ast week, terrorists of the Islamic State butchered 130 men and women in Paris while they were - as one newspaper put it - indulging in life’s innocent pleasures: watching a concert, a football friendly and drinking beer by the roadside. Those terrorists - at least five of them - were identified as French Muslims. A week before that incident, Sri Lankan Muslim organizations, led by Jamiathul Ulama came together to demand that the government in Colombo denied visa to one rabid Islamist preacher, Jainul Abideen, the founder of Tamil Nadu Thawheed Jamaat. Abideen was invited by Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat, a fringe group of Wahhabis awash with Gulf money. The government conceded. Abideen was refused a visa for a second time. In 2005, the government denied him an entry visa on the same grounds.
Obviously there is no direct link between the two incidents in Paris and Colombo. But, the threat of growing Islamic fundamentalism is global.
The nihilistic cult of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now boasts the allegiance of 36 terrorist groups around the world. In other parts, Al Qaeda, its affiliates and franchise groups are vying for the gory mantle of being the Salafi Jihad’s torch-bearers. Muslim communities worldwide are the swamp that Jihadist fish swim and proliferate. In this vast global lake, resistance that emanates from some small corners like ours to this virulent radicalization matters. If nothing else, the response from mainstream Sri Lankan Muslim organizations, which stood up against Abideen tells us, that they are more enlightened than many of their counterparts in the world. (The Muslim Association of Britain, once hosted Anwar-al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American terrorist preacher and a recruiter for Al-Qaeda on a lecture tour).
Sri Lankan Muslim community has not yet fully exposed to Salafi- Jihadi fundamentalism that has extended its tentacles from the Middle East to South East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. (Though more and more local Muslim women, especially in the East wear Burqa, the all-encompassing Islamic garment).
However, given the global reach of fundamentalist Islam, no community is safe from exposure -- including our own.
Now, that sounds like fear-mongering. But, if you look a bit deeper; we already have at least two Sri Lankans in the ranks of the ISIS. Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam alias Abu Shuraih Sailania, a Karate instructor from Galewela, was killed fighting for the terrorist group in Syria in July. His brother-in-law continues to fight.
"Radicalization does not happen overnight. It is a long-haul process. However, once it takes root, it is difficult to reverse."
If our intelligence agencies followed up their tracks -- they should by now have known further intriguing information. However, another influential school of thought is that aggressive probing into the Islamic fanatics, would divert their wrath to us, so better let them crucify Syrians and enslave their women, and let us alone .
That is called buck-passing. In the history of international relations, buck passers, who did that for a variety of reasons, tend to be pounced upon, sometime later, by a far more formidable aggressor, whose aggression it sought to evade earlier. In the recent fight against Islamic State, buck passing States, such as Turkey which turned a blind eye to the ISIS inflicted carnage in Syria, later found itself at the receiving end of fierce attacks of the same terrorists.
However, for the moment, Sri Lankan Muslim community is largely pacific. How is that possible? Especially, our neighbour, the tiny Maldives send hordes of its nationals to the ranks of Islamic terrorists. (The Maldives has now passed special anti-terror laws to combat rising fundamentalism, though many fear that the new laws would be misused to target political dissidents)
The answer lies in the moderate variety of our own mainstream Islam. That is our most formidable defence against the encroachment by Islamic fundamentalism. Our mainstream Islam and its traditions have co-existed with other religions for centuries and become an indispensible part of Sri Lankan life. It is tolerant and benign and has so far withstood and largely repulsed attempted intrusions by imported varieties of Salafism, Wahhabism and other less salubrious versions. It is our greatest defence against Islamic radicalization. We should not let that defence down.
"The nihilistic cult of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now boasts the allegiance of 36 terrorist groups around the world "
Weakening that defence happens when we let bigots from the Middle-East and Pakistan to come here to preach their austere brand of Islam. The hold of mainstream Islam is weakened when you let Wahhabis to open Madrassas island wide to train our kids in that austere brand of religious teaching, which is alien to us. Our defence is weakened when Arab sheiks build houses and Wahhabi mosques in the East and then cloak local women in Burqa.
Take for instance, Jainul Abideen, the Tamil Nadu preacher, he decries shrine worshiping; a tradition of moderate Sufi infused Sri Lankan Islam, as un-Islamic. It was the same ideological leaning that led to Taliban to blow up Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and ISIS to bulldoze world heritage site of Palmyra in Syria. He spews hatred towards Shias and Ahamadias. We receive a sizeable number of Ahamadia refugees fleeing persecution in Pakistan.
We already have a problem, though a latent one, with fundamentalist Islam. Thawheed Jamaat in Sri Lanka is a fringe group. However, the grip of ‘imported Islam’ is tightening in Sri Lanka’s Muslim majority areas -- especially in the Muslim enclaves in the East. Thawheed Jamaat itself operates over 200 mosques, though only a few dozens of them are registered as places of worship. Most of its mosques contain Madrasas which train kids in theWahhabist variety of Islam. It borrows directly from Saudi religious books, which preach hatred and bigotry.
Wahhabis consolidated their presence after the Indian Ocean tsunami, building houses and extending welfare to distressed Muslim communities. Youth who have been taught in this austere variety of Islam challenge the teachings of the moderate Sri Lankan variety. There had been sectarian clashes in Aluthgama and Kattankudy between Wahhabis and followers of the mainstream Islam.
Abdur Raziq, the General Secretary of Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat was earlier ordered by Court to issue an apology to Buddhist organizations for defaming Buddhists. He did apologize (for saying that Buddhists were worshipping stones and that the Buddha had promoted cannibalism). The matter ended there. But in Saudi Arabia, the fountain head of the ultra-orthodox brand of Islam, which Thawheed Jamaat promotes here; a court, last week, sentenced a Palestinian artist to death for renouncing Islam. If it is the kind of Islam, that the Wahhabis want to promote here, we all should be very concerned.
Symptoms are already there. We should address them, before radicalization takes its hold. The question is how?
First, address the sources of radicalization. It began with foreign preachers and the locals who returned from Islamic Madrassas in the Middle East and Pakistan. Now that knowledge and fellowship are multiplied by local Islamic schools that teach the Arab religious syllabus. The government should bring all Madrasas under the Ministry of Education (or Islamic Affairs) and make them teach a uniformed curriculum, that is vetted by the Sri Lankan Islamic theologians. That shields our children and youth from being manipulated by an invasive variety of bigotry, during their formative years.
To justify the State intervention and to supplement the loss of funding from Arab donors, the government should provide adequate financial support to those institutions and bursaries to students and wages to teachers. Second, the government should beef up the State patronage for the mainstream Sri Lankan Islam in order to help it maintain its status quo and face new challenges.
Third, the degree of assimilation of Muslims to the wider Sri Lankan society is varying depending on geographical areas (though social alienation has never been a problem). The government should make a special effort at assimilation of communities, especially in the Muslim areas in the East. If the government fails to tread in, extremists will do. Fourth, the government can help promote inter-religious dialogue. It should not be confined to the upper echelons of the religious leadership, but reach out to the kids in those Madrasas, Pirivenas and Seminaries. Finally, all good things can be brought to a naught by a few hardened extremists. Therefore, the government should consider recruiting to intelligence services, reliable youth from those local communities in order to keep a watchful eye on their surroundings.
Radicalization does not happen overnight. It is a long-haul process. However, once it takes root, it is difficult to reverse. At the beginning of the Tamil insurgency, we did not see (nor did the old guard Tamil political leadership who supported nascent rebels, covertly and overtly) that it would develop into a blood-drenched mayhem. Nor did the French, who let in hordes of migrants and let them live their semi-segregated lives in their ethnic ghettos, imagine that children of those migrants would pounce upon the very nations that welcomed their parents. Now, France has a long list of 10,000 radicalized Muslims who ought to be monitored (if the rest of the citizenry are to be safe). All what terrorists and extremists need is, an opening in their target at communities. Once they get it, they will proliferate and take the rest of the community hostage. It happened in the Tamil North, it happened in the Paris ghettoes.
Finally, there are two counter arguments about Wahhabism and other austere varieties of ‘imported Islam’. One argues that Wahhabism is misconstrued and demeaned by its critics, and stresses that, it is just another peace loving, tolerant religious doctrine. But, a religious teaching that condones death to apostates, flogging and murder of dissent religious voices, and simply ban women from driving cars, does not fit into conventional definitions of any of those words. Then there is a more persuasive liberal argument: It admits that those particular varieties of religious teaching are in fact intolerant, medieval and could well be murderous. It goes on to add, that, still, their followers have a legitimate right to follow their beliefs and proselytize as long as they do not give practical expression to their nihilistic religious impulses. That is a very strong argument, which could well be backed by constitutional guarantees of civil liberties.
So Europe thought the same way and turned the blind eye, when rabid preachers spew hatred inside and outside their mosques. But, the events in the past decade and half show, that such preaching, when it reaches a receptive audience -- more often than not -- is put into practice. From Brussels to Bali, there are ample examples. We should learn from their mistakes, if we are not to become the next line of victims.
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