P K Balachandran, May 11, 2019
No significant anti-Muslim incidents have taken place since April 21, when two local Islamic State (IS) affiliates, the National Tawheed Jamaath (NRJ) and the Jamaathei Millathu Ibraheemi (JMI), carried out nine suicide attacks killing over 250 people, mostly local Christiansand foreigners.
Life has returned to normal in Colombo with Muslim shops doing brisk business. Muslim women go about freely in their Abayas and of course without the banned face veil, the Niqab. On the streets and in shops, there are no quizzical glances and verbal taunts directed at Muslim women.
Incidents of Christian or Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim shops and houses have been extremely rare. They were also put down quickly.
But the carnage was by no means a passing cloud. It is a watershed in the relationship between the Muslims and other communities in Sri Lanka, especially the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. If some of the grievous fault lines in the island nation’s social, political and religious structures are not identified and attended to with earnestness, existing rifts will only widen and the island will be thrown open to terrorism and foreign intervention.
Beneath the calm on the surface, tension is palpablewhich is seen in the stories in the mainstream media and comments in the social media.
A traditional and somewhat entrenched distrust of the “sharp” Muslim trader has deepened among the majority Sinhalese. The secrecy in which the Easter Sunday operational plot was hatched was described as a “cloak and veil” operation. It has reinforced the Sinhalese’s fear of the unknown. Exclusiveness, enforced by Wahabi Islam, has distanced Muslims from the rest of the community, leading to apprehension and distrust.
Among the Muslims, there is a fear that suppressed anger against the Muslim perpetrators of the carnage, could burst into the open at any time if the leaders of the majority community feel the need for a communal conflagration and the government is not strong enough to control such impulses.
Hope lies in reasons for calm
However, there is hope that the present calm will continue. And that hope lies in the eight reasons for the calm.
Firstly, the Muslim attackers targeted, not the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but the Christian minority and foreigners, particularly Whites. The targets were three posh hotels in Colombo patronized by Whites and three Christian churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa respectively. And the dead were mostly local Christians and foreigners.
If, on the contrary, the targets were Buddhists and Buddhist institutions, anti-Muslim riots would have erupted all over the island. Due to the high-pitched and sustained anti-Muslim propaganda of organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), sections of the Buddhist community have become anti-Muslim.
But these sections were not activated because the BBS leader Gnanasara Thero, was in jail and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is no friend of the BBS.The incumbent government had put down anti-Muslim riots in Digana in Kandy, and deftly handled the Buddha statues desecration issue in Mawanella last December.
The second reason for the calmness was the general,all- island assessment that the terrorist acts were those of a small and uncommonly radical Wahabi and Salafi group. Sri Lankan Muslims are known to be peaceful traders though they are disliked for becoming increasingly Arabian in culture and exclusivist since the 1990s. No Sri Lankan expected that Islamist suicide bombers would emerge from this peaceful though exclusivist community. The majority community was stunned into inactivity.
The third reason for the absence of an aggressive counter action was the quick and spirited riposte of Sri Lanka’s Muslim leadersand heads of Muslim institutions both secular and religious. To a man, they condemned the terrorist act and declared that murder and suicide are expressly banned in Islam and those indulging in these could not be considered Muslims at all.
The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema (ACJU), the top most body of Islamic clerics in Sri Lanka, even ordered that no Muslim should take charge of the bodies of the suicide bombers as they had forfeited the right to be considered Muslims.
The ACJU voluntarily adviced Muslim women not to wear the Niqab (the fullface cover) and make do with the Abaya (the flowing gown) and the Chador (a scarf covering the head minus the face).
All Muslim leaders and organizations pledged the fullest cooperation to the Security Forces and the Criminal and Terrorist Investigation Departments. The leaders also made it a point to recall that since 2017, Muslims had complained to the police and the Defense Ministry about the nefarious activities of some preachers and some Tawheed Jamaats and sought their arrest and prosecution. The ACJU claimed that it had complained about to the Defense Ministry as recently as January 2019. But the government took no action.
The fourth reason was the placid atmosphere is the response of the Catholic church, headed by the activist Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. The Cardinal prevented a Catholic backlash by appealing to his flock not to mix up the terrorists with the Muslim community as such. He considered the attacks to be the work of a misguided few and appealed to his followers not to precipitate a communal conflict which could lead to foreign intervention.
The fifth reason is that the country’s Christians have had no recent history of conflict with the Muslims. The Muslims’ conflicts had been with the Tamil militants and the BBS.
The sixth reason was the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s handling of the situation. The government was unusually and uncharacteristically united, with both President Maithripala Siriseana and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe putting aside their differences. Both doggedly maintained that the attackers were misguided fanatics who did not represent Lankan Muslims in any way. They assured the Muslims they and their mosques would be safe.
The seventh reason was the diversion of the people’s anger towards the government for not acting on the precise intelligence on the attack provided by the Indian High Commission thrice in April.
The eighth reason was the attitude and actions of the international community. Heads of all governments expressed support for Sri Lanka. Eight countries flew in investigators and equipment. But in the same breath the world leaders also told the Lankan government not to allow a Buddhist-Christian backlash against the Muslim community and appealed to the State apparatus to respect human rights during investigations.
That Sri Lanka had to abide by a resolution against it in the UN Human Rights Council also weighed in the government’s mind.
The international media put pressure on the authorities by giving wide coverage to a couple of violent incidents, especially the one in Negombo against Pakistani and Afghan refugees. They also reported that women were shedding the Niqab “out of fear.”
Need to eschew exclusivism
The praiseworthy restraint notwithstanding, there is a general feeling among non-Muslimsthat the Muslims as a community, cannot absolve themselves of blame for the Easter Sunday carnage.
Barring a one or two Sufi organizations, the Muslim Ulema and institutions had turned a blind eye to the growth of radical ideologies in some of the Madrassahs and Tawheed Jamaats especially in the Muslim majority towns in the Eastern Sri Lanka.
It was left to a Kanttankudy Sufi mosque Trust member, H.M. Ameer, to organize demonstrations and file a court case against the chief terrorist ideologue, preacher and suicide bomber, Zahran Hashim.
When Wijedasa Rajapakshe was Justice Minister, he told parliament that 36 Sri Lankans had gone to Syria to fight alongside the IS. Media had reported that a Sri Lankan Muslim karate instructor, Muhsin, was killed in a battle there. But Muslim MPs cutting across parties accused Rajapakshe of being a “racist” and shouted him down.
After the April 21 blasts, government estimated that the hardcore Jehadi group is about 150 strong.At the rate at which explosives are being seized, the support groupcould run into hundreds. The network also appears to be island-wide.
An unwelcome part of recent developments is that the Bodu Bala Sena and its firebrand Supremo, Gnanasara Thero, have acquired legitimacy. Many Sinhalese pointout that Gnanasara Therohad warned about the Jehadi threat from 2010 onwards. He had also launched an agitation against the Niqab.
The Eastern Province Governor MLAM Hisbullah, who is in a tight spot over his controversial Saudi-funded “Shariah University” in Batticaloa, has asked government to release Gnanasara Thero perhaps to curry favor with the rulers.
President Sirisenais unlikely to release Gnanasara Thero but he has placed the alleged “Shariah university” under the Ministry of Higher Education.
Thegovernment’s ban on the Niqab and the seizure of swords from mosques and some Muslim houses across the island, have also become divisive issues.
Initially, the Muslims publicly supported the ban on the Niqab even saying that it is not mandatory in Islam. But with leading international papers and wire agencies carrying stories of Muslim women saying that they were taking off the Niqab out of fear, Muslim leaders started making statements opposing it. The Niqab should not be an issue in Sri Lanka as only a small section wears the Niqab. Most women restrict themselves to the Abaya and a scarf over their heads.
A leading Muslim journalist reportedly said on TV that Muslim households have to keep swords to “protect their girls and for self-preservation!” This has created an apprehension that Muslim houses are “armories”.Such statements from Muslim leaders have only increased the gap between the Muslims and other Sri Lankans, which had given growing silently since the Arabization of Lankan Muslim culture since the 1990s.
Wahabism has led to the loosening of social ties between Muslims and non-Muslims as Muslims are enjoined by this ideology to limit social interactions with non-believers who might corrupt them.
“Exclusivism leads to distrust, animosity, violence and ultimately terrorism,” said Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, co-author of “Three Pillar of Radicalization” (Oxford, 2019).
“Sri Lanka has exclusive religious and ethnicity based schools. These should be substituted by multi-ethnic and multi-religious schools. The Madrassahs and the internet should be monitored and dangerous sites and social media accounts should be barred. Hate speech and helping terrorism should be criminalized,” Gunaratna said.