‘Terrorist has no religion’. That’s a poster-line. Appropriate, given the context of the Easter Sunday attack. It is moreover a statement that clearly disassociates the religious from the terrorists, especially those of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Simultaneously a Facebook group calling itself ‘Sri Lanka Unites (a young movement, they say, for hope and reconciliation, has announced that it is ‘looking for 1,000 volunteers to counter hate speech on Facebook and WhatsApp.’
These organized responses to the attacks and the fears they engendered have been accompanied by numerous articles in the English press echoing the same sentiments. Latheef Farook, writing for the Colombo Telegraph headlines it thus: ‘Easter Sunday carnage brought global islamophobia to Sri Lanka.’ It’s almost as though there was no islamophobia before Easter Sunday. It’s almost as though the only phobia around is that associated with Islam. It’s as though he has missed the obvious — the fact that global terrorism had set up office in Sri Lanka. He’s upset about consequences but is dismissive, almost, of cause.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, speaking at a ‘Vigil for a United Sri Lanka’ asks, ‘How did we create young men and women capable of such hate? What did we do or not do to make them receptive to hate mongering and delusion?’ ‘We’ she says. Who are ‘we’ here, pray? It’s an interesting acknowledgment of complicity simply because she obviously doesn’t mean herself and because, all of a sudden, it’s not Zahran or the NTJ who is to blame, but ‘us’! Neat!
The subtext however is inescapable and indeed at times it is quite ‘The Surface’. The finger that is pointed is directed to the Sinhala Buddhists. There can be a couple of legitimate reasons for this. First of all the Sinhala Buddhists comprise the largest community in the island and any collective response from them can have serious repercussions, far more than the acts of omission and commission of other ethnic or religious communities. Secondly, we had the acts of aggression from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and political fellow travellers.
What is forgotten or sidelined in the entire exercise is the shy-making when it comes to naming the perpetrator. In another time, similarly heart-wrench-exhibitors refused to name the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Indeed, they echoed the LTTE claim of being the sole representatives of the Tamils and even called for parity of status vis-a-vis the Government of Sri Lanka. Today, they wouldn’t dare call the NTJ anything but terrorists, but instead, cutely, refuses to talk about the organization outside of the unavoidable tokenism of alluding to the attack. Yes, the attack. They talk of the attack but do not delve into the attacker, the doctrine that prompted the attack and the religious faith in whose name they were carried out. That’s not on, apparently, perhaps because we need to have ‘hope’ and ‘reconciliation’.
Hope is a word that is generally apolitical although what is aspired is naturally coloured by political preferences. So too reconciliation. Just like ‘peace’ in that other time of suicide attacks. For some, it was about concessions to the LTTE, just like anything less than wide-scale devolution would not add up to ‘reconciliation’. Interestingly, there’s very little talk about devolution these days. No Provincial Council elections, no sweat.
For the record, let’s re-post a pertinent observation by Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘Do you realize that if the “New Constitution” project had gone through, we’d have had a self-governing Eastern Province, with an all-powerful Chief Minister, a powerless Governor, no Executive President and a Government in Colombo which had to ask for permission before deploying troops in Kalmunai, or setting up military camps in the East, because law and order would be vested in that Council. Neat, huh? Remember all those who wanted that outcome and pushed hard for it.’
All of a sudden, to get back to the matter at hand, it’s as though the greatest obstacle to hope and reconciliation is posed by Sinhala Buddhists. M.A. Sumanthiran of the TNA, for example, tells the New York Times, ‘We have a new enemy but the same hate’. No prizes for guessing where he believes this hate emanates from. Again it ‘goes without saying’ that came without saying.
So far, only S.I. Keetaponcalan (‘Understanding Zahran: Sri Lanka’s ultra-terrorist’ in the Colombo Telegraph, has mentioned that the man’s original focus was his jihad against Buddhists. For the rest, it’s the soft target which helps vent frustration and inter alia helps divert people from the real enemy here. It’s not ‘hate’. It’s an existentialist angst and that’s not the preserve of the Buddhists either. It is an error to think that the greatest threat is Sinhala Buddhist extremism just as it is an error to think that ‘religion’ had nothing to do with the situation we are in.
So let’s go back to this notion of terrorism having no religion. The religious who abhor groups that unleash violence in the name of the very same faith are quick to point out, ‘that’s not who we are or what our faith is about’. Correct. This does not mean that the terrorists are religion-free. The NTJ killed in the name of Islam. They were affirming their faith. They were terrorists. Apparently that’s an unpopular position to take.
Referring to a statement issued by South Asian activists, academics and journalists urging Sri Lanka not to violate fundamental rights in the name of combating terror, Dayan observes, ‘All references to “terror” ( sometimes within inverts!) are to a possible governmental/state ideology or policy response; not to the massacre, or the character of its perpetrators. These people should read or re-read Sartre or Camus to learn or be reminded how engaged/committed intellectuals respond to fascistic terror threatening their countries, societies and citizens. Start with “The Roads to Freedom”.’
It is high time that we had a long and serious discussion about religious freedom, not to curb it but to figure out what faiths or bodies can come under that label, especially if there’s an avowal to affirm faith by drawing literally from texts (i.e. disregarding context or interpretive necessity) those sections that advocate violence.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has a line about religious freedom which offers a pertinent rider: ‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’ Here’s the question that’s not being asked: ‘Where does Wahhabism stand on this?’
Those who want to police social media by tossing out ads for trolls would do well to understand that it’s a pretty short distance from where they are to the problem at hand and that complicities, when they are tossed out (seemingly) randomly, have a way of dropping on one’s own lap.
Dayan is absolutely right when he says, ‘The “intellectuals” are divided between those who suffer from Sinhala-phobia and those who suffer from Sinhala-philia.
The ISIS doesn’t give a s**t about either, because they believe in absolute ethnic equality: they’ll blow up anyone of any ethnicity, any opinion about ethnicity, any gender and any age. Only dangerously stupid people don’t get it.’
Wishing away the enemy does not help, as seems to be trendy in these days of ignoring the abuse of the notion of religious freedom enshrined in the constitution and the need to call a spade and spade.
Make no mistake, it would be a massive travesty of justice to see the Muslim community as a monolith and to conflate it with the NTJ and other such extremists groups claiming to be affirming the same faith. All communities must stand with the Muslims of this country. Talk has to be walked. Extra miles have to be walked. By all.