Shifting the blame
20 June 2019
A minority is framed again to cover Sri Lanka’s fault lines, in wake of the Easter attacks.
Much has been and continues to be said and done, since the Easter Attacks in Sri Lanka on 21 April, that killed over 250 individuals. The consequences have been far reaching for the country, which has been struggling to recover from three decades of civil war. After a brief hiatus – since 2009, when the military conflict ended and the more obvious signs of securitisation were gradually removed, especially in Colombo – Emergency Rule is back as a norm and checkpoints are once again visible across the country. Search operations are underway, and people are being arrested under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, notorious for leading to the detention of ‘suspects’ for unduly long periods and the use of torture to obtain statements. Sadly, the most visible response to the attack has been the strengthening of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country – translating to very real effects for the Muslim community in their everyday lives. Ten years after the war ended, Sri Lanka seems once again on the brink of another cycle of conflict and violence.
As we search for ways to explain and understand events of that day, we risk establishing a narrative that masks the systemic and recurring patterns in Sri Lanka’s polity that have produced these cycles of violence. It is vital that public commentators and opinion-makers do not, wittingly or unwittingly, contribute to the establishment of such a narrative. Two months on, there is much we do not know about what happened on that day and how a group of seemingly isolated individuals and groups came together, allegedly under the leadership of one person – Zahran Hashim – to carry out such a coordinated and planned attack. The details that are emerging, for example about how the operation was funded, or how this group of people moved around and managed to elude the state security forces, leave more questions unanswered than answered. The trope of Muslim radicalisation is far too sweeping and imprecise to offer an explanation of what happened. It also focusses attention on this particular event as the starting point of the investigation rather than it being the culmination of a bigger story. It is important that we have a better grasp of the circumstances and conditions that led to the attack, if we are at all interested in learning from what happened, and with the intention of preventing similar incidents. It is especially important that the Easter Sunday attacks are not viewed as an isolated incident, but as part of a pattern of violence in Sri Lanka.
The narratives that are being offered to make sense of what happened, while placing most if not the entire blame for the attack on what is described as a recent radicalisation of the Muslim community, obfuscate the culpability of the state in allowing the attacks to take place or failing to prevent them. Information has emerged in recent weeks to show that sections of the state were aware, at least of the possibility of such an attack, if not its precise details. This has been especially apparent in the statements made by the former secretary to the Ministry of Defence (who resigned in the wake of the attacks) and the former inspector general of police (who was sent on compulsory leave after the attacks, by the president) to the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the Easter Sunday attacks. Details being revealed in the proceedings show that the national-security apparatus was being manipulated by an incompetent and insecure president and that this had failed to concern an out-of-touch and arrogant prime minister. There is no doubt that the state of war between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, exacerbated since the failed constitutional coup in October 2018, is directly responsible for the lapses in security, communication and maintenance of lines of authority. The president and the prime minister are from traditionally rival political parties – a result of the coalition that came into power in 2015. The collaborative spirit that brought both into power quickly dissolved, as personality disputes and a focus on strengthening their individual political bases began to overshadow national interests. What has emerged are two centres of power and authority often issuing contradictory and conflicting messages and orders. These conditions in turn resulted in intelligence information not being acted upon that warned specifically of possible attacks.
The clumsy, ineffective and bumbling responses from the political authorities after the attack further exposed these cracks and the inability of those in charge at least temporarily to cooperate in a moment of national crisis. Why this string of failures and demonstration of incompetence by the political establishment is not the at the centre of narratives being produced – rather than the failures within the Muslim community – speaks to the heart of the enabling conditions for such attacks in Sri Lanka. It also speaks to the casual and pervasive racism that is institutionalised within the Sri Lankan polity. Rather than holding accountable those responsible for the wellbeing and security of the population, and examining how we allow political survival and self-interest to drive the priorities of Sri Lanka’s political leaders, we turn instead to the much easier target of blaming yet another minority community for just not trying hard enough to be good enough second-class citizens.
More dangerously, the consequent focus on reforming and restraining the Muslim community, and putting in motion actions that further marginalise minority communities, is unfortunately setting Sri Lanka on an all too familiar and tragic path to more polarisation and violence. At the beginning of June, all Muslim ministers resigned from their posts in government, as did M L A M Hizbullah, the governor of the Eastern Province and Azath Salley, governor of the Western Province. It is worth noting that both Mr Hizbullah and Mr Salley had in fact lost recent elections, and were appointed to those positions by the president. The resignations were precipitated by a fast undertaken by the Buddhist monk and parliamentarian, Athuruliye Rathana, demanding the removal of Hizbullah, Salley and minister Rishard Bathiudeen from their posts, accusing them of interfering with investigations into the Easter Attacks. Athuraliye Rathana’s fast, which took place outside one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic Buddhist temples, the Temple of the Tooth, in the district of Kandy, mobilised Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups in its support. This included Galagoda Athhe Gnanasara, another Buddhist monk and leading member of the Bodhu Bala Sena, which has been at the forefront of anti-Muslim actions since 2009. He threatened pandemonium across the country if Rathana’s demands were not heeded by the government. This was just over a week after Gnanasara controversially received a presidential pardon, while serving a prison sentence for contempt of court. The presidential pardon, coming in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks and escalation of anti-Muslim mobilisation, gave the extremely problematic impression that the president was publicly endorsing the controversial priest and all that he stands for.
Since the Easter Sunday attacks, there has been a dangerously high increase in reports of incidents targeting Muslims. Women wearing scarves and head covers have been refused service in various businesses and been verbally abused in public; taxi services have avoided hires from individuals with Muslim names; public campaigns have been launched calling for the boycott of Muslim business. More seriously, law enforcement has been responding with enthusiasm to curb any signs of Muslim ‘radicalisation’ on the flimsiest and nonsensical of bases. For instance, a woman in a remote village was remanded for wearing a dress made of a printed fabric, with a picture of something that looked like a dharmachakra – the Wheel of Truth, in Buddhist iconography. Social media is replete with reports of similar, absurd cases: for example, a young Muslim man questioned on a flight after being overheard talking about the Easter Sunday attacks and a Muslim doctor accused (and subequently investigated by the police) of secretly tying up the fallopian tubes of Sinhalese Buddhist women on whom he was performing Caesarean procedures. My Muslim friends describe having to answer endless questions from colleagues and friends about why there are weapons kept in mosques (based on deliberately misleading and borderline hysterical media reports about the security forces ‘discovering’ swords in mosques); also being asked to answer why Islam teaches its adherents to kill people and why Sri Lankan Muslims have become ‘Arab-ised’. On 15 May, organised mobs attacked Muslim communities in several parts of the country, resulting in the death of one man (beaten up and reportedly slashed by mobs) and the destruction of Muslim homes and businesses. Leaders of various ultra-nationalist Sinhala Buddhist groups had been observed in these areas, prior to the attacks.
This is unfortunately a distressingly familiar story. In the years leading up to and after the escalation of the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils, Tamil people were placed under similar scrutiny, surveillance and persecution. The 1983 ethnic riots, usually taken to mark the beginning of the war between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militant groups, targeted Tamil people, their homes and businesses ostensibly, to retaliate against the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna. These riots were followed by several measures that pandered to the fears of the majority community, rather than the community victimised by violence. This included the 6th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, one month after the riots, compelling legislators to take an oath rejecting any support for a separate state. This in turn led to the boycott of Parliament by members of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), at the time the main opposition party, effectively blocking any democratic representation from the Tamil community. Campaigns to boycott Tamil trade, and Tamil women fearing to wear distinctive markers such as the thali or pottu in public, escalated after the 1983 riots.
The suddenness and ferocity of the Easter Sunday attack has understandably provoked a lot of commentary, opinion and analysis as people search for narratives to make sense of what happened. Yet many of the narratives produced are replete with broad generalisations and inaccuracies, revealing deep rooted racism and elitism within the Sri Lankan polity. These explanations link themselves up with global narratives of a civilisational clash between Muslims and other communities; they uncritically accept the idea of a growing radicalisation and militancy within the Muslim community and they do not offer an analysis of the context within which such narratives emerge and terrorist attacks take place. For example, the idea of an inherent clash of civilisations ignores the culpability of mainly US-led foreign policies that have turned parts of the world into war-zones. It ignores decades of terror and suffering to which people have been subjected, largely in Muslim majority countries. It also ignores how recent developments, such as the rise in rightwing populist and nationalist politics in the US and Western Europe are linked in part to the failure of the world to respond effectively to the refugee crisis created by the deteriorating security situation in so many countries; or how such developments are linked to the formation of terror groups and to a global rhetoric about incompatibility of cultures, Muslim radicalisation and militancy. Elements of this global narrative have found their way to local discourses about Muslims representing a growing threat and being part of a world-wide movement hostile to other cultures.
A dominant trope in the emerging local narrative is a call upon the Muslim community to take action to root out radicalisation within their own community, as if there is something intrinsically ‘Islamic’ about the motivations that produce the kinds of terror attacks experienced on Easter Sunday. A simplified and admittedly crude rendering of the common elements that justify this approach would be as follows: in the past, Sri Lankan Muslims were integrated with the rest of Sri Lanka and lived peacefully. The Muslim community are traders and uniformly wealthy. Most of them were practicing Sufism – which is a peaceful and progressive version of Islam. A few decades ago, all this started changing. Because of the growing influence of Saudi Arabia, a ‘foreign’ version of Islam was introduced to Sri Lankan Muslims known as Wahabism. Wahabism is an extreme, radical and militant form of Islam. Sri Lankan Muslims started adopting extreme practices such as wearing the niqab and demanding halal certification on all products. They want their own form of Sharia law in Sri Lanka. They don’t send their children to ‘normal’ schools, but to madrasas where they are taught this extreme version of Islam. The Wahabis marginalised the traditional Sri Lankan Muslims from mosques and Islamic decision-making bodies. The Muslim community didn’t resist this imposition of Wahabism strongly enough. Hence, the Sri Lankan Muslim community has changed and become radicalised – some to the extent of wanting to wipe out the other communities in Sri Lanka and exert control over them. This is happening through gradual Muslim dominance in trade, politics, education etc. They have a separate law for themselves and the ‘normal’ laws of the country do not apply to Muslims. They also propagate their own by having more children while surreptitiously trying to make the other communities, especially Sinhalese Buddhists, infertile. This is a global phenomenon and linked to movements such as ISIS. So, in order to reverse this dangerous trend, the Muslim community must reject Wahabism and focus on becoming more Sri Lankan. They should return to their past practices – and integrate with the rest of society. The Sri Lankan state must ensure this by legislating on women’s dress, banning madrasas, and all Sri Lankans must conform to one law. Various versions of this narrative are floating around on social media and in mainstream media. While the more uninformed and racist accounts reproduce the most untenable aspects of this narrative, even some of the more temperate accounts tend to reproduce a homogenised and singular version of what Islam, and particularly what recent changes within the religion, may mean.
Let alone the obvious problems of equating changes within Islam to Wahabism and then classifying all changes within Islam in recent times as radicalising and extremist, what interests me most in this narrative is the reference to an idyllic past when Muslims were ‘good’ and there were no problems. This rather convenient erasure of anti-Muslim attacks in the past, dating back to the riots of 1915 and the rise of anti-Muslim attacks, especially since the end of the war in 2009, does little to examine the more serious and systemic problem of majority-minority relations that Sri Lanka has been confronting from colonial times, and particularly since Independence. Most recently, riots in Aluthgama in 2014 and in Digana in 2018 were both results of known Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodhu Bala Sena and Ravana Balaya, using minor local disputes to mobilise attacks against Muslims. Independent reports of these riots have revealed that law enforcement was at best ineffective or, more worryingly, turned a blind eye to these attacks.
Without a serious analysis of how the nation-building project in Sri Lanka consistently failed to accommodate minority communities as equals, we will not be able to understand how institutionalised forms of racism in the Sri Lankan polity have produced and maintained ethnic tensions between communities in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the prevailing narrative contributes to the majoritarian construction of the Muslim community as a homogeneous and undifferentiated whole, in its beliefs, practices and evolution. This reveals a woeful ignorance not simply of the doctrinal differences within the Muslim community that have always existed, but also that, contrary to popular ideas about wealth in the community, large sections live in poverty, struggling for access to basic services. It also ignores how Islamic reform and piety movements offered – to members of the less privileged sections of the Muslim community – a source of support, sense of identity and belonging in an increasingly hostile and precarious socio-economic and political environment. There is no doubt that during the past years, there has been a displacement of cosmopolitan Muslims from positions of authority within the community and that these cosmopolitan Muslims have been discomfited by the visible and growing influence of a more puritanical and pious version of Islam. A lot of the introspection from within the Muslim community at this moment, seems to be emanating from the traditionally powerful sections of the community, who are perhaps yearning for the restoration of a more familiar and comfortable status quo. There is also no doubt that some of the changes led by Muslim reform and piety groups have resulted in a more visible ‘othering’ of the Muslim community. What the narratives produced at this moment fail to account for is the broader context – specifically, the strengthening of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the state accommodation of it – within which the Muslim ‘other’ has come into such sharp focus in recent times. Nor does it attempt to understand the resurgence of all sorts of nationalisms both globally and locally – a consequence of economic and political policies and interventions that have seen a shocking increase in inequality, deprivation and discrimination throughout the world.
What exists in Sri Lanka is a clear pattern where the political establishment regularly resorts to the appeasement of the majority, upholding populist nationalist sentiment as a means of deflecting any accountability towards itself. This is why there has been negligible official effort to counter the ongoing vilification of the Muslim community and flexing of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist muscles. Mangala Samaraweera, the minister of finance, has been the only member of government to do so – in the process becoming a favourite target of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist fringe – and has been pretty much left out to hang by his colleagues. This same policy of appeasement and deflection has resulted (among other consequences) in the ban of face covering, calls for investigation of a private university supported by the recent governor of the Eastern Province, Hizbullah, and indications that the government will undertake reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). The controversial private university has purportedly been built with ‘Saudi’ money and claims to be an ‘Islamic University’. Once again, rather than seeing the establishment of an admittedly dubious higher educational institute as a result of the government’s policy of encouraging the establishment of private higher educational institutions – and subsequent undermining of higher educational regulatory mechanisms and laws – it is being treated as an example of the Muslim community’s mission of taking over the country. The sudden interest in ensuring ‘one law’ and reforming the MMDA ignores the fact that Muslim women’s groups have been campaigning for decades on MMDA reforms, despite facing intimidation and backlash from certain sections within their own community. Muslim women’s groups have been stonewalled up to now, with the government deferring to the views of the all-male All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) as the representative ‘voice’ of the community. As one feminist activist commented to me wryly, “250 people had to die for the government to realise the need for MMDA reforms.” Resistance to removing Article 16 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, that allows for the existence of traditional laws such as the MMDA, even those that are in violation of other sections of the constitution, have come from sections of all the different communities, and not just the Muslim community. This is because Article 16 which allows for written and unwritten laws to exist even if inconsistent with the constitution, and accommodates not just Muslim laws, but personal laws affecting the Kandyan Sinhalese as well as the Jaffna Tamils – a fact conveniently ignored by those accusing the Muslim community of practising a different law to other communities in Sri Lanka. Neither have the calls for ‘one law’ and ‘equality’ advocated changing Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which affords Buddhism the ‘foremost place’ in the Republic of Sri Lanka.
There have been some calls drawing attention to the need for a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity and a secular state that ensures equality for all, irrespective of all differences. Certain left parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have been advocating such a position and calling for unity and reconciliation. While this may seem a more progressive position than one that is unable to imagine a state and society not premised on majoritarianism, it will remain rhetorical unless it is clear what such a common identity looks like: often, appeals to embrace a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity ring hollow, because the only model that exists is patently Sinhala Buddhist, and clearly confers an inferior, albeit patronising, position on minority communities. This is why ‘model’ minority national figures are almost always those who have suppressed their ethnic markers and are respectful, if not deferential, towards the majority culture. Mohideen Baig, a Muslim singer-songwriter is beloved in Sri Lanka because he sang Buddhist devotional songs. Cricketer Muttiah Mularitharan is hailed as a symbol of national unity, because he does not express his Tamil ethnicity in any discernible manner. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, is regarded approvingly because he has often stated that Buddhism must be given a primary position in Sri Lanka. None of these can be considered models for a Sri Lankan identity that values equality and respect for plurality.
There is also an imminent danger that political responsibility will be rather too easily placed solely on President Maithripala Sirisena, whose actions before and since the Easter Sunday attacks are contributing to the construction of almost a caricature of incompetency and irrelevance. Let us not forget that presidential elections are due at the end of 2019 and, almost certainly, a general election in 2020. Mobilising and stoking ethno-religious tensions is the default campaign strategy for most political parties in Sri Lanka, in the absence of any ideological debate that can be offered to differentiate between them – certainly not between those that have captured power since Independence. The political fault lines that have been exposed by these attacks and their aftermath have been a long time in the making; they simply became more obvious in the particularly toxic relationship between the current president and prime minister. Nor is the emerging anti-political sentiment and search for a ‘non-political’ leader going to take Sri Lanka very far. Messy as it is, solutions that we are seeking can only be found politically. Especially in the years since 1994, the Sri Lankan electorate has operated on the principle of choosing the lesser of the two evils, without necessarily appreciating how a political class has become entrenched in politics. Political parties representing minority communities are also part of this political class and know to a nicety how to negotiate with the ruling party to ensure their survival. Ensuring the survival of this political class has been the main concern of those elected to power. In the absence of an obvious alternative, turning things around in Sri Lanka will require the electorate to see beyond election cycles and perhaps work towards an incremental and sustained attack on the existing political class. This requires vast amounts of patience – and above all hope – both of which are in acute short supply. Sri Lanka’s cycles of violence followed by impunity and continued protection of a privileged political class may finally be coming home to roost: turning things around will require a serious and honest reflection on the past and a willingness to reimagine a more equitable and just polity.
~Harini Amarasuriya is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Department of Social Studies of the Open University of Sri Lanka.