3 March, 2024


Fragile State Policy & The Rise Of Muslim Extremism In Sri Lanka

By Imtiyaz Razak –

Prof A.R.M. Imtiyaz


On 21 April 2019, a group of Muslims launched coordinated and well-planned suicide bombing that ripped through Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka and Batticaloa, a major city in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a state of approximately 20 million people that was previously considered a model of democracy in Asia. A simple answer blames the Arabization of Sri Lankan Muslims, but violent mobilization from the below usually the response to the state’s inability to be a neutral actor, to supply economic and social good as well as to address the grievances of ordinary people. 

State fragility occurs in separate ways in different democratic societies. In deeply divided societies, an inability of the state and institutions to gain the trust of minorities could lead to fragile polity. This status of the state could trigger tensions and violence if marginalized continue to lose the trust in the democratic institutions and thus would look to settle the differences by bullets over ballots. The state fragility can also be understood whether the state and its institutions provide reasonable and impartial public services to all its citizens (Constellations of State Fragility Explained). Fragile states therefore pose serious threat to democracy, political reconciliation and peace.

In this chapter, the author attempts to analyze the post-war Sri Lanka condition. Sri Lanka’s gruesome ethnic war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sinhala-Buddhist dominated security forces ended in May 2009 with the killing of an estimated 80,000-100,000 people between 1982 and 2009, including kids (Boyle, A Francis, 2016). The deaths include 27,639 Tamil fighters, more than 21,066 Sri Lankan soldiers, 1000 Sri Lankan police, 1500 Indian soldiers, and tens of thousands of civilians (Ibid). Sri Lanka Sinhala-Buddhist political leaders use of ethnicity and religion to win power help marginalized Tamils, and some Tamils eventually resorted to violence as they lost the trust in the state and its institutions. 

There was an expectation Sri Lanka will find a peaceful way to address the grievances of Tamils and Muslim communities in the post-war Sri Lanka. Instead, evidence suggests that in the post-war Sri Lanka, state and its institutions continue to be a major source of tensions, by its inability to fight Sinhala-Buddhist extremists who believe that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists (Ekanayaka, 2019). Sri Lanka’s new generation of Sihala-Buddhist extremists adopted their predecessors political Buddhism that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala-Buddhists. Their political activism appeared on the part of a new generation of Buddhist monks not only aggravated by the conflict but also by the political and social climate in Sri Lanka, becoming more militant, violent, and ultimately intolerant toward other ethnicities and religions (Deegalle, 2004). Thus, the emergence of new generational Sinhala-Buddhist extremists is a manifestation of ethno-religious identity mobilization and polarization which have blurred ethnic and religious differences causing a ‘repression-reaction pathway’.  Hence, in the post-conflict reality that Sri Lanka faces, contemporary political developments coupled with the emergence of extremist religious forces, such as the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), which has handled inciting hatred, evident in June 2014 attacks on Muslim businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwala, Shargatown and Dehiwala (Aluthgama Under Siege)

The Sinhala-Buddhist forces that backed the state and its institutions during the war against the LTTE wanted to consolidate the gains they made in the pre-war Sri Lanka and thus exerted pressure on the state not to be a neutral actor to provide peace and justice to all people. New generation of Sinhala-Buddhists wanted to maintain the unitary structure of Sri Lanka where Buddhism plays crucial role guiding state and its institutions. These forces believe:

Religious and ethnic minorities are welcome to peacefully live and work as Sri Lankans provided, they know their limits. They may even be treated with every kindness and consideration like the way we lavish attention on our pet cats and dogs provided they know their place in the overall scheme of things. But if they were to ever step out of line and resist submitting to the overarching paternalistic hegemony of Sinhala Buddhism, they would need to be sharply chastised and brought to heel. Those are the terms (Ekanayaka, 2019).

The article 9 of the Constitution guarantees the foremost place to Buddhism and that for all the guarantees in Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) it will be naturally perceived by many as a way of saying that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists.

This chapter’s scope would not warrant to examine the pre-war relationship between the state and Tamils from the below and how the state decay opened the way for the growth of extremist forces among Tamils and Sinhalese at popular level. I have discussed the issue extensively elsewhere (Imtiyaz, A.R.M. & Stavis Ben, 2008). The chapter will first provide some useful information about Sri Lanka Muslims history and their identity formation. It will then discuss anti-Muslim violence by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists and this section will also attempt to provide some thoughts as to why state and its institutions such as security forces do not act against the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist forces. The Muslim response to the growth of anti-Muslim violence and Islamophobia will be analyzed to explain how appeals of violence can be consumed when state do not win the trust of minority. A group consisted of 25 Muslims between the ages 18-55 from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Galle, a key city of Sinhala-Buddhist dominated Southern Sri Lanka, Jaffna district, Tamil dominated Northern Sri Lanka and Sammathurai, Muslim dominated farming village in the Eastern province selected for interview form of questionnaire. interviews conducted from September 2021 to December 2021 through skype and WhatsApp. Selected Muslims have political loyalty to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the United National Party (UNP) and the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC). The primary goal of interviews is to study the fears and mobilizations of Muslims as new generational Sinhala-Buddhists continue to seek mobilization in the post-war Sri Lanka.

Given the numerous cleavages and tensions in post-colonial societies, the factor that influences whether and how state respond to the real and perceived grievances of different communities is critical to study the state’s role in building peace and setting up justice. Sri Lanka experiences suggest that communal violence breaks out is the way when state and its institutions fail to act impartially (See, Dharmadasa, 1992, Jayawardena 1986, Uyangoda Jayadeva, 1986, Rajanayagam, 1986 & Wickeremeratne, 1995). Hence, it is imperative to find answers to the questions to understand both the state’s delivery in a divided society and responses from marginalized communities: do political leaders aggravate the tensions until they explode in violence? Do they recruit people to instigate acts of violence and then condone and protect them? Or do they seek non-violent resolution of problems and ensure that proponents and initiators of violence are punished.

General Remarks on the Sri Lankan Muslims or Moor

The Muslims, who practice Islam and speak Tamil, are a significant section of the minorities in Sri Lanka. They formed 7.9 percent of the island’s total population in 2001 (Department of Census and Statistics) The term Moors was used by the Portuguese in the 16th century to refer to people they regarded as Arab Muslims and their descendants. The term was applied based on religion and had no role in naming their origin (Mohan, 1987, p. 9).

Muslims were scattered along the coastal areas of Sri Lanka but some of them had moved into the interior. Most of the Muslims (62%) live outside the North and East of Sri Lanka in the South region, amidst the Sinhalese. Thirty-eight percent of them, however, have long established themselves in the Tamil dominated North and East, the region the Tamils claim as their traditional homeland (Department of Census and Statistics). The Muslims from the Northern region made up only about 4 percent of the Northern Province. They were engaged in trade, agriculture, fisheries, teaching and skilled trades like tailoring to earn their living. The Muslim destiny of the North was intertwined with that of the Tamils.

In the East, the Muslims claim to be a majority in Amparai district of the Eastern Province which is part of this region (Ibid). The demographic complexity of the Eastern Province – once predominantly Tamil speaking – is today a volatile mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations. Despite religious and cultural differences between the Tamils and Muslims, many Muslims were members of the Tamil Federal Party, and a few did take part in the armed uprising. This was alarming to the Sinhalese government. Therefore, pushing a policy of divide et impera, President JR Jayewardene sent one of his southern Muslim ministers, accompanied by his henchmen, to attack Tamils in Karaitivu village south of Batticaloa, and the two communities fell into the trap. With their prejudice against Muslims, the Tigers reacted with extreme violence. Too late, the presence of outside Muslims was exposed by Minister S Thondaman who represented the hill-country Tamils. Muslim leaders of the east like ALA Majeed protested, but to no avail (Hoole, Rajan) As the violence continued, the communities—seemingly inexorably—went their different ways.

A central aspiration of the Muslims in contemporary Sri Lanka, according to McGilvray, is their desire to develop a non-Tamil identity based on Islam (McGilvray,1997). Radically shifting political developments ‘have made them realize that their interest lies in holding fast to the religion of Islam and not to any ethnic category (Ali, 200a). But the Muslims of the north and east blame the Tamils for pushing them in this direction. Gripped by demographic anxiety and locked in competition with the Tamils for control over economic and land resources, they turned to religion as a way of bolstering their cohesion[1]. This was a key factor in the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the mid-1980s (at a time when the Muslims had established informal and formal contacts with the Sri Lanka state forces with a view to fighting against the Tamil Tigers. This makes it a veritable ethnic tinderbox. Since approximately 38 percent of the country’s Muslims live in the East, it made them a significant opposition group to the Tamil Tigers’ homeland campaign.

The Muslim identity in contemporary Sri Lanka developed a non-Tamil identity based on Islam (McGilvray, 1997). The radically shifting political development and ‘political fortunes throughout the course of Sri Lankan history have made them realize that their identity lies in holding fast to the religion of Islam and not to any ethnic category’ (Ali, 2006b, p. 375). This was a key factor in the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the mid-1980s (at a time when the Muslims had established informal and formal contacts with the Sri Lanka state forces with a view to fighting against the Tamil Tigers).

However, the Muslims living in the South and West regions, have not shown any such inclination to support an exclusive Muslim party, despite being increasingly marginalized by the majority Sinhalese. There are two major reasons for this: (1) the Muslims outside the North and East believe that the Sinhalese-dominated United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) accommodate the needs of Muslims and its political elites by offering some significant and not-so-significant ministerial portfolios and positions, in addition to substantial business benefits enjoyed by the elites; and (2) unlike their brethren in the North and East, these Muslims were not confronted organized violence and intimidation by the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups (until 2011), targeting their identity and existence.

As expected, Muslims living outside of the North and East faced similar reality as their brethren did after the end of the ethnic civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese dominated state. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history suggests that the Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists are ideologically committed to establishing complete Sinhalese dominance over the entire island. For instance, in the presidential elections of January 2010, the only two serious candidates were the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his one-time commander of the Sri Lankan army, Sarath Fonseka. Both hold hardline views on the ethnic question. Fonseka said:

I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities, and we treat them like our people… We are being most of the country, 75%, we will never give in, and we have the right to protect this country. We are also a strong nation. . .. They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things. In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74% of the population (The Hindustan Times, 2008).

It seems there is little space for minorities in the ruling mentality. Moreover, there is a concerted move to marginalize the minorities politically, by bracketing them ideologically with global jihadi movements. According to the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a militant Buddhist party which is still part of Rajapakse’s coalition government, the ‘Malik Group, Osama Group, Deen Malik Group and Mujahideen Group. . .are some of the Muslim terrorist groups operating in Maligawatte (in Colombo)’[2]. Several Sinhala-Buddhist extremists have claimed that Muslims outside the North and East express sympathies to the ideology[3] of violent Muslim groups which are strategically and ideologically linked to global Jihadi movements. 

Sinhala-Buddhist Violent Mobilization against Muslims

The state’s inability to broker peace between the different ethno-religious groups and the state dependence on Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups for popular support led to erosion of trust among minorities in the impartiality of the state, and thus further contributed to the state fragility in the post-war Sri Lanka. 

The emergence of anti-Muslim actions by Sinhala-Buddhists groups such as BBS and the Sinhala Ravaya who want to launch campaigns aimed at soliciting a reaction from Muslims threatens the future of community trust. The campaign both online and on the ground has manifested in multiple forms, ranging from calls to boycott Muslim companies and Halal products, women’s clothing, to protests outside Muslim-owned retail outlets and the Bangladeshi Embassy to protest violence in Bangladesh against Buddhists.

Interestingly, a sizable portion of the members and supporters for BBS not only hail from middle- and upper-class backgrounds in urban areas that have decent education and affiliated to good money-making professional jobs, but there is also a lot of support from Sri Lankan expatriates living abroad. In addition, a leading Member of Parliament, Udaya Gamanpilla, who belongs to an equally extremist Sinhala-Buddhist political organization, has predicted a repeat of earlier Sinhala-Muslim violence, saying that ‘As someone who has studied the Sinhala – Muslim clashes in 1915, I strongly feel a repetition of that disaster is imminent.’ (Gamanpilla, 2012). Statements like this only served to generate fears and anxiety among Muslims, particularly those Muslims living in the urban areas such as Colombo.

It is worth recounting some of the incidents that have happened to date. On 9 September 2011, a Muslim shrine, which had stood for 300 years in Anuradhapura, was destroyed by a mob reportedly led by monks. The police, though present, did not intervene. On 20 April 2012, a mosque in Dambulla, the area which many Buddhists regard as sacred town located in the Matale District, Central Province of Sri Lanka had been forced to abandon Friday prayers. About 2000 Buddhists, including monks, marched to the mosque and held a demonstration demanding its demolition. Overnight, a firebombing had targeted the mosque. Shortly after the protest, the mosque was evacuated, and its Friday prayers were cancelled. TV footage that showed monks engaged in violence, including one monk disrobing and exposing himself to the mosque. Two days after the Dambulla mob protest, former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, who was also in charge of Buddhist affairs, issued an order to relocate the mosque in another area.

Anti-Muslim attacks took a new turn in 2013 when the BBS and its affiliated organizations launched a campaign of agitation against Halal certification. Coupled with the campaign have been anti-Islamic slogans and placards with drawings of pigs with Arabic letters saying ‘Allah’. These activities are not only considered to be offensive to Muslims but in the case of Sri Lanka Muslims, go to the heart of attacking the sense of identity and values they have been practicing. In addition, the campaign against Halal certification has been seen as attacking the fundamentals of identity for the Muslims. Many Muslims in the area and elsewhere in Sri Lanka considered the actions and demonstrations by these protesters as part of or at least influenced by global Islamophobia.

The conversations this author had with selected Muslims during the violence against the Muslims in 2013 suggest that ‘some young Muslims wanted to retaliate’ (Communications with the selected Muslims in 2013); however, the majority opinion among Muslims did not approve any of the retaliation and in fact have been commended for their patience in the face of such provocation. The major reason for not reacting to protests comes from not only a sense of vulnerability Muslims experience in areas where Sinhala-Buddhist are the majority, but also that it is widely believed that the BBS is a vocal minority and most Sinhalese Buddhists do not subscribe to these extremist views. This is evident from the facts on the ground that most of the local Sinhala Buddhist residents of areas where these demonstrations have been taking place, clearly disapprove of the demonstration and did not in any way participate or encourage it. They were however unable to do anything constructive to curb it because of the inactive Police and the belief that it was being sanctioned at prominent levels.

The public success of organizations such as the BBS is attributed to several factors. First, they were able to be successful because they launched effective campaigns across the country where the Sinhalese were not only a majority but where there was a small Muslim community living and were able to capitalize on existing local problems either it be economic or social. Second, the BBS was able to win support both from local and state media to their campaign as well as capitalize on social media, attracting support from outside the country. Though the ruling party and its members do not openly support the BBS campaign, there is recognized sympathy among the government coalition members, especially from the JHU – (A Buddhist Political Party) for the BBS campaign. The JHU is an interesting entity in the current ruling alliance in the government. The JHU was founded by Buddhist monks in February 2004. Buddhist monks were keen to promote the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhists and to make Buddhism a guiding principle of state affairs, as well as to wipe out Tamil violence. The JHU ‘has fielded over 200 Buddhist monk candidates for the Parliamentary elections held on 2 April 2004 to elect 225 members of Parliament (Gamanpilla, 2012). 

The spread of the BBS is something that cannot be ignored. Report suggests that ‘many parts of the North-Western Province have been in recent times a hotbed of BBS activity. Areas such as Kuliyapitiya, Narammala, Mawathagama, Dambadeniya and Kurunegala town have seen anti-Muslim actions in the form of demonstrations, rallies, poster, and leaflet campaigns. Threatening letters have been sent in some places to Muslim businesses. Some shops too have been attacked in the night’ (Jeyaraj, 2013) These activities (the carrying of placards depicting Allah as a pig and burning of an effigy marked as Allah) are not only considered to be offensive to Muslims but also in the case of Sri Lanka Muslims, go to the heart of attacking the sense of identity and values they have been practicing.

In Puttalam (the north-west central province, where there is a sizeable population of Muslims), the abduction of two students studying at Zahira College shocked Muslims of the region and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. The abducted students were later released after being severely assaulted but are a shocking incident that does not bode well for the future. The BBS then subsequently expanded their anti-Muslim campaign by focusing on the Muslim dress. BBS President Ven. Kirama Vimalajothy Thera stated that ‘the BBS will announce in Kandy the commencement of a fresh campaign against the long garment covering the body’ worn by many Muslim women known as ‘Abaya’ in Arabic, ‘Burqa’ in Urdu and ‘Purdah’ in Farsi (Persian). The BBS, however, does not draw a distinction between the Abaya and the Hijab (which denotes scarf or veil covering the head rather than the whole body), describes the former as ‘Hijab’ which sends dangerous signals to Muslim women who adopt the hijab (and not the abaya). It is important to note that while Muslims have been the main target of the violence, there has on the whole, a rise of violence against different religious sites and members of different religious communities, with a number of incidents including mob attacks on places of worship; robberies and vandalism; the killing of clergy; protests against communities and the proliferation of hate speech on social media, the Internet and via the audio – visual media (Center for Policy Analysis, 2015). Unfortunately, these incidents have received little or no attention, either locally or internationally. Sri Lanka government dominated by Sinhala-Buddhist law makers demonstrated no interests to take actions against the BBS partly because some prominent law makers and politicians from the ruling party have good relationship with the BBS to gain support from Sinhala-Buddhist voters. To maximize the votes from Sinhala-Buddhists, Sri Lanka experiences suggest that the state and ruling politicians indirectly supported the extremist forces among Sinhala-Buddhists, who launched anti-Muslim violence and spread hatred against Muslims of Sri Lanka. 

As I wrote elsewhere (Imtiaz, & Mohamed-Saleem, 2015) that substantial portion of the Muslims surveyed drew a link between the rise of the Sinhala-Buddhist forces and Sinhala-Buddhist traders in the areas where Sinhalese are majority, but Muslim traders pose serious trade rivalry against the Sinhalese traders. Hence, the problem becomes more of an economic dispute over territory than because of religion. It is also the reason attributed to the inability of the government to take any solid action because of these economic forces. Because of this and a lack of action by the security forces and judiciary to bring people to justice, the confidence in the state and state apparatus has weakened leading some to conclude that they are the next target of ethnic violence following the defeat of the LTTE. This is not helped by the focus on markers of Muslim identity being particularly targeted in the form of attacks on mosques, the Halal certification issue and the challenge on women’s clothing. Thus, it appears that people felt that their very existence was being called into question.

State Fragility and the Emergence of Extremism among Sri Lankan Muslims 

Though Sri Lanka Muslims would claim they are peace-loving community and thus do not pose any threat to any community, or to the state and its institutions, the terrorist bombing by highly coordinated and well-planned suicide bombing by nine Sri Lankan Muslim men on Easter Sunday morning, 21 April 2019 that ripped through Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka and Batticaloa, a major city in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka critically challenged the Muslims’ claim to be a peaceful community in Sri Lanka. But the question was “Why?” such a highly coordinated and well-planned terrorist bombing was launched by some Muslims? A simple answer blames the Arabization of Sri Lankan Muslims, but there are some socio-political factors that contributed to the Easter bombing, which is now dubbed as Sri Lanka’s “September 11”.

Fragile state literature suggests that ungovernable status of states, the inability of states to function as an impartial entity and the state’s direct or indirect support for popular extremist groups contribute to violence and thus the state opens a way for polarization. In deeply divided societies when state and its institutions act partially in favor of a particular group or groups, a marginalized may resort to violence or extremism. 

Islamophobia has been one of the major trends in post-war Sri Lanka since 2009. There has been a wave of Islamophobic rhetoric and acts of violence against the Sri Lankan Muslim community being undertaken by extreme Sinhala-Buddhist groups (led by Buddhist monks), with tacit support from politicians, attacking places of worship and Islamic practices such as Halal food certification, cattle slaughter and dress code. Despite some high-profile cases such as a 2012 attack on a mosque in Dambulla, most incidents have received little or no attention locally or internationally. Of the accounted reports, there have been 65 cases of attacks on places of religious minority worship bearing the brunt of the violence, be they Christian, non-Theravada Buddhist, Hindu temples or Muslim mosques (Center for Policy Alternatives, 2015). This is seen as part of a coordinated hate campaign developed by an extreme Sinhalese-Buddhist organization called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has been responsible for inciting hatred, evident in the June 2014 attacks on Muslim businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwala, Shargatown and Dehiwala. 

Decline of Muslims’ Trust in the Sri Lankan Government

Political violence is often a by-product of socio-economic tensions. Given the numerous cleavages and tensions in fragile states in post-colonial societies, the factor that influences whether and how political violence breaks out is the way in which the political system deals with the tensions. Do political leaders and/or their supporters aggravate the tensions until they explode in violence? Do they recruit people to instigate acts of violence and then condone and protect them? In many cases, elite political leaders and/or their supporters believe they can win support and strengthen their positions by mobilizing along ethnic cleavages by resorting to violence or aggressive campaigns of hatred against the others. They anticipate that appeals to ethnic or religious hatred will be particularly effective in expanding or winning their power. Leaders sometimes encourage followers to use crude violence – pogroms or ethnic cleansing – or to exploit ethnic tensions in electoral politics. Outbidding opponents along ethnic lines is one of the strategies to win votes in (fragmented) societies that hold elections. This process often results in a polarization of the political system into ethnic divisions and a possible breakdown into violence. Marginalized minorities may suffer, emigrate or fight back with the weapons of the weak – terrorism and/or guerrilla activities (Brass, 1985). In this theoretical understanding, it is important to raise the question: what has motivated some Muslims to pursue violence. Has the rising tide of anti-Muslim campaigns in the island made some young and educated Muslims willingly turn themselves into suicide bombers?

Since the end of the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka in May 2009, one of the major trends in Sri Lanka is the emergence of anti-Muslim actions by Sinhala-Buddhists groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS-translated as the Buddhist Power Force). The campaign both online and on the ground has manifested in multiple forms, ranging from calls to boycott Muslim companies and Halal products, women’s clothing, to protests outside Muslim-owned retail outlets (Imtiyaz and Mohamed-Saleem, 2015)[4]. The campaign both online and on the ground has manifested in multiple forms, ranging from calls to boycott Muslim companies and Halal products, women’s clothing, to protests outside Muslim-owned retail outlets.

The wave of violence against Muslims since 2012 helped polarize the Sri Lankan polity while eroding the trust of Muslims in general over Sri Lanka’s state and its institutions. This trend challenged Sri Lanka’s stability because it resulted in a polarization and a possible breakdown into violence by some Muslims. The statement from Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ) President A.K. Hisham during his testimony before the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) appointed to probe the circumstances behind the Easter Sunday attack suggested that the 21 April terrorists “may have resorted to terrorism after the Beruwala and Digana incidents” (‘Zaharan came to Akkaraipattu a month prior to April 21 attack’, Onlanka, 2019). My communications in May 2019 with some Muslim university students from the Southeastern University and some lecturers suggested that Muslims were frustrated with the violence targeted against the Muslims by Sinhala mobs (Personal Communication, 2019). Some of them shared concerns that some Muslims might mirror the Tamil Tigers to punish the state and its institutions.

It is theoretically expected that the violence unleashed on Muslims by Sinhala-Buddhist extremist forces, which had a closer connection with the state and its institutions, could provoke a strong response from Muslim youth. It could be a triggering factor for radicalizing Muslim youth. Though the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has kept itself busy with business and trade, carefully planned violence by Sinhala mobs could have pushed some Muslims to resort to violence by marginalizing Muslim moderates and democratic political representations.


State fragility is one of the main sources of instability in developing countries. Ethno-political differences could be used by political forces and the state to win and/or consolidate power. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history suggests that politicization of ethnic relations has been an obstacle to effective, sustainable efforts to negotiate peace and combat poverty. 

Soon after the elections in 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike, declared Sinhala as the ONLY official language and provided state protection to Buddhism. The move from the state and Prime Minister of Ceylon was interpreted as concessions to the Sinhala-Buddhist constituencies and Sinhala-Buddhist extremists in general. In November 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa after assuming power as an executive President of Sri Lanka took early steps to politicize the state institutions; he appointed his own brother and former President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa Premier of the island. Both Rajapaksas enjoy popularity among Sinhala-extremist forces such as BBS. In addition, he filled the state media institutions with anti-peace journalists. Politicization of the state institution by the Sinhalese leaders further encouraged the minorities in general and Muslims in particular. Also, such politicization in the south popularizes the violent ideologies among Tamils, as Muslims increasingly lose trust in the Sinhala polity.

In electoral politics, parties need to compete for the votes. When a particular party in ethnically divided societies attempts to politicize ethnic identities by directly or otherwise supporting anti-other actions such as violence and propaganda for electoral gains, it is likely that other parties will follow a similar strategy to win votes and marginalized lose the trust in the system. As a result, the political leaders of the minorities/weaker sections may adopt similar electoral strategies, which may lead to an increase in violence among the people, particularly the marginalized. This explains some key reasons for the rise of Sinhala extremism and Tamil and Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, particularly during election time.

Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim violence highlights the violence that can result from the politicization of ethnic differences, particularly when one party systematically reacts to another’s violence through retaliation. Though majority of Muslims do not associate themselves with the violent movements among Muslims, a section of Muslims believes that some Muslim youth are compelled to employ violence because the successive Sri Lanka governments since the end of the war against the LTTE have reacted violently, and even terrorized the community. Equally, the Sri Lanka government, controlled by the majority Sinhalese, did not take any meaningful measures against the Sinhala extremists. 

A unique window exists to challenge the state fragility. That requires commitments from politicians, ruling elites and pressure from global democratic institutions. Sri Lanka needs cooperation with the democratic societies, including India. Extremism thrives in an absence of moderate forces in all ethno-religious groups. Therefore, Sri Lanka civil societies need to be trained to promote inclusive leaders in all ethno-religious groups. It is important to point out that not all Sinhala-Buddhists support Sinhala-Buddhist extremist forces or politicians who would resort to anti-Muslim campaigns. 

For Muslims, the question is how does the community defend itself against hegemonies while not seeming to embrace the global Islamist agenda? Muslims have struggled and continue to struggle to articulate Muslim grievances from the conflict in a manner that brings confidence to the other two parties of a sincerity of goals for the benefit of the whole country and in a manner that perhaps changes the current misconceptions regarding Muslims’ place in the conflict.

This study has attempted to identify and understand the fears, anxiety and problems among Muslims caused by the recent political mobilization by the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups. It has shown a growing uncertainty and apprehensiveness about community relations and their future in Sri Lanka. Muslims living in areas where Sinhalese are the majority have legitimate grievances, which deserve both local and global attention. While Muslims are aware of the challenges they are facing, they are also able to understand where they have gone wrong. There is a realization that exclusive social practices and values practice among Muslims themselves must be curtailed. This allows the beginning of a potential conversation in ensuring that tensions can be alleviated.

There is equally a responsibility on the government and state agencies like the security forces and the judiciary to restore confidence in them. The rule of law must be ensured, and perpetrators of hate speech and violence must be brought to book, something that has not happened yet. 

Sri Lanka needs to win reconciliation, justice and peace to build the nation and its economy. For this to happen, the state, ruling politicians and the minorities, including the Muslim community should work together to reach political settlements. This would help Sri Lanka to gain stability and prosperity.

[1] The older Northern and Eastern Provinces were merged under the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 into the Northeast Province, and then broken up again in October 2006 under the orders of the Supreme Court which described the merger as ‘unconstitutional, illegal and invalid’. Thus, the terms Eastern Province, Northern Province and Northeast Province are to be understood in this context. See ‘Judgment on Northeast Demerger’ [http://www.asiantribune.com/index.php?q糿ode/2578, accessed 15 Mar. 2011]. 17 ‘President Outlines Peace Strategy’ [http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200709/ 20070920president_outlines_peace_strategy.htm, accessed 12 December 2021].

[2] We Want Muslim Terrorism Probed—JHU Front’ [http://www.muslimguardian.com/pls/portal/ mpnews.mp_gl_sum.set_newsid? p_news_id?10995, accessed 9 Dec. 2008]. The JHU was founded by Buddhist monks in February 2004 and is inherently pro-Sinhalese in its ideology. The party’s major goal is ‘to promote the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhists and to make Buddhism a guiding principle of state affairs, as well as to wipe out Tamil violence by force. The JHU shuns non-violence to seek political alternatives for the Tamil national question and has been urging young Sinhala-Buddhists to sign up for the army’. The party has broad appeal among Sinhalese, particularly urban Sinhalese, and thus was able to form an electoral coalition with the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance led by the SLFP. See A.R.M. Imtiyaz, ‘Politicization of Buddhism and Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka’, in Ali Riaz (ed.), Religion and Politics in South Asia (London: Routledge, 2010), pp.146–78. Furthermore, the JHU completely opposes the United Nation panel report on the Sri Lanka war which highlights ‘credible allegations’ that the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE had both committed violations that could constitute crimes against humanity. The report claims that the Sri Lankan military ‘knowingly shelled in the vicinity of humanitarian actors’ and systematically killed some tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. The report also alleges that between January and May 2009, the Sri Lanka military forces indiscriminately shelled civilian hospitals located in the government-established no-fire zone. See ‘Reports of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’ (31 March 2011) 

[http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/ POE_Report_Full.pdf, accessed 3 November 2021].

[3] To many scholars, ideology deems to be a central cause for radicalization (Ariaratnam, 2018; Mostofa, 2021a; 2021b; 2021c; 2021d; Mostofa, 2020; Mostofa and Doyle, 2019).

[4] BBS is a radical Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist organization based in Colombo, Sri Lanka that was formed during 2012. BBS seeks the enforcement of Buddhist predominance in Sri Lanka. It has organized various campaigns against the country’s minority Muslim and Christian communities which, according to the organization, pose a threat to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist identity. BBS engages in hate speech and attacks against minority religions. Its headquarters are located at Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandira in Colombo. Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandira is owned by the Buddhist Cultural Center, an organization founded by Kirama Wimalajothi.


Ali A. (2006a). The Muslims of Sri Lanka: An ethnic minority trapped in a political quagmire. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5(3): 372–383. 

Ali, A. (2006b). The Muslims of Sri Lanka: An Ethnic Minority Trapped in a Political Quagmine, in Inter- Asia Cultural Studies, Vol.5, no.3 (2006), pp.372–83.

“Altuhgama Under Siege: Muslim Owned Shops Are Torched.” Colombo Telegraph, June 15, 2014. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/altuhgama-under-siege-muslim-ownedshops-are-torched

Ariaratnam, K. (2018, January 22). The Impending Threat of Islamic Radicalization: A look at Assimilation. Retrieved December 01, 2019, from NATO Institute: http://natoassociation.ca/the-impending-threat-of-islamic-radicalisation-a-look-at-assimilation/ 

Brass, R. P. (1985). Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

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Communications with the selected Muslims in the Southern Sri Lanka in 2019 via WeChat and skype.

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Deegalle, M. (2004) “Politics of the Jathika Hela Urumaya Monks: Buddhism and Ethnicity in Contemporary Sri Lanka” Contemporary Buddhism 5, no. 2: 83–103. doi:10.1080/ 1463994042000319816.

Eda.admin (2021). Poverty, instability, and violence in fragile states [https://www.eda.admin.ch/deza/en/home/themes-sdc/fragile-contexts-and-prevention/fragile-states.html] Accessed on 21. December 2021.

Ekanayaka, A.N.I. (2019). When People Say Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist Country What They May Actually Mean is that Sri Lanka Belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists Alone! https://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/64279. Accessed on December 15, 2021.

Gamanpilla, U. (2012). “Avoiding a Repeat of What Happened a Hundred Years Ago.” Ceylon Today, January 20

Hindustantimes. (2008). To whom does the country belong? https://www.hindustantimes.com/world/to-whom-does-the-country-belong/story-Yjl0ciOnDl68GTNmIxs7bM.html Accessed on 22 December 2021

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Interviewed via skype and WeChat around 25 Sri Lankan Muslims. (2019). 15 of them are men and 10 of them are women aged between 20–55 from Colombo, Sainthamaruthu, Galle, Gampaha and Jaffna districts. Interview took place in April and May 2019.

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Mostofa S.M. (2021b). Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh. Critical Studies of the Asia-Pacific. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-79171-1 

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*Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz teaches courses related ethnic conflicts, South Asia and China. He has published widely in top peer review journals both in the US and the UK. He can be contacted at mohamedimtiyaz@yahoo.com. Follow him at twitter: https://twitter.com/Imtiyazpeace. Above article is the chapter he wrote for In: Mostofa, S.M. (eds) Dynamics of Violent Extremism in South Asia. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-7405-2_6

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I read the opening paragraph and decide not to read any further.
    The whole world knows who is behind the Easter attack

    • 6

      Rajash I also live in this world and I don’t know for sure whether there was a master brain other than the mad Mullah !

      If you know, why don’t you tell us, with the evidence you have !

  • 4

    In the company of one of the rogues in saffron robes a muslim man destroyed a hindu shrine in Anuradhapura a few years ago. Muslim sri lanka politicians went to the UN and other international forums and publicly advocated that there was NO discrimination and human rights abuses against minorities in sinhala land. Now after creating and indirectly and directly aiding the discrimination and human rights violations by the sinhalas against the ceylonese tamils, THEM muslims are now the target of their erstwhile sinhala allies. Why complain instead of wallowing in it, about what you muslims were instrumental in bringing upon yourselves.

  • 4

    Once in the west is a small city mall there were a bunch of muslims with a sign: Islam is a Peaceful religion. I bluntly told these wankers that their religion being peaceful was Bullshit!!! See what is hapeening in Paki land ie Paki government financing terrorists to attack indians and NOW them terrorits blowin up Pakis even in mosques!!!!

  • 4

    A historically accurate and widely researched article. The long list of references adds to its “credibility” as a proper academic article. However, while condemning the atrocious law-enforcement and judicial systems that are in no way just or fair let alone legitimate in their acts and omissions, the story of lament has two sides which need closer examination. I condemn wholeheartedly, the bigotry of the so-called “Sinhala-Buddhists” whose practicing is nowhere near the teachings of the Buddha but mere arrogant symbolism akin to frogs in a well who know nothing of the world outside. However, on the flip side is the enormous gulf between concepts adhered to by the Muslim community and their “decadent” Sinhala neighbours. There is also the remarkable transformation of Muslim attire from largely secular to extremely conservative that has raised the ire of ordinary people world-wide. The hardening of attitudes is not only due to mere political puppetry or skullduggery but ideological as well. The radicalization of a community thus has a multi-faceted origin or genesis. Alienation is thus enabled where the political vermin benefit at enormous cost to public life.

  • 2

    The saying is apt: When thieves fall out honest men get their dues.

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