Terrorism and minority issues; not to be confused

Print to screen by Dinouk Colombage

The Easter Sunday terror attacks that shook the country after nearly nine years of peace have left many people questioning what caused these attacks, and whether or not there is an underlying issue which is still to be addressed.

When news broke that the attacks were carried out by several Muslims, the public immediately assumed that these were retaliatory attacks for the riots which struck Aluthgama and Beruwala back in 2014, and more recently Digana in 2018.

Online communities, which have been the most vocal during the last three weeks, have been well and truly divided into two camps. On one side of the spectrum are the self-anointed “Sinhala nationalists”, who have been very quick to attribute the attacks to Muslims around the country. On the opposite side are the moderates who have argued that the attacks were spurred on by the growing racism faced by the Muslim communities in the country.

It took over 48 hours for the Islamic State (IS) – a ruthless terrorist organisation that temporarily captured territory in Iraq and Syria during the past several years – to claim responsibility. Unfortunately, during that period of silence, the two aforementioned camps were quick to have their voices heard.

Undue allegations

In the ensuing weeks after the attacks, racist content on social media has grown exponentially. On two separate occasions, the Government was forced to resort to blocking social media sites in a last-ditch attempt to quell the rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

While the chorus continued with pointing the finger at the Muslims of Sri Lanka, the Muslim representatives continued to plead their community’s innocence. Last week, UNP MP Mujibur Rahuman told the media that the Muslims of Sri Lanka did not support the attacks or the group responsible for the attack. The MP quickly highlighted that it was in fact the Muslim community who have been assisting the ongoing security operations to ensure a swift and comprehensive end to the conflict.

Unfortunately, the damage seems to have been done. Judging by public sentiment, which has well and truly turned against the Government, the fact that these attacks were carried out by a global terrorist network has been overshadowed by a minority harbouring an anti-Islamic opinion.

The narrative created by public opinion regarding the attacks appears to have whitewashed the fact that Sri Lanka was a victim of terrorism. The Government has been continually blamed for failing to act promptly when presented with the issues that were arising from within the Muslim communities.

Ever since hostilities towards Muslims boiled over in 2014, the authorities have appeared slow to react. Last year’s riots in Digana were a harsh reminder that there were still factions of the Sinhalese society which were heavily anti-minority.

The backlash faced by Muslims in the past several years is now being used to explain the recent attacks.

IS, a globally renowned terror organisation, grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria in the last 10 years. For several years, it has kept its attention directed firmly towards the Middle East. The US committed troops and resources to fight the threat in Iraq, while supporting the Syrian rebels who were already engaged in a conflict with the Syrian regime.

However, while attention was focused on those two costly conflicts, IS has slowly yet surely infiltrated parts of South Asia. In 2016, Jakarta was targeted by an ISIS suicide bomber, while earlier this year, a church in Southern Philippines was attacked by ISIS. Intelligence services in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have also been on high alert over threats to the country.

With the apparent defeat of the group in Syria and Iraq, the Easter Sunday attack seems to have signalled that the group is preparing for a fresh offensive in a new part of the world.

While Sri Lanka must prepare itself for the new terror threat in the form of global terrorism, it is important that the authorities and the public do not confine the issues facing the minorities and the terror threats to a single issue.

The attacks in Indonesia and Philippines highlight the fact that ISIS is not a group committed to a cause shared by any minority group. The attack in the Philippines targeted a church, while the attack in Indonesia targeted a shopping centre in a predominantly Muslim country. According to the experts, it is believed that ISIS has killed more Muslims than any other religious group. Security agencies around the world estimate the ISIS currently has over 3,000 Muslim prisoners, which the media has dubbed as “slaves”.

Racism stirred

In Sri Lanka, the Muslim community was quick to distance themselves from the terrorists even before ISIS had claimed responsibility. In fact, for several years leading up to the attacks, civil groups within the Muslim community had warned the security forces on several different occasions about the growing threat. On 25 April, during search operations carried out by the security forces in the Eastern Province, it was the local Muslims who tipped them off about a safe house in Kalmunai.

The Muslim community has faced many issues in the recent years. Those problems are being highlighted once again through the growing racism faced by them on social media platforms. Despite the backlash that the community is facing, they have continued to distance themselves from the terrorists.

Sri Lanka is currently facing two separate, yet equally dangerous situations. On the one hand, the Sinhala nationalists are continuing to promote anti-Muslim sentiment to further their goals. While on the other hand, the small island nation has become the latest target of global terrorism. At the current point in time, the two situations are independent of one another. However, if the authorities fail to address both issues as separate problems, the country faces the potential of seeing the two merge.