New Delhi: Over a week after the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka killed at least 250 people, the island nation continues to take action against the Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and its members.
The Sri Lankan police has raided the hardline Islamist group’s headquarters, after the NTJ was banned under new emergency laws Saturday.
While several communities in Sri Lanka practice a more relaxed form of Islam — Moors, Bohras, Malays and Memons — the island nation’s politics is now grappling with the question of Islamist terrorism.
ThePrint takes a look at Muslims of Sri Lanka and how their ties with other communities are.
Muslims in Sri Lanka
Of Sri Lanka’s approximately 20.36 million population, there are around 1.9 million (9.3 per cent) Muslims, according to the 2012 census.
Apart from the Sinhalese (74.9 per cent) majority, the other major communities in the country include Sri Lankan Tamils (11.2 per cent) and Indian Tamils (4.1 per cent).
The same 2012 census indicated that most Muslims live in the districts of Colombo in the west of Sri Lanka; in Kandy located in the central region of the island; in Ampara, a south eastern district; and Trincomalee, an eastern district.
The 21 April terror attack leader Zahran Hashim’s hometown, Kattankudy, is also in the east of Sri Lanka, but in another district, Batticaloa.
The district of Batticaloa has just under 6,800 Sinhalese, with a very high Muslim population of 133,000, according to the census.
As far as cities go, Muslims have the highest population within and closer to the city of Colombo, the financial capital of the country. According to the census, there were over 126,000 Muslims living in Colombo, followed by around 97,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, and around 79,000 Sinhalese.
Sri Lankan Muslims: Moors
Based on oral histories and secondary sources, a Unesco document estimates Islam reached Sri Lanka around 8 AD through Arab traders.
These Arab-descendent Muslim merchants were called Moors during the time of Dutch rule in Sri Lanka in the 17th and 18th centuries, and likely even during the preceding rule of Portuguese in the 16th century. Under the Portuguese rule, “much wanton blood” was spilled as the colonial trading power wrested the Muslim community’s business turf on the island.
A couple of hundred years later, the Moors were still in the eye of the storm.
In 1885, the theory of Sri Lankan Muslims’ Arab descendence was contested by a pioneering Tamil politician and lawyer Ponnambalam Ramanathan when the British were setting up the Ceylon Legislative Council, the first form of representative government in the country.
A 2013 Colombo Telegraph report revisited the controversy, writing that Ponnambalam said the Moors or the “Tamil-speaking Muslims are low caste Hindus who converted to Islam” and since they were of Tamil ethnicity, they didn’t “deserve a separate seat in the Legislative Council”.
Ponnambalam’s claim continues to be an issue for Sri Lanka’s Moors.
In his writings from 1907, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, editor of Muslim Guardian, said: “Though there is nothing humiliating in being Tamil in race, the persistent attempt of that gentleman [Ponnambalam] in attributing to the Moors an origin which they do not claim, in spite of their assertion to the contrary, is annoying, if not offending…”
Today, the Moors are spread across the country, including a sizeable portion living in and close to Colombo and engaged in a more diverse range of professions.
The Malays started making their home in Sri Lanka largely during the island’s Dutch colonial rule between 1658 and 1796.
According to a 1998 research paper by a University of Colorado Boulder researcher, the community was termed Malay by the British rulers succeeding Dutch rule in Sri Lanka because of their “Indonesian Malay lingua franca”. The paper adds the ancestry of modern day Malays can be traced to “exiled Javanese princes”, “banished criminals”, and “soldiers of diverse Indonesian origin” enlisted by the Dutch.
The 2012 census put Malays number at just over 44,000, and said they mostly live in districts of Colombo and Gampaha, both in west of Sri Lanka, and Hambantota in the south.
Bohras, Khojas, and Memons: The Indian-origin Muslims
The Bohra community, which traces its origins to the Indian state of Gujarat, first came to Sri Lanka around 1830, according to media portal Roar. Today, Bohras own some of Sri Lanka’s biggest tea export businesses, and conglomerates.
There are only around 2,500 Bohras in Sri Lanka, according to a 2018 report by local news portal, The Island.
Khojas too are a community of traders, likely originating from Bombay (now Mumbai) and Gujarat, according to the University of Colorado Boulder research paper.
While Bohras and Khojas follow Shia Islam, the other Indian-origin Muslim community of Memons follows Sunni Islam — as do most Moors and Malays.
The Memon association of Sri Lanka says that its earliest members came as traders in 1870. But most Memons came to the island nation at the time of India-Pakistan Partition to make up a community that is now estimated between 6,000 and 10,000.
Typically, the Memons and Bohras live in and around Colombo.
The previously mentioned University of Colorado Boulder paper also said that Sri Lanka has an Ahmadiyya community in Gampola in Kandy district, a group formerly influential in Colombo as well.
While Sri Lanka has given refuge to persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslims of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran over the years, fault-lines between the community and the locals became apparent after the 21 April attacks.
Conflicts involving Sri Lankan Muslims
Historically, many of the conflicts involving Sri Lankan Muslims were largely driven by other ethnic groups. The Easter bombings proved a first with a Sri Lankan Muslim leading a large-scale terror attack on the country.
The extreme religious views of NTJ leader Hashim, who led the 21 April attack, can be seen in parallel to the rise of Wahhabism in the island nation.
In 2007, Hindustan Times reported the rise of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, in eastern Sri Lanka. The report said young men were going to study in Saudi Arabia and Egypt on scholarships only to return and spread Wahhabism in Sri Lanka’s east, specifically Kattankudy, the hometown of Hashim.
But it’s a town familiar with terror. In August 1990, LTTE massacred over 100 unsuspecting Muslims engaged in prayers across two mosques in Kattankudy, an incident eerily similar to the Christchurch Mosque attack in New Zealand in March.
This Muslim-dominated town of less than 50,000 residents now has 63 mosques, 8 of which follow a “fundamentalist strand openly” and three other mosques following “different degrees of wahabist ideology”, said a last-week report in local news portal Daily Mirror.
Hashim, who blew himself up in the Easter bombings, also supported the ideology of Islamic State.
Fears over other extremists prevail as raids and investigations revealed stores of explosives and ISIS flags on 26 April.
While two of the suicide bombers in the 21 April attack were educated and affluent, there is a predominant misconception about the economic status of Muslims in Sri Lanka — one of the reasons behind Sinhala aggression towards Muslims in the island nation, according to scholars.
From a campaign to boycott Halal products run by Sinhalese Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena or the 2001 anti-Muslim riots in Mawanella, (another town the terror attack leader Hashim preached in), the Muslim community has been targeted on several occasions.
M.A. Nuhman, former professor in Tamil at a local university, told Daily News that nearly 50 “clashes between the Muslim and Sinhalese” have occurred since Independence in 1948, and “it almost always revolved around business”.
Nuhman said not more than 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s Muslims are wealthy as is the same with any other community, and that Muslims too experience “widespread poverty” and “low level of education”.
“If you take a walk in the slums of Colombo, there is a higher number of Muslims than any other group,” the Daily News report quoted Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.
“You see a small number of very rich Muslims driving around in flashy cars and having big weddings. So people think all Muslims must be rich,” Ahamed was quoted as saying.
While the ties Muslims in Sri Lanka share with the other communities has only been further fractured, the 21 April attack marks a new inflection point in that relationship.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.