Clashes Between Muslim Sects Concern National Security
By Camelia Nathaniel
While Muslims in Sri Lanka have always been viewed as being rather standardized in their orthodox Sunni forms of worship, due to recent sociological or theological causes, and a rise of controversial, charismatic Sufi sheikhs in Eastern Sri Lanka, there has been unprecedented religious conflict among Sri Lankan Muslims, especially in the East, which according to law enforcement officials is a cause for concern.
While militant opposition to Sufi teachers in the Eastern towns of Kattankudy and Maruthamunai was initially reported in the 1980s, the violence in the Eastern province has seen a sharp rise since 2004, resulting in the destruction and desecration of several saintly tombs and shrines.
There have been several other incidents of religious tension, not only in the East, between the numerous sects within the Muslim faith that have been reported. For instance, in 2009, a clash in the town of Beruwala between a popular Sufi sheikh and a nearby Tawheed reformist congregation reflects similar religious tensions. These recent conflicts and tensions within the Muslims in the country have been perceived as a security threat to the nation, and, according to the police, these tensions could lead to more complicated national issues if not addressed.
In the Eastern town of Kattankudy, controversial Sufi leader Rauf Maulavi had established his own mosque adjacent to the tomb-shrine of his father several decades previously, and developed a well-funded organization called the All-Ceylon Islamic Spiritual Movement to circulate his books and newsletters in Tamil. In 2006, he was driven from Kattankudy by mob violence.
Tawheed and Wahabism
Today, there are increasing numbers of independent mosques loosely labeled ‘Tawheed’ (the unity of Allah) congregations that are widely alleged to receive funding from missionary “Salafist” or “Wahabi” organizations abroad. The controversial Sufi sheikhs in the large Muslim agricultural towns of the Eastern coastal region claim that fundamentalist preaching may lead some Muslims to deliberately pursue a mystical path and re-examine their taken-for-granted beliefs and traditional local practices to seek the spiritual guidance of a Sufi sheikh. The situation has worsened in certain areas in the Eastern province to such a degree that various dominant factions of Muslims are literally chasing away the minority factions from their areas and there have also been numerous attacks on their shrines and mosques.
According to the trustee of the Devatagaha Mosque in Colombo Reyaz Saley, there are around 800 Sufi mosques within the country, but, he claims, in recent times, more radical Islamic mosques have also come up in various places.
“This has become an issue in the country, as we Muslims have always been a peaceful section of society. My belief, therefore, is that being a Muslim is not about clashing with others, but, if one feels something is right for them, then they should just do it without trying to force others to follow and without trying to clash with others who do not share their views. However, they should not disturb the peace and harmony of the Muslims in the country and they should not disturb the peace in the country. We have been a well respected segment of society and I don’t want any other form of Islam imported into the country.
“In Islam, it is stated that one should not worship statues. But the radicals have now changed that rule where worshiping of shrines and statues have been introduced which is totally against the teachings of our faith, and this is what we are against. With more people going to Saudi Arabia, they believe that whatever they see there is Islam, which is not so. We have to put a stop to these converted Islamic preachers coming into this country. I see a foul play in that as they are funded by the Israelis. When we have proper Maulavis and Ulemas within the country, why do we need to bring in these converts in order to teach us Islam?” he asks.
There is a belief that, with more Muslims traveling to the Middle East for employment, more radical forms of Islam are being imported into the country, causing disputes within the Muslim communities.
During the key note address made by the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the Defence Seminar last September, he pointed out that some foreign groups are trying to encourage Sri Lankan Muslims to identify themselves with the global Muslim community, thereby reducing their integration with the local Muslim community.
He said that it is a well known fact that Muslim fundamentalism is spreading all over the world and in this region as well.
“This is a situation that our law enforcement and security forces are concerned about, particularly when there have been instances where extremist elements have been in transit in Sri Lanka prior to arrest and handing over to appropriate authorities. These possibilities, that these extremist elements may try to promote Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern. One of the consequences of the increasing insularity amongst minority ethnic groups is the emergence of hard-line groups within the majority community. This, in turn, causes further tension among other communities which leads to a vicious cycle of greater fragmentation of the Sri Lankan identity. Sri Lanka has had enough divisions in the past that ultimately led to a conflict. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from our past and ensure that history is not repeated. This is a critical challenge that faces the entire nation today,” he stated.
Reyaz Saley, on the other hand, claims that the clashes within the Muslim community will not be a security threat to the nation. He said that he disagrees with the concerns of the Defence Secretary and feels that these are issues that need to be addressed within the Muslim community and that Muslim religious leaders in Sri Lanka should take control of the situation and prevent it from getting out of hand.
Violence will not be tolerated
Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana told The Sunday Leader that there are constant clashes between the two main Muslim factions and these clashes show a marked increase in violence in comparison to other minor clashes.
“We have seen it happen in Madampe and also in several locations in the East. If any faction or religion is to set up places of worship anywhere in the country, they should obtain the permission of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana & Religious Affairs. If anyone fails to adhere to these rules, the police will take strict action in the future in dealing with such situations.”
The police spokesman went on to say that such clashes which start off as minor clashes between religious sects will certainly pose a threat to the law and order of the country. He further added that these clashes are a threat to the peace and harmony of the country.
Sri Lanka’s Sunni Muslims or Moors, who make up eight percent of the population, are the country’s third largest ethnic group after the Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils.
The tensions within the Muslims were intensified with the demolition and reconstruction of historic older-style mosques in accordance with imported models of Islamic architecture which clearly indicates a pan-Islamic influence, much to the disapproval of the traditional Muslims of this country.
Furthermore, it is also believed that most of these clashes are also politically motivated and are triggered by the rivaling political factions. Whatever the reasons are, the law enforcement authorities and the security establishments of this country are firm in their stance that no form of violence or uprisings that could impact and jeopardize the security of the country will be tolerated.