KATTANKUDY, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - 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 Easter bomb attacks.
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 on the Indian Ocean island.
“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 jihadist threat, is under pressure internationally.
Jihadist organizations, including Islamic State - 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 in June 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.
Sirisena’s office, as well as Saudi Arabia’s Colombo embassy and the kingdom’s communications office in Riyadh, did not respond to requests for comment on the backlash against Saudi influence.
That backlash has focused on one man in particular - Muhammad Hizbullah, a businessman and politician who was the governor of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province until he resigned in June following protests by hardline Buddhist monks.
The monks, who are influential on the island where 70 percent of the population are Buddhists, and some members of parliament say Hizbullah’s links to Riyadh contributed to the spread of militancy in his native Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority town.
Hizbullah’s family helped build Saudi-financed mosques and a Saudi-funded higher education institute, Batticaloa Campus, which has not opened yet, in the Eastern Province.
The mosque and school projects were led by the Hira Foundation, a non-profit owned by Hizbullah and his son Hiras.
Its financial statements show income of some $31,000 between 2014 and 2018, though Hizbullah told parliament Hira had received $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 the capital, Colombo, Hizbullah, 56, said most funds come from the Juffalis, a leading Saudi merchant family. Reuters also found two wires from other Saudis but was not able to trace them. Hizbullah said they were pooled contributions from smaller donors.
The Sheikh Ali Abdullah Al Juffali Foundation Charity wired some $24.5 million to Batticaloa Campus between 2016 and 2017, bank statements and loan agreements seen by Reuters show.
Hizbullah warned the experience of the Juffalis, who he said have received hate mail, was spooking Saudi investors. He did not identify any investors.
Ongoing investigations have not shown that any Saudi money flowed to the plotters. And critics attribute moves against Saudi influence to burgeoning Islamophobia, including mob attacks on Muslim properties in May.
“Not a single Saudi institution, charity or individual gave even one rupee to terrorists,” Hizbullah said.
The charity did not respond to calls or messages seeking comment, and Reuters was unable to find alternative contact details for the Juffalis. The charity’s website lists the founders as Ali al-Juffali, a businessman and former member of the kingdom’s consultative assembly who died in 2015, and his four sons. The charity says its objectives include supporting orphans and activities that promote religious tolerance.
The Juffalis, who promised a total of $100 million to Batticaloa Campus, have halted loans over the school’s uncertain future, Hizbullah said. Construction of the sprawling campus, designed in Islamic architectural style, has been paused, he added.
Hira also connects mosques with donors.
The modest Siharam Mosque, for example, was rebuilt in 2015 thanks to some $56,000 from the Juffalis, according to a mosque plaque and its ex-president M.Y. Adam, who said Hira received a 10% commission. Hizbullah did not respond to questions about mosque funding.
In the Reuters interview, Hizbullah also denied allegations made by some monks that he had links to the attacks, and no evidence has surfaced to support that claim.
His critics, however, point to a 2015 photograph that shows Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, who authorities say led the April suicide bombings and blew himself up at a Colombo hotel, grinning under his beard as he shakes Hizbullah’s hand.
Hizbullah said he was seeking support from Zahran, also a Kattankudy native, for a parliamentary election. Back then, Hizbullah stressed, Zahran was just a charismatic preacher who could deliver some 2,000 votes in the devout town of roughly 50,000.
His supporters - and even some opponents - say Hizbullah is a scapegoat. Ameer Ali Shihabdeen, an Eastern Province member of parliament from a rival party, said Hizbullah was being targeted despite a lack of evidence linking him to the attacks.
Wahhabism spread to Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province three decades ago, when the area was convulsed by conflict between mostly Hindu Tamil separatists and the Buddhist-dominated government, according to local religious leaders and politicians.
Muslim scholars received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia, while impoverished farmers escaped clashes by becoming drivers or maids in the Middle East - often returning home with stricter Islamic practices, the sources said.
Saudi-funded mosques mushroomed. Women ditched their saris for all-enveloping black abayas. Some Sri Lankan Sufis, who follow a mystical form of Islam that Wahhabis consider heretical, said they began to be persecuted.
Hizbullah’s political career, which included stints in parliament, blossomed during this time. In Kattankudy, his name adorns schools, a public hall and roads.
Batticaloa Campus, the college funded by the Juffalis, initially planned to teach sharia, which some critics say limits women’s rights. Hizbullah said sharia only meant the academic subject of Islamic Studies, and that the discipline had been dropped from curriculum plans.
Students would pay half standard tuition fees, which Hizbullah said was partly why this long-neglected area welcomes Arab donors’ deep pockets.
A parliamentary committee last month called for authorities to take over Batticaloa Campus and compensate investors, citing incomplete documentation, possible violations of foreign exchange rules, and national security concerns.
No decision has been announced yet, but a presidential spokesman told Reuters that Sirisena, a Hizbullah ally who is on the back foot ahead of presidential elections this year, also favors a takeover.
Some Kattankudy Sufis link the advent of Wahhabism to the 1990 opening of the Saudi-financed Center for Islamic Guidance, which boasts a mosque, school, and library. Reuters was unable to trace Saudi donors, who had names common in the Middle East, thanked on a plaque at the center.
The center “brainwashed” youth and distributed flyers denouncing Sufism, according to H. M. Ameer, a community spokesman who said his house was destroyed during anti-Sufi unrest in 2004. Persecution intensified with the rise of Zahran, the suspected Easter bombings ringleader, whose followers attacked Sufis with swords in 2017, Ameer added.
Representatives of the center did not respond to requests for comment about the Sufis’ allegations. They previously told Reuters the center practiced “moderate Islam”.
The center’s Riyadh-educated founder, Mohamed Aliyar, was arrested in May for allegedly funding Zahran.
The charge sheet, reviewed by Reuters, details his bank accounts but does not provide evidence of wrongdoing. A police spokesman did not respond to requests for details.
Aliyar’s lawyer Abdul Uwais said he was a victim of paranoia over Wahhabism.
Two sources from Kattankudy’s Muslim leadership said Zahran voraciously read Wahhabi texts from Aliyar’s center, but that the men were not known to be close.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam; Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, and Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson