How not to breed the next wave of suicide bombers
- Well-to-do youth who found a new sense of global identity met online in the Islamic State-inspired chat rooms and moved into real life to do their part for the global Jihad
Sri Lanka appears to have contained the Coronavirus more successfully than its peers. That the new patients have not been found from the community during the last 17 days ending Sunday, despite the implosion of cases in the barracks of Welisara Navy camp, which now account for more than half of the total confirmed cases, may suggest that the containment strategies have paid off.
However, while fighting the pandemic, Sri Lanka has given a new lease of life to an equally dangerous virus: Islamophobia.
Media narratives, especially television news, projected Muslims as spreaders of the virus after several early cases were reported from Muslim neighbourhoods. While this can be ascribed to news media being on a ruthless pursuit of news, even in a rather primitive and reckless way, some of the leaked video clips betrayed subtle racism of gatekeepers of news. TV cameras later moved away when a fresh staple of coverage was provided by the implosion of cases in the Navy (to be told by the defence ministry to be respectful of the privacy of the victims).
In the meantime, the government managed to create a new set of grievances for Muslims. Its policy on compulsory cremation of the COVID-19 related dead is contested by the Muslim community leaders and is currently being challenged before the court. Rather than systemic racism, it is the short-sighted fallacy intended for easy management of COVID-19 related funerals that led the government to opt for compulsory cremation.
But, cremation is a sacrilege and defiling of the dead for Muslims. The very ethnic composition of the government’s COVID-19 related task force made it racially ignorant of these nuances. It is equally stubborn not to pull back. The decision to digress from the rest of the world and WHO guidelines which provide for both the burial and cremation may also betray a sense of overbearing. That is foolhardy. This is the antithesis of the rational choice that the state policy should be guided by; a calculation of cost and benefits, and picking the best possible outcome. By cremating three dead Muslims out of a total of nine COVID-19 fatalities, the government created a swell of resentment, perceived sense of grievance, and worldwide negative publicity. Is it worth the cost?
Now political calculations of not being seen as appeasing to Muslim concerns are preventing the government from doing the sensible thing. This is a costly mistake. Local Muslim leaders are crying the victim. The country’s otherwise commendable record in containing the virus is overshadowed in the international press by an unwarranted choice of mandatory cremation. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has condemned the decision. OIC states are not the paragon of virtue of civic liberties and minority rights. However, they are Sri Lanka’s friends in the International fora and over a million Sri Lankans work in these countries. A sensible policy would have been avoiding these pitfalls when all that was needed a dose of commonsense.
Again, if none of that is persuasive enough for the government, there is another very pertinent reason.
Compulsory cremation and some other dog whistling tactics are in building a vast reservoir of resentment and grievances within the Sri Lankan Muslim community. These evolving structural factors are potent radicalizing drivers. They are push factors of radicalization - as the name itself suggests, they are pushing the youth towards violent extremism as means to vent pent-up emotions and avenge on perceived injustices - and the wider community would be conditioned condone such behaviour.
This is a dangerous development. Until now, Islamist radicalization in Sri Lanka is driven primarily by the allure of imported Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative strain of Islam based on a literal interpretation of Quran and Hadith. That medieval orthodoxy of Islam, laced with rage and hate and promoted by the Saudis and Qataris became the ideological fountainhead of the Global Salafi Jihad.For many young Muslims, it became the new counter-culture, the Burka became hip, and the Jihad the new black.
This implanted ideology was the primary driver of the sudden rise of ostentatious religious zealotry of a substantial part of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. In a quest for a new identity and synergy with the worldwide Muslim community, Umma, they consciously embraced Arabization.
At the extreme end, it also identified itself with the global Salafi Jihad. Sri Lankans went to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS). Local preachers openly preached violence. Well-to-do youth who found a new sense of global identity met online in the Islamic State-inspired chat rooms and moved into real life to do their part for the global Jihad.
Easter Sunday terrorists are a product of that dynamic, than any domestic structural factors – though armchair experts here and abroad have repeatedly tried to ascribe the attacks as a response to the rising Sinhala Buddhist ethnonationalism. If your beef is with Sinhala Buddhists, why go and blow up Christian churches and tourist hotels? Why not ubiquitous public places?
As a result of the attacks, political and elitist patronage of Wahhabism suddenly ended and the wider Muslim community lost the allure of Wahhabism. But, a good deal of faithful simply retreated to the underground and into close-knitted groups. Extremism would continue to be bred in these groups.
However, violent ideologies themselves can not thrive at a mass scale. They need structural, social ethnic and political factors to facilitate their reach to a mass audience.
Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka had hitherto failed to find permissive structural causes to advance its reach. In part because Muslims have been better integrated into the Sri Lankan society. Also, they as a community had not fallen into the narrative of mass victimization. Nor had the mainstream Muslim leadership sought to promote such a narrative wholesale (unlike their Tamil counterparts, who did so with calculated opportunism and it backfired calamitously).
Instead, this government is creating new grievances that the extremists of the next wave would exploit. It has failed to tackle hate speech online and real life. It takes only a half a dozen staff to survey the Sri Lankan social media for the hateful content, trace the posters and charge them under the law. Instead, the government had implemented the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights rather selectively.
On top of the existing problem of Islamaphobia, the mandatory cremation has now created a new set of Muslim grievances. Those are what Zahran, the ring leader of the Easter Sunday attacks, would have dreamt of.
These are also the mistakes that the Sri Lankans would regret in the years to come. As for the government, it is still not too late to reverse the course.