This writer is by no means an apologist of the militarization of the country; however, for once, he could not help but agree with some salient points that the powerful Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the chief protagonist of the militarization, had raised during his address at the Defence Seminar held last week.
He referred to the ‘possibility that extremist elements may try to promote Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka’ and also noted that one reason for the ‘insularity of the minority groups in this country’ is the emergence of hard-line groups within the majority community.
One such hard-line group is of course the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Two of the others are the Ravana Balakaya and Sihala Ravaya, whose virulent activism has been down-played by the government. Those discrepancies on the part of the government between words and deeds, have indeed, dampened the spirit of the Defence Secretary’s remarks.
On the other hand, his observation on the possible rise of Islamic fundamentalism has ruffled many feathers, especially in the Muslim community, who feel that their community has been unduly criticized.
Response by ACMC
Following is an excerpt from a statement issued by the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC), headed by Government Minister Rishad Bathiudeen:
“The All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) deplores the statement made by Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, alleging Muslim extremism in the country at a Security Conference in Colombo, attended by representatives of countries across the globe. The statement seemingly gives credentials to the false claim made by certain communal elements. These elements are hired by some invisible forces to discredit the government in the international arena, by whipping up communal hatred through cooked-up stories.”
However, the fact of the matter is that the Defence Secretary is not far from the truth, and they are not exactly ‘cooked up stories’ he is referring to, though being too politically correct, we have generally tended to look the other way.
The increasing number of local women who hide themselves behind the all-encompassing burka is partly a barometer in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. In the Muslim majority East, most notably, the congested, chock-a-block town of Kathankudy, the burka has now pretty much become the standard attire than an aberration. However, ask local Muslim elders how many women were dressed in the same garment in the 90s, and they would have trouble in trying to recollect any.
Symbol of fundamentalism
The burka is a political statement and a symbol of Salafi Jihadi fundamentalism, which the Saudis nurtured and exported with much ease throughout the world, until one such Wahabi, Osama Bin Laden, whose main grouse with the House of Saud was that it was not living up to the full measurement of the doctrine, blew up the World Trade Centre and a part of Pentagon on 11 September 2001.
But, the 9/11 and the resultant coalition military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, were the stimulus in terms of the promotion of Salafi Jihadi fundamentalism. It was since then that Sri Lankan women began to wear the burka, and the local youth were drawn towards rapid preachers who arrived from South India, Egypt and Pakistan on tourist visas. Local Muslim youth were also offered ‘scholarships’ to learn religion in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; the Taliban was born in the madrasas in Peshawar, Pakistan. The youth who migrated in search of religious learning were taught an ultra-conservative, intolerant brand of religion that is rooted in the mediaeval age, and seeks a return to the practices of the mediaeval age, and recreation of an Islamic caliphate governed by the Sharia. Those youth returned to the island to preach a religion that is starkly different from moderate Islam that their fathers and forefathers had been practising for centuries. And the Saudis and the Qataris continued to funnel funds to build mosques for those new disciples and Kathankudy now has at least 58 mosques. It is the competition between the moderate traditional Islam and the imported Wahabbism that caused the mushrooming of mosques. And, propelled by generous funding by the Saudis, the Wahabbis have gradually taken the upper hand in this competition. To add to this, is the fact that, the 9/11 attack and Salafi discourse preached inside and the outside of mosques, have given a new identity to some local Muslim youth, who would now rather see themselves as part of the worldwide Muslim Umma, and less like Sri Lankans. The ethnic Pakistani-Britons, Somali and Chechen-Americans, who were indoctrinated by the very brand of religion, went to war against their own countries and countrymen, in defence of teachings of a virulent brand of religion.
Radicalization manifests in myriad ways
The danger is that once radicalization drives are set in motion, they take a life of their own. That radicalization manifests in myriad ways; the extreme religiosity in the community or its individual members is obviously one such manifestation.
But, why is the Muslim community in denial of this self-destructive trend that is taking place?
That denial is not unique to Sri Lanka. Muslims worldwide have trouble with coming to terms with the ongoing radicalization in their communities. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupation of Palestine, and intensified counter-terrorism operations in the West, have an impact on the sensitivities of the worldwide Muslim community, who now view themselves as victims. In those existential circumstances, they tend to sympathize with the radical brand of Islam, even though they are not exactly the adherents of that particular brand of Islam.
According to the latest PEW research, only 57% of people in 11 Muslim countries including Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey and Indonesia, say they view the Al Qaeda favourably. Only 51% say they have an unfavourable view on the Taliban. These figures still project an increase in Muslim concerns over those extremist groups.
Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka is still at its infancy, and is well within the reach of a competent government to combat and defeat. However, perhaps the greatest handicap for even the most holistic process to combat fundamentalist Islam in this country, is as the Defence Secretary rightly acknowledged, the rising Sinhala Buddhist extremism. This majoritarian extremism pushes ethnic minorities to a corner, compelling them to seek their own separate identities. The recent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse championed by fringe groups such as BBS and Sihala Ravaya, borders on anti-Semitism. The government has downplayed rising majoritarian extremism. On certain occasions, it has used interlocutors of this dangerous brand of Buddhist nationalism for the legitimization of the incumbent regime. Needless to say that, many activists of this virulent nationalism are also the apologists of this regime.
However, the danger is that the government, by downplaying or mollycoddling those extremist groups, is fuelling the insecurities within ethnic minorities. The government should confront extremism advocated by its own fellow travellers, if it is to succeed in combating the extremism of other communities.