Wahhabism confronted: Sri Lanka curbs Saudi influence after bombings

Saudi Arabia flag

Sri Lanka is moving to curtail Saudi Arabian influence, after some politicians and Buddhist monks blamed the spread of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam for planting the seeds of militancy that culminated in deadly bomb attacks this year.

On April 21, nine Sri Lankans blew themselves up in churches and luxury hotels, killing more than 250 people and shocking the country a decade after its civil war ended.

Sri Lanka has since arrested a Wahhabi scholar and is poised to take over a Saudi-funded school.

The government also says it will monitor previously unchecked money flows from donors including prominent Saudi families to mosques in the country.

“Nobody will be able to just make donations now,” said Muslim Cabinet minister Kabir Hashim, who has urged Muslim communities to look at how radical ideas could have spread. He said the Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs would oversee donations.

The outcry in Sri Lanka is the latest sign that Wahhabism, which critics deem a root cause of the militant threat, is under pressure internationally.

Terrorist organisations, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – which claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings – follow an extreme interpretation of Islam’s Salafi branch, of which Wahhabism was the original strain.

Saudi Arabia rejects the idea that Wahhabism is problematic and defends its record by pointing to the detention of thousands of suspected militants. Riyadh last month sent back five Sri Lankans allegedly linked to the Easter attacks.

Saudi diplomats in Colombo have expressed “displeasure” over being targeted during a recent meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena, a Sri Lankan official told Reuters.

Mr Sirisena’s office, as well as Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Colombo, and its communications office in Riyadh, did not respond to requests for comment on the backlash against Saudi influence.