The recent terror attacks have widened ethnic and religious divides in Sri Lanka. Christians fear more attacks and Muslims face reprisals from them and the government, which has given a new dimension to violence in the country.
Experts say the Easter Sunday attacks have brought the island nation to the forefront of the global terrorism discourse. The Islamic State militant group took credit for the attacks, releasing pictures and videos of the alleged attackers. The video showed the suicide bombers who conducted the raids wearing black overalls, faces covered, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The bombings have further strengthened the hypothesis that territorial destruction of the so-called Islamic State has not diminished the reach, the approach, or the brand power of the group. Instead, its attraction remains potent—and it’s making use of local groups and grievances. This poses a challenge for South Asia in particular, with its political tensions often crossing religious lines, as the Islamic State rebrands as a global insurgency.
The bombings are being seen as the most serious challenge to Sri Lanka’s stability since the end of the decades-long conflict with separatist Hindu Tamils came to an end in 2009. Although Muslims have led a largely peaceful existence, the community has faced mounting pressure since 2014 when riots in the south of the island started by hardline Buddhists left at least three people dead. The recent attacks risk further undermining trust among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who include not only the majority Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, but a patchwork of ethnicities, noted Aljazeera in its report.
The government has empowered the military, giving the armed forces the kind of far-reaching powers of search, arrest and detention that they had during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. Fearing a backlash, many Muslims are avoiding venturing out. Many mosques were pelted with stones in different parts of the country. Most Muslim women have decided to stay at home, others have chosen to forego the hijab so they can continue with their daily lives in peace. There has also been an increase in men visiting barbers to shave their beards, according to local media reports. Most Muslims are avoiding Friday prayers at mosques after the terrorist attacks.
Ameena Hussein, a Sri Lankan novelist, wrote in the New York Times: “The attacks on Easter Sunday have left everyone in Sri Lanka confused and bewildered. Those of us who are Muslim are also trying to understand how this violence could have come from our own community. Part of my dismay comes from realizing how far removed parts of the Muslim community have become from the rest of our country. Sri Lankan Muslims trace our roots back to the Arab traders and Sufi mystics who brought Islam to Sri Lanka in the seventh century. Today, Sufism has gone underground, while radical Muslims have taken over many of Sri Lanka’s mosques. Foreign-funded religious schools with puritanical preachers have persuaded many in our community that Sufism is a threat to the practice of a “pure,” original Islam. While some families still cling to their Sufi roots, others have found it easier to accept the norms, which have affected Muslims regardless of class, city or sect,” she observed.
As Muslims became more visible in Sri Lanka, they have become targets of violence. Over the last several years, an extremist Buddhist group, the Bodhu Bala Sena (or Buddhist Power Army), has begun to preach against the Muslim community, exhorting followers to boycott Muslim businesses and spreading virulent lies about Muslims on social media. These groups and their followers have been linked to violence against Muslims in the south and center of Sri Lanka last year.
The Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about a ban on face coverings by Sri Lankan Muslim women in public following the bombings. The ban prohibits any face covering “that may hinder one’s identify (from being) ascertained,” and cites such coverings as a potential security threat. “In ordering the ban, Sri Lanka joins a growing number of countries which, in the name of national security, target Muslim women who wear the veil. Under international human rights law, governments may restrict rights to freedom of expression or religion, including wearing of religious attire or display of religious symbols, but only when such restrictions are proportionate and on reasonable grounds. A government’s impulse to take dramatic security measures is understandable in the wake of mass violence, but the face ban disproportionately restricts the rights of women who wear the burqa or niqab, a veil leaving only the eyes visible. For Muslim women who feel uncomfortable being uncovered in public, a ban can cut off access to public transit, education, employment, and social services, isolating them and barring them from opportunities to be part of society and benefit from critical services.”
The ban also adds to stigma against Muslims, who have already reported feeling threatened in Sri Lanka. Angry crowds have threatened and assaulted mostly Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been evicted from their homes. Just as women should not be forced to wear the niqab, burqa or other religious dress, nor should they be punished for choosing to do so.
According to the ABC News, the attack may teach the world a lesson it should’ve learned from al-Qaida — if you don’t learn from early attacks, they’ll only get worse. Terrorism has taken on new forms and the world has adopted new tactics since the Sept. 11 attacks. Over the years, many groups have vied for supremacy in the terrorist world. Even among terrorists, competition drives some of their actions. Unfortunately, that competition manifests itself in these groups trying to conduct larger scale and more horrific attacks. The question of what the actual goal was for the attacks still needs an answer. If it was simply to attack Christians on Easter, via a soft target, whoever did it went beyond the normal homemade explosives that lonewolf terrorists generally have used. If it was to destabilize the government of Sri Lanka, why attack churches? If it was indeed ISIS, it is clearly expanding its target radius.
While the investigation is ongoing, one thing is clear: The Sri Lankan attacks could be the precursor to more and larger attacks. The size, scope and coordination of the attacks indicate a greater logistical capability and structure. The spectacular nature of the attacks sends a clear message: someone is vying for the terrorism spotlight. The hope is that if the next incident is in the planning stages, whatever intelligence has been gathered is given more veracity than the information collected by Sri Lankan authorities.