Sri Lankan officials walk by bodies amid blast debris at St Anthony's Shrine after the bombing at the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ishara S Kodikara

More than 300 people have died and many more were injured by the barbaric attacks against Christian churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The government has warned that there are more explosives and militants still “out there.”

In the immediate aftermath of the coordinated attacks, local, Indian and Western media raised familiar aspersions against Sinhalese Buddhist extremists for the violence. However, the Sri Lankan government has now confirmed that the attacks were carried out by a local Islamic extremist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. While that outfit has denied a role, the international Islamic terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombings.

Earlier this month, Indian intelligence passed on information to Sri Lankan authorities of an imminent terrorist attack. Based on that, Sri Lanka’s police chief sent out a nationwide alert on April 11 warning of attacks on the Indian High Commission and churches. But as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe admitted after the Sunday attacks, the government failed to take action.

Government and international inaction

Buddhist extremism has been subjected to severe global and local condemnation in recent years. The leader of the Buddhist Bodu Bala Sena, Galboda Ganasara Thero, is now serving a jail sentence. In contrast, despite mounting evidence, little action has been taken against the spread of extremist Wahhabi Islam ideology and violence. The reliance of successive Sri Lankan governments on Muslim votes and Muslim politicians and the economic and political power wielded by Saudi Arabia and other external forces have been major factors in the Sri Lankan government’s failure to curb the spread of radical Islam.

An example is the largest Islamic university in South Asia being built in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province with financial assistance from Saudi Arabia. This project is co-sponsored by the Sri Lanka government and is being built on land taken over by the government under the leadership of a Muslim cabinet minister. Graduating 1,500 students a year who can promote Islamic religious ideology is the objective of this joint project. Many of the militants belonging to groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan too have been educated in Islamic institutions.

Indian intelligence reports confirm that ISIS is using Sri Lanka as an international migration hub. The open-door policy and lax visa regulation in Sri Lanka have permitted the situation. The Eastern Province has become a battleground for extremist gangs and a “paradise for Islamic extremism.” One of the churches attacked on Easter Sunday is in Batticaloa. The import of young Muslims from Bangladesh, India and elsewhere to study at the Sharia University in that city could aggravate radicalization and violence.

In a rare act of courage by a Sri Lankan politician, a cabinet minister, Kabir Hashim, revealed after the Easter attacks that he had brought to the president’s attention the existence of the extremist Islamic group quite some time ago. The group allegedly shot Hashim’s secretary in retaliation for his action. Subsequently, in conjunction with their desecration of two Buddha statutes, the police raided a hideout run by the group and arrested two suspects. But according to Hashim, they were released because of the intervention of a “powerful politician.” Hashim also claimed that one of the suspects had carried out an attack on the fateful Easter Sunday.

Protecting innocent people is the primary responsibility of the government. Security measures have to be tightened and the spread of radical Islam halted. A functional and effective government that can protect its people has to be elected and dangerous projects like the Sharia University stopped. Peace-loving moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka need to be supported in eschewing extremism and in protecting their historically tolerant and gentle forms of Islam.

In November 2014, in a letter addressed to the United Nations chief, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the Sri Lankan president and many others, an organization called Peace Loving Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka (PLMMSL) called on the government to “ban without delay” the Thowheeth Jama’ath because it was “fast becoming a cancer within Sri Lanka’s Muslim community … preaching and practicing religious intolerance, exerting pressure on other Islamic movements … making the implementation of sharia law above the civil laws of Sri Lanka, forcing females to wear the burka and the construction of many mosques and madrassas in many parts of the country.…”

The PLMMSL letter warned:

“It is tragic that the majority of the Muslims who are essentially peace-loving are to pay for the actions of this minority. We fear that these activities of the Thowheeth Jama’ath, if left unchecked by the authorities, would create a situation in which the majority of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, already under threat and harassment from the extremist minority, may have to face the wrath of other religions.”

The concerns and demands of PLMMSL were not heeded. Western countries, the United Nations and the UNHCHR, international non-government organizations, and the international media were all preoccupied with accusations of human-rights violations against Sri Lanka in its armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in 2009, constitutional reform and devolution. Regional and global powers have also been preoccupied with acquiring ports and resources and developing their businesses on the island rather than paying adequate attention to the realities and threats facing the local people.  As such, both the Sri Lankan government and the “international community” stand implicated in the Easter Sunday tragedy.

A global threat

The world is exploding with violence that is seemingly religiously based: Baghdad, Amman, Paris, Pittsburgh, Jakarta, Mumbai, Manila, Christchurch, Colombo, Negombo, Batticaloa, and the list goes on. The international community has to take much more principled stances against all forms of ethno-religious extremism and violence without succumbing to political and economic pressures and fears of political “incorrectness.” In March, Facebook blocked white nationalist and extremist groups from its platform after the attacks against mosques in New Zealand. It needs also to block the sites of extremist Islamic and other groups. The Facebook page of National Thowheeth Jama’ath is still active.

In order to avoid further religiously based violence, it is necessary to address how an intolerant and aggressive form of Islam is aggravating tensions between religious communities in Sri Lanka and around the world. It is also necessary to understand contemporary political and economic circumstances that provide fertile ground for mobilizing resentment along ethno-religious and other cultural differences.

The success of fundamentalist movements including radical Islam and evangelical Christianity lies not so much in the strength of traditional loyalties as in desperate contemporary social conditions. The simple message of a charismatic leader, the discipline of an authoritarian political movement directed against a cultural “other” become attractive to youth whose lives have been thrown into disarray by political and economic forces beyond their control.

What is being called Islamic jihad today is not just the traditional ideology of a triumphant Muslim empire. It is a modern ideology fashioned in reaction to globalization and Western imperialism. The leaders of religious extremism may be fanatical men seeking their own glory and the young zealots awaiting martyrdom may be thoroughly brainwashed. Yet some of the underlying grievances go beyond mere “civilizational” differences between the West and Islam.

In the case of militant Islam, the major grievances include Western – specifically US – control of oil, militarization of the Middle East and support for Israel. Indeed, while much of contemporary ethno-religious violence may seem to come from the impoverished global South, the roots of many problems, including the emergence of groups like the Taliban and ISIS, lies in policies of the US and the industrialized North.

The Sri Lankan tragedy is not an isolated one. It is a global human tragedy. To achieve global peace and security, it is necessary to go beyond stereotyping Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews or other groups as simply extremists, terrorists or victims. It is necessary to see the interconnections between the extremist forces of both religious fundamentalism and economic globalization: “Jihad vs McWorld.” Ultimately, peace and security come from moving toward a more balanced middle path of human development, in Sri Lanka and the world.

Asoka Bandarage's latest book, Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives, was released by De Gruyter Contemporary Social Sciences on May 22, 2023.

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