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Sri Lanka - Islam

The US government estimates the total population at 22.4 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2012 national census lists 70.2 percent of the population as Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mainly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Shia and Ahmadi minorities.

The religion of Islam began, like Buddhism, with the experience of a single man, but the religious environment of early Islam was the Judeo-Christian world of Arabia. Many of the basic premises and beliefs of Islam are thus quite different than those of Buddhism or Hinduism and more closely resemble the systems of Judaism or Christianity. During the last 1,000 years, however, Islam has played a major part in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka. Islam in Sri Lanka has preserved the doctrines derived from Arabia, while adapting to the social environment of South Asia.

In practice, to be a Muslim requires not simply a belief in God and in Muhammad's status as the final prophet, but acceptance of the rules of Islamic law and following them in one's own life. Islam thus encompasses a rich theology and moral system, and it also includes a distinctive body of laws and customs that distinguish Muslims from followers of other faiths. Islam is theoretically a democratic union of all believers without priests, but in practice scholars (ulama) learned in Islamic law interpret the Quran according to local conditions, legal officials (qazi) regulate Muslim life according to Islamic law, and local prayer leaders coordinate group recitation of prayers in mosques (masjid, or palli).

By the fifteenth century, Arab traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Some of them settled down along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, married local women, and spoke Arabized Tamil rather than pure Arabic. Their families followed Islam and preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, while also adopting some local social customs (such as matrilineal and matrilocal families) that were not part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula.

When the Portuguese took control in the sixteenth century, they persecuted the Muslim traders of the southwest coast, and many Muslims had to relocate in the Central Highlands or on the east coast. They retained their separate religious identity, but also adopted some aspects of popular religion. For example, pilgrimage sites, such as Kataragama, may be the same for Muslims as for Hindus or Buddhists, although Muslims will worship at mosques rather than reverence the Buddha or worship Hindu gods.

The growth in ethnic consciousness during the last two centuries has affected the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Muslim revivalism has included an interest in the Arabic roots of the community, increased emphasis on the study of Arabic as the basis for understanding the Quran, and an emphasis on separate schools for Muslim children. Whether there should be an independent Islamic law for Muslims, preserving the distinct moral culture passed down from Muhammad, is a continuing issue. On a number of occasions, agitation has developed over attempts by the Sri Lankan government to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance. In order to prevent further alienation of the Muslim community, in the 1980s the government handled its dealings with Muslims through a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.

The Muslim community constitutes a separate ethno-religious community in the country (9.2 percent of Sri Lankas population). From 1990 onwards the entire Muslim population of the North was forcibly expelled by the LTTE from the North and the in the East Muslim communities faced a series of massacres. Despite the end of Sri Lankas decades-long civil war in 2009, and significant improvements in the overall security and general context, civil and political rights remain an issue of pressing and persistent concern in the post-war period. This minority has faced a significant volume of attacks, which have been widespread in the post-war context. Between January 2013 and May 2014 alone there were at least 354 attacks against Muslims.

The end of the war offered an opportunity for these war-affected communities to return to areas where they had fled from, reclaim their land, rebuild their lives and livelihoods and re-assert their rights and identity. The post-war period however has proved particularly challenging, as returnee communities struggle to rehabilitate themselves, facing problems ranging from lack of due recognition from the State to disputes on the ground relating to land ownership and access. Thus, even while the end of war has seen a restoration of democratic processes and civilian institutions such as elected local government authorities, the day-to-day challenges of existence, mean that some war-affected communities find it difficult to fully exercise their political rights and identity. The continuing heavy military presence, military occupation of land and the militarisation of various sectors have thwarted the restoration of civilian control in the war-affected areas. The Anuradhapura Muslim Shrine, reputed to be at least three hundred years old was attacked and destroyed under the leadership of the extremist Sinhala Ravaya (The Roar of the Sinhalese) on September 9 2011. Local police promised protection and surrounded the shrine with protective cordons that successfully kept attackers at bay. However, on instruction reportedly from higher authorities the police later stood-by and watched the shrines destruction. Subsequently, the police claimed that they were not present and that they did not receive any complaints.

On April 20 2012, a mob of about 2,000 people reportedly led by the Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter, Venerable Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero attacked the Masjidul Kariya Mosque in Dambulla. The mob claimed that the 50-year old mosque was illegal and that it had to be evacuated although the mosque has been registered. The mosque was vandalised by the mob and the following day a petrol bomb was thrown at the mosque resulting in damages to the building. The Prime Minister and Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs D.M. Jayaratne ordered the mosque to be relocated. This was followed by the Urban Development Authority issuing letters in September 2012 to residents and shop owners in the vicinity, including Muslims, that their houses were in a sacred area.

The Grandpass Mosque, within the capitals city limits, was attacked by mobs as prayers were being conducted, breaking windows and damaging the building on 10 August 2013. The perpetrators were not arrested despite an extremely heavy police presence in the area and CCTV cameras. Policemen who were assigned to protect the mosque moved out without explanation just before the attack. Other policemen who came to the area did nothing to prevent the attack.

In June 2014, during the riots in Aluthgama, Galle District 03 Muslims and one Tamil were killed (two from gunshot wounds), 165 injured (11 critically), 150 buildings including houses and places of business were burned and damaged, attacked 17 Muslim places of worship (one mosque completely burned), 2,450 people displaced and 200 motor vehicles were destroyed. These riots took place over three days and despite a heavy military and police presence, and the imposition of curfew in the area. The riots followed an incendiary rally organised by the Bodu Bala Sena (an extremist Sinhala Buddhist organisation). The rally took place despite appeals by Muslims civil society organisations and even Muslim cabinet ministers to the police and Government to not permit the rally. The police granted permission for the rally to take place, for the rally to cross the Muslim areas of Aluthgama and guaranteed protection to the Muslim population.

A ten-day state of emergency was imposed in the wake of communal violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim community in Digana and Teldeniya, in Kandy administrative district on 27 February 2018. The violence reportedly resulted in the torching of dozens of houses and business establishments belonging to the Muslim community, with at least four mosques destroyed. There was one reported death.

The mob came by the hundreds, screaming at the top of their lungs and carrying sticks, stones and petrol bombs, as they descended on the hill town of Ambatenna in central Sri Lanka on Wednesday. Some two dozen policemen and soldiers watched helplessly, according to residents, as the mob - mostly Sinhalese Buddhist men - vandalised and set fire to Muslim homes and businesses in the town's Welekada area.

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Page last modified: 25-04-2019 14:55:49 ZULU