The Creeping Reach of ISIS in Gradually Radicalising Sri Lanka

ISIS has come knocking at Sri Lanka’s doors, jolting the new government. Ranga Jayasuriya writes on the fallout.

Updated
World
4 min read
A large congregation of Muslims  prays in a Colombo street on July 18. (Photo: Reuters)
Snapshot

The Looming Threat

  • Sri Lankan intelligence services discovered last week death of Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam fighting for ISIS in Syria
  • Turkish embassy in Colombo confirmed Nilam’s entire family entered Turkey and then crossed over to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria
  • Nilam, employed as a principal of a local international school, obtained an LLB degree in Sharia Law in Pakistan
  • Muslims in Sri Lanka have historically practiced a moderate variant of Sufi-infused Islam
  • But in recent times, traditional Muslim communities have come under the influence of Salafi ideology
  • An increasing number of women, especially in predominantly Muslim towns in the east have switched to the burqa

Sri Lanka’s intelligence services received a rude shock last week when local gossip websites broke the news of the death of a Sri Lankan Muslim while fighting for the Islamic terror group, ISIS, in Syria. Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam (37), a karate master from Galewela in the Central Province, who was known in the ISIS as Abu Shuraih Sailani was reportedly killed in an airstrike on July 12, according to a Facebook message posted by his brother–in-law, who is also reportedly fighting with the Islamic terror group.

Until then Sri Lankan authorities were oblivious that their countrymen are in the rank and file of the terror group that has a reputation for unremitting brutality. Finally, it was the Turkish diplomatic mission in Colombo that confirmed that the entire family of Nilam, including his pregnant wife, six children and parents had entered Turkey on visit visa in December last year. From there they are believed to have crossed over to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria.

Nilam who was employed as a principal of a local international school, has studied in Pakistan where he obtained an LLB degree in Sharia Law. Given Pakistan’s credentials as a bastion of radicalisation, local Muslim leaders have argued that he could have been radicalised and turned around during his stint there.

 (Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Change of Faith

After an inordinate delay, the government in Colombo ordered an investigation. A special police team led by a deputy inspector general of police has now confirmed the identity of the Sri Lankan militant. Sri Lankan Muslim organisations condemned the use of violence in the name of Islam and called for additional measures to combat online radicalisation of local youth.

Muslims in Sri Lanka have historically practiced a moderate variant of Sufi-infused Islam. However, in recent times, traditional Muslim communities in the island, like their counterparts in the rest of Asia, have increasingly come under the pervasive influence of an austere form of Salafi ideology, brought home by local preachers returning from Islamic education in Pakistan and West Asia. Freshly minted mosques and Islamic schools have mushroomed in Muslim areas in recent times, built with funds from Gulf countries.

Towards Radicalisation

An increasing number of women, especially in the predominantly Muslim towns in the east such as Kattankudy, have now switched to the all-encompassing Islamic garment, burqa. This has led to hardline Sinhala nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (which has been accused of a series of attacks against Muslims) to demand a ban on the burqa, describing it as a security risk.

A girl looks on as Muslim women pray during morning prayers in Colombo, August 9, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
A girl looks on as Muslim women pray during morning prayers in Colombo, August 9, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Traditional Muslim societies in Sri Lanka were not fully prepared to meet the challenges posed by the new stricter variant, which made headway in Asia as a spinoff effect of Al Qaeda-led Salafi jihad that gathered momentum after the 9/11 attacks. Several years ago, there were sectarian clashes in Aluthgama, a predominantly Muslim town in southern Sri Lanka between the followers of the new invasive variety and traditional Muslims. However, since then, in some areas, most notably in the Muslim enclaves in the east, the new variant has taken root.

“Muslims are self-alienating from the mainstream society,” says Professor Ameer Ali, a prominent Sri Lankan Islamic scholar and a former adviser on Muslim affairs to Australian Prime Minister, John Howard’s government. (Australia has its share in ISIS ranks, with an estimated 100 Australian Muslims having already joined the terror group, according to local media reports).

However, in this election time in Colombo, such remarks like Prof Ali’s are considered politically inconvenient, especially when the two major parties are vying for Muslim votes.

 (Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Lurking Danger

Muslim community leaders say Nilam’s is an isolated incident. However, the stubborn fact is that creeping radicalisation underpinned by the imported variety of religion has turned some quarters of Muslim youth into a receptive audience for teachings hitherto considered as deviant by Sri Lankan Muslims. Confronting this challenge requires resolve both at political and community levels. That is in short supply at the moment.

Unless the government and community leaders combat radicalisation, which is still in an incipient stage in Sri Lanka, there is no guarantee that many other Sri Lankans, inspired by the blood soaked ideology of ISIS would follow the footsteps of Abu Shuraih Sailani to Syria.

(The writer is a Sri Lankan journalist)

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