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CWA # 274, 28 April 2020

Perspectives on Violence
One year after the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka: Have the Islamists Won?

  La Toya Waha

The Islamist attacks are not the source of the communal problem; they are a symptom. The attacks have laid bare the issues of religious radicalisation and intercommunal tensions and conflict


Assaults like the attacks on Easter Sunday in April 2019 in Sri Lanka are not solely intended to kill. Laden with symbolism, the attackers, seek more than the death of others in large numbers. They aim at destroying society as it is. The intention is to instil anger, distrust and anxiety, to polarise the society and destroy the legitimacy of the state. On the ruins of the community, they aim to build their version of state and society. 

On 21 April 2019, Islamists had attacked Christians on their most sacred religious holiday. The attackers’ aim was the breaking the Sri Lankan community along religious lines to open yet another battlefield for the Islamic State. The suicide attacks on churches and hotels, in which hundreds of lives were lost, was planned and perpetrated by a group of Sri Lankans and their families. The support networks of Islamist extremists reached high and deep into the Sunni-Wahhabi Muslim community.
One year after the attack, one may ask: were the Islamist attackers successful in sowing the seeds of community destruction? 

A diverse society’s diverse responses 
The responses to the attacks and their consequences by members of the Muslim community have been as diverse as have been the responses by members of the other religious communities. 

Many religious leaders, be they Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, have called on their communities to stay calm – and stand together. So have many moderate Islamic religious leaders. They called on their community for calm, restraint and cooperation. When the news broke that some of the attackers’ accomplices escaped in burqas after the attack, and the resulting ban of burqas for the time of the investigation, several Muslim leaders have asked the female members of their communities not to wear the burqa or to stay home. Muslim teachers at schools and universities have moreover asked their students to dress colourfully – instead of black or white only – and to show their willingness to blend in. 

Even more, several Muslims had come forward to tell about their earlier reports of Islamist activities and radicalisation in the community. They represented the part of the Muslim community willing to live in harmony with the others and standing firmly for national solidarity beyond religion. While their claims have laid bare successive governments’ inaction, they also showed many Muslims’ commitment to a peaceful, non-violent society. That not all of “the” Muslim community in Sri Lanka were radicals was made apparent by those as well as by the reports about the Sufis in the country. During police investigations and media research, the Sufi-Muslims’ fate as the first victims of the Islamists in the country, too, finally gained attention after years of disinterest. 

At the same time, other Muslim leaders have voiced their concern for violent retaliation by members of the other religious communities. Some claimed other religious communities’ indifference to radicalism, such as in the case of the Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, as the underlying reason for their concerns. While indeed certain members of different communities clashed violently after the attacks, pointing out other religious communities’ failures and misdeeds for many appeared outrageous in the face of the Islamist attacks’ scope of death and destruction and the blind eye turned on Muslims’ radicalisation by many members of the Muslim communities. Implicitly – and explicitly – blaming organisations like the BBS for the Islamist attack for many was perceived provocative – not only because the targets have been Christians, not at all involved in BBS activities or the like.

Even worse for community relations were the links of leading Muslim politicians to the radical milieu uncovered in the course of the investigation. The harm they did to the trust in the Muslim community was outstanding, as it reinforced the image of a community conspiring to take over the country. Those who work in and for the system to be involved with those who work against it, has cut deep into the trust between communities, but also in the state. Easily, radicals on the other side of the spectrum could exploit it. 

The responses in the online world, too, have varied greatly. While many Muslims expressed their grief and solidarity with the victims and their families, others have sought to fuel the tensions by provoking posts and comments on Facebook and other social media platforms. One such provocation has escalated into violence in the real world. 

Violent Responses, Boycotts and Segregation
The above case did not remain the only one. Christians were suspicious of their Muslim neighbours. Others suspected the hiding of explosives in mosques. Frequently the anger, fear and anxiety escalated into attacks on mosques and Muslim property. Boycotts of Muslim shops have become more frequent. While increasing parts of the Muslim community had already begun to only buy in Muslim and halal-selling shops even before the attack and the ‘retaliation’ by others, this trend has even more increased. The mutual boycott of shops furthermore segregated the religious communities from one another.

The polarization of the society, it seems, has increased. In times of such attacks, fear and suspicion gloss over the nuances within the different communities. 

So, are the Islamists about to win? 
Certainly, the attacks have challenged interreligious trust and solidarity in Sri Lanka. They have furthered the withdrawal into their own religious communities. However, the Islamist attacks are not the source of the communal problem; they are a symptom. The attacks have laid bare the issues of religious radicalisation and intercommunal tensions and conflict. They have not created the rifts, they have just widened them and thus disclosed what was simmering underneath for years.

However, this is not the end of the story. The disclosure of problems which have been neglected societally and ignored politically for years bear the opportunity to solve them. Many Sri Lankans, fed up with violence and conflict, have begun to turn to the broken relations with their neighbours. In many places, in which religious communities clashed after the attack, interreligious councils formed from within the communities. They actively seek to recreate trust among each other. Standing together as a nation and a society will help to spoil the Islamists’ plans and prevent Sri Lanka from turning into a new theatre of IS-led faultline war. 


On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured. 

One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on "One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka" is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice.

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