The Religious Tensions Behind the Attacks in Sri Lanka

How Sectarianism Could Spin Out of Control

Police officers in St. Sebastian's Church, in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Easter Day, 2019 Athit Perawongmetha / REUTERS

The series of suicide bombings at Christian churches and hotels in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, on Easter Sunday threatened to rip apart the country’s complex ethno-religious fabric. The government has blamed the attacks on two obscure Islamist groups called the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim and the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ). It appears the latter has links to jihadists outside Sri Lanka, including the Islamic State, or ISIS. If that attribution bears out, the attacks are likely to inflame tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority—and to promote sectarianism in the wider region, too.


Sri Lanka is no stranger to terrorism, having lived through a nearly three-decade-long civil war that pitted the majority Sinhalese against minority Tamil separatist organizations, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During the war, the LTTE carried out dozens of suicide attacks. But last weekend’s carnage was unprecedented. The bombs killed over 300 people and injured at least 500 more.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has long bridled at the austere, Wahabi-influenced practices the NTJ propounds. But aside from making the news last year for desecrating some statues of the Buddha, the NTJ was hardly known to non-Muslims in Sri Lanka until this week. Now, however, the group has taken center stage in a long-running ethno-religious drama. Beginning around 2012, extremist Buddhist groups, emboldened by the LTTE’s defeat in the civil war, began targeting Muslims, even though most Muslims supported the state against Tamil separatism. Based on preliminary reports, it appears that anti-Muslim violence may have influenced some of last weekend’s attackers to join the NTJ. If so, that suggests an unsurprising lesson: further violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will only radicalize others. 

Sri Lanka has long operated as an ethnocracy dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up 70 percent of the population. This was the main spur for the Tamils’ separatist campaign. By switching to targeting Muslims, who constitute less than ten percent of the population, Buddhist extremists

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