It was a casual Sunday breakfast, as I was making notes on refugees in Sri Lanka, when my partner, his eyes still peeled on his phone, exclaimed in shock that a church has been ‘attacked’. It was one Sunday ago that stone-wielding angry mobs held worshipper’s hostage at a prayer centre in Anuradhapura run by the Methodist church of Sri Lanka. I immediately thought this was an attack similar to Palm Sunday. No sooner than I had taken my phone did the horrific images and heart-breaking truth unravel. I felt a numbing pain for the victims and for their families who would hear the news unexpectedly, and as casually, as we had. This thoughtless, inhumane act, had taken the lives of innocent men, women and children. It was going to leave our country in fear and in pain, it was going to change us in fundamental ways.
As the news of the perpetrators came in, my heart sank when I heard it was Sri Lankans who had done this. Working on reconciliation in Sri Lanka, I had hoped that we would never again see the day Sri Lankans killed their own. As their names and pictures were released, that they purported to be from the ‘Muslim’ community, my heart sank more. How could people from a community I identified with do this? From the lessons of Sri Lankan history, I also knew that the persecution of that same minority community they claimed to be a part of was just a stones-throw away, perhaps emboldening further division and mistrust. This cycle, to Sri Lanka, is not something new.
‘Why aren’t Muslims doing enough?’
This is a question that took up a large part of the social media discourse post Easter Attacks. ISIS, their ideologies, and the self-proclaimed caliphate, has been declared as a violation of Islam, by every reputable authority in the mainstream Muslim community. The letter to Baghdadi, an open letter to the leader of ISIS, is a theological refutation of the practices of ISIS, signed initially by 122 influential global Muslim theologians, lawmakers and community leaders, and is one such example.
Since the Easter Sunday attacks, the Muslim population in Sri Lanka have outwardly condemned it in the strongest possible ways. They have apologised, shaved off their beards and removed their face coverings – choosing national security over an identity they have got accustomed to. They have rejected the terrorists as being part of their faith and rejected giving them a burial. Most importantly, from Military sources, the Muslim community have been an asset in helping to find more terrorists. Regardless of these acts of solidarity, the actions of 0.02% has cast doubt on the entire population of nearly two million Muslims in Sri Lanka. Someone recently told me that the rest of us are ‘irrelevant’. Perhaps it is easier to dehumanise an entire population to justify ones hate.
ISIS rejects mainstream Muslims and they reject ‘Islam’. At their hands the most numbers killed globally are Muslim. Muslims are afraid, humiliated at airports, fired from their jobs, chased away from their homes, afraid to pray in public or hold a Quran. But, instead of turning to the mainstream 1.8 billion Muslims who believe Islam is a religion of peace or the consensus of Islamic scholars, we look to the terrorists who use the same 5 letter word, Islam, to refer to their violent ideology. The media compounds to this as they refer to the violent ideology of terrorists, as Islam, siding with the terrorist’s view and ignoring the way the mainstream followers understand their faith.
When it comes to refuting ISIS as Islamic, much evidence has been presented. In Sri Lanka political and religious leaders, including Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, have been clear in their definition of who these terrorists are. When ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014, their fight began against Muslims who didn’t subscribe to their beliefs, starting with the Assad regime – a common enemy of the US. We also know Baghdadi’s arrest in Fallujah in 2004 was conspicuous (to say the least). We know where Wahabi funding comes from. Take the Westboro Baptist Church, known for their inflammatory hate speech and open calls for violence against the LGBTQ community, as well as Catholics and Jews. What if they had the funding that ISIS does? The funders of terrorists or extremist groups need as much attention as the terrorists themselves.
Something ISIS ‘followers’ and ‘Islamaphobes’ might not know is the strong bond between Islam and Christianity. The basic principles in Islam include not killing the innocent, and respecting all religion, “for you is your religion and for me is my religion” (Quran,109:6). This means you can enjoy your pork and I can enjoy my halal meat. Important also are the prophecies that warn of groups like ISIS, to not be fooled by their appearance. They might portray they have read the Quran countless times but its teachings would not have gone past their throat.
But I have come to realise that these facts don’t change the majority perception in Sri Lanka. We can refute ISIS as Islamic, leaders can espouse the same, but this message doesn’t gain traction. The heightened fear of ‘Muslims’, or the view that they are the ‘other’, post Easter Attacks, appears to be a result of the fragmented and insular social fabric that has been laid out from within the community itself, with some Muslims increasingly segregating themselves, over the last decade. It hit me hard to come to know there was a problem from within my community. And just like me, many Muslims began to introspect.
The Sri Lankan Muslim, Communal Violence and the Civil War
For most of us Sri Lankans, the politics and plurality within the Muslim community has not been as obvious. A study done by ICES noted that, ‘the Muslim community is … splintered in to various denominations which espouse different interpretations of Islam. This ignorance of [their] plurality [and] internal politics could be a contributing factor to much of the prejudices held by individuals against the community’.
Over the last decade this plurality and internal politics has led to increasing factions, self-appointed religious leaders, and growing fundamentalist groups. ‘[The] anti-Muslim sentiments are also a result of the internal conflicts regarding the practice of Islam within the Muslim community. These conflicts, manifested in the form of visible, symbolic Islamisation, cause suspicion and fear among members of other communities’, according to the ICES study. A large majority of Muslims, remained unaware of this. Those who knew and chose to speak out were either not heard or silenced.
Muslims also understand they weren’t the victims of the Easter Sunday attack. But to those of us observing the societal backlash, the situation is cause for concern. Perhaps the plea is to not make Muslims the victims, to not turn this in to another civil war.
The riots in Minuwangoda – 13.05.2019 – has traits of the communal violence seen in 1956, 1958, 1970, 1980, 1981, 1983, 2001, 2014, 2018 – some which emboldened terrorist groups. 83’ in particular which took the lives of 400-3000 innocent Tamil civilians, has a correlation to the rise of the LTTE. Conflicts, they have similar patterns. We know the ‘83 riots started with thirteen soldiers losing their lives, but these numbers grew exponentially when the country fell in to a dark long war.
To quote a Special Forces officer, “Now, there are some delinquents trying to stir up issues between Muslims and Sinhalese. If it turns in to a conflict, we will have to sacrifice our lives again and go back to war, not them. We are the ones who have to suffer. We gave up so much to end the conflict, it pains us to see our efforts treated so carelessly.”
Senthooran, tells us his story of how he was pushed in to the hands of the LTTE, “the LTTE carried out an ambush in Palali. Tamils in Matale and elsewhere didn’t even know who the LTTE were at the time. We hadn’t committed any crimes, but because of what happened in Palali, we were tortured elsewhere.” Displaced, and without resources to leave the country, their only safety he says was in the hands of the LTTE.
The events of 13th May 2019 did not escalate to 1983. However, I think of Fauzal Amir, who was slashed to death, turpentine poured on his face. Livelihoods were destroyed, homes and places of worship too. Prior to this, offences where women were spat on, not allowed on the bus, Muslim businesses boycotted, women abused and discriminated at supermarkets and hospitals, can also have long-lasting effects on those victimised. Most of this violence and persecution has mushroomed out of our very own Sri Lankan society. How are we continuing the mistakes of our forefathers – have we learned nothing?
The Sri Lankan Muslims are as angry as you are, or more; with the riots but even more so with the terrorists who misconstrued Islam, brought suspicion and hate unto all Muslims, and moreover took the lives of 250 innocent people. We are hurt and confused. How did young Muslim men and women of Sri Lanka buy in to the blasphemy propagated by the ISIS? Yes, it was terrorists who did this, they do not represent us, they are a minute fraction of the Muslim community, but nevertheless they grew out from within our community. The Muslim community will not just reflect, but are committed to reweaving the shredded social fabric and integrating back as a decade ago.
But this does not justify the merciless attacks, discrimination and condemnation directed at all Muslims. Apart from Mr. Ameen, no other innocent Muslim life has been taken in ‘revenge’ (yet). But how are we to be thankful for something civilised people ought to do?
The ‘Sri Lankan’ and the ‘other’
Would the societal backlash have been contained if Muslims were better integrated? As Muslims grew increasingly insular and segregated it gave voice and justification to extremist and racist factions like the BBS. Those who pushed that narrative are now seemingly ever more justified in their hate. However, attacks from such groups have not been contained to Muslims alone in the last decade. Even after the Easter Attack, the very morbid were sometimes heard condoning the attacks, arguing that ‘no minority belongs in Sri Lanka.’
So, what does it mean to be a true Sri Lankan? Does my ‘multi-ethnic’ friend with Buddhist, Tamil and Burgher roots, not belong here? Does my Sinhalese Buddhist friend who does not visit the temple and is unable to string a Sinhalese sentence together, not belong here? Does my agnostic Atheist friend not belong here? As a Muslim, do I not belong here?
These divisive narratives stem from our history that dates back to colonial times. The colonisers made a majority feel like second class citizens. That left deep rooted pain and fear of the ‘other’. Successive governments since independence have manipulated our fears and ‘differences’ for political gain. It has been institutionalised in our constitution, legitimising communal violence, and the perpetuity of those seeds of fear and hatred.
If we remain so afraid of the ‘other’, then does that mean we redefine Sri Lanka from being ‘multi-cultural’ or multi anything really, to something monolithic? We have become obsessed with trying to delineate some one based on their ethnic or religious make up. We have created arbitrary divisions amongst ourselves along lines such as race, ethnicity, religion, and caste. Our tourist brochures highlight what a multi-ethnic, multicultural, hospitable and friendly country we are. But the truth is, while we welcome tourists, we have also chased out refugees, a group persecuted in their own countries and in need of a helping hand from Sri Lankans as they seek refuge here. We need to change this about ourselves as Sri Lankans. And we can start by breaking free from the chains of political manipulation and readjusting ourselves to not simply accept this diversity but celebrate it.
Our enemies are the terrorists. These cowards should not be recognised as belonging to any community or humanity for that matter. The terrorists wanted to create unrest and further divide our little island. They wanted to attack our peace. Then they attacked hotels, indiscriminately, in their attempt to attack our economy.
How we as citizens respond and react now can have a great impact on how we write our future, our countries future and our children’s future. Do we give in to what the terrorists wanted? Do we create more Senthoorans? It is in a fractured society that terrorism breeds best.
In a highly politicised country like Sri Lanka, we have a tendency to think it is all up to the leaders. But a politician is controlled by his constituents more than we realise. While political and religious leaders have a major role to play, it is important we understand our role in society and the impact each one of us has – positive or negative. ‘Civic responsibility’ should not be underestimated. For Sri Lanka to make space for a leader that emulates strength, compassion, and transparency, we need to start with being the change that we want to see. And ordinary citizens like you and me, we can have an extraordinary impact. We might not have the power or skills to take out extremists. We don’t all have to make grandiose and brave acts. Simple acts of kindness or restraint can have a ripple effect. For this, we must all start with looking within ourselves. Do we treat all of humanity with respect, kindness, and love? What are our own biases and prejudices? Are we allowing our fears to be manipulated?
Take the outward attack to boycott Muslim businesses, juxtapose that with the recent message that poison has been found and to not eat at Muslim establishments. The sad reality is that some groups, now crawling out of the rocks they were once under, are milking this situation. They manipulate our fears and our genuine concern for our loved ones. We are all afraid, we are all suspicious, and we are all emotional. But we must be sensible and responsible. You and I might not be racist, but it’s time to question what narrative we are contributing to by a seemingly harmless message. Reacting or responding to our fears, buying in to racist sentiments, will only perpetuate this cycle of violence.
A new peace or an old war?
A flurry of emotions, including fear, pain, anger and hurt have engulfed us all in the weeks following the attacks. I have always been a proud Sri Lankan, so it hurt to be told, I’m not as ‘Sri Lankan’, that I don’t belong here. But this is not about you or me. We will eventually forget and go back to our normal lives. Us privileged will survive. But as our economy and peace are threatened, it’s the poor who will first fall victim. It’s the poor who will lose their jobs, who will lose their lives to communal violence, or be pushed in to the hands of terrorists. The spill over effect will then not be contained to one community alone. We are all dependent on each other. What happens to those whose identity has been questioned? Those actions and even words, are like arrows, they can’t be taken back. The damage becomes irreparable.
Terrorism and racism, they feed each other. We have seen different faces of this in Sri Lanka. Theory, it became reality in ‘83. Are we going to look away in the same way? The generation of black July say, the most they could do was provide shelter for Tamils. But seeing the sheer-level of criticism and outward rejection to what happened on 13th May, suggests our generation will not only do more but will ensure Sri Lanka is never tested in that way again. For this, we must start with addressing the grievances of the past, including an apology for 1983; it is the only way to break this cycle.
As the Muslim community reflects, it is thus equally imperative that we as a nation reflect. How do we respond to extremism in all our communities? How do we stop from making the same mistakes of our forefathers? The Muslim community accepts that our relationships with Sri Lankans of different faiths have weakened, and that our identity as ‘Sri Lankan’ is now being questioned. But we cannot be held to a higher standard than any other. Reconciliation, it has to happen both ways. To paraphrase journalist Hafeel Farisz, “don’t slap us while we are on our knees.” It is important that communities are not singled out or marginalised. It is important that we stand together as Sri Lankans. For it is together that we can rebuild Sri Lanka and what it means to be Sri Lankan.