The Dilemma facing Moderate Muslims and the State in Sri Lanka: Incisive Thoughts from Ranga Jayasuriya

Ranga Jayasuriya, in Daily Mirror, 30 April  2019, where the title is “How Wahhabism was fostered until it’s too late”

On Friday, the imam of a Sufi mosque in Saindamarudu was alerted by the locals about a suspicious crowd in a house in the neighbourhood housing scheme called, Bolivia village. That is an exclusively Muslim housing scheme of 400 houses built after the Indian Ocean tsunami. The owner of one of the houses there had given his residence on rent to a man who claims to be a telecom engineer from Kattankudy; since new tenants moved in, he has observed a stream of unusual visitors to his house.

A delegation from the local mosque, the Grama Sevaka and the owner visited the house to inquire and were confronted by the angry tenants.   The locals then alerted a passer -by traffic cop. A police team was dispatched from Kalmunai Police , and was fired upon as they approached the house.  Police Special Task Force and army were called in for help. As the troops encircled the house and evacuated residents in the nearby houses, around three gunmen kept firing. Later in the night, three explosions believed to be suicide blasts ripped through the house. Following day, troops found the remains of three men, believed to be gunmen, laying at the entrance of the house. Inside, charred bodies of 12 others, including six children, three women and three men were found. The men were believed to have blown themselves up killing the rest of the family members.

A woman and a child was recovered from wreckage and were later identified as the wife and the child of the mastermind of the suicide bomber Mohammed Zahran.

The father and brother of Zahran, Mohammed Rilwan who was mentioned in the previous intelligence memo were also identified among the dead. Prior to the raid on their hideout, the three men had recorded a video in which they claimed the credit for the previous attacks and urged the Muslims to give up earthly responsibilities to wage Jihad.  Without the local help, the raid would not have been possible. In most part of the world, especially in the West, battle against Islamic extremism is fought with limited success exactly due to the lack of community cooperation. Instead, Muslims youth, mainly of immigrant origin give the middle finger to the police.

The greatest strength in Sri Lanka’s fight against Islamic extremism is the local Muslim community. Their cooperation is crucial anywhere, and especially in the East, where Muslim majority enclaves have already insulated from the rest of the country to a great deal.

Just like in Saindamarudu, the community is cooperating with the law enforcement authorities to help nab suspects. (One of the female suspects in police wanted list Fathima Lathifa, and the wife of one of the alleged vandals of Mawanella Budhdha statues was handed over to police by her parents)

However, the greatest long-term threat to Sri Lanka is also the radicalization of the same Muslim community. If the current level of radicalization persists that would erode the future prospects of cooperation. Similarly, mishandling the situation, leading to mass victimization of Muslims due to security measures may also result in a fall out of the Muslim community with the Sri Lankan state.

Sri Lanka’s challenge would be to strike a balance.

To begin with that the country should come to grips with the full scale of radicalization, both in terms of violent extremism and non-violent extremism.

Last week, President Maithripala Sirisena belatedly banned National Thawheed Jammaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI) in Sri Lanka as per powers vested in him.

National Thawheed Jammaath is a breakaway group of Sri Lanka Thawheed Jaamaath (SLTJ). It was launched by Mohammed Zahran in 2012 after he broke away with a local mosque of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath. The first mosque of National Thawheed Jammaath was set up in a ramshackle hut in Kattankudy. Over the coming years, it grew in followers, resources and controversy it courted.


The first mosque of Thawheed Jammaath in Beruwela was set up in 2002. It immediately triggered a major push back from local moderate Muslims

Zahran was reportedly removed from the leadership of NTJ in March this year after a clash with local Sufi followers. The clash sent Zahran and his brothers to underground. However, another brother of Zahran was appointed as the new leader of NTJ, which cast doubt over the sincerity of the decision to remove the hate preacher.

Zahran and his followers then joined with a group from Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI). Local Thawheed Jammaath factions now claim innocence over the Easter Sunday Attacks and pin the blame on JMI.

However, this explanation is too simplistic.

Thawheed Jammaath as a whole is propagating an austere form of Wahhabism based on literal interpretation of Quran and Hadith. It is this ideology of a recreation of medieval Islamic caliphate and a perceived clashed between Islam and the West that provides ideological inspiration for al Qaeda and Islamic State-led global Jihad. The only difference between other Thawheed Jaamaath factions and NTJ and JMI are their rationalization of use of violence — more specifically, the use of violence within Sri Lanka against Sri Lankan targets-to achieve their religious ends.  

The purported fallout of NTJ from the rest is due to this fundamental difference. Baring that all groups advocate an austere and militant form of Islam with reintroduction of Sharia and suffocating Arabized social and cultural norms. They all have more in common with Al Qaeda’s ideological vision than moderate local Sufi Islam.

Their supposedly non-violent extremism is a stepping stone for violent extremism of global Salafi Jihad. Their followers travel back and forth between the two narratives.

That radicalization happened due to the politically influenced indifference towards encroaching Wahhabism and sheer lack of political will to act against the looming threat. The spread of Thawheed Jammaath to Sri Lanka happened in 2002 on the back of Al Qaeda-led Salafi Jihad after 9/11 attacks.  

The first mosque of Thawheed Jammaath in Beruwela was set up in 2002. It immediately triggered a major push back from local moderate Muslims. Periodic sectarian clashes continued for the first decade. However, despite initial resistance, Thawheed Jammaath persisted, supported by large donations from Gulf states. More and more Muslims were lured into new Wahhabi brand of Islam. Financial and political calculations also led local Muslim political leadership to extend political patronage to creeping Wahhabism at the expense of moderate Sufi Islam. They may not have known the full scale of monstrosity that they were courting, however, their conduct effectively empowered Thawheed factions at the expense of moderate Islam.
There are more than 200 Thawheed mosques in the country, of which only a few are registered as places of worship. Thawheed Jammaath followers have encroached positions of Ministry of Islamic Affairs and institutions that cater specifically to Muslims.

Radicalization of Muslims is more real and far reaching than one would assume. It cannot be combated merely by banning NTJ and JMI. Thawheed factions that are left out are not much different in terms of ideology they propagate. They may not espouse violence as of now, but, make no mistake, Islamic extremism is evolving and expansive ideology. They also provide sufficient radicalizing impetus. Suicide bombing is just a step away.

The problem is Sri Lanka cannot ban all the Thawheed factions. A good number of Sri Lankan Muslims, in some estimates around 20 per cent of the Muslim population in Beruwela, are followers of Thawheed Jaamaath. Some of them may already be cooperating with Police to nab the followers of their splinter group.

On the other hand, banning would drive them underground. Sri Lanka should launch an open dialogue with these communities, at the same time keeping a tab on their preaching and violent impulses of their more zealous followers.

More importantly, the government should also launch a concerted programme to strengthen the moderate Sri Lankan Islam, empower their preachers, provide assistance to their Madrasas and encourage them to police their own communities for bad apple and to lead a counter radicalization narrative.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter   

  Comments – 19

  • Dallas Tuesday, 30 April 2019 01:09 PM

MR is back , just letting you know Mr Ranga Jayasuriya.In all your previous articles u did nothing but sling mud at MR.The government did the same and they did nothing but go after MR.Look what happens when a government looses its focus.Do u still call yourself a Journo

Suresh Peiris Tuesday, 30 April 2019 03:22 PM

Thanks for this. Definitely wise for the government to heed the warnings and take those steps recommended in the article. I must confess Ranga that I had stopped reading your columns sometime back, for you were seemingly following some personal cause by focusing on one single theme. Please do continue with articles of critical national importance such as this, always making sure that there is no bias or slant for/against anything or any persons and with no personal attacks.

bhagya uppala Tuesday, 30 April 2019 04:34 PM

thank you for the write up. very informative

Denise Mary Tuesday, 30 April 2019 05:06 PM

I am not a Muslim but was enlightened by your write up.

Mohideen Tuesday, 30 April 2019 04:56 PM

Well done Ranga You have enlightened the those who do not know the difference between Sufi Islam and Wahabbis

Bixin Tuesday, 30 April 2019 05:14 PM

Don’t even think of helping madarsa. Ask them to get education in your own language. Ask them to have Srilankan identity and not muslim identity.

shihab Tuesday, 30 April 2019 05:48 PM

@ Ranga Jayasuriya. Appreciate your article. Like you said government should open dialogue with Muslim communities and interact more with them. The media also should play a very pivotal role with balanced and positive reporting with out driving a wedge between communities. It is a shame some opposition politicians are using this incident for their political mileage when the whole nation is grieving. The more all communities interact with each other, it makes a united Sri Lanka.

Narendra Tuesday, 30 April 2019 07:00 PM

There must be a law and awareness among politicians, relegeous leaders etc not to use racial, relegeous or caste rhetoric that will make a particular group feel second class citizens or marginalised It’s time extreme Buddhist monks, imams etc all are arrested

Roshan Tuesday, 30 April 2019 07:09 PM

Islam has been moderate for 1400 years and these deviant groups started emerging only after CIA created Al Qaeda in the late 70s.

Hana Tuesday, 30 April 2019 07:10 PM

There is only one Islam. Sufi is not Islam!!

riza Tuesday, 30 April 2019 07:56 PM

Ranga, remember me? This is Riza. A very informative article indeed.

Faqi Hussain Tuesday, 30 April 2019 07:59 PM

I also have a problem with Muslims who think they are ‘God’s chosen people’. Many do. Many believe that they follow the only true religion and they are here to save the rest of the world from hellfire. They can live in any delusion they want to, but it must stop with them. None of us want to be saved, and many of us are quite content the way we are. My problems don’t end there. I have a problem with Muslims who wear a Niqab, a type of attire that was intended to help mitigate the effects of sand storms in deserts. I have a problem with those wearing the Nikab walking around in a tropical country in the scorching sun in black head-to-toe attire. A change of colour won’t help, but the colour, which absorbs heat the most, to me is a significant pointer of the underlying irrationality. But that problem is sociological –

Patriotic sri lankan Tuesday, 30 April 2019 09:04 PM

Ranga unfortunately you have failed to mention one of the primary reasons for luring muslims into this mindset is the loss that they have faced and facing in the hands of Sinhala racists. They feel they have no option but to be prepared militarily to defend themselves. Government extending the support of all types of extremism is critical for the future of Sri Lanka. Politicians using the racial card for their personal petty benefits has a major role in this entire problem we are facing now.

Mohamed Zahid Tuesday, 30 April 2019 09:22 PM

Excellent article

Kumara Sonnadara Wednesday, 01 May 2019 01:41 AM

Ranga Jayasuriya and columnists of Mirror group are guilty of using the power of the media in deliberately distracting the readers’ attention on vital national issues. They took every opportunity to erect this government’s aka Ranil’s autocratic policies either by turning their essays in to gossips , or justifying every thing Ranil did or scapegoating the opposition for every failure or omission of this government. They suppressed the popular public concern about the extremist islamism brewing up in this country. Those who raised genuine voice were branded as Sinhala extremists, and journalists from other media outlets who reported the news were subjected to harassement and intimidation.This was the modus operandi of this government , ably supported by mirror group. Mirror did not come forward to defend the freedom of expression of fellow journalists After all Mirror group is owned by Ranil’s closest relative.

Moh. Hashim Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:05 AM

Ranga’s analysis is almost upto the point. He is very pragmatic. You dont hit a person towards the wall. He will have no option but fo to hit back to save. himself. One extrrmism will lead to another extremism. For instance the current ongoing houde to house security measures are very very welcom n it should happen sporadically. However these should be done with understanding but firmly Taking into custody of members of households who have kitchen items like vegetable n meat cutting knives n axes to chop firewood is going to extremes unless one can prove they r for ulterior purpose. Then it follows that all those dealers in various knives n pther tools in shops blacksmiths n wayside sellers too have to be arrested likewise backpacks too. The Heads of these units dhoild educate otherwise even their own households will be suspect Please dont paint all with the same brush. KILLERS ARE KILLERS AND NO SYMPATHY SHOULD BE SHOWN TO THRM THEY SHOULD BE ELIMINATED AT ANY COST FOR PEACE.

Adwani Wednesday, 01 May 2019 07:45 AM

You have forgot to include the most important part of the event that led to the bad situation, such as creation of Bodu Bala Sena which started attacking Muslims and places of worships, that drived many to seek justice but due to the failure a faction of people decided to take the law into their hands.

Adam Thaha Wednesday, 01 May 2019 09:11 AM

why help madrasas.why keep any form of religious school at all.? isn’t it the root for this problem?The outlook of his entire article was desecrated by his last paragraph

mohamed Wednesday, 01 May 2019 10:54 AM

Sunni (Sufi) moderate Islam has been for here for over 1000 years and there was no division, issues or misunderstanding of the religion .we were peacefuly lived with trust, dignity, and tolerance. these deviant groups started emerging whabia zionist version of fabricated Islam all these started .very well written .Sufi islam acknowledge Buddhism as one of the best way too for meditation and enlightenment

Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, arab regimes, communal relations, cultural transmission

Leave a Reply