The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s

Ameer Ali,** courtesy of Colombo Telegraph, where the title is “Anatomy of An Islamist Infamy”

The Easter carnage that consumed the lives of nearly two hundred and fifty innocent worshippers and bystanders including children, opens another chapter in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial bloody history of communalism and majoritarian rule. Unless one is prepared to accept this fundamental flaw in the nation’s political development and remedy it sooner rather than later the future may become even bloodier. Sri Lankan masses, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Burghers, are not to be blamed for this tragic history and they should be kept out of the equation. Instead, the political and religious leadership must bear full responsibility for laying the path of democracy with bloody bricks. 

  a madrassa

The Easter mayhem, is now becoming increasingly clear, as the result of a combined failure of a Muslim leadership which was in a state of denial for decades and a government in a state of paralysis. The first part of this analysis will deal with the Muslim variable.

Muslim Leadership

Muslim leadership in Sri Lanka has three components, political, religious and intellectual. Political leadership since 1990 has been dominated by two parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and its junior partner, All Ceylon Makkal or People Congress (ACMC), both based in the Tamil districts of East and North.  Religious leadership is led by the All Ceylon Jamiyyatul Ulama (ACJU) headed by a mufti, and has its branches in a number of Muslim dominated towns. Intellectual leadership is a very recent development and led by a small group of writers, academics and lawyers whose voice in the community however is rarely heard and therefore its power and influence is very minimal.

The political and religious components work hand in glove because they need each other’s support for survival. In a parliamentary democracy the electoral vote bank is crucial and these two act together in safeguarding that bank for their mutual advantage.  

Between 1947, when Sri Lanka had its first General Elections and 1977 when it held its ninth General Elections, Muslim politicians entered the parliament and even held powerful cabinet positions without forming their own political party. After the Jayewardene Constitution of 1978 however, because of constraints introduced in that document to minimise minority influence in government a few Muslim political aspirants led by an attorney, M. H. M. Ashraf, from the Eastern Province, sought to overcome those constraints by forming a political party for Muslims. The anti-Muslim atrocities of LTTE at that time provided the immediate cause for this decision. Thus, the SLMC was born in 1986 on an ethno-religious platform complicating an already bifurcated ethnic democracy. This was a historic blunder but portrayed by its proponents as ‘politics of pragmatism’. The pre-SLMC Muslim politicians were more pragmatic than the ones who succeeded them.

The timing of SLMC’s birth coincided with a period of euphoria in the Muslim world. The overthrow of the Shah, expulsion of Americans and the establishment of a Shia theocracy in Iran, an OPEC initiated financial boom in Arab Middle East and the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, all combined to create a theocentric intellectual climate, which envisioned that Islam was back on stage to create an alternative New World Order. ‘Islam is the answer’ was repeated ad nauseam in all world Muslim gatherings. Zia ul Haq in Pakistan was leading the way. Today’s Islamism which is dying to create Islamic states if not a universal caliphate is the product of this euphoria, and SLMC was soon to be caught up in its vortex.

At least some supporters of SLMC saw their party in that euphoric light. Once you form a political party based singularly on a Muslim platform you cannot possibly avoid religion creeping into it. The name Muslim is not ethnic but religious. The Islamist creep was manifested in several ways. For example, the cry Allahu Akbar announced the opening and close of every public gathering organised under the banner of SLMC. Quotations from the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s Hadiths added a tone of religiosity to political speeches. Even hand clapping in some instances was substituted by shouting Allahu Akbar to appreciate a speaker’s oratory. The green coloured flag of SLMC with the crescent may be excused as world recognised symbols of Musims.  But the imprint of kalima (the confession of faith ‘there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger) in Arabic on the flag, certainly makes it sacred and carries a religious message. The flag of Saudi Arabia also has the same kalima printed on it and so is the flag of ISIS. In short, with the formation of SLMC Islam had become, in the words of Salman Sayyid, the author of A Fundamental Fear, the ‘master signifier’ of Muslim politics. 

The ACJU, which claims to be in existence since 1924, was an unknown entity until the 1980s. It was incorporated as a recognized apex religious body only in 2000 by Government Act No. 51.  It has close links with the Arab world and in particular with Saudi Arabian religious establishment. It is religiously conservative. Its conservatism came into the open recently when the Justice Saleem Marsoof Committee produced its report after nine years to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951. It recommended some progressive measures in order to accommodate at least some of the grievances raised by Muslim women.  ACJU threw its spanner to block its acceptance in the parliament and SLMC and ACMC politicians, as expected, went along with ACJU stand. Just as Wahhabi Saudis are not in favour of empowering women so are ACJU stalwarts. ACJU has always been reactive and defensive when outsiders complain about problems within the Muslim community but never proactive and forward looking in removing them. Muslim politics and religious orthodoxy are on a honeymoon.

The secular intellectual leadership, although composed of of rational and progress minded academics and writers is, as mentioned already, a relatively powerless entity afraid of speaking out publicly about community matters, particularly on matters bordering religion. ACJU, SLMC and ACMC are too powerful a coalition for them to confront. Thus, there is no counter voice among Muslims to challenge the growth of Islamism in Sri Lanka.

Hold of Islamism

After 1980, Middle East geopolitics created two sectarian rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both vying for international Muslim leadership. While Iran after the revolution was sending revolutionary messages, threatening to overthrow the monarchical, dictatorial and oligarchic Sunni regimes, and above all to challenge a US manufactured Middle East Order, Saudi Arabia was pushed by the US and its Western allies to counter Iranian radicalism with its own ultra-conservative Wahhabi/Salafi fundamentalism. Wahhabism, which until then remained confined to the Arabian Peninsula now received US imprimatur to go global. Abundant petro-dollars in Saudi coffers and its expanding labour market aided this fundamentalist globalization. Whereas Saudi money was funnelled into constructing, renovating and managing mosques, madrasas and Islamic centres all over the world, its bourgeoning labour market opened opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Muslim men and women from labour surplus and poor nations to get employed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The cash struck open economy of Sri Lanka had no choice but to allow Arab money to flow in and excess and under-paid labour to flow out.

The unintended consequence of this two-way economic traffic was to open the flood gates to Wahhabi/Salafi fundamentalist penetration. It was from the 1980s that one could witness a distinct change in the Muslim male and female attire and appearance in the country and it was from that period that one could also see a proliferation of mosques and madrasas with elaborate designs and an open display of Islamic rituals. The Arabization of dress quite unintentionally added an external element to Muslim identity in Sri Lanka, while public display of rituals like calling for prayer over loud speakers was beginning to create rumblings among other communities. The Muslim leadership took less notice of these changes and was in a state of denial.

It is important to note another development in this context. Since the late 1950s Sri Lanka became a hospitable ground for the missionary activities of Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), a movement that originated in India. It was a very peaceful movement and its foot soldiers were dedicated individuals whose sole mission was to make Muslims become more observant in their religious practices. It was a mission to convert nominal Muslims into real Muslims rather than, as misinterpreted by some, to convert non-Muslims to Islam. Even today those features of TJ remains unchanged. That movement however, did not have significant impact on the external appearance of Muslims as happened after 1980s. The black abaya and niqab for females and the long gown known as kandoora or dishdasha or kaftan in the Middle East for males, inappropriate to the climate and alien to the culture of Sri Lanka, became increasingly fashionable after 1980s and added a degree of Islamicity to the wearer. ACJU accepted this change and even encouraged it.

After 2009 even the township Kattankudy, with more than 50,000 Muslims cramped into an area of little over 6km2 and with 63 mosques today, began exhibiting a pseudo-Arab appearance with date palms planted along the main street and bill boards in Arabic decorating the bazaar.

Around a couple of years ago this author, a native of that township, had an occasion after almost forty years, to attend a Friday sermon in one of the mosques there.  The sermon lasted almost forty-five minutes, and the imam, probably in his mid or late thirties and speaking with great fluency in the Tamil language, spent the entire sermon in attacking Christians and Jews and writers like Salman Rushdie and Thaslima Nasrin, which I thought was totally irrelevant to the problems confronting the worshippers listening to his sermon. He even advised pregnant women (although there were no women present) to remember Allah to ease their birth pain rather than listening to music.

Does ACJU approve this sort of sermons? More importantly however, Muslim leadership failed to understand the link between changing identities and a growing fundamentalist mindset.  Later, when I had discussion with a senior Sri Lankan Muslim academic he confirmed that it was the case in majority of mosques in the country. Orthodoxy was seeding hatred and the community was slowly self-alienating, though unintentionally, while leaders were looking the other way. 

First taste of violence 

Wahhabism’s first taste of violence occurred in 2006 at Kattankudy when a group of Wahhabi indoctrinated youngsters went on rampaging in the public attacking members of the All Island Tharikathul Mufliheen, a Sufi sect founded by K. S. M. Abdulla, popularly known as Pahilvan from Maruthamunai. Following this incident there was also a violent confrontation between two religious groups in Beruwela. These eruptions were showing the ugly face of Wahhabism. The government left the matter to the police and forgot about them. The fact that an ultra-conservative Islamic ideology was destabilising the Muslim community from within and that it had the potential to affect inter-religious harmony in the country was never comprehended either by Muslim community leaders or the government. The Muslim intelligentsia that knew about this danger was indirectly in cahoot by keeping silent. The first bloody brick was thus laid on the road towards the Easter infamy.

Internet Generation and ISIS

Those who are being converted to this ideology are the product of the internet generation with hand phones and other communication gadgets. Social media brings news and pictures into Muslim homes about happenings outside Sri Lanka and in the Muslim world. A blind religiosity indoctrinated relentlessly through seductive sermons and provocative messages from home and abroad connects this generation to the world Muslim umma emotionally and imperceptibly. This connection makes it easier for dedicated Islamists to fall prey to jihadist outfits operating internationally.

Already TJ has trained the faithful to sacrifice everything and go on extended missionary work for the sake of Allah. Theirs, as mentioned already, is a peaceful mission. However, it is only a small step to part ways from TJ’s non-violent path and join Jihadists’ violent path. In the first, one sacrifices everything else except one’s own life, but in the second life itself becomes the primary sacrifice.  To a convinced Islamist It is a progressive step from TJ’s passivism, to Wahhabi activism and to NTJ’s Jihadist militancy. From there the cross over to ISIS was a matter of time and circumstance.  The fact that a few youngsters from Sri Lanka joined ISIS in Syria proved that they had crossed the line and was in the radar of Sri Lankan authorities. How did they come back to the country unnoticed? Why was their operations not monitored, in spite of information provided by Muslims themselves? If the Muslim leaders were in a state of denial the government was in a state of paralysis and ignored all warnings. Part two will analyse the second variable in this equation.

 the suicide killer is about to enter St Sebastian’s Church

***  ***


Ameer Ali is from the Eastern Province — a fact of great import. He is a graduate of Peradeniya University  and received a doctorate in economics from the University of Western Australia in 1980. He has taught economics at the University of Ceylon, Murdoch University, the University of Brunei and the University of Western Australia. He served as thePresident of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, an umbrella group for various Islamic groups or councils in Australia. In 2006, he was the chairman of the Australian Muslim Community Reference Group, which was an advisory body to the federal government from mid-2005 to mid-2006


Yalman, Nur  2017 “Wahhabi Idoelogy is the Root of Islamic Extremism,” 8 October 2017,

Bergen, Peter I. 2001 Holy War Inc. Inside the World of Osama bin Laden, New York, The Free Press.

Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Cook, David 2015 ‘Jihad’, ‘Matyrdom Operations’, and Mohammed Atta’s Injunction in the “last Night’, before 9/11,12 May 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018,

De Munck, Victor 1993 Seasonal Cycles: A Study of Social Change and Continuity in a Sri Lankan Village

De Munck, Victor 2005 “Islamic orthodoxy and Sufism in Sri Lanka,”  January 2005, Anthropos: International Review of Anthropology and Linguistics  00(2): 401-414 “Historic and ethnographic materials are used to examine the opposition between local Sufi and fundamentalist models of Muslim identity. Sufism is personified by the Moulana, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Since 1914, a Moulana makes the rounds of Muslim villages to participate in an eight-day annual festival. He is thought to possess supernatural means for restoring social order and ensuring village prosperity. Members of the Tablighi Jama’at (a transnational Islamic orthodoxy movement) also visit Muslim villages. Their goal is to eradicate heretical practices such as the worship of the Moulana. Sufism is shown to connect villagers to supernatural funds of local and regionally constructed power; orthodoxy connects villagers to a global identity that supersedes the Sri Lankan national identity from which they are presently excluded.”  NOTE that virtually 98 percent or so of the Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunni –so the Sufi currents are not likely to have influenced the jihadist killers and their sponsors in any direct manner (michael R)


QUERY from Michael O’Leary in Sri Lanka, dated 6th May 2019:

Dear Michael,
Can you help me out here? My editor at Private Eye has raised a pertinent question which has stumped me. I am talking about Sri Lankan Muslims going to Saudi Arabia to work and becoming radicalized. The bombers were from wealthy families and unlikely to have worked abroad. How did they become radicalized?
A swift  response would be appreciated.
ANSWER from Ameer Ali, 7 May 2019

In these days of internet and iphones, the modern toys for educated and affluent Muslims, one doesn’t have to go to S. Arabia to get radicalized. There are enough sermons by backyard imams calling for jihad against crusaders. Moreover, scenes of atrocities committed by Israel in Palestine, Indians in Kashmir, US-backed Saudis in Yemen, and other places are relayed directly into Muslim bedrooms and lounges. Finally what about sermons by radical imams on Fridays?  


Filed under accountability, arab regimes, atrocities, communal relations, cultural transmission, ethnicity, historical interpretation, Islamic fundamentalism, island economy, jihad, landscape wondrous, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, politIcal discourse, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, vengeance, violence of language, world events & processes

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