Nearly 300 people have now been confirmed killed in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. And several sources are now suggesting a domestic Muslim Islamist group may have been linked to the atrocity – although no group has yet claimed responsibility.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is spread across the country, but they make up 9.7% of the island’s population. Even though most Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunni, it is a diverse community, with some following the mystical form of Islam, Sufism. Linguistically, most have Tamil as their mother tongue, often leading them to be categorised as part of the island’s Tamil minority, alongside Hindus and Christians. There are, however, Muslims who speak the majority Sinhala language.
The origins of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community can be traced back to the historic trading routes between South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Traders from the Middle East (Arabs and Persians) developed commercial interests in southern India in the seventh century, which also spread to Sri Lanka. These Middle Eastern merchants married Tamil and Sinhalese women and settled in the east of the island around Batticaloa and Ampara.
The Portuguese, who started to control Sri Lanka in the 16th century, used the term “Moor” to describe the island’s Muslims (as they did other Muslim communities they encountered throughout the world). As a consequence, a local “Moorish” identity was established. In the early 20th century, some Muslims promoted this as a unique “Ceylon Moor” racial identity (the island was called Ceylon during the colonial period). They presumed an Arab heritage, which distinguished them from the local Tamil community, which has its origins in southern India and northern Sri Lanka.