Sri Lankan Muslims under threat

Asia Nilanjan Hajra
Sri Lankan Muslims
View at the Jummah Mosque in the streets of Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura is the capital city of North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Photo : Dreamstime

Sri Lankan Muslims, reported a leading international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) in July 2019, were facing ‘threats and attacks’. And the HRW further said, they were facing arbitrary arrests and ‘other abuses’. This began particularly since the Easter Sunday terrorist bombing in April 2019. Things haven’t improved much over the past one-and-half years. International calls to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that such persecution is stopped, have yielded little result so far.

Yet this is not the Sri Lankan society’s historical truth. People of various religions have remained here peacefully for centuries. Such discrimination is a recent reality.

History of Sri Lankan Muslims

Islam arrived in this small island country as early as the 7th century. Arab traders from Syria, Yemen, and North Africa brought the religion here. Over the next few centuries, Muslims from southern India also came to Sri Lanka. Sheikh Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn founded the first major settlement of Sri Lankan Muslims in a place named Beruwala on the southwestern coast of the island. Locals built here the nation’s first mosque in 920 CE.

Sri Lankan Buddhist kings highly valued the Muslim subjects for nearly a millennium, during the long Anuradhapura (377 BCE to 1017 CE) period and Kandyan period (1597–1815). This was because the Sri Lankan Muslims controlled the valuable spice and gems trade, the mainstay of commerce in the island nation.

The arrival of the Portuguese colonizers around 1505 began to sour the life of the Sri Lankan Muslims immediately. Since Arab Muslims ruled Portugal for many centuries, the Portuguese had a kind of Islamophobia in those days. The colonial rulers quickly sowed seeds of mistrust between the two communities.

In 1626 Portuguese King Philip IV ordered the expulsion of Muslims from the Island. While many left, King Senerath of Kandy gave protection to about 4000 of them. And they settled in Batticaloa. Unfortunately, the Dutch colonized the Kandy kingdom when the kings sought Dutch help against Portuguese aggression. Soon, they also began to persecute Sri Lankan Muslims. The Dutch enacted laws to destroy the Muslims’ deep control over trade on the island.

The British colonizers arrived next on the invitation of the Kandy kings. The kings wanted to use the British against the Dutch. However, in reality, the British took control of the whole country by 1815. The colonial power here also applied a policy of ‘divide and rule’ replicating India. This worsened the relationship between the Buddhists and the Muslims. Sadly, this colonial ploy has left its impact to this day.

The modern crisis

Sadly, this discrimination has again raised its ugly head in recent times. In 2014, ant-Muslim riots killed three more. Three people died and several Sri Lankan Muslims were severely injured. Things took a turn for the worse after the April 2019 terrorist bombings. The present president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has been accused of taking an anti-Muslim position. He has banned the import of Islamic books. He has also closed down hundreds of Madrassas. The administration has also banned the use of Burqas. Sadly, there is a little international spotlight, on the plight of Sri Lankan Muslims.


(Written by Nilanjan Hajra)