Sri Lanka attack shows how we must view Islamist terrorism

22nd April 2019

The mass murder of Sri Lankan Christians this past Easter Sunday has shaken the world. There are still many questions that remain, but here is what we know now:

  • Beginning at 8:45 AM Easter morning, bombs were detonated at three major Churches throughout Sri Lanka, four more went off at luxury hotels, and another at a housing complex
  • There are 290 confirmed dead so far, and more than 500 injured
  • A Sri Lankan police spokesman said 24 suspects have been apprehended

No group has officially claimed responsibility for the attack so far. But Sri Lankan authorities have concluded the attack was the work of the Islamist group National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ).

The small island nation south of Indian has a long history of violence. For more than 30 years the country was engulfed in a civil war between the ethnic Sinhalese, primarily Buddhist majority who controlled the Sri Lankan government, and the Hindu minority Tamil ethnic group. The war claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians and at least 50,000 soldiers on either side. There were also widespread allegations of war crimes committed by all parties, and confirmed cases of the Tamils using suicide bombers and child soldiers.

Since the Sri Lankan government’s victory in 2009, however, the country has experienced a relatively peaceful decade. Tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups remain, but there have been no widespread conflicts between them.

Instead, hostilities between the various religious groups on the island are rising. The Buddhist majority, who make up around 70% of the population, and the Muslim minority, who make up around 10%, have escalated in the years since the civil war ended. Groups like Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force, since 2012 have advocated strongly in favor of Buddhist superiority, and view Muslims as the primary obstacle to implementing the ideal state based on their conception of Buddhist values. Several anti-Muslim riots, including one last year that left two dead and a mosque destroyed, have added palpably to the tensions as well.

The attacks this past weekend, though, were not targeting Buddhists, but Christians and Western tourists. This makes very little sense when viewed through the lens of purely domestic political grievances. Sri Lanka’s Christian minority makes up a mere 7% of the population and has very little influence regarding governmental policy. Politically speaking, they would seem to be logical allies for Muslims in their fight for equal treatment under the often-intolerant Buddhist government.

But to view the attacks in this way misses the point entirely. Jihadist groups like NTJ are motivated first and foremost by the problems that they see afflicting the Ummah globally. The domestic politics of the nations they happen to reside in are secondary, and these local issues are always filtered through their ideology that splits the world into Dar Al-Islam (The Islamic World) and Dar Al-Kufr (The World of Disbelief).

So for NTJ, it makes perfect sense to risk such a bold attack against Sri Lankan Christians and Western tourists instead of their Buddhist oppressors. Although there are other instances of Buddhists committing terrible acts against Muslims, like in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar, Christians and Western nations pose what Islamists view as an existential risk.

Christianity is the world’s largest religion in terms of adherents. This is unacceptable to the jihadists, who believe that Muslims were destined to conquer the world and convert or subjugate every living person on Earth. Also, the central doctrinal claim of Christianity – that Jesus Christ was the son of God – constitutes blasphemy in their eyes, which is the worst sin one can commit. The United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Western alliances with the House of Saud, and the influx of Western culture to the Muslim world, and other factors all contribute to this sentiment as well.

Last month’s atrocity in Christchurch, where a man murdered 50 Mosque-goers and claimed he did so in defense of Western/Christian civilization, was also a likely motivator of Sunday’s attacks.

There are many different jihadist organizations around the world. And they can contain particular differences that are sometimes important to understanding them within certain contexts. But in global terms, we must view Islamist terrorist groups as subdivisions of a larger jihadist movement if we are to truly grasp the scale and severity of the threat they pose.