While the emergence of armed Islamic groups in Sri Lanka’s explosive Eastern province as well as increasing clashes between moderate and hardline Muslims are cause for serious concern, the raising specter of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism there is just as worrying.
For several years, reports from the violence-torn, ethnically diverse Eastern province have drawn attention to the emergence of armed Muslim groups. Names such as Osama Group, the Muttur Jetty Group and the Knox Group have often figured into reports in the media. Analysts this correspondent spoke to in Colombo recently admitted to hearing about Islamic militias active in the East but not knowing much about them.
While “money from the Middle East” is believed to be funding the Muslim militias in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province, it is local concerns – fear of anti-Muslim violence by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and apprehension that the Sri Lankan government would not address Muslim grievances – that appear to be encouraging Muslims to take up arms. The easy availability of guns in this strife-torn province has facilitated the emergence of armed militias among Muslims.
During the 1980s, it was the Sri Lankan government of the time – specifically the Special Task Force – that provided Muslims with weapons, ostensibly so they could protect themselves against Tamil militant groups. By arming Muslims, sections in the Lankan government were also hoping to deepen the divide between the Tamils and the Muslims in the Eastern province. When the LTTE unleashed violence against Muslims from 1990 onwards, many Muslim lads picked up weapons, if only to protect their homes and villages from Tiger terror.
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is often depicted as one between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamils. The Muslim dimension of the conflict is often ignored. Most Sinhalese are Buddhists while most Tamils are Hindus, although there are a sizeable number of Tamil Christians as well. Unlike the island’s Buddhists, Christians or Hindus, whose identity stems from the language that they speak, religion determines the identity of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. The Muslims speak Tamil in Tamil-dominated areas and Sinhalese on the rest of the island.
The demographic complexity of the Eastern province – once predominantly Tamil, it is today a volatile mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations – makes it a veritable ethnic tinderbox. It is the East that witnessed the worst of the two-decades-long civil war. It was here that the bloodiest inter-ethnic killings and internecine fighting took place. It is here that the ceasefire today is the most fragile. And it is the East that is expected to explode first if the current ceasefire collapses. It is in this context that the reported proliferation of armed Muslim militias assumes importance. Unlike in the past, when Muslims were by and large at the receiving end of violent attacks by government forces and Tiger militants, this time the Muslim militias can be expected to unleash violence and fight back.
Armed Muslim groups have existed for several years in the East. What has heightened concern about them today is that they are being equated with jihadi groups. The post-September 11, 2001, paranoia with all things Muslim has resulted in many Sri Lankans and others equating the visible assertion of Muslim identity – more women wear the burqa and the hijab today than they did in the past, especially in the East but also in cities like the capital Colombo – with growing Islamic fundamentalism.
There is a visible assertion of orthodox Islamists within the Muslim community. Radical Muslims are said to have attacked moderate Muslims for engaging in “un-Islamic activity”, such as gambling, drinking and so on. They have attacked Muslims belonging to more liberal and syncretic sects. In October last year, followers of Sufi Islam in the town of Kattankudy near Batticaloa in the Eastern province were attacked and their mosque demolished by mobs incited by orthodox Wahhabi clerics trained in Saudi Arabia. It was even reported that hundreds of Sufi Muslims were forcibly converted to the orthodox faith.
But this assertion of orthodoxy is only in a few pockets. It is not widespread. Reports of the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the East are not just a flawed reading of the current situation, but also they are dangerous. Analysts are warning that the specter of Islamic extremism could be used by the LTTE to convince countries such as India and the United States, which have branded it as terrorist and are intensely worried about radical Islamists, that the Tigers could serve as an important buffer against the rise of radical Islamist groups in the East.
Tisarane Gunasekara, writing in the Asian Tribune, argues: “If it can be shown that armed Islamic fundamentalists exist and are becoming stronger in the East, then it will be easy to divert the attention of the global and the regional superpowers away from the Tigers to this new threat. In fact, in such a context the LTTE might even be able to persuade one or both countries to accept its presence as a necessary buffer against the growing ‘Islamic threat’ and perhaps even to become an ally in the struggle against this new threat.”
There are people who are willing to buy the argument of the immense threat currently posed by Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka. In April, Steen Joergensen, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission chief for the Batticaloa district, expressed his concern over growing religious extremism among Muslims. “I do not think it is a healthy sign if Muslims here practice their religion as extremists do,” Joergensen told the Pakistani daily Dawn. “There are indications that Muslims in the region are incited with extremists views. I have seen a clear increase in the number of completely covered women. A large number of people are sent to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran in the orthodox way.”
Incidentally, Joergensen hasn’t spoken up about the acquisition of arms by the LTTE, its conscription of children, its killing of political opponents and so on, even though these are violations of the 2002 ceasefire agreement. But the assertion of Muslim identity is seen as a worrying threat.
The assertion of Islamic fundamentalism in the East and the emergence of armed Muslim militias there is also worrying. However, the problem is not as serious as it is being made out. The militias are still small – most of them have about a dozen men. And while they might spew jihadi rhetoric occasionally and have names linking themselves to al-Qaeda, they appear to be driven more by local concerns – protecting themselves and their people against the LTTE – rather than by global visions of jihad. Neither do they seem keen to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.
At the same time, the threat posed by these militias to the security situation in the East could turn problematic in the future. And that would become difficult to tackle if the Islamic fundamentalism that is visible in pockets today grips the community, providing the militias the support they need to thrive.
To nip in the bud the long-term threat posed by radical Islamic groups it is essential that Sri Lanka tackles the clear and present danger posed by the LTTE’s campaign to silence the claims of Muslims and of Tamils who don’t agree with its methods. Successive Sri Lankan governments have ignored the claims of Muslims in order to appease the LTTE. This has had the effect of deepening Muslim alienation and anger.
The most effective buffer against the proliferation of radical Islamic groups in Sri Lanka’s east would be a provision of institutional guarantees protecting the security and rights of Muslims. Believing that the LTTE could be an effective buffer against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is naive and foolish. The LTTE cannot provide the solution when it is part of the problem.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.