By Mohamed Harees –
Among the most positive developments, worthy of admiration, in the aftermath of this despicable tragedy, are the level of maturity of our people, timely interventions by the authorities to maintain peace, as well as the exemplary leadership provided by Rev. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. They contributed significantly towards averting a major bloodbath as well as maintaining law and order. However, what is most disconcerting has been the sensationalism by some sections of the Media, as well as hate peddling promoted by political and social media warriors, to rekindle racist fires designed to re-create communal tensions and disturbances targeting the Muslims. This is a time where those affected by this unspeakable catastrophe needs consolation and support to overcome this unbearable trauma and therefore adding fuel to fire by these irresponsible elements will have explosive consequences. It is also a fact that the whole Muslim community too, has been going through the most stressful and the most challenging period in their known history, feeling ashamed, enraged and bewildered due to the vile actions of this fringe radical extremist terror group arising from among their ranks. It is therefore imperative that Muslims should not be seen as part of the problem; rather as part of the solution to overcome this national tragedy. Taking them into confidence is a sine-qua-non in this context.
Even the fiercest of critics admit that the fringe group is only a minuscule decimal percentage among the Muslim community and already the community has realized the need to eliminate this cancer in the best interests of both theirs as well as the nation. To the Muslims, this radicalized group have brought shame on them and their religion and have polluted their credible track record of over 1000 years. No one therefore feel much more compelled to root out this menace than the mainstream Muslims themselves- hitherto a blind spot for them. Already they have started their mission which is well reflected in the level of roundups and detections. Even the bodies of those involved in this gravest crimes were not allowed into their graveyard. Further, the community also fell in line with any national imperatives including the ban on full face cover. What beggars belief however is, how the many leads and prior information given to the government and its’ intelligence agencies by some sections of the Muslim community and the ACJU about this violence prone NTJ group from time to time, were not taken seriously, which ultimately led to this avoidable tragedy.
In this context, the Muslims of Sri Lanka should not be made to fall into the same fate as their co-religionists in the US as it happened after 09/11.There are some clear concerns. Firstly, there is media terrorism where many conspiracy theories about Muslims are being published without any verification, specially Sinhala media outlets such as Hiru and Derana, and even newspapers too. There is also no rationale for TV media teams to accompany the security forces on their combing out operations. There are many instances where TV outlets have been showing, the privacy of homes without any restrictions including those taken in and later released without charges, portraying them as culprits. Secondly, there seems to be lack of religious and cultural sensitivity on the part of the Police and armed forces when they were seen to enter places of worship for example not removing the shoes when entering the mosques, and dealing with the holy books, as well as for privacy when entering houses. Besides, there have been several reported arbitrary arrests too and lawyers are refusing to appear out of fear. Thirdly, it was a fact, that the Muslims during earlier communal violence in Aluthgama and Digana, were initially disarmed and under the cover of curfew, goons were allowed to attack the un-armed Muslims at will when the armed forces were watching. They perceive that this ‘disarming operation of individuals possessing minor weapons of self defence’ being only limited to Muslims ( I am not referring to large hauls of weapons found) has a similar devious plan in mind. Poratota incident is a case in point. Security forces should have this perception cleared and all individuals irrespective of nationality should be disarmed. Thus, failure to exercise caution and reassure Muslims or adopt double standards, will result in innocent Muslims becoming losing faith in the system who may then be targets of radical recruiters. These challenges were seen during Tiger time too, in winning the confidence of the community and it is foolhardy to ignore those lessons learnt.
There are also calls for the Muslim community to assume collective guilt. These type of calls are usually heard, even in other parts of the world, whenever a racist, terror group or a terrorist with a Muslim name commits mass murder or a massacre. On the contrary, it is not the case, when a white supremacist commits a similar crime, most likely he will be called a psychopath or a lone wolfer. If an entire group is asked to assume collective blame for the actions of individuals, it makes it totally reasonable to exact revenge from any person from that group, and thus it will put all of them at risk . Further, calling for Muslims to assume collective guilt or shaming them will provoke defensiveness, not understanding. What is important for the people and the security forces to realize is that the mainstream Muslims are on the same page as the rest of the population when it comes to fighting this common evil of radicalism and terrorism. They should be viewed as equal partners in fighting this menace without the whole community being shown the red card. In fact, Muslims have been the biggest victims of the menace of Al Qaida and ISIS inspired terrorism. To them, religion of their victims is immaterial.
In Sri Lanka too, Muslims have to pay a heavy price for standing up against terrorism. They refused to subscribe to the LTTE’s struggle for a Tamil Eelam, resulting in being driven from the North and subjected to many Tiger inflicted massacres in the East. Was the Tamil community then asked to assume collective responsibility? Or was the whole Sinhala community collectively blamed for what happened to the Tamils in 1983 and to the Muslims in Aluthgama or Digana, by State sponsored Sinhala goons? In fact, attempts made to marginalize the Tamil community, pointing fingers at them for supporting the Tigers turned counter-productive in the long run , as that led to more recruits joining the Tiger’s Eelam cause. Therefore, if history is anything to go by, this type of marginalization and asking them to assume collective guilt is insane and foolhardy. Muslims have equal, if not more need to weed out this extremist and radical cancer which has brought shame and disrepute to their community. Therefore, more importantly , the Muslims should also not fall into the trap of defeatism or assume a victim mentality. They should take the lead to fight this cancer head-on.
Looking Beyond This Fringe Group:
What was very special about these radicalized suicide bombers were that they were educated youth and from well-to-do families, insanely brainwashed by a fiery lunatic cleric, which aspects confounded the investigators too. Certainly this needs further study as they needed high levels of motivation to do what they did. However, it is also necessary to understand that it is just simplistic to conclude that this fringe group however radicalized they may be, carried out this well-orchestrated suicide operations, on their own. There are many other angles to explore.
Question of Responsibility: Why did it take two days for ISIS through an account on Telegram claiming to be “official IS” to send out a message to take responsibility for the attacks, compared to previous ones where they take instant responsibility? Or does this have a AQIS brand(Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in the Indian Subcontinent)? Since ISIS claims to be behind the carnage, one has to ask searching questions about ISIS itself. How did ISIS emerge? Who is helping to sustain ISIS? Western analysts have proved that ISIS is a Western construct. Both ACJU and the collective of global Islamic scholars have clearly laid down that they are a distortion of Islam and represents a severance from the Islamic tradition of the past 14 centuries. They utilize Islam as a post hoc justification for extremist violence. Thus, demonising Muslims and Islam based on ISIS ideology is nonsense. In fact, Cardinal also stressed this point very strongly. He saw a greater international conspiracy.
Looking out for explanations, Minister Ruwan Wijewardene stated that the attack was reportedly a revenge for Christ Church massacre in a mosque. But terrorism researchers have said the sophisticated nature of the attack and the equipment used would probably have required months of preparation, including target reconnaissance, recruiting of the suicide bombers and obtaining explosives and therefore this explanation is not plausible. Local journalist LD Mahindapala in an article to a local newspaper, analysing this tragedy, says ‘Both targets were selected to make global headlines in the Christian West. Any harm to the Christian worshippers inside churches in one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar and Western holiday-makers would instinctively tug the heart strings and the conscience of the West’. While there can be little disagreement about the “foreign hand” in the Easter Sunday bombings, the local political and criminal scene also demands close scrutiny. Saikiran Kannan, who specializes in open source investigations, tracking and analysing jihadists on social media, in an interview with The Diplomat, says “ignoring inputs from the country’s own Muslim population that said something was up. The Lankan security establishment just didn’t act. There can only be two explanations for this inaction. Either the Sri Lankan military and police didn’t know how to act on this input — which in Saikiran’s words is “rather hard to sell” — or elements in the country’s polity, including the defense and security establishments, wanted this to happen as a way of damaging the incumbent government’. Minister Senaratne also stressed this point referring to the involvement of the ‘Gotabhaya’ camp and the curious announcement about his candidature for Presidency in the aftermath.. Apart from these explanations, there are other angles too. Some analysts suggest NATO/US conspiracy to create the necessary conditions to build a NATO base in Sri Lanka to counter the threat from the Chinese. Isn’t it obvious that many of the terror outfits we know today are linked to geopolitics and the pursuit of global dominance and power? Therefore, the plot thickens. When will the nation know?
Then, there is the question of culpability of the Government in this regard, with President’s and PM’s versions at loggerheads? The public should across racial divides insist that the government answer for their negligence. In a CNBC TV interview recently, Roman Scott of The Calamander Group said that the Sri Lankan government should be held criminally negligible for their failures. He stated three issues in this scenario: ‘Firstly, the government is “dysfunctional” and “the definition of fractious” ; secondly the government has been rolling back all the security apparatus the country had which was once deemed as of higher standards, and thirdly there is a lot of caution about not harassing a particular group; in this case the Muslims who are a vibrant part of the community and being at peace for a thousand years. Many alerts given by them about these extremist nests were virtually ignored’
Need For Muslim Community To Look Inwards : There is another discourse reappearing in the public domain, which affects the Muslim community. The current image of the Muslims has been viewed as confrontational, isolating themselves from the mainstream society, in terms of their dress, their values and their practices, due to the inculcation of a different mind-set, influenced by the religious perception of the Saudis and other neighbouring countries. They have been ignoring the threat of radicalization among a section of their community, infused by some bigoted theologians drawing their inspiration from Saudi originated Wahhabism cult. To date ,these aspects have remained blind-spots. The discourse on ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka vs. Muslims in Sri Lanka’ is opening up once again which compels the Muslims to move away from ghetto mentality and Arabization in terms of laws applicable to them like MMDA and the Dress (abhaya, thobes and the black colour) as well as the need for separate Muslim schools, Arab settings in many Eastern Muslim areas and the need for Thobes for males and black Abhaya for females. The Burqa ban is essential in the interests of national security. There is also a communication gap between the Sinhala and Muslim communities due to language barriers. The community need more Sinhala conversant speakers of the likes of theologians in the calibre of Asheikh/s Mulaffar, Amhar and Murshid as well as the intellectuals like Ali Sabri and Imtiaz Bakir Markar to project a positive image of Islam and also clear misconceptions. With a political leadership losing their credibility, and religious leadership losing their authority, the rudderless Muslim community is in dire search of a leader of ‘Cardinal Malcolm’’s calibre to put things right.