By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna will be the keynote speaker on the title ‘Restore Harmony and Rebuild Trust’, arranged by the Sri Lanka Muslim Civil Society at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) today (12) at 10 a.m. He tells Ceylon Today that the Sri Lankan Government failed to criminalise hate speech and incitement to violence, the first set of activities of threat groups. “The Government should have outlawed all groups engaging in extremism whether they are Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims,” he says.
Excerpts of the Interview:
What created the entire episode of Islamic State (IS) ideology infiltration into Sri Lanka?
A: The threat facing Sri Lanka from the Islamic State (IS) is a part of its global expansion. After IS declared a caliphate on 29 June 2015, the group systematically co-opted exclusivist, extremist and terrorist groups. IS built networks, cells and personalities. They started to implement the IS vision on Sri Lankan soil. As the IS representative, Zahran Hashim carried out the IS mission in Sri Lanka – the creation of hatred against non-Muslims and moderate Muslims.
With the radicalisation of a tiny segment of the Muslim community, Sri Lanka witnessed the desecration of Buddhist sites, killing Policemen, and attacking westerners and churches. By provoking Sinhalese to attack innocent Muslims, the terrorist agenda of IS is to precipitate community polarization, clashes, riots and create chaos.
The country defeated the LTTE, and no one could fathom IS infiltration in Sri Lanka leaving out other Islamic countries in the region.Has the IS set a plan to make Sri Lanka the base for South Asia? Why Sri Lanka?
A: To fight the LTTE, preparing the Government leadership was crucial. Through education, training and experience they developed a security culture.
Sri Lankan leaders set the mind to hunt until the threat was contained, isolated and eliminated. That is why we call it the security mindset.
The then Government neutralised the threat by capturing or killing terrorists and deterring terrorist supporters – the extremists. Then, the Government rehabilitated the captured and surrendered terrorists and extremists. Unless Government today controls the extremists, they will graduate into terrorists.
By radicalising vulnerable Muslims and disrupting the religious peace between the communities, IS planned to create a province of the caliphate in the East of Sri Lanka. The population should be guided through education and extremists tightly controlled through laws. Otherwise, IS will grow and Sri Lanka will emerge as a IS hub.
The Muslims feel let down due to attacks on them by the Sinhala Buddhist extremists in the past years. Don’t you think that is also one of the reasons the Muslims isolated themselves like never before? Did those hate campaign provoke the Muslims?
A: The Muslim-Sinhala relations were excellent until recently. The mentor of the Sri Lankan Special Forces, Col. Fazly Laphir and the commanding of military intelligence Col. Nizam Muthalif sacrificed their lives for the nation. Today, brilliant Muslim officers DIG Latifff and Brigadier Rizvy Zaky serve the nation at the highest echelons of power. The Muslims suffered in the North and East but lived peacefully in the South with the Sinhalese for generations.
The Tamil-Muslim relations were also good until the LTTE ethnically cleansed Muslims in the North, attacked Muslim villages and massacred Muslims in mosques in the East. The dynamics between the Muslims and Sinhalese began to change due to the rise of Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups such as BBS, Sihala Ravaya and Mahasona Balakaya and Muslim extremist groups.
The Government should pass legislation to criminalise these groups, confiscate their assets and imprison their directing figures. Government should not show any mercy to groups that exploit race and religion to advance their political agenda. Unless the Government tightly regulates the religious and ethnic space, there will be a riot in Sri Lanka.
The security forces have neutralized the imminent threat and now the Government, political, community, religious and business leaders should work on building the far reaching legislative, administrative and operational initiatives to restore communal stability.
Many countries seem to have known this carnage coming to Sri Lanka. How do you think Sri Lanka missed the moment to halt the devastation?
A: The Sri Lankan Government and the Muslim community knew about Zahran and many of his associates, his organizations and his ideology. However, the Sri Lankan Government failed to criminalise hate speech and incitement to violence, the first set of activities of threat groups.
The Government should have outlawed all groups engaging in extremism be they Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims. The Government that came to power after 2015 did not assign high priority to security.
The barricades were removed, the military was confined to barracks, a part of the intelligence community demobilized and counter terrorist officers were arrested and investigated for alleged human rights violations during the previous regime.
By their short-sighted actions, politicians in power removed the indomitable spirit of the guardians of the state. Rather than eyeball threats and neutralize its enemies, the security agencies lacked the leadership to prevent and pre-empt the proliferation of IS. With national security compromised, personality and party politics came to the forefront.
At the highest level of government, politicians lacked a visionary and collective leadership! In this hour of peril, where the country could suffer a riot like in July 1983, the leaders should come together to restore the stability and security of the nation. They should without blaming each other and engage in building a united front to give direction to the nation.
National security is the foundation of social stability, political progress and economic prosperity.
Zahran was supposed to be the commander of the attack and he is dead. The Government is still unaware whether they had killed the leader or not. Is there another leader to this terrorist group?
A: Zahran is the undisputed leader of the IS Branch in Sri Lanka. In a suicide attack aiming to kill westerners at the Shangri La hotel in Colombo on Easter Sunday, he perished. He was appointed by IS central to lead the Sri Lanka Branch and often played a recording announcing his appointment to his followers and potential followers. The overall leader of IS is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi based on the Iraq-Syria border and he too will be killed in the coming year.
What information do you gather on the Easter Sunday strike? Is there something you knew about Islamic extremism entering the country?
A: Sri Lankan Muslims are mainstream – they are responsible Muslims who understand that they live in a plural society side by side with other religious groups. They are aware that they should contextualise their religious teachings in the environment they live in.
They also understand that they are a minority and they should coexist with Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Zahran started as an exclusivist and gradually became an extremist and finally a terrorist. Zahran was deeply influenced by Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaat and he followed the preachings of its leader P. Jainulabidin.
He was later influenced by the charisma and vision of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Zahran is not a typical Sri Lankan Muslim: he is the exception influenced by IS ideology.
The Police, STF and military are unearthing Islamic extremists and it seems deeper than we thought. Do you think radicalisation within the Muslim community is taking place or is it a single terror group activity discarded by the Muslim community that is taking arms to reach its goals?
v An ecosystem for producing exclusivists, extremists and terrorists has been built in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government should work with responsible Muslim leaders, the elite and the community to regulate the religious space. It has to be done meticulously by passing laws to regulate these schools, what they teach; mosques, what they preach; associations, activities they engage in; and online platforms, what they advocate. If we neglect this responsibility, we will allow suspicion, prejudice, resentment, anger and hatred to polarize and define our communities in Sri Lanka.
The country’s security failed despite it being alerted. Former US envoy to Sri Lanka Robert O. Blake two days ago said the security system of high level technocrats were there for Gotabaya Rajapaksa while he was the Defence Ministry Secretary. What is lacking here in terms of our security system?
A: Former Ambassador Robert O Blake is an American leader who loves Sri Lanka. He helped the then Government of Sri Lanka to dismantle the LTTE. He knows how Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his tight knit team of commanders and intelligence leaders worked to end a brutal insurgent and terrorist campaign.
The deterioration of Sri Lanka’s governance and the weakening of the security system came to light with the attacks. With a visionary and collective leadership at the helm and at all levels, stability and security can be restored.
Does Islam need to be reformed to end global terror?
A: The religious establishments in the Middle East practice an austere and exclusionary belief. Sri Lankan Muslim leaders funded by the Middle East introduced Arabization and forms of Islam inappropriate for Sri Lanka, a plural society. To preserve religious peace and harmony in Sri Lanka, the Government should regulate the religious sphere.
Sri Lanka should promote inter-religious coexistence and harmony and not permit foreign ideologies like Thowheed to take root. To appease western countries and civil society groups, Governments must not turn a blind eye to these exclusivist and extremist practices that sooner or later manifest in terrorism and violence.
Still there is no proper claim that the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) was behind the attack, although they are suspected to be the main culprits. Should the Government probe this?
v The attack was staged and claimed by IS. The IS branch in Sri Lanka drew resources including membership from National Thowheed Jamaath(NTJ) and Thowheed Jammath in India known as JMI. Although not the entire leadership and membership, two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka, NTJ and JMI, joined IS. When a group joins IS, they are required by the IS code to dissolve from their original group. NTJ and JMI members that joined IS ceased to be members of the NTJ or JMI. As these two groups are conveyer groups, they should be proscribed and their leaders and members investigated.
How can Islam extremism in Sri Lanka be eradicated?
A: As terrorism is a vicious by product of extremism, the Government should criminalise extremism. To deal with extremism, the Government should also prevent exclusivism.
As terrorists infiltrate the religious space to recruit and radicalise, the religious sphere should be controlled by religious authorities. By failing to regulate the politicisation of religion, the ugly monster of religious violence raised its head in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka witnessed firsthand the price of following the western model of religious freedom without responsibility. For peace to return, the Government should develop a zero tolerance approach against terrorists, exclusivists and extremists. The usual tendency is for governments to accommodate exclusivists and extremists.
When an extremist is given space, the spirit of an extremist is to take over the entire space. Without tightly regulating religious institutions, hatred and violence will return to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka risks becoming like a country in the Middle East or South Asia where inter- religious clashes are intermittent. Sri Lanka should learn from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and take firm steps to regulate all religious institutions.
Who should take the blame for the carnage and death of the people. Is it the Government or Muslim politicians and the people of their electorates?
A: The Sri Lankan Government did not act on specific intelligence to protect its people on two counts. It did not alert all operational units to hunt for Zahran and his members. It did not inform the target – the churches. The political, security and intelligence leadership failed to develop intelligence to protect its citizens.
Those with authority should be held accountable for not preventing and preempting the terrorist attack. Sri Lankan Muslim leaders failed to prevent the radicalization of the community. They did not protect their community from alien ideologies making them vulnerable to IS recruitment and radicalization. They did not act to responsibly to foster the Sri Lankan Muslim identity.