Easter Sunday blasts: Sri Lanka’s Muslim community fears backlash

The sudden, heightened scrutiny has caused concerns among members.

Updated - April 24, 2019 01:36 am IST

Published - April 24, 2019 01:35 am IST - Colombo

Last respects:  Coffins of victims being carried to graves during a mass funeral  at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday.

Last respects: Coffins of victims being carried to graves during a mass funeral at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday.

The Easter day attacks in Sri Lanka and the subsequent naming of a local Islamist radical organisation as the perpetrator have left the island’s Muslim community in fear and panic.

Amid reports of a few stray incidents of attacks on Muslim-owned property in the last two days, the sudden, heightened scrutiny of localities where Muslim families reside have sparked serious concerns, according to leaders and members of the community.

“The Muslim community is equally outraged [by the blasts],” said Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader and Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem. In his view, the “warped ideology” of the radical group cannot get “even an iota of support” from within the community.

Belief in moderation

Muslims, and in fewer instances Christians, have been at the “receiving end” of violence in Sri Lanka in the last few years, he said, pointing to the spate of targeted, violent attacks unleashed by hard-line Sinhala Buddhist groups.

“But the [Muslim] community has always believed in moderation,” he said, at the same time calling for introspection within the community on new cultural practices and foreign ideas.

But the space for conversations within the community may now shrink, fears Mareena Thaha Reffai, founder-president of Al Muslim Aath, a 28-year-old organisation of Muslim Women. “Despite holding diverse views, we were trying to talk about reforming our personal laws, reflect on our changing practices. It may become harder to have those discussions because something so big has hit us,” she said.

Community leaders also fear that the recent jihadist killings might taint the overall image of Sri Lankan Muslims. “Even when we were targeted by the BBS (hard-line Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena) we did not retaliate even once,” Ms. Reffai said.

Constituting about 10% of the island’s population, Muslims in Sri Lanka are widely perceived to be an enterprising community, successful in trade and as professionals. Though Tamil-speaking, they identify themselves as a separate ethnic group, different from ethnic Tamils, who are fellow minorities in the island. Many of them are trilingual, speaking Sinhala, Tamil and English with equal ease.

“We have never had even an oral disagreement with Christians. What the bombers believed in and did was completely contradictory to the values of Islam,” Ms. Reffai said, adding: “I just don’t understand how this sort of indoctrination happens. It is very disturbing.”

In addition to grappling with how a few members of the community were veering towards a radical path, Muslims worry about a possible backlash, particularly in Kattankudy town, in the eastern Batticaloa district that is home to a sizeable population of Muslims and Tamils.

Base of Islamist group

Batticaloa, which witnessed one of the eight explosions, has also been identified as the base of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), said to be behind the bombings. Its leader Mohammed Zaharan was a resident there. “We feel a sense of inexplicable guilt. I don’t know how to look into the eyes of my Christian neighbours with whom we have enjoyed cordial relations for so long. There is a lot of fear and panic that some may think we are also culpable,” said A.L.M. Sabeel, a member of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation and the local Urban Council.

Following Sunday’s attacks, there is heavy security all around the town and the police have been conducting frequent search operations in the area, he said. “While it is disturbing that everyone is seen as a potential suspect in such times, I actually appreciate it. We will offer all cooperation to authorities,” he said. The scrutiny, he said, might help the community identify and eliminate “such forces”.

Not that they did not try purging radical elements earlier. For at least two years now, locals have tried to draw the security services’ attention to the NTJ and some “50-60 people” attached to it. “We reported their activities to the authorities, but sadly, no action was taken,” said Mr. Sabeel.

According to Mr. Sabeel, Zahran left Kattankudy after a fallout with the mawlawi (religious scholar) two years ago, due to differences of opinion in the practice of Islam, and had been “in hiding”. “We need to understand something. We are a minority in this country, we must adopt a religious practice suitable to our context. You can’t simply import practices from Saudi,” Mr. Sabeel said.

The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka too made several complaints to authorities, pointing to Zahran and his attempts to spread radical ideas, the Council’s President N.M. Ameen said. “If they had taken our complaints more seriously, maybe we will not be here today. What the group did is outrageous. And it has put the community at great risk locally,” he told The Hindu .

This fear of possible exclusion or a backlash from other locals was a recurring theme among many Muslims. “We have seen so many anti-Muslim attacks here in the past years, haven’t we?”

With hard questions about their future and the recent memory of facing attacks, many in the community are disillusioned, leaders said. “To think that there was sufficient prior warning and yet no preventive action is baffling,” Minister Hakeem said. The attacks, which had a massive human cost, could be used by some for their political gains, he cautioned.

“It is not enough to see who the perpetrators are, we must also be mindful of who stands to gain. We have to apply the beneficiary test to understand and suitably address this issue.” he added. “A terrorist attack is a threat not to some of us but all of us. We need a collective, national response to this.”

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