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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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."

Ripe for radicals?

Some worry that the young people in Puttalam – who know only the difficult life of the camps – are the ones most likely to be drawn to more radical versions of Islam, says Mujeeb Rahaman, who was evicted from his home in Mannar, Sri Lanka, when he was 14. He now runs the Muslim Information Centre, a human rights group.

"It hasn't happened yet, but there is a lot of anger, especially among young people," he says.

Currently, the biggest problems in the area concern the original Muslim inhabitants and the displaced Muslims. Relations between the two are growing dangerously tense, says a report published by the Campaign to Restore the Rights of the Ethnically Cleaned Northern Muslims, an organization formed by displaced Muslims, on Oct. 27.

The 75,000-plus internal refugees, many of whom have had children since they arrived, has doubled the original population of this area, putting heavy pressure on jobs, housing, and education. Puttalam's original residents are quick to agree.

"We did all we could for them when they first arrived," says Shahad Muhammed, an amiable businessman. "But they're placing an unbearable strain on resources. They work cheap, so they've taken people's jobs. They take education, healthcare, too. The situation has created a lot of hate."

Abdullah Mahmood Alim, the white-haired principal of a local madrassah, says: "In the mosques, our imams stress Islamic brotherhood to prevent clashes. But I worry about the future."

Neighbors turned enemies

Only two decades ago, Sri Lanka's Muslims and Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, shared a common grievance over their discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. A number of Muslims in the north and east even joined the Tigers as fighters.

"I remember the LTTE guys walking through our village with their guns and radios," says Rizni Mohammed, who is from Mullativu and now lives in Puttalam. " Back then, they seemed quite glamorous."

But by the late 1980s the Tigers had decided that the presence of Muslims in their would-be homeland threatened their eventual control of it. This belief was bolstered when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) contested the 1988 North Eastern provincial council election despite Tiger demands they boycott it.

Since then, however, the SLMC has failed to gain sway over most Muslim voters – highlighting the community's lack on unity. In the south, many Muslims vote for Sinhalese-dominated mainstream parties. At the last parliamentary elections in 2004, the SLMC won a mere 2 percent of the votes.

The war, meanwhile, rages as fiercely as it has ever done. In the camps of Puttalam, many older people seem miserably resigned to the fact that they will never, now, make it home.

After a cease-fire agreement was signed in 2002, several did return to the north. The few who found their houses standing or uninhabited were once again kicked out by the rebels when the ceasefire folded last year.

Mohammed Fareed found his farm destroyed when he went home to Mullativu in 2003. Sitting in the miniscule front room of his leaf shack, which is closed off from the family bedroom by a cardboard wall, the impeccably mannered former farmer says he thinks of home every day. "I lost everything," he says. "I miss everything."

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