Sri Lanka is a strange country. One Minister says that dozens of Sri Lankan Muslims have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS), one of the world’s most brutal terrorist organisations while another says there are no intelligence reports about such links between Sri Lankan Muslims and the said outfit.
How serious is it if there was a trend among the Sri Lankan Muslims to join the outfit that is on a killing spree in many countries in the Middle East? Why cannot the ministers talk in one voice if their utterances are based on intelligence reports which should in turn be based on facts?
After a 10 month gap, stories about Sri Lankan Muslims joining the ISIS are making headlines again. Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi under whom the State intelligence arms are functioning told media last January that 36 Sri Lankan Muslims had travelled to Syria and some of them had already joined the terrorists. Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijayadasa Rajapaksha told Parliament last Friday that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims had gone to Syria to team up with the ISIS.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senarathna told the media on Wednesday that Defence authorities had confirmed to him that no Sri Lankan Muslims had been recruited by the Islamic State terrorists, except for four persons who had left the country a long time back.
While accusing that mischievous elements were attempting to create psychosis among the people saying the government was trying to downgrade the status given to Buddhism in the Constitution, Minister Rajapaksha also said during the budget debate in Parliament that certain foreigners were spreading extremist ideas among students in Muslim international schools in certain areas in the country. Minister Senarathna denied any involvement of foreign preachers in Muslim international schools as well, citing the absence of intelligence reports to that effect.
It is interesting to note that the media reported the statement made by Minister Rajapaksha on the ISIS recruiting Sri Lankans, as if breaking a new story, though they had reported the same matter quoting the Defence Secretary ten months ago, with a slight difference in numbers.
The Bodu Bala Sena(BBS) which always attempts to demonize the Muslims had welcomed Minister Rajapaksha’s remarks claiming that all that the minister had said was nothing but what they had been saying for the past several years. In fact the BBS has been tying up the Sri Lankan Muslims with all sorts of armed groups in the Muslim world. They have also been accusing the “madrasas” that are teaching children the basics of Islam and equivalent to the Dhamma schools, for breeding terrorists, in spite of the fact that no one has ever been arrested for any of those allegations.
Muslin organizations such as the Muslims Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) and the Shoora Council had expressed dismay over the remarks made by Rajapaksha and viewed them as a moral boost to the anti-Muslim extremist groups. They had demanded an investigation into the allegations made by the Minister.
Demonizing Sri Lankan Muslims through fear-mongering by certain Sinhalese and Tamil leaders as well as the media has a long history, dating back to the mid 1980s. It all started in 1986 when the government of President J.R.Jayawardene decided to recruit Muslim youth as home guards following attacks on Muslim villages and individuals by the Tamil armed groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation front (ENDLF) in 1985 and 1986.
The LTTE set fire to more than 500 houses belonging to Muslims in Kalmunaikudi and the adjacent Sainthamaruthu and Maruthamunai in the East in two days in 1985, an incident which largely contributed to the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The incident prompted the government to recruit Muslim youths to the Home Guard units. Then Tamil armed groups started to spread stories - true as well as perceived - on the brutality of Muslim home guards, and on alleged connections between Muslim armed groups and Muslim countries.
In an article published in Janahanda, a newspaper published for a short period during the early years of 1990s byWimal Wickramsinghe, the State Minister for Finance during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure, it had been claimed that a Muslim Terrorist organization called “Thableeg” was recruiting members through a house to house campaign. The Thableeg movement which was mentioned in Minister Rajapaksha’s last week speech as well, is a voluntary movement without permanent members that exists for about a century in India and Sri Lanka propagating basic religious values at the grass root level. Hence, the Muslim leaders contested the article carried in the Janahanda but the paper was not in a position to substantiate its claim. So the matter ended there.
During the same period some newspapers carried stories about an organization called “Jihad” operating in the Eastern Province. The organization fighting for a separate State for Muslims had links with Muslim countries, according to those stories. The stories were so unfounded that while one newspaper carried the stories, others ignored them. Sometimes Sinhala newspapers published such stories while Tamil and English papers ignored them. Some newspapers while fear mongering about a possible separate Muslim State, ludicrously linked the organization to the LTTE as well. The stories were attributed to the police and the security forces, but never in the history was a “Jihad hideout” raided. Interestingly, the newspapers that carried such “serious” stories forgot the organization in weeks or months.
A few years later again in the late 1990s, the “Jihad” bogey was brought forth by the newspapers attributing to politicians and defence authorities. However, there was no consistency between new stories and those published years ago. They were again “breaking news.” However, this time they published the pictures of handwritten threatening letters in Tamil and “sent by the Jihad outfit” to various government officials including police officers. Once, a newspaper had linked the so-called Jihad organization and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). SLMC leader M.H.M.Ashraff took legal action against the paper as it did not accept his denials. After Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash in September, 2000 Jihad as well as its connection to the SLMC was also buried with him.
One would be amused to note that the LTTE and the Tamil media too spread the stories about Muslim armed organizations such as “Jihad”, “Osama”, Muttur Jetty group” and ‘Knox” group linking them to the army intelligence units. While the Sinhala newspapers linked the Muslim armed groups to the LTTE and the Middle Eastern countries, the LTTE linked them to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence agency of Pakistan, apart from the army. For instance, quoting Anton Balasingham, the LTTE advisor and Bahukutumbi Raman, the former head of the counter-terrorism division of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Tamil Guardian reported on April 5, 2006 about the “links between the “army backed Muslim armed groups” and the ISI. Also the Tamil Net on June 29, 2009 reported that 18 Muslim armed groups were functioning only in Kattankudi, in the Batticaloa District.
The sources provided “information” to the Sinhala newspapers did not see any ISI link, as Pakistan had been the regular supporter to the government during the war while the LTTE wanted to team up with India showing an ISI threat in Sri Lanka.
There are some common features in these fear mongering stories. No leader or leaders of these so-called Muslim armed groups were identified for the past 20 years.Not a single specific crime committed by those groups was reported. No hideouts or officers were located. No weapons were captured. No raids were carried out by the police or the armed forces despite hundreds of newspaper reports being published about these groups. But still the fear mongering is going on.