Friday, August 24, 2007

Islamic Jihad in the Eastern Province

Majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka are against Jihad, but due to a lack of political unity in the Muslim community and suffering at the hands of the LTTE, Muslim youth, particularly in the Eastern Province have been turning towards Jihad since the 1970s. The seeds of the Islamic Jihad in Sri Lanka were spawned particularly after a visit by Dr. U.L. Ahmed Ashruff, who was the leader of a Saudi-based Wahabi Islamic group called Tharus Hatheesh. P Jainul Abdeen from Tamil Nadu was a famous Islamic preacher active in Sri Lanka in the 1970s who imported Wahabism from South India. The Wahabi sect is growing in power in the East, particularly in areas like Kathankudy, Marathamunai, Muthur etc. There are 65 Mosques in Kathankudy alone, which is considered the most densely populated village in South Asia.

Intelligence sources claim of two migrations to Afghanistan of Sri Lankan Muslims for Jihad or ‘holy-war’. The first was during the soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The second was more recent, when the United States invaded Afghanistan to crush Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The Sri Lankan Jihadis’ quest had been facilitated by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, an Islamic Fundamentalist organization operating in Pakistan. Sources also claim that individuals connected to the Muslim Defence Force in South India were also connected to the smuggling of Sri Lankan Muslim fighters to Afghanistan.

For the last several decades, another battle is being fought in the Eastern Province. The battle is between the Saudi-influenced Wahabi sect and the Sufi sect of moderate Muslims. This conflict has claimed the lives of many Muslims over the years, including the life of Sufi preacher Farook Moulavi on 29th May 1998. The Wahabi youth have acquired weapons from many sources, which include Colombo and Trincomalee-based criminal gangs and para-military groups. The use of Chinese and Czech-build 9mm pistols and hand-grenades is customary during attacks aimed against opponents. It is an ever-present danger to ordinary Muslims in the East. A group of Muslim Ministers and Deputy Ministers have backed the groups from time to time.

The history of this conflict is an interesting one. On February 11th 1979, two festivals were held at a public market in Division Five of Kathankudy where Abdul Rauf Moulavi, a Sufi Muslim leader, was preaching a form of religion where the veneration of holy men was acceptable for one’s salvation. Rauf and Abdullah Pailvan (Pailwan means wrestler in Tamil. Abdullah was a practitioner of an ancient form of martial art practiced in secrecy in Kinniya and other Muslim areas of the East) preached this doctrine together in their mosques. These mosques have tombs of holy men which are venerated by all attendees. The Sufi sect preached co-existence with Hindus, often attending Hindu Temple Celebrations. They offered flowers to their holy men, like Hindus do to their gods. Every year they organize a large festival where food is offered to Hindus and even Buddhists invited from all over Sri Lanka.

Rauf and Pailvan’s preachings were contrary to the ideas of the Wahabis, who prayed only to God for salvation. The Jamiyathul Ulema, at a meeting held on the 31st of March 1979 in Colombo, declared Rauf Moulavi and his followers Murdaths (a form of religious banishment) and prohibited Muslims from praying at his mosques. With the death of Pailvan and the increasing threat to his life, Rauf Moulavi now spends his days in hiding. During times of unrest, Sufi Muslims keep their religious texts in suit-case boxes, ready to be transported to secret locations at short notice.

Whether Islamic Fundamentalism in the Eastern Province would grow into a national crisis is doubtful. However, the beginnings of the Tamil insurgency have demonstrated that armed disturbances of any nature, whether ethnic or religious, could grow into unimaginable proportions if left unchecked.

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