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Sri Lankan Muslims: between ethno-nationalism and the global ummah



ABSTRACT. Sri Lanka's Sunni Muslims or “Moors”, who make up eight percent of the population, are the country's third largest ethnic group, after the Buddhist Sinhalese (seventy-four per cent) and the Hindu Tamils (eighteen per cent). Although the armed LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebel movement was defeated militarily by government forces in May 2009, the island's Muslims still face the long-standing external threats of ethno-linguistic Tamil nationalism and pro-Sinhala Buddhist government land and resettlement policies. In addition, during the past decade a sharp internal conflict has arisen within the Sri Lankan Muslim community between locally popular Sufi sheiks and the followers of hostile Islamic reformist movements energised by ideas and resources from the global ummah, or world community of Muslims. This simultaneous combination of “external” ethno-nationalist rivalries and “internal” Islamic doctrinal conflict has placed Sri Lanka's Muslims in a double bind: how to defend against Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic hegemonies while not appearing to embrace an Islamist or jihadist agenda. This article first traces the historical development of Sri Lankan Muslim identity in the context of twentieth-century Sri Lankan nationalism and the south Indian Dravidian movement, then examines the recent anti-Sufi violence that threatens to divide the Sri Lankan Muslim community today.