The Religious Tensions Behind the Attacks in Sri Lanka

How Sectarianism Could Spin Out of Control

The series of suicide bombings at Christian churches and hotels in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, on Easter Sunday threatened to rip apart the country’s complex ethno-religious fabric. The government has blamed the attacks on two obscure Islamist groups called the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim and the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ). It appears the latter has links to jihadists outside Sri Lanka, including the Islamic State, or ISIS. If that attribution bears out, the attacks are likely to inflame tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority—and to promote sectarianism in the wider region, too.


Sri Lanka is no stranger to terrorism, having lived through a nearly three-decade-long civil war that pitted the majority Sinhalese against minority Tamil separatist organizations, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During the war, the LTTE carried out dozens of suicide attacks. But last weekend’s carnage was unprecedented. The bombs killed over 300 people and injured at least 500 more.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has long bridled at the austere, Wahabi-influenced practices the NTJ propounds. But aside from making the news last year for desecrating some statues of the Buddha, the NTJ was hardly known to non-Muslims in Sri Lanka until this week. Now, however, the group has taken center stage in a long-running ethno-religious drama. Beginning around 2012, extremist Buddhist groups, emboldened by the LTTE’s defeat in the civil war, began targeting Muslims, even though most Muslims supported the state against Tamil separatism. Based on preliminary reports, it appears that anti-Muslim violence may have influenced some of last weekend’s attackers to join the NTJ. If so, that suggests an unsurprising lesson: further violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will only radicalize others. 

Sri Lanka has long operated as an ethnocracy dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up 70 percent of the population. This was the main spur for the Tamils’ separatist campaign. By switching to targeting Muslims, who constitute less than ten percent of the population, Buddhist extremists sought to open up a new ethnoreligious fissure and then exploit it. Stereotypes of Muslims—the idea that traders fleece non-Muslims, for example, and that the Muslim community is more loyal to predominantly Islamic countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—coupled with the Muslim community’s relative insularity have made their Islamophobia all the more effective.


A Sri Lankan Muslim woman (R) looks on at a checkpoint in Colombo on April 30, 2019. (Getty)

Muslims have pushed back against efforts to marginalize them. Muslim elites have worked diligently to ensure that young people do not react violently to the burgeoning anti-Muslim agitprop, and some Muslims have protested against the Islamist extremism within their communities and provided the state with intelligence on extremists. NTJ’s attacks will obscure those efforts and give Buddhist nationalists fodder for their anti-Muslim agenda. Most of the victims were Sinhalese and Tamil Christians, a fact that may lead to the creation of a broader anti-Muslim coalition. That could plunge the country into ethno-religious crisis once again.       

Even if Sri Lanka avoids this dire scenario, the country is in for a bout of political instability. The Indian intelligence services, which keep close tabs on Islamists in the region, warned their Sri Lankan counterparts of impending attacks weeks ago. Yet the bad blood between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (partly stemming from Sirisena’s failed attempt to sack Wickremesinghe late last year) led the president to exclude the prime minister from National Security Council meetings. As a result, the prime minister and the cabinet were left uninformed of India’s warnings. After the attacks, the initial calls for unity and calm were quickly overtaken by ministers allied with Wickremesinghe questioning the actions of the president. Charges and counter-charges of blame for the government’s abject failure to forestall the terrorists are flying back and forth.


The ethnic and religious fallout from the attacks is likely to ripple across the region. India, the region’s dominant power, has long played a role in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics. In the late 1980s, it tried to end the civil war by brokering a pact between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE, however, refused to disarm, and the Indian peacekeeping force ended up fighting the group even as a new Sri Lankan government, fearful of India’s designs, demanded the peacekeepers’ withdrawal. India has made great efforts in the ensuing years to overcome the ill feelings the peacekeeping operation generated among Sinhalese and Tamils. Throughout, India’s nearly 70 million-strong Tamil population has kept a watchful eye on the conditions of their co-ethnics in Sri Lanka. No government in New Delhi can entirely overlook them, as they constitute an important electoral force.

Now the Indian government’s real focus, however, will be on India’s nearly 200 million Muslims. Few of them have responded to the siren call of global Islamic jihad. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the throes of an election campaign, lost no time in telling voters that only his party could end terrorism in the region. Since all the suicide bombers are believed to have been Muslims, Modi’s sectarian message was hardly obscure. 

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists harbor ambivalent feelings toward India, but they now share a common Islamophobic agenda with India’s Hindu zealots. Should former President Mahinda Rajapaksa return to power in this year’s presidential elections—a real possibility—India’s Hindu nationalists and Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalists will be able to forge a common anti-Islam platform. Combined with the presence of Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan, the rise of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh, and ongoing unrest in predominantly Muslim Indian-controlled Kashmir, an anti-Islamic front would further rupture communal relations in both India and Sri Lanka and foment Islamic radicalism across South Asia. The Easter Sunday bombings may yet claim more victims.

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