Image courtesy Quartz
Many supposed Muslims are in custody for suspected links with terrorism. Many swords found, including in the suburban Slave Island mosque. Many explosives scattered everywhere. Women killing themselves, the unborn and their offspring, without a moment of hesitation. After all this, no matter how true, it is not enough for Muslims to quote Quranic verses and say that Islam does not support extremism or terrorism. Perhaps it’s even offensive to many non-Muslims. To the many lives lost on Easter Sunday. We need to understand how such a gush of extremism went unobstructed.
I’m mainly addressing the moderate Muslim here because I can only represent my kind. My loose definition of a moderate Muslim is as follows. You may or may not pray five times a day or fast during Ramazan. You may or may not wear a hijab or go to the mosque for Jummah prayers. You will have a close friend, not just an acquaintance, who is non-Muslim. You went to a non-Muslim school and hung out with Sinhalese, Tamils and Christians. You work in offices where the majority are not Muslims. You don’t wear the burqa or would tolerate your husband wanting to bring another wife. You identify yourself as Muslim and for you, the essence of Islam revolves around your personal relationship with your creator. In short, you are well-adjusted to live in a Muslim-minority country. Being a non-moderate Muslim does not equate to being an extremist either. It only means that you know less of the non-Muslim world and have fewer ties to it than the moderates.
There is another reason for looking specifically at moderate Muslims. We are the bridge between the chasm that has erupted between non-Muslims and extremists. We understand the world of Islam and the world outside to varying extents. We can and must help cohabitation and trust as we’re the ‘experts’ of this field.
Most want to find a scapegoat for the terrorism that reared its big head this Easter. It’s how the human mind works. Even when we make mistakes in our personal lives, we try to find excuses, for want of an innocent self. Sri Lankans should try not to succumb to this blame game entirely and examine how each of us may have contributed to this conundrum. Did we appoint the wrong government? Did we turn a blind eye to extremism? Did we promote hate speech, alienating a community and sharing videos that may have been used to recruit suicide bombers? Did we not condemn extremism loudly enough? We each need to reflect on our contributions and on how we can rectify our possible ignorance.
I see a lot of Muslim friends making grand declarations on Facebook. Nothing wrong with that. We must make our voices known so people know where we stand and who we support. But some of them are also apologising for this event. Why? I have also struggled with guilt in the past. Whenever a jihadist blows something off, I’ve felt like I’m partially responsible. A few years ago, I went to the 9/11 memorial in New York. I read the letters written by kids who lost their fathers. I listened to horror stories of husbands losing wives. I came out of the memorial with a headache that lasted for three days and bought a lot of 9/11souvenirs to overcompensate for my guilt despite my meagre student budget.
While I was feeling partially guilty for another such catastrophe in the past (many come our way as you know), one of my Sinhalese friends sat me down one day and asked a series of questions. Do you support these extremist ideologies? Do you believe they represent your religion rightfully? Did you know this was going to happen? I answered with a set of course not’s, my eyes turned down, understanding where she was going. That day, I learned from her never to apologise for a bunch of radicals using my religion for their selfish benefit. I don’t think anyone should feel guilty if you can honestly say no to my friend’s three questions.
But there is one thing we should consider being apologetic about. Why did we not see this coming from within our own community? Did we see it and ignore its significance? How did this all happen so fast?
As a religious guide, the Quran has the highest number of interpretations and schools of thought and these radicals interpret it to support their terrorist ideologies. Does the moderate Muslim lack a strong knowledge of the Quran? Do they know how to interpret it fully? I can read Arabic, but I don’t understand the language to derive meaning from the source itself. I have not read the English interpretation end to end. This disqualifies me from using theology to speak against these extremists. If that’s the case with you too, we need to fix it because otherwise we will get intimidated by an extremist who throws an incomprehensible verse at us. We need to educate ourselves better because when we’re not religiously literate, we idle in passivity, swaying neither to nor fro. Instead, we need to read the texts and form strong opinions and take a side.
But I know it’s going to take some time to master a language and a complicated text. Meanwhile, when we hear such a crazy ideology, let’s dig deep in our hearts and use our conscience to make a call on whether the ideology is just. Islam for me is grounded in my personal relationship with God. Nothing more, nothing less, and I believe it should be the foundation of Islam for all true believers. Let’s always question an ideology in comparison to the wishes of a compassionate, most merciful God. Do you really think our God prescribed the killing of innocent people? I can assure you my God is much kinder than that. We need to stop and think. Just because a terrorist talks with authority on Islam, doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be questioned.
My Islam teacher taught me the two most important things about Islam when I was fifteen. One was an explanation of God that I won’t go into detail here as it’s irrelevant to the crisis at hand. The other was about the changing nature of Islam. He told me some philosophies like Buddhism are universally applicable for all times. Its applicability never changes. But the interpretation of Islam should change with time and adjust to accommodate its social context while its core remains fixed. This is because Quran passages were revealed as responses to certain dilemmas and happenings in the Prophet’s life a long time back.
Take Samina Ali, American author and activist, as an example. In her 2017 TED Talk at the University of Nevada, she talks about what the Quran really says about women’s attire. This is a critical message that both Muslims and non-Muslims need to hear. She adds context to the verses and segregates the interpretations that have been subsequently added. What if all moderate Muslims had the wisdom and audacity to make these educated interpretations?
Most communities tend to ignore minority extremists, dismissing their views as ‘peculiar’ until innocent lives are lost like this. But we know now that even though they may be small in numbers, they can and will wreak havoc because that’s their venomous mandate. Although some Muslim organizations have been complaining about these terrorists to the relevant authorities, to be honest, I had no idea this existed to such a severe extent. We must be vigilant as a community. As soon as I heard of this attack being attributed to a radical Islamic group, I thought back to the years before 2012 when I was living in Sri Lanka. On Ramazan and Haj festival days, after an early morning bath, we dressed new clothes and rushed to the Battramulla mosque for the festival prayer. I often got reprimanded by my parents because I made them late all the time. I thought back of all the sermons I have heard in the mosque and nothing strikes me as been vicious in its content. Then we would come home, have breakfast and go to all our neighbour’s doors to give them watalappan. Mawlawis in our mosques nowadays may not be preaching violent sermons, but should we stop after looking only at our mosque? What about mosques in rural areas, wherein the people are most vulnerable due to poverty and lack of judiciary discipline? They are all part of our community and should be taken care of. Are our madrasas regulated enough? Do they have a set syllabus? The questions are plentiful.
Yes, we were warned of this by monks of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). But the route they took and the tone they used cannot and should not be condoned. It was like the tone that I see these extreme radicals using in the videos that are circulating with their hate speech. These warnings were thus not received well by the larger majority, who are peace-loving. This is clearly not the way to work towards a sustainable and respectful solution. Imagine, what if the warnings had come from someone who spoke wisely and compassionately like the Archbishop of Sri Lanka? Will we have thought twice before dismissing the information as mere racial bias?
Some blame it on the government. Yes, there is no question our government is ineffective, uncommunicative and inefficient. They have to be held accountable and hopefully, some of them will resign out of some shade of shame. Our leaders can’t even hold a candle to the New Zealand Prime Minister, who mourned with her citizens with compassion and respect, while boldly reforming gun laws immediately. But if I may ask, who appointed our politicians? If not them, who else could we have appointed? Are we so desolate in our options? When I last voted in Sri Lanka, I could not vote for any party in clear conscience. I drew a long, diagonal line on my vote sheet and came home. We need new leaders we can all get behind without any reservations. We need leaders who want to do what’s right for the country as a whole, while respecting humanity. We need leaders who bow down to justice instead of prioritising their victory at the next election. As moderate Muslims, we also have to look at who represents us in the parliament and cabinet. Are they truly indicative of our hopes and beliefs for this country? Or do they serve their own agendas and a minority of Muslims? Should we appoint politicians that most of the country will vehemently despise for various reasons? Can such leaders solve any of these issues if they continue to be impartial?
Some blame it on the whole Muslim population, campaigning to ban not only the burqa, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but also halal food and Islamic banking. As a moderate Sri Lankan Muslim, I don’t go looking for halal food specifically, but I will always buy halal food when I see it in the grocery store, especially meat. Tell me, what’s the real use in banning halal food? Why do you want to take away my option to consume halal food? What good does that do than to seclude an already self and circumstantially isolated community?
But as my husband pointed out when I was feeling like a victim of all this hatred, the rest of the country is scared too. Just like me or maybe even more than me because Islam in itself is a big jumble of unknowns for them. Some of them are posting racist slogan on Facebook purely out of unfathomable fear. They have no idea what hit the country, and they are looking for possible answers. Yes, some of them may sound racist and extremist in their own way, but let’s not give into our selfish victimhood now. The true victims are the innocent people who lost their lives on Easter Sunday. If we react to a few racist comments, risks being perceived as supportive of extremists on the fringe. Let’s be more patient and try to empathise with people’s desolation. Let’s show them that we will stand by the country.
Let me leave you with a book recommendation. Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a collection of true stories of brave men and women who fought against Muslim extremism. All of them Muslims. For some untold reason, stories of Muslims standing up against extremism does not get much air time locally or internationally. I hope this book would serve us as an inspiration to do the right thing when our country needs us to step up the most.
I plead guilty for not learning enough about Islam to combat radicalism intellectually and for my ignorance of the extremist movement. I will do my best to rectify my blunders from here on. I don’t know what you may have contributed towards. It’s possible you did not contribute at all as well. But it’s your decision to make and your conscience will guide you there.
Let’s do what we can for meaningful impact, not wasteful banter. Let’s not act like our politicians. Let’s just stop this blame game and look inside.