ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The State of Sri Lanka's Muslims

The Muslim community has also been one of the victims of the 30-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka. Constituting a substantial portion of the internally displaced persons, Muslims require the Sri Lankan government to address the phenomenon of displacement, put in place a system of self-governance and guarantees of their rights, and be equally responsive to their concerns as much as those of any of the other minority in the country.


The State of Sri Lanka’s Sandwiched between the Sinhalese and Tamils, Muslims have suffered attacks and
Muslims Farah Mihlar been sidelined by both sides. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – LTTE) ethnically cleansed the entire north of Sri Lanka by evicting some 90,000 Muslims. Now, nearly 20

The Muslim community has also been one of the victims of the 30-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka. Constituting a substantial portion of the internally displaced persons, Muslims require the Sri Lankan government to address the phenomenon of displacement, put in place a system of self-governance and guarantees of their rights, and be equally responsive to their concerns as much as those of any of the other minority in the country.

Farah Mihlar ( is a media officer with the Minority Rights Group International and is a Sri Lankan Muslim journalist and academic.

n 19 May, when the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakshe announced the end of nearly three decades of war, the country’s small Muslim population faced a predicament. Like the majority Sinhala community, the Muslims wanted to celebrate the defeat of one of the most brutal terror groups in the world, at whose hands they had particularly suffered. But their sympathies and support also stood with the large numbers of Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest minority group, who were streaming into displaced camps, some injured and having lost family and friends in the final stages of the war.

After much deliberation in mosques and community centres, mainly in the south of the country, Muslims finally decided to abide by government instructions to hoist the national flag and celebrate the victory. This dilemma they faced is a clear example of the intricate position the community constantly finds itself in.


Sri Lanka has an 8% Muslim population that quite uniquely has its own ethnic identity. Their quest to define themselves separately from the other two communities began just prior to independence, when the country’s Tamil politicians in a bid to strengthen their claim for political autonomy made the case that Muslims were also Tamils, but those who had converted to Islam. The Muslim political elite at the time vehemently rejected the argument and insisted upon a separate ethnic identity based on their religion and weak claims of “Arab descent”. Like other politically imagined communities, there was little objective evidence to make the case, but the British colonial rulers accepted the argument, and the Sri Lankan state, since then, has recognised Muslims as a separate ethnic identity.

Since independence, Muslims have had to pay a price for this separate identity.

September 19, 2009

years later, the fact that many of them remain in displaced camps, in squalid conditions, bears testimony to the state’s neglect of Muslims. Since the 1990s, in the east, Muslims faced a series of attacks by the LTTE – hundreds were gunned down while praying in mosques, and they were targets of abduction, extortion and killings. Nearly one-third of Muslims live in eastern Sri Lanka and despite being directly affected by the conflict they were left out of successive attempts to negotiate peace between the government and the LTTE, including in the last Norwegianled round of peace talks after the ceasefire in 2002.

This marginalising has occurred historically despite Muslim influence in the political and economic sectors of Sri Lankan society. Most Muslims are known to be traders, but their contribution to the national economy is less known. Sri Lanka’s three biggest incomeearners – tea, garment exports and foreign remittances – have a strong Muslim presence. Politically too, thanks to Sri Lanka’s proportional representation voting system, Muslims have managed to gain a significant number of representatives to parliament. There have been occasions in the past when they have played the role of “kingmakers” but their political and economic leverage has extended, at best, to deve lopment of Muslim areas, not to solving the more crucial political and human rights related problems.

Dispersed and Diverse

In an analysis of the Muslim situation, generalising becomes difficult for two main reasons. First, because Muslims are dispersed across Sri Lanka and do not constitute a majority population in any part of the country except perhaps in some towns in the east. Second, they are linguistically, culturally and economically diverse. In most parts of Sri Lanka, apart from the north and east, Muslims have little to complain of and, in fact, consider themselves

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privileged to enjoy a host of religious and cultural freedoms in a non-Muslim state. In recent years, however, there has been a growing antagonism and prejudice towards Muslim cultural and religious practices largely perpetuated by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups. The Islamic call for prayer and slaughtering of animals for sacrifice at Muslim religious festivals have come under criticism and attack in the media and through public propaganda. There have also been occasional ethnic riots targeting Muslims in central Sri Lanka. In the outskirts of Colombo, there are Sinhala majority areas where Muslim businesses have been barred from opening up shops.

Muslims are also now increasingly seen to be leaning towards extremism. In Sri Lanka, during the past decade or so, there has been a general hardening of religious and ethnic identity coupled with a rise in extremism and nationalism amongst all communities. In the case of the Muslims, it is especially visible because of the change in women’s dress code from a traditional sari to a strict Arab style dress. There is also the emergence of several radical religious groups and a shift in religious practices amongst some sections of the community, but these trends do not appear to be widespread or as extreme as perceived to be.

In the country’s north and east the situation for Muslims is far more problematic. It is important to contextualise the position of the Muslims in the overall human rights climate in Sri Lanka. At present Sri Lanka is faced with several humanitarian and human rights issues. There are no proper estimates of the civilian death toll in the last stages of the war, but based on some estimates by human rights organisations the number could be over 20,000. Families of those who were killed want accountability and are looking for answers. Close to 3,00,000 people have been displaced and have been kept in detention camps in extremely poor conditions. There are continuous reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and a stringent clamping down of media freedom and descent. This article does not mean to undermine the importance of these issues, however as its focus is on the situation of Muslims, it will

Economic & Political Weekly

September 19, 2009

only refer to the Muslim dimension to these problems.


The international attention on the humanitarian crisis that developed in the aftermath of the war resulted in the government making certain guarantees towards the return and resettlement of the recently displaced. There is, however, no structured plan to resettle the larger number of those dubbed as “old Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)”: displaced through the course of the country’s 30-year old conflict. Amongst these 3,40,000 IDPs are about 1,00,000 Muslims. After 20 years of displacement, when the government announced the war was over, many of these uprooted Muslims readied to return home. Many fear that if they are not resettled now, they may never get an opportunity to go back to their homes. They are also concerned that other IDPs may be settled in their homes. It was only after significant pressure that the Muslim IDPs from the Mussali area, in southern Mannar were a llowed to go to their homes as part of a recent resettlement effort.

In eastern Sri Lanka there are continuous reports of cases of intimidation, attack, harassment and extortion of Muslims by Tamil paramilitary groups now working with the state. The government is putting into place several programmes to disarm, demobilise and rehabilitate (DDR) former LTTE rebels, but there is no comprehensive programme to address all other Tamil paramilitaries and former LTTE cadres now working with the government. Some of these paramilitary leaders hold political office in the east. For the population at large they remain terror figures who conducted many of the large-scale attacks and human rights violations against the Muslims. Paradoxically there has been much publicity given in the media to Muslim “militant” groups who have been asked to lay down their arms. These groups have been classified as “jihadist” groups, reportedly supported by Muslim countries including Pakistan. However, there is very little evidence that these groups are as organised as they are portrayed to be, and Muslim politicians and activists say they are merely armed underworld figures.

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While accountability for targeted civilian killings in the last stages of the war is a major issue that the Sri Lankan state must not ignore, Muslims would call for a broader focus on this. Muslims want answers to the injustices they s uffered throughout the years of conflict, including their eviction from the north and killings and abductions in the east. It is crucial that in a post-conflict scenario, if there is an effort made towards seeking accountability and justice, this must be inclusive of the concerns of all communities.

Similarly, a reconciliation process that is currently a huge need in Sri Lanka must be open to all ethnic groups. Not all of Sri Lanka’s minorities advocate a separate state, but they want a system of self- governance and guarantees of their rights. Four months after the war has ended, there has been no proper mention of a political solution to meet the aspirations of minorities. There is a concern amongst Muslims that if and when the Sri Lankan government decides to engage in such a process, they may be the community sidelined as they have been in previous conflict resolution processes.

All of these are issues the international community and India, in particular, have raised with the Sri Lankan government. India, more than many other countries, has been advocating for the return and resettlement of displaced, minority rights protection and political autonomy for minorities. The concern on the part of the Muslim community is that, if and when the government acts on these issues, they may only respond to the Tamils and neglect the Muslims. This could potentially lead to tension and division between minorities and sow the seeds for a different type of conflict.

Sri Lanka is indeed at a historic moment. The state has an unprecedented opportunity to right the wrongs that led to decades of bloodshed in the country. However, there has to be commitment and vision to do this. It also has to be a participatory and inclusive process and not a few ad hoc measures. The transition from the aftermath of war to peace can only be made successfully if all communities are part of such a process.

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