Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka

by Bart Klem, Journal of Asian Studies, August 16, 2011

Islam Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka


This article bridges Sri Lankan studies and the academic debate on the relation
between contemporary Islam and politics. It constitutes a case study of the Muslim
community in Akkaraipattu on Sri Lanka’s war-ridden east coast. Over two decades of
ethnically colored conflict have made Muslim identity of paramount importance, but the
meanings attached to that identity vary substantively. Politicians, mosque leaders, Sufis
and Tablighis define the ethnic, religious and political dimensions of “Muslimness”
differently and this leads to intra-Muslim contradictions. The case study thus helps
resolve the puzzle of Sri Lankan Muslims: they are surrounded by hostility, but they
continue to be internally divided. Akkaraipattu’s Muslims jockey between principled
politics, pragmatic politics and anti-politics, because they have to navigate different
trajectories. This article thus corroborates recent studies on Islam elsewhere that argue
for contextualized and nuanced approaches to the variegated interface between Islam
and politics…


Faced with common threats and enemies, one would expect Muslims to stand together in
a place like Akkaraipattu. A bolstered ethnic and religious identity would converge with a more
militant political outlook, and even jihad inspired violence could easily be imagined. But this
proves to be a mistake. It becomes clear from my findings as well as existing literature (Lewer
and Ismail 2010; McGilvray and Raheem 2007) that decades of ethno-nationalism and armed
conflict have not produced homogeneity or unity among Sri Lanka’s Muslims in the war zone.
On the contrary, I argue the war has affected Muslim identity in paradoxical ways and divergent
interpretations of that identity have resulted in new intra-Muslim fault lines and contradictory
political orientations. I contend that Akkaraipattu’s Muslims have become more politically
engaged, but – both for religious and practical reasons – they have also turned their back on
politics. The result is an everyday jockeying between political and anti-political behavior, an
everyday survival strategy that navigates between multiple boundaries and discourses.
Apparently commonsensical contradictions – between religious fundamentalism and ethno
nationalism, between personal piety and collective politics, between modernity and tradition –
exist, but they explain little as people blend and circumvent them.

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