Sri Lanka, ISIL and Religious Tribalism

Sri Lanka has been a primarily Buddhist land since King Ashoka’s son Mahinda preached there in the third century BCE. At present 70% of the population is Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim and 7% Christian. (Surely there are secular people, atheists, Marxists, etc. but these are historical communities and identities.) It has been a site of horrific religious-based violence, mostly Buddhist-on-Hindu, although such violence ebbed over the last decade. You wouldn’t think it a likely site for a Muslim attack on multiple Christian targets on an Easter Sunday.

The group identified by Sri Lankan authorities as the author of these atrocities appears to be an established local Islamist organization, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, hitherto known for hate speech against Buddhists but not for violent actions. Now there are reports that they have links to, or are inspired by, ISIL. We know that some Sri Lankans fought in Syria with ISIL. ISIL flags and propaganda have been found in raided sites in Sri Lanka since the attacks, and ISIL has indeed claimed responsibility. This is troubling, as is the announcement that the bombings were to avenge the mosque shootings in Christchurch in March. This seems a new level in the internationalization of religious tribalism.

To avenge 50 Muslims (Indians, Bangladeshis, Jordanians, Palestinians) killed in New Zealand by an Australian Christian, Sri Lankan and Arab Muslims (in ISIL) combined to slaughter over 250 Christians in Sri Lankan churches. (These include citizens of the U.S., U.K., Bangladesh, China, India, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and Australia.)

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, all over the world until God makes one side win. This principle is found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus and the Qur’an. But it stems from a principle expressed earlier in the Code of Hammurabi, intended to limit the scope of private vendettas in ancient Babylonia. It was all about proportionality (remember that the next time the Israelis boast of a “disproportionate response” after a minor Palestinian attack); one should not overdo the revenge.

But “like the wheel follows the foot of the ox,” as the classic Buddhist text the Dhammapada puts it, revenge produces revenge. When will we awaken to news of a retaliatory mosque attack in any random country?

If ISIL international is behind this, the choice of Sri Lanka was particularly cruel. On this island in 29 BCE the first canon of Buddhist scriptures was compiled. The Buddhist belief system discourages the concept of revenge, and deploys the concept of karma to explain how one evil leads to another and how the point is not vengeance but to seek enlightenment by renouncing selfish desire.

The Dhammapada opens with these verses:

He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

One could argue that, based on such premises as these, Buddhism has historically been a peaceful religion. There is nothing in the Buddhist tradition comparable to Muslim jihads, or Christian Crusades and colonial projects to forcibly convert natives to Christianity. Yes, there were the Shaolin monks in China, and the warrior-monk armies of Japan; but they did not target non-believers so much as protect monastic property and privilege from any opponents. During the second world war the Japanese Zen establishment shamefully embraced Japanese imperialism. And it’s true that in modern times we have seen horrific Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka, as well as Myanmar. Even Buddhist monks have shown themselves capable of savagery against Hindus and Muslims in those countries.

The civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil independence movement, pitting Hindus against Buddhists, following the deaths of 60,000 people. A Reconciliation Commission was appointed, and peace has been maintained between the Buddhist and Hindu communities. But that is an issue separate from the relations between Muslims and Christians in a country where both are minorities, and the ability of international terrorists to wreak havoc in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

Buddhists have no tradition comparable to holy war, but Tibetan Buddhism (which is, one must admit, idiosyncratic) produced a text in the eighth century, the Kalachakra sastra, that alludes to the coming of the Muslims, and the destruction they inflict in Central Asia; it mentions Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and predicts a future war of terrible destruction against the barbarians (and Buddhist victory). This is not a text popular in Sri Lanka, the Theravada Buddhism of which is a far cry from Lamaism; but it does pit the Buddhist world in general against Islam in an existential way. It could maybe be exploited (like the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which predicts a final war between Christ and his enemies at the Apocalypse, has sometimes been) to mobilize and justify support for anti-Muslim violence.

“Islamic terrorism” has of course long targeted Hindus in India. But it hasn’t had much presence in Buddhist societies. (The Taliban shocked the world by pulverizing the magnificent buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, but that was a thousand years after Buddhism had vanished in Afghanistan. It was an assault on culture, and the feelings of the Hazzara people, who are now Shiites. It was not an attack on Buddhists as such.) In China, where Buddhism is enjoying a resurgence, and where over 240 million identify with the faith (such that half the world’s Buddhists are in China) the regime is promoting Buddhism as “an ancient Chinese religion” deserving of respect. Islam is viewed as foreign and threatening, and Uighurs in particular subject to considerable repression. But there have not been to my knowledge any Islamist strikes against Buddhist sites in China. Nor any strikes against Buddhist sites in Myanmar.

But now ISIL-linked forces have declared war on the Buddhist-dominated Sri Lankan state, which has a very experienced military that has just received sweeping emergency police powers for the first time since the end of the civil war in 2009. There has been a wave of anti-Muslim nationalist sentiment in Sri Lanka, and anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhists in recent years. This sentiment perhaps infects the military. In some riots Buddhist monks rallied to protect Muslims, and there has been peaceful coexistence for the most part.

But if in the inevitable army crackdown on National Thowheeth Jama’ath overreaches and alienates Muslims in general, we might expect more cracks in the historical facade of Buddhist pacifism. Revenge rather than enlightenment is likely to prevail; it could mean attacks on Buddhist temples too, and the continued development of religious tribalism.


Conservative commentators on RT and Fox News both condemn the U.S. “left” (meaning Democrats) for making a big deal about the New Zealand attack (killing Muslims) while downplaying the Sri Lanka one (killing Christians). The gist is that leftists think Christians are oppressors and Muslims victims. I think it more likely that racism is the main factor. If the story has been downplayed while the U.S. media feasts on the Mueller Report and the Democratic primary races, it is not because the victims were Christians (who do not lack for media support) but because they were dark skinned.


April 28: It is reported that an army raid on a National Thowheeth Jama’ath safe house in Sainthamaruthu,10 civilians including six children were killed. The port town of Sainthamaruthu (pop. 25,000) is almost entirely Muslim. If the Sinhalese state has killed Muslim children, there will surely be more blood. This is what ISIL no doubt wants. War against Buddhism has not been high on its list of priorities, but the Easter Sunday massacres pit it and its affiliates against the Sri Lankan state and its mainly Buddhist security apparatus.


April 29: ISIL has released a video showing Zahran Hashim, an Islamic preacher and the alleged leader of the bombers, pledging allegiance with six other men to the self-declared ISIL caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So yes, the worst is true: ISIL is now at war with a Buddhist state.

April 30: al-Baghdadi resurfaces, and in a video takes responsibility for the Sri Lankan church attacks. Interestingly, he depicts them as vengeance for ISIL’s loss of Baghouz, in eastern Syria, to U.S.-led forces—not to the Christchurch mosque massacre.

I would not be surprised if some Sri Lankans are now studying the Kalachakra sastra. It describes Islam as a “barbarian teaching” (mleccha dharma), a “violent teaching” (himsa dharma) that produces “savagery” (raudra karman). It foretells the coming of a universal ruler (Chakravartin) at the end of this age, who will “smite the barbarians…on the entire surface of the earth.” It is not mainstream Buddhism, but a Tibetan product produced in the eighth century in which Tibetan kings sometimes allied with Arabs against the Chinese, and sometimes fought Arab Muslims, but in the end concluded that the adherents of this religion were uniquely bad.

In Sri Lanka the mainstream Muslim community has naturally condemned the church attacks. One assumes good will all around, in a peaceful country. But Islam deplores idolatry, and has traditionally condemned Buddhists as idolaters, while Buddhism deplores intolerance in general. Sri Lanka’s Buddhists have had a complicated relationship with Christianity, the religion of the Portuguese, Dutch and English colonizers. But they will be more sympathetic to the Christians, if this becomes an ongoing fight, and Osama bin Laden’s vision of global jihad spreads into the Buddhist world.

But when we look at the big picture of karmic cause and effect, we must observe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq produced ISIL, which met with U.S. wrath; ISIL responded with more wrath of its own, targeting a broad net of infidels including Shiites, Yezidis, Christians and infidel artifacts from the Temple of Baal in Palmyra to the Ninevah Wall. Now that its caliphate has fallen, as it shifts to a strategy of random localized actions to affirm its continued existence, it takes on new enemies thus further mining the human potential for tribal violence.

Now I see that Sri Lanka has banned “all forms of clothing that cover a person’s face and prevents them from being identified,” an order seen as being directed at Muslim women’s dress. This will likely result in protests or worse as the global jihad launched by Osama bin Laden continues.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: