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Is Sri Lanka's spurned Muslim minority ripe for fundamentalism?

The island nation's Muslim minority was driven into camps 17 years ago. Rising frustration over their plight raises concerns they'll turn to radical forms of Islam.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2007

Puttalam, Sri Lanka

Ten-year-old Haris is told regularly by his father that home is a rice farm in Mullativu, in northern Sri Lanka. But the child was born in a coconut-leaf shanty in a camp in Puttalam, on the west coast, where he has lived ever since. When asked where he is from, Haris replies, quick as a dart: "This place."

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Seventeen years ago, all the Muslims from Sri Lanka's northern province, at least 75,000 of them, were expelled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. Fleeing the rebels, most ended up in Puttalam, already a predominantly Muslim region, where thousands still live in basic leaf huts, depending on charity and the odd day of manual labor to survive.

The Tigers' anti-Muslim campaign of 1990 is a largely forgotten chapter in Sri Lanka's long ethnic war between the Tigers, who are fighting for a northeastern homeland for the minority Tamils, and the government, which mostly represents the Sinhalese majority. The conflict has heated up in the last several weeks. On Wednesday, in restive northern Sri Lanka, a roadside bomb killed 16 people on a bus. That attacked followed twin bombings in Colombo, the capital, last week that killed 20 people.

As Sri Lanka's Peace Secretariat, a body established by the government to find a peaceful solution to the war, noted in a statement on Oct, 29 "comparatively little concern was being paid by donors and the international community to this long-standing tragedy."

And yet it is one of the nastiest of the war – and it continues to do lasting damage. In the east, up to 1,000 Muslims were slaughtered by the rebels in a two-month killing spree in 1990, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). Here, where Tamils and Muslims coexist in neighboring villages, animosity has replaced their once cordial relationship.

Observers worry that some of the displaced Muslims here are channeling their frustration – over their poverty and living conditions and their inability to return home – into more fundamentalist versions of Islam. Most Sri Lankan Muslim women cover their heads with their saris, but in the east, women have started to wear the long black abaya for the first time. More fundamentalist Islamic groups – like the Jamaat-i Islamiya and the Tabligh al-Jamaat – are growing more popular here, according to the ICG.

Part of the problem is that, due to the geographical dispersal of Muslims in Sri Lanka, there is little sense of a Sri Lankan Muslim identity; indeed, this is in part why their suffering has received so little attention from the international community.

While Tamils and Sinhalese define themselves in terms of their language and history, Muslims are only distinguishable from their fellow Sri Lankans by their religion. This, as well as a global resurgence in more orthodox forms of Islam, has intensified the religious beliefs and practices of some Muslims here.

Muslims are also the island's smallest minority: Tamils constitute 12 percent of the population; Muslims 8. And yet Shahul Hasbullah, senior lecturer in geography at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, says a disproportionately high number of those currently displaced by the war are Muslim – "perhaps as many as 25 percent."

The ICG report notes: "In this context of rising nationalism and a constant search for identity and differentiation, the growth among Muslims of ultra-orthodox groups is not surprising. Yet, for the most part, Muslims remain moderate in their views and tolerant of difference."