Trying to make sense of the Sri Lankan Tragedy

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Thanks to the state and non-state actors, our world is increasingly becoming insecure and unsafe for ordinary civilians.  No place is safe and secure for them!

A shooter rushed inside a classroom Tuesday (April 30, 2019) and opened fire killing two students when 30 other students were attending a liberal studies class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The police were able to arrest the shooter. Four other students (including a foreign student from Saudi Arabia) were injured.

A gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Poway, California, near San Diego, on Saturday (April 27, 2019) killing one person and wounding three others.

While those figures above are low by mass-shooting standards these attacks have wider implications. Anywhere, everywhere, a student or a worshipper might fear similar violence waiting to happen. The same anguish descended on Muslims after a deadly attack on three mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. These attacks infect the innocent with suspicion and fear. With no way to know where or when more random violence could erupt, hearts palpitate every time someone unknown enters the doorway. Could he/she be the next shooter?

In both the California and New Zealand attacks, the shooters posted a notice, motive, and evidence on the anonymous message board 8chan. They were terrorists who wanted to justify their heinous hate crime. But not all the killers leave behind such messages. Consider, e.g., the nihilist attacks in Sri Lanka on the Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019).

On that day 253 civilians died and another 500 injured in Sri Lanka as a result of a series of highly coordinated bomb blasts. While the vast majority of the victims were Sri Lankans, at least 38 of the victims were foreign nationals (e.g., from Australia, Bangladesh, China, Denmark, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.K., and the USA) of which six were Muslims. The Sri Lankan government later blamed National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a little-known radical Wahabi group, which had not done any such attacks before. As it has done in the past, Daesh or the so-called ISIS promptly took credit for this latest tragedy.

Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s security forces were warned of the attacks at least ten days before, but, apparently, they did not take the warning seriously. A year ago, the local Muslim community had also complained to the authorities about this radical group, but nothing was done to allay their fear, as if the authorities wanted the NTJ to do something bad so that such acts could be used to justify new sanctions against the already discriminated Muslim community towards further marginalizing it.

As feared, within hours of the terrorist attack on the Easter Sunday, the members of the Muslim community were attacked and beaten in a few places; mosques and homes were attacked, and Muslim-owned shops set on fire by Christian gangs and members and supporters of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), while the police watched. [BBS is a Buddhist fascist organization that wants to transform the island nation’s multi-lingual, -ethnic and – religious character into a purely Buddhist fascist state a la Myanmar style, by violence, if required.] Niqab or face-covering scarves, worn by some conservative Muslim women, have also been banned by the government. Several Muslims (including infants) have died as a result of combing operations of the security forces. Most Muslims are now living in fear and are afraid to go out of their homes or mosques.

Like many observers, I am at a loss to understand the motives behind this senseless violence whose victims included people of all faiths (including an 8-year old child – Zayan – who’s a relative of the prime minister of Bangladesh). We are told that two of the suicide bombers in two hotels were sons of a very wealthy businessman known for his generosity. Why would these privileged and married men in their 30s commit such a heinous act? More importantly, how could an obscure group with no history of serious violence execute such highly coordinated, well-organized attacks on an order that even the LTTE had not ventured in its heyday?

If one of the bombers’ goals was to stir new religious hatred in Sri Lanka, they have definitely succeeded, as the backlash against Muslims happening in some areas does testify.

Until this fateful Easter week, Sri Lanka didn’t have a history of Christian-Muslim violence. The two faiths are small minorities: the country is about 7 percent Christian, 10 percent Muslim, 13 percent Hindu and 70 percent Buddhist.

Violence targeting the minorities came to the fore during the British colonial rule. Christians and Muslims, for instance, were seen to have benefited from colonial policies. In the early 20th century, Muslim domination of the economy evoked deep resentment among Sinhalese-Buddhists. Buddhist radical monks like Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Muslims were “alien invaders.” As duly noted by Dr. Sudha Ramachandran (The Diplomat, March 13, 2018), the publications like Sinhala Bauddhaya and Sinhala Jathiya carried articles that were inflammatory in content and are said to have culminated in the anti-Muslim violence in 1915 that witnessed the killing of 25 and injury of some 200 Muslims, plus massive destruction of Muslim properties and houses of worship.

After Sri Lanka became an independent state, Sinhalese political parties vied with each other to project themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. They inserted Buddhism into the constitution. The Sinhalization of the state and its institutions followed, which resulted in Tamil political, economic and cultural marginalization. Importantly, Tamils (which included Muslims) and their properties were targeted by Sinhalese mobs, often backed by the state. Tamil alienation with the Sri Lankan state led to the emergence of a powerful insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that fought for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. In July 1983, also known as Black July, Tamil rebels killed a number of soldiers from the Sri Lankan army. During subsequent riots, various Sinhala mobs killed many Tamil civilians. The civil war was now a fact. Buddhism was invoked to justifying war.

Consider, e.g., a Sinhala army song from 1999, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, which contained the following verse:

“Linked by love of the [Buddhist] religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers you should go hand in hand.”

But it wasn’t just the army; everyday people and monks also used Buddhist texts and used military metaphors. Some Buddhist monks extolled warrior virtues as stemming from Buddhism:

“That Buddhism is a religion of ardent aspiration for the highest good of man is not surprising. It springs out of the mind of the Buddha a man of martial spirit and high aims … Buddhism … is made by a warrior spirit for warriors.” [Source: Tessa J. Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka (2002)]

During the long civil war, which pitted minority Tamils against the Sinhalese majority, Muslims were sometimes caught in the middle. They were attacked by both the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils for their neutral stand on the conflict. Some Tamils, who are mostly Hindus or Christians, considered Muslims to be government collaborators. Some Sinhalese, who tend to be Buddhist, distrusted the fact that Muslims in Sri Lanka speak Tamil and populate some areas where Tamils are clustered.

In 1990, at the height of the terror between insurgents from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and a Sri Lankan military accused of slaughtering civilians, when Muslim worshipers had gathered in the evening for prayer at the Meera Grand Jumma Mosque in Kattankudy, they were attacked by gunmen. That night, more than 100 Muslims, many of them children, were killed in attacks on two Kattankudy mosques. The perpetrators were believed to have been Tamil Tigers.

After the civil war ended in 2009, militant Buddhism began to surge. Some observers have said it was as if powerful forces in Sri Lankan politics were looking for a new enemy to fight. Hard-line Buddhist monks targeted churches and mosques, priests and imams, often with the tacit support of the security services. While Muslims bore the brunt of these attacks, Christians suffered, too, and the two communities were essentially on the same side. Thus, it was not unsurprising that many observers initially assumed the BBS to be the culprit behind the Easter bombings.

After all, the BBS has been responsible for a series of highly coordinated attacks, led often by Buddhist monks, against Muslims since at least 2012. As has become the norm in this Buddhist-majority state, sadly, those crimes were overlooked by the Sri Lankan government.

Buddhist chauvinism popularized by powerful politicians has poisoned relations further. Despite being a majority, most Sinhalese Buddhists are brainwashed to see themselves as minority victims. They see the island’s Tamils, for instance, as part of the larger Tamil community in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Muslims as part of the Muslim ummah. They must, therefore, protect and defend the island and Sinhalese-Buddhist culture from being taken over by the Asinhala (un-Sinhala) and Abaudha (un-Buddhist). These groups are viewed as essentially “foreigners,” who are staying on the island due to Sinhalese-Buddhist “sufferance”. For almost six decades, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist (or more correctly, fascist) project thrived by depicting Tamils as “the enemy.” With the LTTE vanquished in 2009, Sinhalese Buddhist extremists needed a new enemy to keep the project relevant. “Muslims have emerged as that enemy,” writes Nirupama Subramanian in Indian Express. Just like the Jews in Nazi Germany, Muslims were falsely claimed to have ‘taken over’ Sri Lanka.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim rhetoric has surged in Sri Lanka. It has drawn on global Islamophobia but also on long-standing stereotypes of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Fascist outfits like the BBS have carried out a sustained hate campaign against Muslims and unleashed violence on them. Like the BBS, there are other extremist outfits, including the Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhala, and Mahason Balaya, that stoke Sinhalese insecurities and encourage violence by spreading baseless rumors. In 2014, one of their anti-Muslim protest rallies in the southern town of Aluthgama ended with the death of four Muslims and destruction of dozens of Muslim homes and businesses. In September of 2017, BBS attacked a UN shelter for Rohingya refugees in Colombo.

To quote Dr. Ramachandran, “Among the accusations the BBS has leveled against the Muslims is that they procreate at a faster rate than the Sinhalese, forcibly convert Buddhists to Islam, and follow a culture that is at odds with that of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. This has fueled fears among the masses that Muslims will soon outnumber the Sinhalese and that Sinhala-Buddhist culture will be wiped out of the island.”

One simply cannot overlook the highly remarkable similarities in hate narratives above with those propagated inside Myanmar by her chauvinist government and Buddhist majority, esp. the fascist 969 movements led by monk Ashin Wirathu, which resulted into genocidal crimes against the Rohingya and forced exodus of another million to Bangladesh. The common denominator in these two countries is, sadly, Theravada Buddhism, which seems to be hijacked by hateful fanatics.

As part of a very sinister plan, the Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists have been developing links with radical monks abroad. In 2014, Wirathu offered to support the BBS in its fight against what he says is the “serious threat from jihadist groups” in Sri Lanka.

The overseas links of Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists pose a clear danger and threat to peaceful coexistence with minorities. But Sri Lankan political parties have been very reluctant to either sever those nascent and yet dangerous links or criticize Sinhalese-Buddhist extremism. They had preferred political expediency over what is needed for a viable state that embraces diversity, and will not want to lose the votes of the Sinhalese hardliners. That has been the sad reality in today’s Sri Lanka!

Not surprisingly, in March of 2018, Muslim minorities in the island nation witnessed a series of attacks against anything Muslim or Islamic. As noted by security experts, such violence is rarely spontaneous and is said to be organized and orchestrated by outfits close to politicians, including elected parliamentarians. Rarely have the guilty been punished. This failure of successive governments to bring to justice those orchestrating the attacks on Muslims has been fueling more and deadlier cycles of violence against the Muslims.

In the aftermath of 2018 anti-Muslim pogroms, many experts warned that the government’s failure to rein upon Buddhist fascists may radicalize some Muslim youths while marginalizing other Muslims who are peaceful and mostly mindful of trade and commerce. Recalling how Sinhala racists repeatedly attacked the island’s Tamils “to put them in their place” and the role this played in spawning Tamil militancy and a three-decade-long civil war, political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out in The Island that this “story is being repeated [now] with the Muslims.” “We have come one step closer to the emergence of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Dr. Ramachandran similarly warned, “Indeed, with every incident of violence being unleashed on Muslims and the state avoiding reining in the Sinhalese extremist outfits, Sri Lanka is giving Muslims reason to pick up arms, if only to defend themselves.”

As the latest terrorist episode testifies, these experts were right. The ringleader, allegedly linked with Daesh, came from Kattankudy, the very place that had witnessed violence some three decades ago. That may explain how he was able to radicalize his followers. His alleged ties with the terrorist outfit ISIS may also help us to understand why he and his team attacked soft targets like churches and hotels, frequented mostly by foreigners, and not Buddhist temples!

This latest tragedy once again shows that while the ISIS may have lost its footprint in the Levant and its “prestige and power” bruised, it refuses to accept its ‘death certificate’ from Trump and can still motivate massacres from its ‘brain-dead’ nihilist followers in heretofore unlikely places. Amaq, the Islamic State’s propaganda wing, framed the Sri Lanka attack as an attack on a “Crusader” coalition. The latest attacks, contrary to the false assertions of the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Sri Lankan state minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene, had nothing to do with the mass murder of Muslims by a white-supremacist gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019.

What still remains unanswered though is how could those bombers carry out their highly coordinated evil without being noticed by anyone within the government agencies? Is it plausible that the Sri Lankan security forces used them as baits or pawns to create new tensions between two minority groups, thereby preparing the ground for its new assault on minority Muslims?

Suffice it to say that informal alliance between the two minority groups was seriously challenged by the Easter Sunday’s attacks. As already hinted, the bombings marked a sharp break from old forms of violence. While there have been incidents of religious violence over the past several years, including against Christians, the vast majority have been against Muslim communities. The perpetrators have typically been radical monk orders backed by the state. The ISIS and similar organizations haven’t had nearly as large a presence, or as long a history, in Sri Lanka.

In the aftermath of the attacks, many Muslims have tried to help the grieving Sri Lankan Christians, offering food and friendship, but the outreach has been complicated because the government has not created an environment that takes the onus away from the Muslim community for the crimes of a handful. Feelings are so raw that one priest told members of a mosque to stay away from the funerals. The government has imposed a ban on wearing Niqab by Muslim woman, which has been supported by All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sri Lanka’s top organization of Islamic theologians, to diffuse any tension.

The ban makes Sri Lanka the only country outside Europe to take such a decision. In my opinion, instead of making a partnership with the Muslim community who can be and has been the best source to delegitimizing the toxic influence from the ISIS or similar terrorist groups, the Niqab-ban imposed by the government is foolish, short-sighted and goes against that very spirit of cooperation needed to stop a repeat act.

As noted by CAIR‘s Nihad Awad, “Restricting religious liberties for a false feeling of safety is never a good idea, and banning women from wearing religious clothing of their choice is a particularly bad idea.” “Targeting the Sri Lankan Muslim community also makes little sense. Since the attackers used bookbags to carry out their attacks, will the Sri Lankan government also be banning backpacks? Of course not. But that overreaction would at least make more sense than banning religious face veils.” Awad called on the Sri Lankan government to counter extremism with the help of all communities, noting that stripping one group of its religious freedoms “is the worst possible way” to achieve that goal.

There is also the danger that the ban on the niqab will be read up in its implementation to include the more commonly worn hijab and burqa, especially as there have been demands earlier by Buddhist extremists that these garments should be banned. It could also open up demands for banning other visible identity markers, such as caps and beards worn by men. As duly noted by another observer, “It cannot be stressed enough that the problem that has erupted in Sri Lanka has not been caused by women’s apparel. Banning the niqab may make the government look as if it is taking action.”

Our experiences post-9/11 have shown that people can be totally fooled like the rats in Hamelin to rally behind the whims of a government playing the role of the pied piper. It is that easy even in this age of information technology!

As is well-known a great nation simply can neither hide behind its past glory nor can it afford to behave irrationally and irresponsibly. It must weigh in pros against cons before every major action it takes. It also needs adhering to a higher moral compass to demand respectability of its actions and positions. No nation, irrespective of how great it feels about itself, can afford to claim higher moral ground when its history is tainted with unlawful invasion, wanton murderous campaigns and destruction, and despicable records on human rights and willful loathing of international laws. It is not surprising that instead of eliminating terrorism, many of these states’ offensives against so-called terrorist groups have been germinating it multifold. Surely, there are more terrorists today than ever before. The cost of the war to fight terror is sky-rocketing in many of these countries.  Their engagement to wipe out terrorism can be summed up in the phrase “Pyrrhic victory”.

Terrorism terrorizes people. Its aims are political and social, even when its methods are violent. There is no denying that terrorism has become an important phenomenon in our time and needs to be eradicated.  Nothing can justify or excuse an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by hate groups, religious or ideological fundamentalists, the private militia – or whether it is dressed up as a war of retaliation by a recognized government. It is high time for the human race to dig into its wells of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern, to find a way out of this spiraling morass of terror and brutality that threatens us today.

[For a detailed discussion on terrorism, see the author’s book – Democracy, Politics and Terrorism – America’s Quest for Security in the Age of Insecurity – available in the]