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World

Muslims In Sri Lanka Are Worried About Backlash After Sunday's Easter Attacks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Muslims in Sri Lanka are on edge. They're a religious minority in Sri Lanka - about 10% of the population. In recent years, they've been targeted by extremist Buddhist mobs setting fire to homes and businesses. Now, with authorities saying Islamist extremists are behind Sunday's bombings, many Muslims worry about the possibility of a backlash.

Hilmy Ahamed is the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. He joins us on the line now. Welcome to the program.

HILMY AHAMED: Thank you.

CORNISH: Your organization, together with other Muslim groups, has condemned the attacks. You've also pointed out that this extremist group does not represent Muslim beliefs and called for their immediate arrest and punishment. Are you concerned that there may be a backlash against Muslims in Sri Lanka?

AHAMED: Most certainly, you know, because when it's so many deaths and injured, emotions tend to run really high. And we're certainly worried.

CORNISH: But so far, have you heard of any incidents of intimidation or violence?

AHAMED: There has been a few minor incidents - nothing major. Pelting stones at a few mosques. And on Sunday itself, two shops were burned down.

CORNISH: Two shops, I think.

AHAMED: Two shops owned by Muslims were burned down.

CORNISH: Now, you've also talked about the concerns that people had in the community about extremism recently. Can you talk about what was known by you and others?

AHAMED: Well, you see people worried about the continued hate speech by one person, one religious cleric called Molovi (ph) Zaharan. And, in fact, we reported him about 3 1/2 years ago.

CORNISH: And so Zaharan's speeches were available online. And it came to your attention because what was in the speeches, the tone of his rhetoric.

AHAMED: Yeah. That is right because he has been uploading a number of videos on YouTube. He was calling, basically, for the killing off of nonbelievers.

CORNISH: You talk about wanting the authorities to take action against Zaharan. But did you get any sense in recent years that he was attracting followers or that you saw men being drawn to radical groups?

AHAMED: At the time, you know, we thought that Zaharan was a loner and that, you know, he had no major following as such, except a few people in his hometown. But in 2018, December, we realized that there were basically a bunch of youths going around and damaging Buddhist statues. And we found out that Zaharan has been their mentor.

CORNISH: So this was in one particular village. You're saying that back in December of 2018, there were some young people who defaced some Buddhist statues.

AHAMED: Yes.

CORNISH: And this raised alarm for you and others.

AHAMED: Yes. And we basically went back to the authorities with all the facts we had.

CORNISH: I understand that in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, you and other Muslim leaders have also gathered to figure out how to respond to this incident. What kinds of actions are you considering?

AHAMED: See, this Easter Sunday attack came as a shock to the Muslim community because we have never had this kind of extremism within the community. We are asking all our mosques to ensure that they have a vigilance committee to see whether there is any untoward activities by anybody and to report them directly to the police or to call a hotline, which we will establish, to address possible threats.

CORNISH: So the idea is that each mosque would have a small committee that you said you're calling a vigilance committee. What kinds of things would they be on the lookout for?

AHAMED: You know, they would look out for any suspicious activity, especially preachers from outside the area coming and preaching any kind of extremism.

CORNISH: Hilmy Ahamed, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AHAMED: Thank you.

CORNISH: Hilmy Ahamed is the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.