By Soraya M. Deen –
With little doubt and honest admission one of the most dangerous terrorist threats to Sri Lanka today is homegrown violent extremists. Homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) are individuals who are inspired in many instances, by personal grievances and ideology to commit violent acts. They select their targets, and are not influenced by foreign terrorist organizations. They are radicalized in the countries in which they are born, raised, or reside.
A little over a year has passed since mobs descended on the city of Digana and ravaged the city, killing two Muslims and destroying scores of businesses, mosques and homes belonging to Muslims.
In the weeks since the Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people, for which responsibility was claimed by the Islamic State- tensions have remained high across the island nation, particularly between the majority Buddhists and minority Muslim communities. Laying doubts to rest, on the 13th of May, just two weeks after the Easter Sunday bombings, the country plunged into darkness once again with a new wave of attacks more intense than that of Digana being mounted against the Muslims. This time the attacks spanned five towns in the North Western province with the possibility of the violence spreading to other areas.
Let’s name it
We have since learned that these were orchestrated, targeted attacks against the Muslims. Mobs who were unknown and from outside of the towns that were attacked destroyed 500 shops, houses and mosques belonging to the Muslims. Muslims were also beaten and one man was hacked to death. In some instances video footage revealed this carnage and destruction being celebrated by the mobs.
Erroll G. Southers, a former FBI special agent, professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School and director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies states, “For decades, racially motivated extremists have terrorized the communities they hate. Extremist violence is difficult to track because domestic terrorism law is simply not prosecuting the reality. There is seldom mention of the word “terror” in the prosecutorial charge.”
We don’t need another reminder that the events of May 13th should serve as a warning for collective accountability being imposed on Muslims. Muslims across the country must formulate a course of action to deal with the hate and violence that flows towards them, sparked by hate and blind misunderstanding. With the repeated lackadaisical responses of the law enforcement there is no doubt that we will sadly witness again, escalated levels of terrorism against the Muslims of Sri Lanka. The community will sadly continue to stand the risk of living in fear of being a Muslim.
What is alarming and disturbing is the government’s failure and inability to address and prevent the violent extremism that took place on Easter Sunday and subsequently on May 13th, 2019.
Throughout history, we know, “It has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
The new norm
The immediate question before our government, law enforcement, civic and community leaders should be as to how to address homegrown violent extremism, and what we, as a country and society, can do to promote security and help make people, particularly minority communities safer. A question that begs answering is as to whether we lack will or skill?
Harry S. Truman once said, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
Digana should have been a wakeup call for our community leaders, law enforcement and political leaders. Yet we know that it was well guaranteed immunities and impunities for the mobs and a series of denials and deflections by the Muslim communities.
Instead of aggressively building grassroots movements and strategic partnerships, which would strengthen national identity vs religious identity, there was very little in the way of concrete action by the Muslim leadership.
We live in a 24 hour news cycle. Much of what happens the day before or sometimes even on the day of, fades away from the public consciousness at considerable speed. Even for the people who addressed the debacle of Digana, justice was delayed and denied.
Sri Lanka gradually fell in to a deeper abyss, when the country was taken down by a Constitutional coup, this time led by the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and a former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Taking Action Beats Panicking Every Time
We can no longer just wait for delayed law enforcement responses, every time there is another violent mob attack against the Muslims. We must no longer witness with indifference the significant anti Muslim hate spewed by certain segments of the Buddhist clergy, without swiftly and aggressively responding to such slurs and insults. One hate incident can spiral to another. In the aftermath of the Easer attacks and the mounting anger against the larger Muslim communities no hate is too small of a concern.
We must as a nation, as concerned citizens’ act immediately to deescalate violence and hate. If we fail, this will become the new norm. And this apathy will impact all communities. A state of disorder due to a disregard of the law emboldens homegrown violent extremists.
We must recognize that we have a grave threat in our midst and which is homegrown violent extremism. The government must unite to eradicate this grave challenge. Law enforcement must share resources and strengthen its capabilities and fully engage to solve this threat. It must take into account the urgency to curb this menace.
More resources must also be allocated to deal with homegrown violent extremism. We must acknowledge this threat and the source of this threat. Buddhist violent extremism carried out by a few extremists does fall within the definition of homegrown violent extremism
Most nationalistic, exclusivist ideology is steeped in justifiable hate and violence. It respects no one and stems from a deep rooted hatred towards the Muslim community. The government and relevant authorities must do everything within its power, to address the urgency of this phenomena. Social media and technology companies must also collaborate and work together with policymakers and activists, in addressing the impact of technology that is emboldening haters to spread their ideas online and on social media. A counter terrorism agency to address domestic terrorism is long overdue. These domestic terrorists pose an equally or if not more of a dangerous threat to our country than international terrorism.
Anti-Muslim hatred today is at grave risk of being legitimized. The legitimacy comes from many sources such as media, majority Buddhist communities’ sentiments, and fear rooted in blind misunderstanding. What is deeply concerning is that some of it is also political.
One thing is clear the attacks on the Muslim communities is not a recent phenomenon. It will take a comprehensive approach to fight anti-Muslim hatred. From intolerance to hate and unprovoked violence against this innocent community, the trends are pervasive and deep rooted.
Making our nation safe entails developing resilience factors in the areas of education, law enforcement-community relationships, civic engagement, empowering women and promoting religious leadership. It is ordinary individuals that transform into violent extremists. All communities must address extreme nationalism, Radicalism, and Fundamentalism.
Even though there is not one trait or reason that promotes violent extremism, political and religious ideologies, personal and collective grievances, networks and interpersonal ties, contribute to the dynamics of radicalization and extremism.
Sri Lanka will not find peace and co-existence in rearranging the circumstances of events. At our deepest level we must all have clarity and vision as to who we are as a nation, and what we can all do to achieve that vision.
*Soraya Deen is an international activist, lawyer, President of the Interfaith Solidarity Network. She is the founder of the Muslim Women Speakers Movement.