Suspicion stalks Sri Lanka's Muslim community after bombings

Fearing backlash many Muslims are avoiding venturing out as hardline group NTJ is blamed for blasts that killed 253.

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    Suspicion stalks Sri Lanka's Muslim community after bombings
    The Easter attacks risk further undermining trust among Sri Lanka's 22 million people who include not only Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, but a patchwork of ethnicities [Carl Court/Getty Images]

    Colombo, Sri Lanka - In Dematagoda, a diverse neighbourhood in the capital Colombo, residents are still struggling to understand how a wealthy Muslim family who had lived in the area for 25 years turned into killers.

    More than 250 people were killed in a series of coordinated bombings at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, blamed on a local Muslim hardline group - National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).

    President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday said police are hunting for 140 people with suspected links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which claimed responsibility for the worst attacks since the end of the island nation's civil war a decade ago.

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    Mohammed Sabri, 50, who was born and brought up in Dematagoda and drives a red three-wheeler, said the two sons of spice tycoon Mohammed Ibrahim were known to be religious, but there was nothing in their behaviour that would "raise red flags".

    Their three-storey home with black metal gates is now cordoned off with police tape. A black veil hung at one of the windows where Fatima Ibrahim, the pregnant wife of Shangri-La hotel bomber Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim, blew herself up as police arrived at the house on Sunday.

    Her three children and three police officers also died in the blast, which mangled the metal shutters onto the street and broke the windows. A white BMW car, now dusted for fingerprints, remains parked outside. A second brother, Inshaf, bombed the Cinnamon Grand hotel - one of the four hotels that came under attack - as guests were eating breakfast on Easter morning.

    'Stand by the Muslims'

    Neighbour Pamuditha Anjana, 30, said that when they were all children, the Ibrahim boys would come and kick a ball about on the street with the other boys, but as they got older they had kept to themselves.

    "They're Muslim, I'm Sinhalese," Anjana said, greeting two of his neighbours who had strolled over to join in the conversation. "Every other day, we talk and chat about stuff. But these guys, they never came out. They kept to themselves."

    A Tamil woman living in city-owned flats nearby and preferred not to be named said she was shocked that the bombers were living in the neighbourhood that had been her home for 35 years.

    The young men's father, Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim, has also been arrested and remains in police custody.

    She said the authorities had told residents in her block that anyone who had sublet their homes to Muslim families would have to tell them to leave.

    But the woman said she would stand by the Muslims because they had stood by the Tamils during the conflict.

    "This is not the time for us to give up on them," she said. "When law enforcement clamped down on the Tamils, Muslims stood by us. We will do the same for them."

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    Warnings

    Muslims have been warning the government for years about the existence of hardline groups such as NTJ and its leader Zahran Hashim, who died in the attack at Shangri-La hotel.

    Residents in Kattankudy in the Eastern Province where Zahran had set up the group held protests about his activities, forcing him to leave, according to local media reports.

    Hilmy Ahmed of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, a group of influential community leaders, told Al Jazeera his organisation had reported the NTJ leader to the authorities as many as four years ago as "someone who was creating hate".

    NTJ was blamed for defacement of Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka last December following anti-Muslim riots that saw Muslim mosques and business burned in an arson attack earlier that year. After that Muslims told authorities to arrest Zahran, Ahmed said.

    "None of the governments took it seriously," Ahmed told Al Jazeera, referring both to the current President Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

    "It was like, 'Islamic extremists in Sri Lanka? That would never happen!' That was their attitude."

    With the government now shifting blame, and society on edge, Muslim leaders are taking their own initiatives.

    One proposal under consideration is to establish small committees within each of the country's 2,400 mosques to monitor what's going on and report suspicious behaviour, Ahmed said.

    Another is to collaborate with Muslim organisations overseas, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, to understand their approach to challenging threats from hardline groups.

    "There is quite a lot of anger, guilt, all those things, within the Muslim community that we let this happen," Ahmed said. "We should have been more vigilant. That is on everybody's mind right now."

    Serious challenge

    The bombings are the most serious challenge to Sri Lanka's stability since the end of the decades-long conflict with separatist Hindu Tamils came to an end in 2009.

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    Although Muslims have led a largely peaceful existence, the community has faced mounting pressure since 2014 when riots in the south of the island started by hardline Buddhists left at least three people dead.

    The Easter attacks risk further undermining trust among Sri Lanka's 22 million people who include not only the majority Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, but a patchwork of ethnicities.

    They have also empowered the military, giving the armed forces the kind of far-reaching powers of search, arrest and detention that they had during the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

    An MP from the ruling coalition has put forward a private members bill calling for a ban on veils and the Sri Lanka Muslim Council reports some mosques in the country's northwest have been pelted with stones.

    Fearing backlash

    Fearing a backlash, many Muslims are avoiding venturing out. Karina (name changed), a political analyst, has not left her home in Colombo since Monday - a day after the attacks.

    The 40-year-old, who wears a scarf, believes she is being watched. She has stayed at home with her mother and two daughters ever since and sent her husband to buy enough food and necessities to last the family a week.

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    "Every other non-Muslim I felt was looking at me with suspicion," she told Al Jazeera requesting not to use her real name.

    And while women like Karina have decided to stay at home, others have chosen to forego the hijab (a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion) so they can continue with their daily lives in peace. There has also been an increase in men visiting barbers to shave their beards, according to local media reports.

    The All Ceylon Jamaiyathul Ulamah, Sri Lanka's biggest Muslim organisation, has urged people to pray at home this Friday rather than going to the mosque.

    Religious authorities have also said they will not allow the bombers to be buried in the grounds of any mosque.

    As Karina ponders what will happen next week as schools reopen and people return to work, it is the victims of the Easter bombings and their grieving families who concern her the most.

    "It was the Christian community that was hit by all of this," Karina said.

    "This should be the time we [all Sri Lankans] get together and help the Christian community deal with the devastation."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News