KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lanka struggles to curb Saudi Arabia's influence after some politicians and Buddhist monks blamed the spread of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic school for implanting the germs of militancy, the deadly culminated Easter bombings.
A boy rides a bicycle while watching a soldier stationed in front of a Sufi mosque in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka. REUTERS / Alexandra Ulmer
On April 21, nine Sri Lankan soldiers blew themselves up in the air Churches and luxury hotels that killed more than 250 people and shocked the country a decade after the end of the Civil War.
Sri Lanka has since arrested a Wahhabi scholar and is ready to take over a school financed by Saudi Arabia. The government also says it will oversee the unaudited cash flows from donors, including prominent Saudi families, to mosques on the Indian Ocean island.
"No one will now be able to simply donate," said Kabir Hashim, the Muslim Cabinet Minister, who has called on Muslim communities to see how radical ideas might have spread. He said the Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department would oversee the donations.
The outcry in Sri Lanka is the latest indication that Wahhabism, whom critics consider the root cause of the jihadist threat, is under international pressure.
Jihadist organizations, including the Islamic State, which took responsibility for the Easter bombs, follow an extreme interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, whose original burden was Wahhabism.
Saudi Arabia rejects the idea that Wahhabism is problematic and defends its record by pointing out the imprisonment of thousands of suspected militants. Riyadh sent five Sri Lankan nationals back in June allegedly linked to the Easter attacks.
Saudi diplomats in Colombo have expressed "disapproval" that they were targeted during a recent meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena, a Sri Lankan representative told Reuters.
Sirisena's Bureau and the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Colombo and the Kingdom of Riyadh Communications Bureau did not respond to requests to comment on the backlash against Saudi influence.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE MONKS
This backlash particularly affected a man – Muhammad Hizbullah, a businessman and politician who was the Governor of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka until his resignation in June following protests from hardened Buddhist monks.
The monks who influence the island, where 70 percent of the population are Buddhists, and some MPs say that Hezbollah's ties to Riyadh have contributed to the spread of militancy in its hometown of Kattankudy, a Muslim city Majority.
The Hezbollah family helped build Saudi Arabia-funded mosques and a Saudi Arabia-funded university, the Batticaloa campus, which has not yet opened in the Eastern Province.
The mosque and school projects were led by the Hira Foundation, which is a charitable holding owned by Hezbollah and his son Hiras.
The financial reports show revenues of around US $ 31,000 between 2014 and 2018, despite Hezbollah's announcement to Parliament that Hira received US $ 2 million from foreign donors. He did not respond to a request from Reuters for further financial details.
In an interview with Reuters at his home in Colombo, 56-year-old Hezbollah said most of the funds came from Juffalis, a leading Saudi merchant family. Reuters also found two wires from other Saudis, but was unable to track them down. Hezbollah said it was joint contributions from smaller donors.
The Sheikh Ali Abdullah Al Juffali Foundation's charity has transferred approximately $ 24.5 million to the Batticaloa campus between 2016 and 2017.
Hezbollah warned Saudi investors about Juffalis' experience of receiving hate mail, he said. He did not identify any investors.
Ongoing investigations have not shown that Saudi funds have flown to the conspirators. Critics are taking steps against the Saudi influence on increasing Islamophobia, including mob attacks on Muslim properties in May.
"Not a single Saudi institution, charity or individual has given terrorists even a rupee," Hezbollah said.
The charity did not respond to calls or messages looking for comments, and Reuters could not find alternative contact information for the Juffalis. The charity's website lists the founders as Ali al-Juffali, a businessman and former member of the Kingdom's Advisory Assembly, who passed away in 2015, and his four sons. The charity aims to support orphans and activities that promote religious tolerance.
The Juffalis, who had promised the Batticaloa campus a total of $ 100 million, have canceled loans because of the school's uncertain future, Hezbollah said. The construction of the sprawling Islamic-style campus was interrupted, he added.
Hira also connects mosques with donors.
For example, the modest Siharam mosque was built in 2015 thanks to Juffalis for around $ 56,000, according to a mosque plaque and its ex-president M.Y. Adam, who said Hira received a commission of 10%. Hezbollah did not answer questions about mosque funding.
In the Reuters interview, Hezbollah also denied allegations by some monks that they had ties to the attacks and no evidence to support this allegation emerged.
However, his critics point to a 2015 photograph of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, who led the April April suicide attacks and blew himself up in a Colombo hotel. He grinned under his beard as he shook hands with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah said it is seeking support for a parliamentary election by Zahran, also from Kattankudy. At that time, Hezbollah emphasized, Zahran was just a charismatic preacher who was able to cast around 2,000 votes in the pious city with around 50,000 votes.
His followers – and even some opponents – say Hezbollah is a scapegoat. Ameer Ali Shihabdeen, a member of a rival party from the Eastern Province, said Hezbollah was under attack even though there was a lack of evidence linking him to the attacks.
Wahhabism spread to Sri Lanka's eastern province three decades ago when local religious leaders and politicians ruled that conflict was raging between predominantly Hindu-Tamil separatists and the Buddhist-dominated government.
Muslim scholars received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia while impoverished peasants escaped clashes by becoming riders or maids in the Middle East – and often came home with stricter Islamic practices.
Saudi Arabia-funded mosques sprang up. Women have dropped their saris because of all-encompassing black Abayas. Some Sri Lankan Sufis, following a mystical form of Islam that Wahhabis consider heretical, said they were persecuted.
Hezbollah's political career, which included stints in parliament, flourished during this period. In Kattankudy his name adorns schools, a public hall and streets.
The Batticaloa campus, the college funded by the Juffalis, originally planned to teach Sharia law, which, according to some critics, limits women's rights. Hezbollah said the Shari'a meant only the academic subject of Islamic Studies and the discipline had been dropped from the curricula.
The students would pay half of the standard tuition, which, according to Hezbollah, was partly the reason why this long-neglected area welcomes the deep pockets of Arab donors.
A parliamentary committee called on authorities last month to take over the Batticaloa campus and compensate investors. He cited incomplete documentation, possible foreign exchange violations and national security concerns.
No decision has yet been announced, but a Presidential spokesman told Reuters that Heisenhallen's All-Star Heir, Sirisena, is also advocating a takeover.
WAHHABI SCHOOL BEHIND BARS
Some Kattankudy Sufis associate the advent of Wahhabism with the opening of the Saudi Arabia-funded Islamic Guidance Center, which has a mosque, school, and library. Reuters was unable to track down Saudi donors who had common names in the Middle East and thanked them on a chalkboard in the middle.
The Center "brainwashed teens" and distributed leaflets denouncing Sufism, according to HM Ameer, a community spokesperson who said his home had been destroyed during the anti-Sufi riots in 2004, his followers In 2017, Sufis attacked with swords, Ameer added.
Representatives of the Center did not answer requests for comments on the allegations of the Sufis. They told Reuters earlier that the center practiced "moderate Islam."
The center's founder, Mohamed Aliyar, was arrested in May for allegedly funding Zahran.
His bank account is listed on the Reuters Exam Sheet, but no evidence of misconduct is provided. A police spokesman did not respond to requests for details. Aliyar's lawyer Abdul Uwais said he was a victim of Wahhabi paranoia.
Two sources from the Muslim leadership of Kattankudy said that Zahran had read voraciously Wahhabi texts from Aliyar's center, but the men were not known to be related.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam; Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Letter from Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson