The end of the long civil war between Tamil and Buddhist forces promised peace. Instead, Buddhist nationalists found a new enemy: their Muslim neighbors.
One morning in 2006, Amal Mohammed was preparing tea in her family’s home in Aluthgama, a coastal town some 50 miles south of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, when she heard a terrible noise outside. The din drew her to the balcony. From there, she saw houses in flames and a throng of masked men approaching.
She rushed back to the kitchen and alerted her husband, Janan, who was in the living room watching a cricket rerun. Next she went to fetch her daughter and son, then seven and nine, and put them inside the pantry cupboard and shut its doors behind her. “Is this the end of the world?” her daughter wanted to know. Amal told her no but wet herself out of fear. In her soiled clothes, she prayed.
The men were a mob of extremist Sinhalese Buddhists searching for Muslim homes. With her children in the cupboard and her husband guarding the gate, Amal considered her neighbors. Most of them were Sinhalese, members of Sri Lanka’s predominant ethnic and religious group, while the Mohammeds were Muslim, descended from families who had long lived on the island. But her prayers were answered: The men passed by the Mohammed home in the belief that Buddhists lived there.
The ethnic violence that ravaged the Mohammeds’ neighborhood that day was one of the early outbreaks of Buddhist violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and an echo of the civil war that consumed the entire country between 1983 and 2009. The war was fought between the Sinhalese government and separatist militias who wanted to create a homeland in the north and east for the Tamils, the island’s largest and mostly Hindu minority. As many as 100,000 people were killed, and ten times that many were forced to flee their homes. The once-prosperous island in the Indian Ocean, just southeast of India, was devastated.
The war came to an end when then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa led his Sinhalese forces to victory, fighting the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) “to the finish,” cornering them on a beach and slaughtering them there. This ended the open warfare, but it did so without addressing the grievances—namely, the unfair distribution of power and resources along ethnic lines—that had given rise to the violence. Of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, 69 percent are Buddhist, 15 percent are Hindu, 8 percent are Muslim and 8 percent are Christian, according to a 2016 U.S. State Department’s report on religious freedom in Sri Lanka.
During the civil war, Muslims—the nation’s second-largest minority—were caught in the middle, viewed suspiciously by Tamil forces. One year, 1990, was particularly tragic for Muslims when 30 Tamil Tigers entered a mosque and gunned down prostrate worshippers whose palms were opened to the sky in prayer, murdering around 140 men and boys. A few months later, the rebels gave the entire Muslim population—some 20,000—of Jaffna, the Tamil capital in the north, two hours to leave. The Sinhalese, on the other hand, needed the Muslims in their camp and largely left them alone. But when the fighting began to wind down, Sinhalese extremists—the same elements responsible for much of the violence against Tamils—began redirecting their malice onto Muslims, attacking Muslim businesses, homes and mosques. “They felt, ‘We have subdued the Tamils, brought them to their knees, now we have to bring down the Muslims,’” says Cader Ali, a former president of the All Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association.
In 2012, Sinhalese Buddhists who found Rajapaksa’s right-wing nationalist political party too soft on Muslims formed the ultra-right-wing nationalist party Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Its secretary general, Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, organized propaganda campaigns, boycotts, protests, sit-ins, rallies and attacks and quickly became the face of the anti-Muslim movement. He was behind one of the worst outbreaks of violence: On June 12, 2014, in Aluthgama a fight broke out between a Muslim rickshaw driver and a Buddhist monk. In his rush to get dressed for a wedding, the driver had left his rickshaw parked outside, partially blocking the road. A passing monk complained, and in the fisticuffs that ensued, the story went, the monk was hit and ended up at the hospital. The unverified rumor of the wounded monk spread like wildfire across the neighboring district, whipping up fury and inspiring plans for a demonstration three days later.
Muslim community leaders, hoping to avoid violence, requested a meeting with the local authorities. Abdul Rahman Marikak, a soccer coach who led the meeting, tells me that he personally asked the deputy police inspector general to cancel the protest, but was told that there was an order from higher up to let it proceed as planned. He and the other Muslim leaders were assured, however, that the government would dispatch additional forces—some 2,000 members of the Special Task Force, an elite special police unit—to aid the 70 local police who would be on duty. “They told us, we are protecting your community so don’t worry,” he says.
On the appointed day, BBS staged rallies in the towns of Beruwala, Dharga and Aluthgama, clustered near one another in the Kalutara district. In Aluthgama, Gnanasara delivered an inflammatory speech to a cheering crowd: “In this country we still have a Sinhala police,” he said. “We still have a Sinhala army. After today, if a single marakkalaya touches a single Sinhalese, it will be their end.” Marakkalaya, meaning “those who come by wooden boats,” is a Sri Lankan derogatory term for Muslims. A YouTube video of the speech went viral.
According to witnesses, a mob of about 5,000 Buddhists congregated near the police station in Dharga, and monks handed out Molotov cocktails, knives and batons. When the protesters began to chant anti-Muslim slogans, some Muslims responded by throwing stones. The Buddhists beat them and pulled other Muslims off buses and rickshaws and beat them too. They then dragged Muslims out of shops, which were looted and set on fire. The mob also petrol-bombed houses of Muslim community leaders and burned copies of the Quran.
Amal was running an errand in Colombo when she received a distressed phone call from Janan back home. The mob had advanced from Dharga to Aluthgama and had once again arrived outside the Mohammeds’ gate. There, an acquaintance of Janan’s had recognized him and quietly advised him to “go back inside and stay there.” For the second time, the Mohammed family narrowly escaped a mob’s wrath.
According to Marikak, the police force, which was all Sinhalese, did nothing to stop the mob. “In Sri Lanka, the government cannot take any action against the men in robes,” says Marikak. Instead, he says, the police trained their water cannons and tear gas on Muslims who were protesting against the mob, a claim corroborated by other witnesses. At 6 p.m., a curfew was declared, preventing anyone from leaving or entering the town. This meant that the rampaging monks had nowhere else to go, and most of the violence happened that night in areas that were under curfew, says Marikak. This fueled suspicion that the police, including the Special Task Force, were somehow complicit. Witnesses claimed that the police stood by while houses burned and ignored emergency calls, and that some even participated in the plundering.
Mosques were targets for the mob. Abdul Hassan Mohammad Afkar was playing soccer near one of them when he heard that the Buddhist extremists were approaching. Afkar, who was 21, had just completed a course to become an auto mechanic, and the next day was to be his first day on the job. He recalls how a disembodied voice on the loudspeaker urged all able-bodied young men to come defend the mosque.
Afkar and other young Muslims formed a human chain around the mosque and managed to chase the mob away. But when BBS members returned two hours later, he says, it was with the security police, who began shooting at the Muslim line of defense. One of those bullets hit Afkar, who was taken to the hospital. Angry monks followed him there, where they warned the doctors not to treat him. So Afkar lay on a cot, losing blood, and the gunshot wound was left to suppurate. Eventually a wealthy Muslim businessman bribed the nurses to smuggle him out of the hospital. By the time Afkar saw a doctor who would treat him, his leg had to be amputated.
When the curfew was lifted five days later, four people had been killed, 80 injured, and as many as 10,000 people displaced, most of them Muslims. Three mosques had been desecrated, 79 shops and perhaps as many as 80 houses destroyed. Official response to the violence came two days later, on June 17, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge addressed the Parliament, and on June 20, the United Nations Human Rights Council. Both times he downplayed the incident and blamed the Muslim community for inciting the violence. President Rajapaksa promised a high-level panel to investigate the attacks, but none was ever appointed.
When Afkar returned home from the hospital a month later, the police came for him. He was one of ten Muslims arrested for the violence in Aluthgama that week. According to police spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara, their cases are ongoing. In contrast, no Sinhalese were arrested.
According to Minority Rights Group International, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is “currently facing a concerted campaign against them.” What happened in the three districts of Kalutara in Dharga, Aluthgama and Beruwala was the tenth major incidence of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence since 2009, and it raises serious questions about how Sri Lankan society is organizing itself since the war. “Sri Lanka has never been good at accommodating its minorities,” says Sri Lankan constitutional lawyer Harini Amarasuriya.
In the 8th century, Muslim traders fleeing military upheaval on the Arabian peninsula stopped on the island then known as “the pearl in the Indian Ocean” on their way to China. Welcomed by the Sinhalese monarchs, they were granted permission to set up networks of agents in port cities. Many of them married local women and stayed, and their descendants became known as Sri Lankan Moors. Despite repeated invasions from southern India and warring kings, the centuries that followed were ones of relative ethnic harmony.
The arrival of Europeans—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British—stoked ethnic conflict. The first documented Buddhist-Muslim rift occurred in the 17th century, when the Dutch East Indian Company traders “put forward a threat of a Muslim invasion of Sri Lanka merely to upset the Sinhala-Muslim alliance,” according to University of Colombo professor Lorna Dewaraja’s book, The Muslims of Sri Lanka: One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony 900-1915. By the early 19th century, the island—now known as Ceylon—was firmly under British rule, and the colonial government encouraged the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, as well as Indians and Burghers, to jockey for power.
When the new nation of Sri Lanka declared independence in 1948, it inherited these tensions. As rivalry between the Sinhalese and Tamils intensified, Muslims generally prospered and lived in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. When Sri Lankan native Ameer Ali was growing up, he recalls, Muslims were fully integrated into Sri Lankan society. “There was no discrimination against Muslims,” says Ali, now a senior academic at the School of Business and Governance at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Ali grew up in the largely Muslim town of Kattankudy, about 200 miles from Colombo, and describes his father, Abdul Cader Lebbe, as the philosopher behind the first Muslim political party in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which registered as a party in 1990.
President Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, helped usher in the new era, whipping up support in his Buddhist constituency by insisting that Sri Lanka was the homeland for Theravada Buddhism, a claim based in part on the 5th-century Buddhist epic historical poem, the “Mahavasma,” which states that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka three times. In addition to declaring that minorities residing on the island did so at the pleasure of the Sinhalese, Rajapaksa convinced the public, as Sri Lankan novelist Thisuri Wanniarachchi wrote in the local daily Colombo Telegraph in 2016, that “bigotry was a form of patriotism.” His government also oversaw the acceleration of the Sinhalization of Sri Lanka. The process had been going on for decades: Sinhala was made the country’s official language in 1956 and Buddhism given special legal status in 1978.
Sinhalese extremists felt, “We have subdued the Tamils, brought them to their knees, now we have to bring down the Muslims.”
The lagging of the country’s economy—it has never completely recovered from three decades of civil war—has exacerbated the conflict. “As a whole community, the Muslims have done very well economically, which produces resentment from the Sinhalese,” says senior analyst Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group (ICG). “They are in something of the same position as the Jews in Europe. They were hated and ostracized because they were so successful in business.” As a result, Muslim businesses, including Sri Lanka’s popular Fashion Bug chain, are frequently targeted.
Although Muslims physically resemble the rest of the population because of intermarriage, many Buddhists still believe that they are immigrants or itinerants. When Janan Mohammed, who owns a textile factory, goes to collect overdue payments from clients, he says it is now not uncommon for the response to be, “Pack up your things and go back to where you came from, why don’t you?” Sensitivities, he adds, are so high that he is cautious in Sinhalese shops. “If I go to a store and I buy something, and if the storekeeper doesn’t give me back the exact change, I am afraid to ask for the right balance.”
Some of the hostility is the result of changes within the Muslim community, says Ali, a secular Muslim. A million Sri Lankans, including hundreds of thousands of Muslims, work as migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Upon their return, many bring home a more conservative and devout strain of Wahhabism, also known as Salafism. “They have been heavily influenced by how Islam is practiced in that part of the world,” Ali says. Because of this, and the foreign influence of petrodollars—Saudi Arabia funds mosques and madrassas in Sri Lanka—the more secular ways of Muslims in Sri Lanka are vanishing. Keenan agrees: “You notice public displays of piety in a way you didn’t previously,” he says. “The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has shifted toward more austere, less liberal, more overtly pious forms of religious practice.”
Attire is one of the most obvious changes. “Traditionally the Muslim man in Sri Lanka wore a sarong and a long shirt and a jacket and a cap,” says Ali. “Now men wear the jalabiya and long coats and turbans or the white cap.” Muslim women too have transformed their look. “It’s true we have become more aware of the religion by sharia education,” says Nadvi Bahaudeen, a Muslim lawyer. “My wife, she was a hockey captain. She used to wear short skirts. But she read and she decided to cover up.”
As a result, says Ali, Muslims now look different from other Sri Lankans. He also points to other new “alienating” customs that have been imported from the Arabian Peninsula, such as publicly calling for prayer over loudspeakers five times a day, which disturbs neighbors. Most important, he says, the new religious affiliations with Saudi Arabia and international conservative Muslim missionary groups have led to the perception among Buddhists that Sri Lankan Muslims cannot be trusted. “This has led the Sinhalese to feel threatened,” he says.
The fears that many Sinhalese once had of the Tamil Tigers, who bombed buses throughout the civil war, have now been transferred to Muslims, explains Rohini Mohan, an Indian journalist whose 2014 book about post-war Sri Lanka, The Seasons of Trouble, documents how the Sinhalese replaced one enemy, the Tamil, with a new one, the Muslim. She says these fears are tied into regional Islamophobia, prevalent in nearby India and other South Asian nations, which, like Sri Lanka, have failed to resolve tensions with their ethnic and religious minorities. “An anthropologist once called the Sinhalese ‘a majority with a minority complex,’ and this is very useful to understanding a lot of their behavior,” she says.
Global Islamophobia, Mohan adds, is also a factor. “For example, Gnanasara has said that Sri Lanka should ban burkas. He says, ‘If France can, so can we. We also have security concerns.’ Again, the difference is that there have been no security concerns in Sri Lanka. The Muslims do not have a militia.”
At the Muslim school in Aluthgama, Ashkar Ahmad is the only science teacher for 1,200 students. At the local Sinhalese school, Ahmad says, the ratio is closer to one teacher for every 200 students and there are fully equipped science labs and computer stations. In Muslim schools, the students are also in charge of upkeep, duties that include cleaning toilets, he adds.
Ahmad has been sending letters to the education ministry asking for increased funding, 12 in the last year alone, but these entreaties have gone unanswered. There has been growing discontent among Muslims over similar issues of disenfranchisement in many areas, including the predominance of Sinhalese in the police, but there also exists the tacit understanding that Muslims can gain nothing by making demands of the state. “We know this because the LTTE tried and they failed,” Shihar Hasan, a lawyer for the Muslim community says, referring to the Tamil insurgent group. “The consequences are going to be very high, and we don’t want to pay that price.”
Laws protect minorities in Sri Lanka against discrimination, but with the police and bureaucracy generally staffed by the Sinhalese, they are hard to enforce. Muslim food, beards, headscarves and hijabs have all become contentious issues. When I met him, Hasan was representing ten students who had been barred from writing their exams for insisting on their right to wear hijabs, a right that had been confirmed in a 2015 Supreme Court ruling. But instead of taking the case to trial, Hasan had opted to settle out of court. “We get lawyers suited up and we go there and remind them of the Supreme Court ruling, and that this is against all principles that Sri Lanka is built on.” He settles to avoid further aggravating an already tense situation.
Hasan notes that there has also been a spike in the number of legal cases brought against Muslims. A Muslim shopkeeper beloved by the community was accused of molesting a Sinhalese child and ordered to leave town in 15 days. Another was accused of harassing a Sinhalese woman and yet another was said to have sold clothes covered in spermicide. Hasan also recently represented Abdur Raziq, the secretary general of Sri Lanka’s Thawheed Jamaat, an organization that promotes a return to a Salafist strain of Sunni Islam. Raziq made anti-Buddhist remarks and was arrested by the police for defaming the Buddha. Technically he was “remanded for allegations on creating public disquiet by speaking against other religious members,” says Hasan. The court later ordered Raziq to apologize to Buddhist religious leaders.
Thawheed Jamaat is the most prominent of several so-called Islamic extremist organizations that have taken root in response to the Sinhalese persecution. Its critics argue that Thawheed Jamaat is preaching a violent form of Islam and promoting sectarianism. Cader Ali, from the All Ceylon Young Men’s Muslim Association, says that most of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has distanced itself from Thawheed Jamaat. “They are not in touch with the Muslim community,” he says. Hasan disagrees: The movement is 9,000 members strong, he says, with chapters in most major Sri Lankan cities. The organization is not violent: A call for a return to the textual meaning of the Quran does not a terrorist group make, he argues. Besides, “if Salafism was the problem, America should wage war against Saudi Arabia.”
Hasan insists that Islam is on trial in Sri Lanka, and unjustly so: The Sri Lankan public has been made to believe that all Muslims are “fanatic jihadists trained by the Islamic State.” But, he says, “nowhere in the history of Sri Lanka has there been a single incident of a radical Muslim killing a non-Muslim due to religious motives.”
In the face of government inaction, the Muslim community has been doing what it can to ensure that the violence in Aluthgama does not continue. After the 2014 bloodshed, mosques organized special Friday sermons to remind worshippers that “violence is not the answer,” says Hasan. But Keenan warns that this could change. “If there continues to be impunity for attacks on Muslim businesses and mosques, threatening speeches and so forth, eventually some small number of Muslims might respond with violence in one way or another,” he says. “And then that could set off a cycle of back and forth violence. That would be extremely dangerous and potentially quite destructive.”
In January 2015, the Sri Lankan electorate, tired of corruption and nepotism, voted Rajapaksa out of office. A new reconciliation government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, came to power.
Sri Lankan presidential spokesperson Ranga Kalansooriya takes pains to separate the new government from the previous one. “All these tensions between Sinhalese and Muslims were propagated through state sponsorship,” he says. “These incidents were a politically motivated campaign by stakeholders of the previous regime to create tension for their own survival.”
Despite these sentiments, investigations into past deaths and destruction have not amounted to anything, and the government has made little progress in reining in Buddhist violence against Muslims. On June 15, 2016, on the second anniversary of the Kalutara attacks, Gnanasara threatened a “phase two” if the government did not address Muslims “overstepping their boundaries.” Since then, BBS has also spawned more violent offshoots that believe the tactics employed by BBS are pacifistic and ineffective. One group, Sinhala Ravaya [Sinhalese Roar], features a flag with a lion bounding forward, an ominous alteration to the Sri Lankan national flag with the lion in calm repose. The fall of 2016 saw a dramatic increase in BBS-led protests and violent attacks on Muslim mosques, schools, factories and shops.
Some members of the new government, such as the justice minister, have spoken out against the violence and aggressive speech. Last November, Sirisena called an emergency meeting where he warned against inciting violence and pledged to protect all communities equally. This May, the president took a major step forward in response to a report from the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella council of NGOs, that there had been nearly 20 attacks over a one-month period. He ordered his law-and-order minister to act against the perpetrators.
Although other government ministers publicly disagreed, for the first time the police began a public manhunt for Gnanasara. But it was “a half-hearted ‘Keystone Cops’ situation,” according to Keenan. When Gnanasara was at last arrested, he was granted bail, sending a signal that the government was not serious about prosecuting the monk over hate crime charges. “Gnanasara supposedly will go on trial,” says Mohan, “but movement has been slow and very reluctant, because the government depends on Sinhalese votes. It’s bad optics to go after the monk.”
Emboldened by this tacit approval from the authorities, his BBS cofounder and the group’s CEO, Dilanthe Withanage, issued a statement in June, which warned that the group had the “ability to unleash terrorism, extremism and violence.” Not all of Sri Lanka’s Buddhists agree. “Many Buddhists will say Gnanasara is not a real monk, he is just a thug who wears a monk’s robe,” says Keenan. Still, even mainstream Buddhist leaders have been reluctant to condemn BBS. In June, prominent Buddhist leader Warakagoda Gnanaratana issued a statement about BBS: “Although we do not approve [of] the aggressive behavior and speech of Bhikku Galabodaatte Gnanasara, the viewpoint expressed by him cannot be discarded.”
Journalist Rohini Mohan says that Buddhists who criticize Gnanasara and BBS have been physically attacked by his group. “I met one monk who was kidnapped and stripped naked and left in the middle of a street, deeply embarrassing for a monk,” she says. “All for a speech that said Muslims should be treated like everyone else. So the BBS has managed to silence a lot of groups.”
The Mahinda government also came to power on a platform of constitutional reform. Little has occurred on this front. Under the current constitution, Muslims are considered immigrants in Sri Lanka, says Amarasuriya, the constitutional lawyer. Constitutional reform, he adds, is needed as the “resolution to the national question.” Mohan doesn’t believe that the establishment of new laws, a long process, should be the next step. “All the attacks that have occurred qualify as crimes under Sri Lanka’s penal code,” she says. In May, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote a strong letter to the president asking for existing laws to be implemented.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government, which is very conscious of its image on the global stage, is downplaying the problem. “In fact there is no anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka as such,” says Kalansooriya. “But there are some concerns and there are some statements and provocations by extremist groups. There is no killing, there are no attacks, but there are the random cases. You can’t call them widespread attacks in Sri Lanka. It is not the case.”
Soon after the November election in the United States, President Sirisena appeared at a political rally and stated he was planning on writing to President-elect Trump to ask that he help clear Sri Lanka of war crime charges. Sri Lanka had previously promised the U.N. Human Rights Council that it would investigate the allegations—but then Sirisena backtracked, saying he would send “special representatives to request (Trump) to free our country from this situation and help us to build a society where we could live freely,” according to the Associated Press. “There is an underlying insecurity and sense of vulnerability to outside pressure that runs over many centuries within the Sinhala political discourse,” ICG analyst Keenan says. In Donald Trump, then, Sirisena appeared to be seeking an ally that would let them off more easily.
The peace and prosperity that Sri Lankans hoped for when the civil war ended has not materialized, says Ameer Ali, who believes that Rajapaksa is posed for a comeback and that the country is quickly descending into what he calls a kakistocracy, Greek for “rule of the worst.” He chides the government for its inability to stop Gnanasara. “This man has taken the law unto himself and he is running around and attacking Muslims and destroying Muslim property and everyone, even the police, is powerless to change it,” says Ali. “So people are rightfully confused about who is running this country.”
He’d like to see Sri Lankans come to the streets, not in a revolution, but to communicate to the government that they want an end to hate politics and they expect real economic progress. Mohan says that punishing Gnanasara “fearlessly would be a big symbol. He does not represent Buddhist philosophy and he does not represent Sri Lanka’s future. It would be a huge relief for all minorities in Sri Lanka and it would send a message that physical harm to minorities is not done.” She adds: “Once Pandora’s box is open and it becomes okay for civilians to speak out about their bigotry with pride, it’s hard for governments to stop it. But governments can stop people from harming whom they think they hate.”
But change, if it comes, will not be fast enough for the Mohammeds. After the second mob attack in her neighborhood, Amal Mohammed now walks her children to school. She deposits them there and then walks them back home. Otherwise, she doesn’t go out anymore, not even to work in her beloved garden, which has long succumbed to overgrowth. “I don’t feel like planting flowers anymore,” she says. “I think, what is the point, what is the point, what is the point?”
Sitting in the family’s living room, adorned with conch shells and orchids, she says, “All we ask is let us live our lives. This is all I want. I am not asking more than this from God.”
The last I spoke to them, the Mohammeds had put their house and factory up for sale. They were preparing to leave the land in which they had been born. “We love our country,” says Amal Mohammed, “but we cannot stay here.”
Additional reporting by Nadine Epstein