Sri Lanka's Muslims split over ideological differences

Colombo, Sri Lanka - Ramadan, the month of fasting meantto bring Muslims closer to God, is being markedin Sri Lanka by an ideological rift dividing the faithful. With the end of the Tamil separatist insurgency in May, the country's Muslims no longer face persecution from rebels who terrorized them in recent decades.

But the Islamic community is now beset by internal divisions over a rivalry between two sects to define the customs and faith of 8 per cent of the country's 20 million population.

Kattandkudy is a predominantly Muslim town on the eastern coast with a population of less than 50,000 where Tamil rebels massacred 147 people in a mosque in 1990 during evening prayers. Today, it has become the focus of a conflict between puritanical "Thawheed" followers and Fri Lanka's more passive, traditional Islam.

That rivalry has also spilled over to other parts of the country, leading to violence immediately before Ramadan when two Thawheed followers were killed and 40 others were injured inside a mosque in the western coastal town of Beruwala, 40 kilometres south of Colombo.

"We want to see that Islam is practiced in the correct manner," said Mohammed Buhari, a Thawheed follower fromthe eastern district of Batticaloa. "Itis clear that some of them are not following the religion in thecorrect manner."

"We have no ulterior motives, but only want to make sure thatthe religion is not distorted," he said

According to Muslim scholars, Thawheed members follow the Wahabi school, named after Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahab, who lived in the 1700s and is described as the first modern Islamic fundamentalist.

Wahabism's rapid growth in Sri Lanka began in the 1970s when Saudi Arabiancharities started funding madrasa religious schools and mosquesmainly in the eastern part of the country, one of the hotbeds of Tamil rebel activity.

The emergence of the Thawheed group is causing concern not only among moderate Muslims but also for the Sri Lankan government. Recently, a South India-based religious leader, Kovai Ayoob, was ordered to leave the country after the Thawheed group invited himto preach because more traditional Muslims lodged a complaint that he could create disharmony.

But the bigger concern to the government has come from allegations that some of the Thawheed group members have armed themselves. The government in July offered an amnesty for Muslim militants to surrender their weapons, but it drew a poor response.

The traditional followers accused the Thawheed group of intimidatingtheir members as well as carrying out attacks, which the sect denies.

"The allegations that our groups are armed are baseless as it has not been proved that our members have created any violence," said Moulavi MC Zahran, the propaganda secretary of the Thawheed groupin Kattankudy.

But DeputyInspector General of Police Edison Gunatillake said a moderate cleric was allegedlyabducted by the Thawheed group and subsequently released, promptingthe police to question members of the sect.

One of the allegations against the Thawheed group is that it is foreign-funded, partly from Saudi Arabia.

A Riyaz Sally, a trustee of a Colombo mosque, voiced concern about the Thawheed group.

"They are widening the gap between the Muslim community," Sally said.

Some Muslim organizations, including the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, are also worried about the widening gap within the community.

The organization named a committee of renowned Islamic scholars who represent various Islamic sects to resolve the differences.

Some moderate Muslims said they fear the rift is widening as the Thawheed followers establish more mosques and introduce more preachers, spreading their influence wider.

The end of the Tamil separatist war gave the Muslim community the opportunity to practice the faith peacefully, but a new threat might come from within.

For a country battered by a 26-year civil war that killed more than 100,000 people, another division could prove costly.