Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, newly appointed Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on ‘One Country One Law’
The Creeping Trajectory
In Sri Lanka, it seems there is little you cannot say or do from behind a Saffron coloured robe. The Gnanasara appointment as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on ‘one country/ one law’ was brazen and certainly generated shock value, but was also wholly predictable. Especially if one noted the President’s inner circle before, during and after his election victory. Previous PTFs have been largely ornamental, this latest effort is perhaps diversionary, stealing cameras away from the suffering of the peasantry and farmers. However, an unserious attempt to reinforce the ‘one country, one law’ central premise of the GR Presidency should not mask a certain creeping trajectory that has rightfully dismayed Colombo’s liberal establishment.
There is an obvious velocity: a straight line from the introduction of Gnanasara and the BBS in the early 2010s, to the popularization of their message amongst the nationalist base to the Easter attacks; the realization of the hypotheses. The line continues from the investigations in to Easter Sunday 2019, vis-a-vis the Arabization of the Eastern Province and intelligence failures to the national security laced election of 2019. The straight-line has now come full circle, back to the Secretary-General of the Bodu Bala Sena, the would-be chief protagonist in Sri Lanka’s march towards some version of a Monarchic Myanmar.
From Fringe to Fame
An interesting point of contention is whether Gnanasara and his rhetoric represents the tendencies of mainstream Sinhala-Buddhists or whether this particular brand of ethno-religious nationalism exists on the fringe. An undeniable aspect of this calculus is that the Easter Attacks enhanced the BBS message in the mainstream, giving it a gravitas it previously lacked.
" An unserious attempt to reinforce the ‘one country, one law’ central premise of the GR Presidency should not mask a certain creeping trajectory that has rightfully dismayed Colombo’s liberal establishment"
When Gnanasara first entered the public consciousness, it should have resulted in much soul searching, especially amongst the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. It is often said, usually by liberals, that the extremist and hateful preaching of Anjem Choudary (al-Muhajiroun) or Ata Abu Rashta (Hizb ut-Tahrir) et al do not represent the beliefs and value systems of the vast majority of Muslims world-wide. However, many liberals openly question to what extent Gnanasara’s rhetoric represents the beliefs and values of the “sin-bud” majority. Gnanasara has met many senior members of the clergy and ample opportunities to denounce the BBS have been ignored by the Mahanayakes. The Asgiriya Chapter released a statement in 2019, in response to criticism of Gnanasara from other religious groups and the wider public: “Although we do not approve the aggressive behaviour and speech of… Gnanasara… the viewpoint expressed by him cannot be discarded”. The recent appointment, the patronage of the ruling family as well as the quiet acquiescence of the Theravada establishment makes the description of Gnanasara as a member of the fringe completely untenable. Yet this does not automatically translate to support amongst the majority of the 15 million strong Buddhist population, not yet. The chauvinist tendencies of the ultranationalists cannot be denied but should be analyzed against the backdrop of moments of significant intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal politics; India (through IPKF and the PC Act), United States and EU (UNHRC and GSP+) and now China (control over national assets).
The Sri Lankan majority psyche is also keenly aware of religious intolerance in Middle Eastern countries through direct exposure to the many horror stories retold by those that return. The average Sin-Bud notices that many nations in the Middle East have no qualms about labelling themselves ‘Muslim countries’, or that nations in the west openly espouse their love of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. It might be illogical to expect a majority of Sri Lankans to accept the nuances of what makes Sri Lanka different to a nation-state in the Middle East, even superficially. There has always been a liberal backlash to any statement that describes Sri Lanka as an inherently “Sinhala-Buddhist” country and such reaction only further fuels the resentment felt not just by ultranationalists, but even moderate nationalists, who feel their agency is diluted by foreign influence.
The Minority Complex
To state the obvious, the Easter Attack was a result of too much religious freedom in Sri Lanka, not too little. The inability to grasp this subtlety has led to the alienation of vast swathes of the Sri Lankan electorate, a significant portion of which firmly view themselves as members of a singular Sin-Bud community, protecting their culture and heritage. They perceive themselves to be a minority when compared to the 68 million co-ethnics across the Palk Strait, a populace that does not hide their disdain for the Sri Lankan state in its existing guise. The Sin-Bud minority complex is also a factor in the local emphasis on Western imperialism; liberals and conservatives both harbouring deep suspicions of the motivations of the US-UK-EU axis. The Easter Attack and the revelations of fundamentalist preaching in the East have only added to this minority complex.
"When Gnanasara first entered the public consciousness, it should have resulted in much soul searching, especially amongst the Sinhala-Buddhist majority"
The steady transition of the BBS to the mainstream has not been limited by even its more ridiculous claims; for example: a secret anti-Sinhala sterilization programme. A primary target of their proposals was the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which is also the most obvious target of the new PTF. Whatever the majority view on Qasi courts and Sharia, the popularity of the concept of “one Country/ one Law” is undeniable.
Given the deeply ingrained nature of Sri Lanka’s various institutions of personal law, be it the MMDA or Kandyan Law, outright dissolution of said institutions will be seen as insensitive at best and autocratic at worst. The justification for one country one law must be to narrow the scope for exploitation of any citizen as a result of these retrogressive laws. If, for example, a woman is unable to achieve what she considers an impartial trial in a Qasi court, she must have the right to seek legal recourse through the standard Sri Lankan system, no personal law should be allowed to over-rule the right to this access. Instead of evolving on the issue, the Government sought the sledge hammer while the liberal establishment was content to ignore it altogether.
False Advertising and Brand Failure
The Gotabaya candidacy was confirmed in the immediate aftermath of the Easter tragedy and its success was founded on intelligence failures and the need to confront Islamist fundamentalism. The ‘Gota’ brand was perfectly suited to meet this national security moment, yet even on this single, ‘emblematic’ issue, the project has failed. The February 2021 appointment of a committee headed by MP Chamal Rajapaksa to examine the report has only further politicized the investigation. It has since been alleged that the Chief of State Intelligence Services (SIS), Major General Suresh Sallay, had ordered the CID to interrogate another member of the Catholic clergy, Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, a prominent critic of the investigation.
There have been various reports; the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) had obtained an arrest warrant for Zahran Hashim in 2018; Indian Intelligence Services sent prior warnings; former Chief of National Intelligence told the Parliamentary Select Committee that President Sirisena knew of the warnings; further mystery ensues over ‘Sonic’ and ‘Army Mohideen’. In September this year, MP Dayasiri Jayasekera alleged that an intelligence official had stolen the motherboard from Zahran Hashim’s mobile phone. A recent article even suggested that Mr. Sajith Premadasa had colluded with Major General Sallay to thwart an Opposition response to claims of harassment of the Catholic clergy. It has since transpired that the leader of the SJB had himself assisted in providing a legal team for members of the clergy as well as fellow MPs that had drawn the ire of the CID and intelligence services.
SJB MP Harin Fernando revealed the existence of audio clips of intelligence officers meeting with the wife of Zahran Hashim, adding credence to a narrative that the NTJ had enjoyed political patronage. Minister of Public Security MP Sarath Weerasekera has denied any meetings between intelligence and Zahran Hashim’s wife. Former Defence Secretary, Mr. Hemasiri Fernando has alleged that early action against Zahran and the NTJ had been thwarted by political considerations.
"While violence is the most visible phase of extremism, it is merely one aspect of an intricate process"
Two events in 2012 raised the profile of the BBS. First, their campaign against the arrest of a Sri Lankan migrant worker for worshipping a statue of the Buddha in Saudi Arabia. Second, the Ramu violence in Chittagong, Bangladesh where a 20,000 strong mob attacked Buddhist monasteries and shrines, destroying a dozen temples in response to an alleged social media post depicting the desecration of the Quran. The BBS led a protest in Sri Lanka to mirror those in India, Burma and Thailand, branding itself as an activist-protector.
The 2014 violence in Kalutara and Aluthgama were results of multiple BBS agitations and a steady stream of conspiracy mixed together with tangible cultural clashes, leading to further violence in 2018 in Ampara, Kandy and Digana. Several deaths, hundreds of injuries, over ten thousand Sri Lankans displaced and many millions of Rupees in property damage. Yet, aside from superficial support for the Muslim community and official condemnation of the BBS, there was simply no meaningful response.
The Opposition must also present policy proposals that reflect its national security credentials, it cannot make the same mistake as the UNP and view security as a second tier priority. Given the unpopularity of the government amongst virtually every component of its base, the SJB, having already shown an ability to attract diverse voters, would only need to attract a marginally higher portion of the by now deflated nationalist vote base, a base that has little to show for all their Viyath Maga activism.
Islamophobia or Islamo-fascism
A research paper by Dr. Ranga Jayasuriya, published in 2020 by the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), isolates Wahhabism as an ideological driver of violent fundamentalist Islamism, something he argues is a result of a decades-long, incremental process of radicalization. Wahhabism is a puritanical and fundamentalist Islamic revivalist ideology that stems from the 18th century Arabian scholar Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab that preaches a return to what it considers an unadulterated form of Islam. American scholar Natana Delong-Bas has described Wahhabi preaching as “Islamo-fascism” that is “contemptuous of modernity” and misogynistic in nature.
"A future administration must review and overhaul religious text books on the national curriculum to ensure that extremist doctrines are omitted. It will have to stand up to and condemn extremist preaching at not only Mosques, but the Temples too"
Sri Lankan Muslims traditionally belong to a sect of Sufism, which includes mystical elements including idolatry fused with local customs. Dr. Jayasuriya discusses the displacement of Sri Lanka’s unique, moderate Islamic traditions by an ultra-puritanical Wahhabi ideology which represents an Arabized narrative leading to adoption of specific norms and traditions which contribute to a degree of self-alienation from a community or society at large. Dr. Jayasuriya’s paper and many others have indicated that Saudi Arabian and Qatari state agencies as well as other philanthropic organizations provide significant financial support towards the spread of Wahhabism world-wide, including in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Jayasuriya notes what he considers the capture of Sri Lanka’s Islamic institutions by Wahhabi funded elements and the reshaping of these institutions over time to reflect the ideals of Pan-Islamism. Sri Lankan-Australian scholar Dr. Michael Roberts, has noted that the Easter suicide bombings should be recognized for what they are: “an indelible mark of total commitment”. There are parallels between Zahran’s terror and the LTTE’s suicide bombers: a “sacrificial devotion”, with Dr. Roberts noting the Kamikaze pilots of World War 2 and public self-immolation of monks in India, Vietnam, Turkey and beyond. Dr. Roberts further considers “fervency” and “zealousness” as an “outstanding feature of Zahran Hashim and his network” linking it to “the inflow of Wahhabi thinking into Sri Lanka from the last two decades of the 20th century”. A further point worth noting as per Dr. Roberts is that while there was certainly a BBS led movement in the past decade that sought to intimidate Muslim communities, Zahran Hashim’s choice of targets (churches and hotels) and launching the attack on Easter Sunday was an explicit signal to the global (Western) Christendom, not to the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment.
Writing in 2015, Dr. Jayasuriya noted the July death of a Sri Lankan karate instructor from Galewala in an air strike in Syria. The deceased, Mohamed Sharhaz Nilam is the first Sri Lankan identified as having joined ISIS, along with his brother-in-law. Nilam’s father, wife and six children had also crossed over to ISIS controlled territory in Syria from Turkey in December 2014. Residents of Galewala had been shocked to learn of the radicalization of Mohamed Nilam, who was also employed as the principal of an international school in the area.
Dr. Jayasuriya notes that while violence is the most visible phase of extremism, it is merely one aspect of an intricate process. Those with specific beliefs which manifest themselves through violent expression are simply those willing to openly exhibit their beliefs, but below this group exists a “large nexus of individuals and apparatus that share the same ideological goals, though they may not necessarily take part in acts of violence to achieve” these goals.
Balkanization of Extremism
Sri Lankan scholar Ameer Ali has written extensively regarding the spread of Islamism in Sri Lanka and has cited the Islamic missionary group Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) as setting the foundation for a “departure from the syncretic Islam of Sri Lanka”. Founded in India in the 1920s, TJ is an expressly religious, non-political organization that claims to focus exclusively on scripture of the Quran and Hadith. Describing themselves as a peaceful movement, TJ enlists volunteers to encourage more observant religious practice in Muslim communities, what Ali describes as a path that converts nominal Muslims into practicing Muslims. TJ is estimated to operate in over 175 countries in various forms with its history in Sri Lanka dating back to the late 1950s. Ali states that “TJ has trained the faithful to sacrifice everything and go on extended missionary work for the sake of Allah… it is only a small step to part ways from TJ’s non-violent path and join Jihadists’ violent path. In the first, one sacrifices everything else except one’s own life, but in the second, life itself becomes the primary sacrifice. To a convinced Islamist, it is a progressive step from TJ’s passivism, to Wahhabi activism and to… Jihadist militancy”. Ali contends that the relentless religious indoctrination is designed to connect local Muslim communities, including those from Sri Lanka, to the global ‘Ummah’; an Arabic word used to describe the supra-national Islamic community with a shared history. Dr. Jayasuriya further notes that this consciousness, together with the introduction of Wahhabism leads to a new way of life, new dress codes and cultural norms, which more often than not lead to a gradual self-alienation of an individual and sometimes an entire Muslim community from mainstream society.
Zahran had himself declared Sri Lanka as “Dar al-Kufr” or ‘land of unbelievers’ stating that Muslims should have no sense of belonging to or connection with Sri Lanka. Dar al-Kufr is a concept developed by the 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyah, what historian Paul Burke regarded as an integral part of the inspiration behind Al Qaeda. Note that one of the brothers convicted of desecrating a Buddhist statue in Mawanella had stated that Sri Lanka “is the land of Allah, and no one else can be worshipped, non-Muslims have to convert or pay Jizya” (tax). Prof. Ali highlights the concept of non-detachment to the material world, espoused by Tabligh Jamaat, which places emphasis on the afterlife. Thus, being non-committal to your surroundings, community and country reinforces the narratives of Taymiyah and also 20th Century Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb, responsible for the popularizing of Jihad as an offensive political and military project rather than a spiritual struggle.
The National Security Litmus Test
The BBS were only able to gain such mileage due to the liberal establishment focusing almost exclusively on their conspiratorial lunacy instead of assessing and confronting the spread of Islamism on the island. At present, the President and the SLPP seem to have lost the support of the peasantry, farmers and unionized workers, thus the Government’s electoral hopes may hinge on national security/sovereignty issues. If the SJB can attract any small portion of this national security electorate, their path to electoral success becomes clearer. Thus, improving its national security credentials is one key to a new majority. The Opposition must do more on this subject than presenting Field Marshal Fonseka’s credentials.
In the aftermath of Easter Sunday 2019, a number of Madrassas and unregulated religious schools were closed down while the Government deported multiple foreign preachers. The Opposition must go further and force publication of the unredacted PCoI report, whatever the political ramifications might be. This may well be a definitive litmus test for the next administration, the 269 dead and their grieving families deserve no less. A future administration must review and overhaul religious text books on the national curriculum to ensure that extremist doctrines are omitted. It will have to stand up to and condemn extremist preaching at not only Mosques, but the Temples too. The SJB must pledge a serious debate along with urgent action on regulating foreign funding for religious organizations and draft stricter protections to prevent financial lobbying of local politicians by foreign agents in provinces around the country. This is a complicated process given the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s constitutional structure which makes commencing this project all the more urgent.
If the Opposition is serious in pitching itself as a progressive entity, it must recognize that building on “one country, one law” can be also be a liberal/progressive project, a community-led reform effort, not a political instrument to hoover-up media attention. The public recognizes these tactics and will reject any policy that lacks conviction, that aims to appease; the SJB must instead stand up for the principles of a truly liberal society.
2014 violence in Aluthgama