Sri Lanka’s fragile security situation is now hurting Muslims

Azaera Amza

Sri Lanka is tense – some parts a lot more than others. Police jeeps roam Colombo, checkpoints are back after having disappeared 10 years ago when the protracted civil war ended and Special Task Force units line streets as they conduct raids. Traffic is returning and schools are opening, yet the public is still hesitant about venturing out of their houses any more than is necessary.

In Negombo, the seaside city north of Colombo worst hit by the attacks – 103 people lost their lives in St Sebastian’s Church – tensions are even more strained. Dozens of Muslim-owned shops, homes and vehicles, as well as mosques, were attacked on Monday, prompting a curfew and a call by the Catholic Church for an alcohol ban. In Chilaw, a town north of Colombo, several people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores after a dispute that started on Facebook – authorities responded by partially blocking social media.

Right after the April 21 attacks, Pakistani and Afghan refugees were forced to leave their homes in Negombo and take refuge in an undisclosed location as mobs threaded the streets. Then there are the reports of women who have been forced to remove their hijabs and niqabs before entering supermarkets and university campuses – a situation quite removed from the ban on face-veils currently presiding across the country. There is also the piqued interest Muslims receive when security forces see their names on ID cards.

A few Muslims told TRT World they have had falling-outs with friends following the attacks while others reported more serious consequences – a dent in their earnings as businesses they run are boycotted or are being forced to remain closed by their community.

Shop owners in the usually-thriving Colombo business district of Pettah also reported a decline in profit in the weeks since the attacks. One Muslim businessman told TRT World that patrons had cancelled earlier made deals with him because of his religion. Another said that business had dipped because people were too scared to come out and conduct business. One Muslim businessman who wishes to remain anonymous told TRT World that the community in the area where his shop is located has not allowed him to open up since the incident. This has cost him financially – a setback that is exacerbated by the fact that he needs to pay for his elder son’s Leukaemia treatment.

“Up to now, I have stopped more than 13 to 14 cheques,” he said. He believes that the pressure by the community is part of an effort to drive Muslim businesses from the area.  “This particular incident is not going to make living in Sri Lanka as a Muslim the same as we were,” HilmyAhamed, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told TRT World. “Now people are looking at us with suspicion. Even our close friends are not as friendly as before because they feel Muslims knew about it,” Ahamed adds.

But despite the suspicion cast, it is Muslim communities and their leaders who are cooperating with security forces and the government. It was Muslims after all who tipped authorities off about the ringleader of the attacks ZahranHashim in the first place. It was Muslims who told security forces about mysterious activity around Samanthurai in Kalmunai, and it was Muslims who isolated the National ThowheedJamath (NTJ) when they found their rhetoric getting radical.

Still, some feel they should have done more. “Since the end of the war and especially after this regime change in 2015, we were all complacent. We Muslims are as guilty as anybody else for not being a little more alert,” Ahamed said. AzimAmeen, a 27-year-old data analyst in Colombo, also feels like the Muslim community is equally responsible.

“These are our people who did this,” Ameen tells TRT World at a vigil organised by the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka – an event both for the victims of the attacks and to chastise how the attacks were carried out in the name of Islam. Yet, he is careful to distance himself from the group that carried out the attacks. When asked why he attended the event, Ameen answered with a cheeky grin: “I wanted to tell them that I am not one of those terrorist buggers.” Daesh-linked militancy is a pretty rare thing for the country of 22 million people which is why the Easter Sunday attacks came as a shock for the Muslims who constitute almost 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population.

Muslims in Sri Lanka are also not as homogenous as outsiders tend to believe they are. They are a diverse bunch, hailing from different roots – Memons, Moors, Malays, Bohras and Sufis among others – and they tend to practice Islam in various ways.  When TRT World asked Cabinet Spokesman RajithaSeneratne about how Muslims are being treated, he called them “isolated incidents”, saying that it will settle down in “a week or two”.

“There’s a lot of problems for the Muslim people about wearing their clothes and other things. And for a few, I think for some time. But I don’t think that they’ll still prevail for long,” Seneratne said.  Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Muslims remain defiant.  “We are very proud Muslims, we are proud of our faith. But equally, culturally, we are very proud Sri Lankans,” Ali Sabri, a member of the Muslim Civil Society Organisation, told TRT World.