The Easter Sunday terrorist suicide bombings that hit Sri Lanka on April 21 caused profound shock to the South Asian nation. With at least 250 people killed and 500 injured, it was the worst violence that Sri Lanka has seen since its civil war (1983-2009). Although ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, it is likely that a domestic jihadist group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath was responsible. Both churches and hotels were targeted, thus threatening the country’s precarious religious harmony and its budding tourism industry. Indeed, the bombings targeted Sri Lanka’s sizable Christian minority community and one of its fastest growing industries, with expected losses to be around $1.5 billion USD.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Sri Lanka has been characterized by further violence and increasing social anxiety. The country’s security forces launched an operation to crack down on suspected accomplices, and on Friday confronted suspicious individuals who ended up being family members of the alleged organizer of the attacks, Zahran Hashim. Hashim’s father and two brothers blew themselves up along with others, including six children, three women, and some police officers. According to Reuters, the three men were seen in a video calling for an all-out war on non-Muslims. Along with a number of raids, which have arrested more than 100 suspects, the Sri Lankan government has decided to ban face coverings. Like similar bans on face coverings for women in France and Denmark, the move is likely to further inflame tensions between the Islamic community and the rest of Sri Lankan society.
How did Sri Lanka, a country which had largely avoided religious violence (as compared to other South Asian states), end up with one of the worst terrorist incidents in the region?
It is useful to survey the evolving religious history of the Indian Ocean state to have a better sense of why on Easter Sunday this year, religiously-inspired violence took place. The religious identity of Sri Lanka has been shaped by centuries of interactions between Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. However, most interactions of a confrontational nature have been between Muslims and Christians.
Islam is said to have arrived in Sri Lanka around the ninth century, during the early centuries of the religion. Introduced by traders from the Persian Gulf, seeking spices and silk, it wove itself into the tapestry of Sri Lankan identity.
Later in the 16th century, the dominant European naval powers of the day—Portugal and the Netherlands—arrived on the island, seeking trade and access to the region’s rich supply of commodities. Almost instantly the European powers clashed with the local Muslim community. The Portuguese pushed local monarchs to limit the Muslims’ share of Indian Ocean trade. The Dutch, meanwhile, refused to allow Muslim merchants to reside in the Fort and Pettah merchant district of Colombo.
Under British rule, the Muslim community became distinctly segregated from the rest of Sri Lankan society, such as with its adoption of the fez and all-enveloping veils for women, and occasionally clashed with other religious communities.
Today, the influence of fundamentalist Islam, particularly among young Muslims, is quite strong. Money from religious organizations based in the Arabian Peninsula has poured into the country, and young Muslims have foregone the traditions of Sri Lankan Islam in favor of radical ideologies emanating from Gulf States. Such beliefs have led to a further isolation of the island’s Muslim community and have allowed such groups as ISIS and Al-Qaeda to gain influence.
It was this radicalization of Muslims that helped inspire the Easter Sunday attacks. As the country mourns the dead, tends to the wounded, and seeks to find peace from the carnage, one of the major issues that the Sri Lankan government and people will inevitably have to deal with is how to resolve the tense religious frictions that have become evident. It is hoped that all of Sri Lanka’s religious communities will come together and denounce any sort of violence targeted at such communities and express unity, resolve, and solidarity.
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