In his 2009 paper entitled, Kattankudy in Eastern Sri Lanka: A Mullah-Merchant Urban Complex Caught between Islamist Factionalism and Ethno-Nationalisms Dr.Ameer Ali had traced the history of the town and come to the ominous conclusion that Islamic radicalism which was being nurtured there, could pose a major challenge to governments in Colombo.
The paper, published in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, almost predicted the rise of violent extremism of the kind Sri Lanka saw on April 21, 2019.
The Sri Lankan scholar’s thesis is that the exclusivism, isolation, ghettoization and radicalization which are now associated with Kattankudy, cannot be fathomed without going into its history and its social, spatial, political, and economic context.
“ Territorially squeezed by the Indian Ocean in the east and a lagoon in the west, ethnically trapped between two large Tamil settlements one in the north and the other in the south and economically constricted to retail trading and low-paid employment, this township is unable to expand to accommodate any new comers.”
“The political scenario of this mullah-merchant conservative urban complex is increasingly becoming analogous to the Gaza Strip in Palestine. How to avoid a potential intifada will be the greatest challenge to governments in Colombo in the near future,” he said.
That was the scenario in 2009, when Dr.Ali wrote his paper and that appears to be true of today too.
Dr.Ali identified the factors which eventually created the explosive situation in Kattankudy. The first was a divisive Islamic factionalism; the second was a constricting ethno-economic nationalism of the Sinhalese and the Tamils; and the third was the “double game” played by successive governments which left the Muslims high and dry.
For some reason, of all the Muslim settlements in the East, Kattankudy became an all-Muslim town and has remained so, till date. It is also more densely populated than any other town in Sri Lanka, with 50,000 persons cramped into 6.5 sq km. Hemmed in on all sides, as pointed out earlier, there is no space for more persons or for expansion.
Perhaps density helps exercise social pressure, with little room for the exercise of any kind of freedom of thought or action.
According to Dr. Ali, Muslim retail businesses in various towns in Sri Lanka came under threat from Sinhala nationalists after the 1970s. But the root of that was in the last part of the 19 th.Century when the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, urged resistance to Muslim economic expansionism. Dharmapala’s call eventually led to the 1915 anti-Muslim riots, Dr.Ali said.
In the 2000s, organizations like the Sinhala Urumaya and the Jathika Hela Urumaya called for action against Muslim exclusivism, economic expansionism and rapid population growth.
According to the Federation of Mosques and Muslim Institutions, in the 1980s and 1990s, the LTTE had seized 6463 acres of Muslim-owned paddy lands. According to the Muslim Information Center, 63,000 acres of Muslim-owned lands were lost during the war years. In Ampara District, hereditary Muslim lands were under constant threat from Sinhalese intruders. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had noted that in Ampara district 7% of Muslims were holding 23% of land. There had been complaints of Muslim-owned lands being acquired for archeological exploration.
To frighten the Muslims into submission, the LTTE killed scores of Muslims bent in prayer in mosques at Kattankudy and Eravur in 1990. It expelled over 75,000 Muslims from the Northern Province.
Lack Of Modern Education
Having neglected secular education in favor of religious education, Muslims were unable to get jobs in the public and private corporate sectors, though by 2003, Kattankudy had produced 25 medical doctors, 11 engineers and 144 arts and commerce graduates.
“Employment opportunities in the oil rich Middle East after the 1970s provided an avenue of earning income. But because of their inferior skills a majority of the men were employed in low paid jobs and the women were only housemaids,” Dr.Ali noted.
According to Dr.Ali, the Islam that was practiced by the people was a syncretized mixture of the Shafii school of thought and Sufi practices.
“Among the Sufis, the Prophet’s birthday celebrations and saint worship were practiced and different Tarikas existed to propagate the teachings of Sufi leaders; while the rules governing the five pillars of Islam, namely, shahada, salat, sawm, zakat, and hajj, were all derived from the Shafii school of thought.”
But a change came about in the 1950s. “Since the latter half of the 1950s, the influence of Maulana Ilyas’ Tabligh Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement from India, started gaining momentum. Missionary foot soldiers roamed the streets inviting Muslims to go to the mosque and regularize their prayers and other religious duties. Ulema from India arrived regularly in Kattankudy to train their local counterparts in Tabligh activities.”
“As a result, the number of mosques and madrasas multiplied, mosque attendance increased and religious practices attracted even the young. According to one count, there are more than forty mosques, thirty madrasas and four Arabic colleges in Kattankudy.” Dr.Ali said.
However, he pointed out that the Tablighis were a “passive group of missionaries who did not resort to any force or violence in propagating their view.”
But a real change appears to have come in the 1980s. “After the 1970s however, the religious fervor of this place received a fresh fillip with the migration of Muslim workers to the Middle East, especially to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-returnees brought in with them a strand of Wahhabi thought and practices, which is the ruling philosophy of Saudi Arabia.”
Delineating the changes, Dr. Ali said: “Wahhabism is a brand of Islamism with a strict dogma on monotheism. Wahhabis reject Sufism and all rituals and teachings associated with it. They simply categorize Sufism as bid’ah or innovation that has crept into Islam and marred its purity. The way the religious police or Mutawwa in Saudi Arabia operate with a cane in hand to enforce Islamic discipline among the masses has inculcated the idea that force is necessary to establish a puritanical Islamic society.”
“The Wahhabi Islamist influence has been on the ascendance. With the Middle Eastern hijab and thobe increasingly becoming a part of the female and male attire respectively, and rapidly replacing the traditional sari-veil and the sarong, with frequent fatwas from a new crop of inexperienced and young imams condemning music, films, and other means of aesthetic and social enjoyment, and with an increasing use of Arabic terminology in the spoken Tamil dialect of the elite there are clear indications that the local culture is undergoing a transformation towards Arabization,” Dr.Ali noted.
“Another element that had added to this rising orthodoxy is the teaching and activities of a very small but articulate group of Ulema who have had their education in the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt. This institution is well known for its Islamic orthodoxy.”
“Such intolerance for plural views is a general characteristic of religious-educational institutions such as Al-Azhar, Zituna in Tunisia and Qarawiyin in Morocco that uphold orthodoxy.”
“The products of these institutions, like the ones who are now active in Kattankudy, add to further the rising passion of puritanical Islam.”
“It was in this environment of passionate orthodoxy that the Sufi views of two other Ulema unleashed a wave of death and destruction in Kattankudy in December 2006,” Dr.Ali recalled.
The violence that occurred in 2006 ended in the killing of a number of Sufi followers, and the destruction of their houses and property.
“The fatwa of apostasy against them were something new and marked the culmination of a puritanic trend that was growing since the late 1970s,” Dr.Ali observed.