Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy Through The Eyes Of Dissent

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Investigations have identified the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a Wahabi faction from Kattankudy, near Batticaloa as the perpetrators of Sri Lanka’s Easter terror attacks. The story of the advance of Wahabi terror within the Muslim community intermeshes with the transformation of the urbane Tamil nationalism of the educated middle class demanding language and territorial rights, an issue on which the Muslims in the Eastern Province shared common aspirations. In both instances, the infliction of communal violence (against the Muslims particularly in 2014 and 2018) with casual impunity, played an important role in the transformation,

Once the LTTE asserted sole dominance of the Tamil struggle through ruthless terror, the democratic aspirations of the early Tamil militancy drawn from other liberation struggles, died; and with it the prospect of resolving local differences with Muslims by democratic means. The LTTE’s approach to Muslims through force and arrogance culminated in its Kattankudy mosque and the Eravur massacres in August 1990.

The Government quickly set up the Muslim home guards, which became a paramilitary arm of the Defence Ministry and a nuisance to local Muslim civilians. The LTTE’s ruthlessness and success, albeit transient, was a model not lost on its detractors. Its practice of branding opponents traitors as the harbinger of coming menace, matched well the progress of Wahabi influence in Muslim areas from the 1980s. 

In Tamil society, its nationalist politicians found in the militant youth extra-legal means to secure parliamentary seats, as exemplified in the 1975 murder of Alfred Duraiappa. Similarly the moderate Muslim politicians and the Wahhabi religious elders came to depend on thuggery by their youthful followers to secure their places in parliament or to forcibly take over mosques of the traditional Sufi sects. There was no escape from the sinews of such unholy dependence.

These are conditions under which dissent is crushed and dishonoured. We begin our inquiry from the standpoint of Muslim women who have challenged the advance of Wahabism on the ground. Focussing on global terror, makes us lose sight of local responsibility.

As seen from the Ground

Sabina (not her real name), a Muslim who worked tirelessly for Tamil victims of our long drawn conflict, told me of their apprehension of imminent havoc: “We saw the monster growing before our eyes. Many moderate Muslims complained to the authorities, as several leaders in Kattankudy did last August and again in February. We shared on February 10th a video clip of Zahran, in which he called for the killing of oppressors of Muslims, through Whatsapp with several individuals linked to the government and the opposition. Nothing happened. We learnt that when a person at the Prime Minister’s office apprised a trusted moderate Muslim leader of this video, the latter dismissed it as nothing very serious. That was the end of it. She also said that she sent this video to Facebook and she understood that the FB in turn has informed the Sri Lankan authorities. 

On the proliferation of hate through narrow religion, Sabina said that in January 2018 in the run up to the 2018 local council elections, Moulavi Siddeq Niyas from the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamath (SLTJ) originally from Oddamavadi, taking issue with women contestants with uncovered faces on posters (Hoole), gave the names of several Muslim women who demonstrated before Parliament for reform in September 2017, including hers, and said that they should be killed in order that Islam could progress. The Elections Commission could have called for his arrest under election laws, but failed to do so. Zahran who split from the SLTJ to form the All Ceylon Thowheed Jamath in 2014, again split to form the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). 

Sabina explained, “In the development of an oppressive ideology, their first target is the control of women and forcing on them dress and behaviour forms that make them strangers to the people they long lived among. In turn their children are brainwashed into xenophobia by the same moulavis.

“You saw what the LTTE did among Tamils through ideological control. When it suited them they used women as suicide bombers. At other times they merely wanted them to be instrumental bearers of fighters.” 

The Easter bombings left the Island’s Muslim clerical establishment in a tizzy. Responding to the attack on Muslims on 5th May, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith went to Negombo and held the hand of Rizwi Mufti, the President of the All-Ceylon Jammatul Ulema (ACJU) and said that they both worshipped the same God. It was a culmination of conciliatory attitudes by churches, the main targets of the Easter violence, which restored a measure of calm to the Island. Muslim women, who have fought the ACJU on reform of laws relating to women, see in the outcome an entrenchment of the Wahabi establishment represented by the ACJU, whose ideological offspring were the Easter bombers.

Deep State or Bungling State?

The militancy of the Thowheed Jamath has its origins in the Fatwa issued by the ACJU in 1989 against the popular Sufi teacher Abdullah (Pailwan) of Maruthamunai in the East, declaring him and his followers as apostates; and the setting up of Muslim home guard units in 1990. The fatwa was evidently based on a biased reading of Abdullah’s book in Tamil Do You Know the Truth of Iman?, and after many court hearings, the ACJU in 1996, revoked the fatwa (Schwartz). However, the original fatwa served as a licence for violence and persecution against Pailwan and his followers. The ACJU appears to have done little to support the victims. On mid-day October 31, 2004, 500 Wahabis organized under the title “Jihad” again set the Meditation Centre of Pailvan’s followers in the centre of Kattankudy ablaze, destroying 117 buildings owned by Sufis and one Sufi was shot and killed by gunfire (Schwartz).

The alleged mastermind of the Easter carnage makes his photographic appearance in the Sunday Times feature of 16th August 2009 (Kamalendran), dealing with Wahabi violence against Sufi groups, as Moulavi M.C. (Mohammed Cassim) Zahran, Propaganda Secretary of the Thowheed group in Kattankudy. He denied that they were an armed group with external funding. Another Thowheed follower M.P. Azmi said, “We have a duty to correct the Muslims who are going on the wrong path. That is what we are doing.” The same report said that an unspecified number of Muslim home guards had deserted with their weapons, and sections calling themselves the Jihad joined a holy war against infidels. The report quoted Saudi Embassy Counsellor Mr. Al Khenene that while the Saudi Government was not helping Islamic groups in the country, ‘certain wealthy persons’ were aiding the construction of mosques. 

While up to a point the localised thuggery of the Thowheed suited the Wahabi controlled ACJU, by 2014 its aggressive zeal and growing splits had the ACJU worried. The Tamil daily Veerakesari of 15th Mar. 2017 reported a meeting of the NTJ in Kattankudy where pro-ISIS slogans were shouted, leading to a clash. We verified that it was an attack on the Sufi mosque of Moulavi Rauff led by Zahran, on 10th Mar. 2017. A clash ensued when others came to the defence of the mosque. Zahran was among those the Police arrested, who despite having caused injuries with swords, were soon released through political influence. Among them was Mohamed Niyas, who is said locally to have left for the Middle East and was seen again just before the Easter attack. He was among those who committed suicide when the security forces went to his hideout in Sainthamaruthu, south of Kattankudy. Women who campaigned for reform had filed a case against Mohamed Niyas for defamation, scheduled for hearing on 14th March 2017. They learnt that all of a sudden, he and his brother had plenty of money. 

Soon after the Easter bombing Rizwi Mufti told a meeting of religious leaders at the Parliamentary Complex (28 Apr. 2019) that in June 2014, he had given ‘all the documents’ on ISIS activity, to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He wanted him to arrest certain persons. His warnings, he said were ignored by the Rajapaksa government and its successor of 2015 (Rizwi). 

However, the Defence Ministry had routinely infiltrated the parent Sri Lanka Thowfeed Jamath (SLTJ). Its agent was the Secretary Moulavi Razik, also known for his fiery Wahabi sermons, and as Gotabaya’s man. CBS reported (3rd May 2019), “”We asked the intelligence agencies to take down the Facebook page of Zahran because he was polluting the minds of Sri Lankan Muslims,” Razik said.” We were told it is better to allow him to have the page so that the authorities could keep an eye on [him].”” The government spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne (2 May), has used the Razik link to claim that Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) was the paymaster of Thowheed Jamath and the Buddhist extremist BBS through a secret Defence Ministry account. Thowheed Jamath pointed to several fractious outfits and it was the Defence Secretary’s job to pay spies, even in the BBS.

GR has to answer a more apposite question. There was copious information about the incendiary activity and the hate rhetoric of Wahabi militants in Kattankudy, and their receipt of large funds. How did GR allow the grass of Wahabi terror to grow under his feet? Moreover, has not the BBS, whose anti-Muslim terror has begotten much mischief, and to which GR has well-publicised links, been a major cause of the pain forcing on Muslims the yoke of Wahabi extremism?

Zahran’s video address of early 2019 February raises questions that have puzzled observers. Likenesses to the LTTE are striking, as the injunction to kill traitors instantly without pity. But the thrust of the message was the consignment to hell by the droves of Buddhist extremists, who have killed Muslims and vandalised their mosques and businesses. Then why attack churches? Once the video was out, time was running out for Zahran. Unlike the LTTE, Zahran’s followers had to function in urban settings, cheek by jowl with hostile rival Thowheeds infiltrated by state intelligence. He used brainwashed family units as operational cover. 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced his presidential candidacy for the coming election as the man to rid the country of Islamic terrorism, after his record of championing Buddhist extremism while being arrogantly blind to its effect on Muslims. His years as defence secretary were spent crying wolf about an armed LTTE revival. The eight or so intelligence agencies he left behind slumbered through the impending danger. When two policemen were killed last November in Vavunativu, three miles through lagoon and scrubland from Kattankudy, the Police arrested two former LTTE cadres under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Only investigations after Easter confirmed that it was the NTJ.  

The tragedy of a non-secular state

Sri Lanka’s non-secular state, obliged since the 1972 Constitution to protect and foster Buddhism, has encouraged other major religious establishments to demand and successfully carve out their small kingdoms, to include even nominally secular universities. This milieu has been the basis for the ACJU’s tyranny over groups of increasingly educated and articulate Muslim women who have for thirty years agitated for the reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) that would bring the rights of Muslim women in line with those of women of other communities. 

These women point out that reform is necessary not just for the Muslim community, but for peace in the country. The cracks and the bereavements of Easter will be papered over, the leaders of civil society and the muftis will shake hands amidst smiles and go away. But the real problem, which is Wahabi ascendancy and xenophobia, will remain hidden. The alienation and isolation of the Muslim community, which was at the root of the Easter tragedy, will continue. 

The reforms demanded are very basic and include a bar on child marriage, mandatory registration of Muslim marriages and to raise the age of marriage for Muslim women from 12 to near 18. Spearheading the resistance to reform is the ACJU, and this has become the ground for extremist abuse of women demanding reform. These women point out that the effect of the Easter carnage, by temporarily at least incapacitating the terrorist extreme, has entrenched the power of the ACJU over Muslims despite some embarrassment. They point out that its head, Rizwi Mufti, who earlier called women who did not wear the veil prostitutes, has now asked them to remove the veil.

Their main fear is the ACJU’s perpetuation of the Wahabi stranglehold, which will not countenance reform particularly of the MMDA, which is essential to free Muslim women from their present isolation; which opens the floodgates to unsubstantiated propaganda, presenting the community as conspiratorially expanding their influence through high birth rates. Association of a community’s strength with mere numbers is an illusion fostered by the electoral system. It is not a symbol of strength when a Muslim girl from the East says at a demonstration for reform before Parliament: “I was forced to become a mother of twins at 13, when I should have been bearing schoolbooks. It was with a sense of nausea that I beheld my infants calling me Umma (Mother). My husband left me and I do not have support from anyone.”

An important reason why MMDA reform is stuck, the women reformers say, is because, most Muslim men who have reached the pinnacle of their careers, especially in public service, will not go against the ACJU’s dictates. Conservatism is reinforced by direct Saudi influence. We were reliably told by persons in authority that in the Muslim Fatwa Council of about 45 headed by Rizwi Mufti, up to a dozen are paid by the Saudi Government.

An allied topic which lies at the back of Sri Lanka’s tragedy is the politicisation and collapse of law enforcement, where politicians have usurped the roles of an independent police and judiciary. The independence of religious establishments too is open to question. The effects are seen in the failures of law enforcement above and in the ineffectiveness of protection afforded to the minority that stands up for principles.   


Schwartz, Stephen and Al-Alawi, Irfan, The Wahhabi Invasion Of Sri Lanka,

Kamalendran, Chris, Fuard, Asif, Unholy tension in Lanka’s Muslim East,

Hoole, Ratanajeevan, Women candidates under attack, The Island, 21 Jan.2018

Rizwi Mufti

Back to Home page