The extraordinary gazette (2218/68) that has been issued under the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 12 for the “De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology” seems to have stemmed from the recently released report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the terrorist attacks committed on the Easter Sunday in 2019.
The government’s move to rehabilitate the “extremists’ instead of sentencing them to imprisonment is acceptable, as this issue concerns of an ideology which has to be weeded out. The gazette, despite it having not literally aimed at the arrest of extremism among Muslims in this country is nothing, but a move to control the activities of Muslims that might be harmful to the society.
In fact, any sensible member of the Muslim community in this country would accept that there is a dangerous ideological trend among his/her community which was manifested in an undeniable manner by the coordinated terrorist attacks on three Christian churches and three popular five star hotels in Colombo on April 21, 2019 in which 269 innocent people were killed.
One cannot satisfy that all those who had been indoctrinated by those behind that carnage are behind bars. There may be many who had accepted the killer ideology to various degrees at large and weeding that ideology out from their minds is a must. However, this is an issue highly sensitive and has to be handled with utmost care.
At the same time, this is a serious issue as the people who were arrested or surrendered under this gazette would be referred to rehabilitation centres for “commissioning of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups,” without a trial by a court of law. “Such surrendered person or detainee shall be produced before a Magistrate with the written approval of the Attorney-General. The Magistrate may make an order, having taken into consideration whether such surrendered person or detainee has committed any other offence other than offences specified in regulation 3 (of the gazette), referring him for rehabilitation for a period not exceeding one year at a Centre” according to the gazette.
Under this gazette, journalists too could be arrested merely on suspicion, as the gazette speaks of persons who are taken into custody on suspicion of being persons, who by words intended to be read, cause or intend to cause commission of above offence. However, the gazette has not defined the term extremism.
Without a definition of extremism it is not clear whether it is possible for the police to arrest a person without being challenged at a court of law. There is no definition of extremism that can be universally accepted either. Some people define it as belief of an ideology which is beyond the general societal norm.
Even Martin Luther King Jr. was branded as an extremist. He responded “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter which I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Martin Luther an extremist…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
John F. Kennedy once said “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
In Sri Lanka almost all those who challenge one’s allegations and suggestions to subjugate other’s rights and way of life are being called extremists. People talk and journalist write about Wahhabism and Salafism which are described as violent extremist trends among Muslims, but when we attempt to understand Wahhabism and Salafism from those statements and articles, we always draw a blank.
The danger is that without a clear cut definition of extremism, police might be instigated by petitions and media hypes to arrest even people who are not on the path of extremism. But there is something that can be called extremism among every community which is intolerant and makes ill will on others. It was such trends that manifested in the form of Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, various communal riots and attack on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand in March 2019. The challenge that the authorities have to face is to clearly identify extremism, without being carried away by the media hype, before implementing this gazette. If the government’s move becomes or perceived as a tool against a particular community, that very move might contribute to another wave of extremism or extremists might draw more legitimacy from among the particular community.