The deadliest terror attack in any country outside of a war zone since 9/11 took place last Sunday in, of all places, Sri Lanka. On Easter, a series of coordinated suicide attacks struck crowded churches, bustling luxury hotels, and a housing complex, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly Christian worshippers. With the attackers belonging to a local radical Islamist group, perhaps helped by the Islamic State, and with most of the victims having been Christians, a puzzle emerges: Why, in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, should members of the tiny Muslim minority target members of the even tinier Christian minority in the absence of any history of mutual enmity?
The Colombo attacks are an unfortunate and troubling reminder of the country’s long history of communal violence. From 1983-2009, the tiny island nation witnessed a sanguinary civil war fought between a militant group known as the Tamil Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka. In the face of extraordinarily brutal repression at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhist government, the (primarily Hindu) Tamil Tigers fought to create an independent state in the northeastern part of the country. Over 100,000 civilians perished in the course of the conflict.
But the Easter attacks stand out from earlier spates of violence. These attacks were not carried out by Buddhist nationalists or disenfranchised Tamils but by individuals reportedly affiliated with the Salafi-jihadist group, the Islamic State (IS). While skeptics of Islam — including many hardline Buddhists in Sri Lanka — will claim that the attacks reveal its inherently violent tendencies, Islamic extremism has not been a prominent feature of Sri Lankan life as it has been elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.
In fact, my analysis of terrorism in Sri Lanka shows that Muslim terrorists did not commit a single act of terrorism in Sri Lanka over the past ten years. On the other hand, dozens of attacks have been carried out against Muslims (several by Buddhist monks) in just the past five years. Furthermore, while both Christians and Muslims have suffered at the hands of Buddhist nationalists, these communities have not had hostility with each other.
How, then, do we make sense of the recent attacks?
Although the particular actors are different, violent extremism in Sri Lanka — in its Buddhist, Hindu, and now Muslim manifestations — has similar roots. In the same way that the ruthlessness of the Sinhalese government drove Tamils to take up the gun against the state, marginalization of Muslims and widespread Islamophobia since the end of the civil war may be having a similar effect on Sri Lanka’s Muslim population.
For example, in 2018, Sinhalese mobs attacked Muslims in a series of religious riots in the towns of Kandy and Ampara. When I visited the country just after the attacks, calm had been restored only because the government had taken extremely stringent measures, not only shutting down Facebook and other social media but also declaring a state of emergency. Ever since an earlier set of devastating anti-Muslim attacks in southwestern Sri Lanka, in 2014, large swaths of the country’s Muslim population have felt neglected and discriminated against by the government. The growing discrimination against Muslims by the state, and the demonization of Muslims by Buddhist nationalists in society over the last few years, is contributing to their radicalization.
Further enhancing their sense of grievance has been the growing violence against Muslims in nearby countries, including neighboring India. The apparent mastermind of the attacks, Zaharan Hashim, traveled frequently to India, and is reported to have originally planned to strike the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Genocidal violence and expulsions against Rohingya Muslims in Burma also attracted the attention of Muslims in Sri Lanka, both because of close links between Buddhist extremists in the two countries and because Sri Lanka has turned back Rohingya refugees attempting to arrive by boat. In September 2017, Buddhist monks and hardline nationalists forced a small group of Rohingya refugees – mostly women and children – to flee a U.N. shelter in the capital Colombo.
My analysis of every terrorist attack in the world from 1990-2014, which appears in my recent book, Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism, demonstrates that religious repression is one of the most important motivators of faith-based terrorism. It stands to reason that the Colombo attackers may have deliberately selected their targets — churches and luxury hotels — because they are symbols of a powerful Western-backed political and economic elite. With this establishment, Christians, especially the Catholic Church, have long been associated. Sri Lanka’s generally repressive environment created a climate conducive to this kind of attack, and the attackers likely viewed Christians as being complicit in the state’s marginalization of Islam.
In fact, the close association between the Catholic Church and Sri Lanka’s ruling elite is not just a matter of history. In 2006, Catholic leaders joined Buddhist extremists in calling for legislation to restrict religious conversion to proselytizing groups (particularly evangelical Protestants, but also Muslim groups). Since becoming the leader of the country’s Catholic Church in 2009, Malcolm Ranjith has consistently defended the Sri Lankan government in general and the Buddhist establishment in particular from charges of discrimination, extremism, and intolerance. This celebration of Buddhist tolerance amidst the reality of rising Buddhist extremism has been viewed by many religious minorities, Protestant and Muslim, as shockingly indifferent to the attacks both communities have suffered.
Through the lens of an extremist Islamist ideology, however, what might have been indifference becomes interpreted as malevolence. And Christians in general, along with the foreign tourists filling the luxury hotels that dot Colombo’s sea-coast, are hated not only as infidels but also as agents of a global anti-Muslim conspiracy.
How the government responds to the Easter attacks will matter greatly for the stability of Sri Lanka. If it takes a hardline stance and refuses to address systemic issues of bias and discrimination, it will continue to fertilize a breeding ground for terrorism. Similarly, if the country’s Buddhist nationalists use the attacks to fuel fear of religious minorities and justify retaliatory violence, we can indeed expect to see a new age of terror in Sri Lanka.
Nilay Saiya is a Senior Fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team and Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University.