Sharpening Politico-Religious Divisions in Sri Lanka

Dear Rohan,

Your thoughtful note has provoked this set of comments — comments that range far and wide. I will. of course, welcome your reactions and hope that others will chip in with both comments and data.  Michael

One:  Note this segment in Ameer Ali’s important essay: ” 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.”  One can speculate that Ameer Ali is writing as a Sri Lankan Australian first and a Muslim second ….. But the point is the inside information conveyed by that observation — data which our Muslim MPs and others have not conveyed to their non-Muslim colleagues — perhaps not having grasped the implications of Wahhabism for inter-communal life in Sri Lanka.

Two: Nirgunan Tiruchelvam as corrected by Mohamed Mowzil told me recently that there are 23 Muslim MPs all told** in a parliament of 221 [an overstocked parliament many would say]. Their voting power is sought by the leading parties. This suggests to us that the leading parties bend over backwards to cater to their interests. Since their political leanings today are with the UNP bloc, it follows that the Yahapaalanaya government has sought to please them: ergo, the reluctance to act strongly when the Indian intel-reports reached them in early-mid April? Yes President Sirisena’s crass incompetence was one factor, but the responsibility seems to spread wider to embrace the UNP pillar in this government because that pillar is partly rooted in the voting power of the Muslim politicoes. Right?

Three: Extremism is not confined to elements among the religio-political category identified as “Muslims”. Ever since the Sinhala-Buddhist upsurge and the language of governance issue that effected the ‘political revolution’ in 1956 transformed the direction of Sri Lankan politics, there have been currents of chauvinism within the majority ethnic grouping (embracing some Sinhala Christians as well). There has been a long history of localised clashes and squabbles in the south western quadrant of Sri Lanka –extending more recently to the Amparai district. In brief, expressions of Sinhala extremism have been one of the factors promoting politico-religious extremism among the island Muslims. As Ameer Ali notes, one needs two hands to clap. Extremisms feed off each other and help sharpen each other. A vital reference int his regard is the research work of the Catholic human rights activist, Ruki Fernando. He presented an important article just before the Easter Sunday attacks –one that has been swamped the latter tragedy and thus neglected. In its Thuppahi version it is entitled “Anti-Christian Zealotry in Sri Lanka. Dangerous Signs” — see With one exception, the churches subject to local level abuse and/or pressure were all Pentecostal establishments — eleven in all. The exception is the Methodist Church at Kundichamkulama in Anuradhapura –the site of  incidents in early 2019 which were reported in local newspapers.  Sinhala Buddhists would have been the the threatening elements at that site. However, five of the other eleven churches subject to threats were in Batticaloa District — so the perpetrators were presumably Muslim or Tamil (Ruki refrains from identifying the ethnicity in the public domain). In sum, such evidence points to growing religious intolerance on all sides.

Four: MA Nuhman notes that there were twenty incidents of “communal violence between Sinhalese and Muslims … reported in the Southern Province during the last thirty years from 1976” (2007: x-xi). One can confidently pinpoint Mawanella as the site of several clashes over the last half century. The emergence of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinha-Le campaign of recent years has indicated a deepening of ethno-religious commitments that must surely have caused concerns among moderate Muslims as well. Any criticism that is directed at the Muslims of moderate disposition for their failures to arrest the Wahhabi and other extremism voices in their midst must attend to the ‘stimulus’ provided by Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhala Christian zealots.


A Sri Lankan Muslim woman carries her daughter while standing outside her burnt house in Adhikarigoda , a village near Aluthgama town, 50 kilometers (31.25 miles) south of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, June 16, 2014. At least three Muslims were killed after a right-wing Buddhist group with alleged state backing clashed with Muslims in southwestern Sri Lanka, a government minister said Monday. Dozens of shops were burned, homes looted and some mosques attacked in the violence Sunday night in the town of Aluthgama, local residents said. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Omar Khan Sharif

Needless to say, the clashes at Aluthgama in 2015 (see Haniffa 2015 and Holt 2017) and Digana in March 2018 would have aggravated Muslim defensiveness and permitted the Hashim Zahran strand of Islamic  zealotry to forge its own specific paths — roads directed by Wahhabi thinking. As such, symbols of Western power, namely, the Papacy and high-rise hotels associated with wealth and degeneracy, became key targets. The choice of Easter Sunday as the moment of sacrificial devotion to their cause[i] is indicative of this slant in their thinking. Like the two well-educated British Muslims, Omar Khan Sharif (aged 27) and Hanif (aged 21) who went to Tel Aviv on a suicide mission in 2003 on behalf of the Palestinian cause,[ii] these Lankan Muslim extremists  opted to terminate their lives in pursuit of the jihad. So did some of their wives. That is, these men and women were intent on taking the road that would enable them to sit at the feet of Allah.

*****   *****


[i] For clarification of the concept “sacrificial devotion,” see the dormant web site which I launched in association with Daniel Nourry after a Workshop in Adelaide devoted to the subject. Also consult Roberts, “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2007, 30(10), 857-887 and (2005). Saivite Symbols, Sacrifice, and Tamil Tiger Rites.,” Social Analysis, 2005: 67-93.

[ii] See Roberts 2014 “Marginalisation in Britain as Path to Islamic Fervour and/or Cricketing Fervour,” 16 December 2014,

** There were 24 MPs till one named Hisbullah,tthe National List MP of the UPFA, resigned his seat at the request of the President to be appointed as the Eastern Province Governor and the vacancy was filled in by a Sinhala Buddhist Shantha Bandara” (Mowzil to Roberts, 9 May 2019)


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

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

Roberts, Michael 2019 “The Many Strands of Extremism Today: Salafi, Racial, Chauvinist and Racial,” 5 April 2019,

Fernando, Ruki  2019 “Anti-Christian Zealotry in Sri Lanka- Dangerous Signs,21 April 2019,

Sri Lanka Brief 2019 “Attack on Anuradhapura Church is not an Isolated Incident, says Bishop,” 17 April 2019,

Ameer Ali, ACM 2019 “The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,” 5 March 2019, ………………………

Ameer Ali. ACM 2019 “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 …. and still proceeding,” 6 March 2019 …………………………… .. /

Jeyaraj, DBS 2019 “The Skirmish at Sainthamaruthu and the Suicidal Deaths of Some Wahhabi Jihadists -Jeyaraj as Investigative Journalist,” 2 May 2019, ……………………….

Jayaweera, Rajiva 2019 “Ultimate Loyalties: Sri Lankan Muslims in Lanka but Beyond the Nation,” 8 May 2019,

Zahrah Imtiaz et al 2019 “After the Easter Sunday Terror, 4.21: The Way Forward,” 3 May 2019,

Peiris, Gerald 2017  “A Study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka,” 14 September 2017,

Holt, John 2017 “John Holt rebuts Gerald Peiris: A Focus on Buddhist Extremism,” 30 September2017,

Gunatilleke, Gehan 2015 The Chronic and the Acute: Post-War Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, Equitas & ICES

Farzana Haniffa et al 2015 Where Have All the Neighbours Gone? Aluthgama Riots and its Aftermath: A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela, Law & Society Trust

Nuhman, M. A. 2007 Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity, Colombo, ICES.

Shukri, MAM 1986 Muslims of Sri Lanka, Beruwela, 1986

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,”  Anthropos: International Review of Anthropology and Linguistics 00(2):401-414

Strathern, Alan 2017 Buddhist Monks on Violent Paths. How Come? An Essay in Mid-2013,” 29 September 2017,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Marginalisation in Britain as Path to Islamic Fervour and/or Cricketing Fervour,” 16 December 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Addressing Chauvinism and Primacy in Sri Lanka,”  24 February 2019, …

Roberts, Michael 2005 “Saivite Symbols, Sacrifice, and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis, 2005: 67-93.


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

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 30: 857-887


An EXTENDED COMMENT from EARDLEY LIEVERSZ (in Sydney) sent by EMAIL, 15 May 2019

Eardley’s thoughts on the opinions expressed below. A very personal view.

“Any criticism that is directed at the Muslims of moderate disposition for their failures to arrest the Wahhabi and other extremism voices in their midst must attend to the ‘stimulus’ provided by Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhala Christian zealots.”

There is nothing in the material that justifies the term “Sinhala Christian zealots”. On the contrary Pentecostalist and Evangelical Christians are the ones being targeted. Is the author suggesting that these Pentecostalist and Evangelical Christians are Tamil and that they are being attacked by Sinhalese Christians?
My view is that Sinhalese Buddhists are the one’s responsible. But does that mean that Sinhala Buddhist extremists are no different Muslim extremists? I don’t think so.This is one of the dangers of equivalence, as practiced by Muslim apologists.
The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics, the majority of them being Sinhalese. All of them are the result of the Portuguese using their economic and political power to change the demography of the littoral. Yet, There is no hard feeling between Catholics and Buddhists. The Buddhists accept that what has been done is done. The important thing is to protect Buddhists from further erosion. One thing that Buddhists have going for them is that there is no immigration programme bringing non Sinhalese and non Buddhists into the country.
And this is where the evangelicals upset the apple cart. They usually set themselves up where there is a meagre traditional Christian presence and then work on Sinhalese Buddhists. Not on Muslims and Hindus. If I were a Buddhist I would feel very threatened.
Sinhalese Buddhists react when they feel threatened. By contrast, Christians in Muslim countries are not a political or demographic threat. They do not proselytise. Yet that doesn’t stop them from being persecuted and ethnically cleansed.
Muslim expansion was not a reaction to Christian zealotry. It was driven by the ideology which justified all forms of brutality in the cause of the religion. The crusades were a belated attempt, not so much to stop the tide and reconvert lands, but obtain safe passage for pilgrims to Jerusalem.
My conclusion is that Christians are safer under Buddhism than under Islam. The recent carnage was not committed by Buddhists. And it wont be repeated because Sinhalese Buddhists will see to that.
There is a higher proportion of Christians in Nigeria. But they experience more attacks, on an ongoing basis, than Christians in Sri Lanka. This is because Muslims have a slight majority. If Nigeria had a Buddhist majority population Christians would be safer.
Hence, by trying to convert Buddhists, evangelical Christians are showing little compassion, gratitude and tolerance towards the Buddhists who tolerate Christians and allow them space to practice their faith without hindrance. Evangelicals are, to my mind, being very unChristian and intolerant.
If a Buddhist came up to me and wanted me to make him/her a Christian. I would urge that person to remain a Buddhist, and try to be a better one. The problem with conversion to monotheism is that there is the risk of a snowballing effect. The Christian convert could become a Muslim convert, and be intolerant towards Christians in a manner which a Buddhist wouldn’t.
I want Buddhism to be strong in Sri Lanka. I respect the tolerance of Buddhists. I respect Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage. I am glad that the Portuguese were not successful in conquering the Kandyan Kingdom.

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