves as tolerated minorities within a Sinhala Buddhist state.

Buddhism occupies “the first place” in the constitution of Sri Lanka, and although the Tamil and Muslim minorities are represented by orange and green segments (respectively) in the Sri Lankan flag, they are symbolically framed by the golden border of Buddhism. and eclipsed by the red Sinhala quadrant with its lion (sinha).

Sri Lankan flag / photo provided

This symbolism becomes more explicit in the imagery of the ultra-nationalist Sinha Lē (“lion’s blood”) movement, which completely abandons the Tamil and Muslim coloring to leave the Sinhala lion alone, with no other ethnicity or religion in sight.

While Sinha Lē is a modern movement, the underlying sentiment provides a context for the growing ostracization of non-Sinhala identities as “outsiders” over the past hundred years.

This helps explain, for example, the 1915 boycott of Muslim-owned businesses that eventually broke out in island-wide riots, ending in summary public executions of Muslims and Buddhists by agents of the colonial police.

It also helps to explain, perhaps, the origins of the separatist group nicknamed the “Tamil Tigers”, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the bloody civil war (1983-2009) waged against them for control of Tamils. -the majority of the north and east coasts.

There were no winners in this war. The LTTE sent suicide bombers at military and civilian targets, including Buddhist temples, Christian temples and Muslim mosques.

The state army has reportedly been blind in its counterattacks against areas controlled by the LTTE, especially during the last brutal assault in 2009. The human cost of this attack is still not fully known, investigations by the UN being undermined by the state’s non-cooperation, but many thousands of Sri Lankans have been killed, many of them civilians.

Sri Lankan Muslims have repeatedly been caught in the midst of this conflict: speaking Tamil, but not “Tamil” enough for the separatist homeland.

Muslims have been evicted from their homes in LTTE-controlled north en masse in the 1990s, and – in a disturbing tale of familiarity – LTTE forces allegedly massacred worshipers in mosques.

When Mr. Samsudeen applied for refugee status in New Zealand, this is the context he describes: growing up in LTTE-controlled Batticaloa (Tamil Maṭṭakkaḷappu, Sinhala Maḍakalapuva), surviving assassination attempts, kidnapping and torture.

Significantly, Mr. Samsudeen described some of these events as having taken place even after the collapse of the LTTE, allegations of continued danger that the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Court found credible to the era.

This is by no means implausible. Since the end of the Civil War, anti-Muslim sentiments have grown considerably among Buddhist nationalists in search of a new enemy.

A particularly important organization is the Bodu Bala Sēnā (BBS, “Army of Buddhist Power”), which is said to have incited multiple anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama (2014), Kandy (2018) and across the country (2019, after Easter Sunday. bombings).

For the BBS, Sri Lanka is a place “for” Sinhala Buddhism, and despite their long history, Muslims are increasingly unwelcome guests.

Fri. Gnanasara, secretary general of BBU / photo wikimedia

It is no coincidence that during the same decade hostility towards Muslims increased so markedly, as did the tragically visible results of Islamist radicalization on the island. Wahhabist propaganda – conservative Sunni ideology linked to both Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda – has targeted Sri Lankan Muslim communities since at least the 1980s.

But it is only recently that it has borne fruit. A group called Jamā’at at-Tawḥīd al-Waṭanīyah (JTW, “National Monotheism Organization”) began advocating violence against Sufi Muslims (considered heretics by the Wahhabis) in 2013; a number of Sri Lankan Muslims traveled to fight for ISIS in 2016; the JTW, now publicly aligned with ISIS, is said to have organized the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019.

Radicalization has clearly progressed rapidly in an increasingly Islamophobic environment, as the Sri Lankan Muslim Council has repeatedly warned the government; these acts of violence in turn fuel the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.

This cycle is not contained in the coasts of the island.

It is, as the terrible acts of Mr. Samsudeen across the world from Sri Lanka have shown us, an inextricably global problem.

The BBS maintains close ties with anti-Muslim movements in India and Myanmar, developing common narratives of the threat of Islam overwhelming their respective “strictly non-Muslim” nations.

Most importantly, they also rely heavily on Western ideas of the “war on terror”, linking Sri Lankan Muslims to global terrorist networks.

The BBS has already issued a press release claiming the Auckland attack is proof of its narrative and demanding increased pressure on Muslim organizations in Sri Lanka.

Such requirements are tempting in their simplicity. But if we do not wish to further perpetuate the cycle of Islamophobia and radicalization, we cannot let ourselves be drawn into it.

The long history of Islam in Sri Lanka testifies to the possibility of more than just a careful tolerance of difference.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

– Asia Media Center

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