July 10, 2019

IntelBrief: Sri Lanka Reconsiders the Nature of Its Relationship With Saudi Arabia 

FILE - This Sunday, April 21, 2019, file photo shows the inside of St. Sebastian's Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne, File).
  • As Sri Lanka continues to deal with the fallout from the Easter terrorist attacks, the government is reportedly examining links to Saudi-exported Wahhabism.
  • Authorities are investigating Saudi-funded mosques and foundations to determine what impact the austere brand of Islam pushed by Riyadh is having on radicalizing Sri Lanka’s Muslim population.
  • Besides Sri Lanka, many other countries have long been worried about the corrosive effects of Saudi influence on local Muslim populations.
  • Colombo needs to be careful to avoid creating more anti-Muslim sentiment in a country that has long struggled with ethnic tensions and religious violence.


Concerns over the spread of Saudi-funded Wahhabism throughout religious institutions, charities and mosques are not new. For decades, Riyadh has spent millions or more to spread an austere version of Islam throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere. The money is earmarked specifically to build Wahhabi mosques and train hardline preachers to take the Saudi version of the faith back to their home countries. Sri Lanka is just the latest country to take a more discerning look at precisely what the Saudis are funding in their country and what the implications might be. This comes as the government is still dealing with the impact of the devastating terrorist attacks that occurred this past April on Easter Sunday that were targeted against churches and hotels frequented by Westerners that killed at least 250 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were carried out by nine Sri Lankan members of a local terrorist group called National Thowheed Jama’ath.

The investigations into the attacks are still ongoing, and hundreds of people have been detained for alleged involvement. At the center of the inquiry are concerns over Saudi-funded institutions and possible connections to Salafi jihadist ideology. In May, police arrested the founder of the Saudi-supported Centre for Islamic Guidance, Mohamed Aliyar, on charges related to the financing of terrorism. Aliyar had links to Zahran Hashim, a radical preacher who mentored many of the Easter-attack bombers. Locals have claimed that they relayed concerns to security officials about Hashim’s extremism, although these leads were never acted upon. Other prominent Sri Lankan Muslim leaders have also come under scrutiny as authorities review financial transactions between Saudi Arabia and religious leaders in the South Asian island nation. Several of these leaders have been forced to step down due to pressure from politically influential Buddhist monks. 

With a drastic increase in sectarian violence, the Sri Lankan government must protect its Muslim citizens from roving mobs and vigilantes. The government will need to walk a fine line to balance reasonable concerns over the impact of Saudi-funded hardline ideology on the Sri Lankan Muslim community, while avoiding scapegoating and persecuting that population. In the weeks following the bombings, there were widespread anti-Muslim riots throughout the country, and authorities were criticized for not acting swiftly to protect Muslim lives and property. There has been a long history of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in Sri Lanka, particularly throughout the thirty-year civil war that ended in 2009. The majority Buddhist population comprises 70% of the total population, with Muslims accounting for approximately 10%. Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka remain high and could quickly worsen if the government fails to act even-handedly. Moreover, there has been a rising tide of militarism among Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, some of whom have lent their authority to vigilante mobs seeking to confront the country’s Muslims in more aggressive, often violent ways.

Riyadh rejects all criticism of the spread of its Wahhabi ideology and claims to promote a moderate brand of Islam within the kingdom. Even if that is true of the country’s domestic promotion of religion, it fails to address concerns about the ultra-conservative style of Islam the Kingdom often exports. Radical religious education that preaches dangerous sectarian narratives contributes directly to incidents like the attacks in Sri Lanka, where identity politics lead to real-world violence. Despite proclaiming in 2017 that he wanted to moderate Saudi Arabia in terms of religion, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has targeted moderate Islamic scholars and human rights activists. Sri Lanka is not alone in trying to limit the influence of Saudi funding on its mosques and schools. From Indonesia to Bangladesh, governments have been worried for years about the massive infusion of money from Riyadh and how this has led local Muslims with a history of moderate views to begin adopting the hardline Salafism popular in Saudi Arabia, which is often at odds with more tolerant local strains of Islam.


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