Inclusivity, communal harmony and co-existence the way forward | Daily News


Prof. Rohan Gunaratne:

Inclusivity, communal harmony and co-existence the way forward

Religious and communal unity is the way forward
Religious and communal unity is the way forward

Two years and five months before the devastating Easter Sunday attacks, terrorism expert Professor Rohan Gunaratne foretold the threat by the Islamic State in an interview with a local newspaper in an article titled, “There are a few hundred ISIS supporters in Sri Lanka” and dated November 27, 2016, he called the government to act or suffer from “terrorism.” He added:

On the first anniversary of the Easter Sunday attacks, the Daily News spoke with Dr. Rohan Gunaratna who is Professor of Security Studies at the Nanyang Technology University in Singapore and co-author of Three Pillars Of Radicalization (Oxford University Press) regarding the events which led to the attacks, the security lapses and lessons that Sri Lanka should learn from this tragedy. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. How different is the ISIS threat from the separatist threat Sri Lanka faced earlier?

A. There are many similarities and dissimilarities between the Islamic State and LTTE threat. The similarities are that both movements are cruel and ruthless, conduct indiscriminate attacks against civilian (especially bombings in public places), and government targets (especially law enforcement and military) and willing to kill and die. The dissimilarities are that the LTTE is ethnic group and the Islamic State is a religious group - one is leader-driven and the other is god-driven. When Prabhakaran was killed, the threat by the LTTE receded but neither the deaths of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi nor Zahran has an impact on the ideology of the followers. The leaders on earth will continue to be replaced from time to time with limited impact on the mindset of the followers.

Building that one Sri Lanka should be a national security priority. The key to mitigating the LTTE threat is to integrate Tamils to Sinhalese and Muslim communities. Similarly, to mitigate the Islamic State centric threat three types of capabilities are needed.

First, a legal and policy framework is needed to dismantle any group engaged in hate and incitement to violence by confiscating their assets and incarcerating their leaders and members. Without proscribing entities that spread hate and incite violence - Bodu Bala Sena, Sihala Ravaya, Mahason balakaya, and like minded groups - the current wave of extremism and terrorism cannot he contained, isolated and eliminated. Otherwise, we will become like India where every year there is a Muslim - Non Muslim riot. To unite the communities, a strategy is needed to create a national education policy where Muslims and non-Muslims school together. Multicultural schools are vital for building relationships and for keeping prejudice and suspicion under control.

Second, Sri Lankan Muslim terrorists came both from madrasah and non-Madrasah background. However, the leadership is from Madrasah education where they denigrated other religions. It is vital to introduce religious knowledge to all schools especially madrasah without further delay. Madrasah should not be banned but reformed to include secular subjects. In general, those who fail in secular education join madrasah, then graduate and start to influence the Muslim community. The graduates are poorly educated and like Zahran have a narrow view of the world. To develop a broad understanding of the world, maths, science, philosophy, languages and critical thinking should be introduced. If any madrasah is unwilling to reform, they should be scrutinized and firm action taken.

Third, Sri Lanka should scrutinize all the religious doctrines introduced from abroad and Sri Lankans who study abroad in schools that are producing radicals. Sri Lankan education authorities should review all educational text books. Likewise foreign hate preachers should be blacklisted and their influence on Sri Lankans both online and offline should be closely monitored and action taken.

Q.In the past Muslims in Sri Lanka

were no different than the rest of the country’s ethnic communities. But today there is a clear concentrated segregation of Muslims in certain areas such as Kaththankudy and the East etc. In your view how does this segregation affect their cohabitation with other communities?

A. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should not be trapped by the global resurgence of ethnicity and religion.

Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should not emulate India where the deteriorating relations between Muslims and Hindus continue to inflict suffering on the Muslims. Sri Lankans should have their our own standards and systems to manage exclusivism, extremism and terrorism. The way forward is to build an inclusive Sri Lanka by integrating all communities. To create the Sri Lankan nation, it is not only the apex leaders but the community leaders that should take the initiative.

Rather than give into racists and breakup Sri Lanka along ethnic and religious lines, develop a national integration strategy. The elements of it could be to post Sinhalese to the north and east and Tamils and Muslims to the south. There should be no area in Sri Lanka reserved for any ethnic or religious community. If our ideal is harmony, we should work towards coexistence. Wherever there is ethnic or religious segregation, there is resentment, anger and hatred leading to incitement and violence. In addition to encouraging Eastern Muslims to live in the south, support the Northern Muslins to return to their abandoned homes in the north where they were ethnically cleansed by the LTTE. These are not easy to accomplish but this is the only way to restore trust and rebuild the broken bridges.

Kathankudy is the ground zero of terrorism. Historically Kathankudi produced learned scholars and honest businessmen. With Kathankudi becoming a hub for the Wahabi ideology and funding, it looks like a Middle Eastern city. Rather than demonize the Muslims of Kathankudi for the death and destruction unleashed by Zaharan and his followers, the government should work with enlightened Muslim leaders to transform Kathankudy into an abode of harmony. To produce champions of coexistence, the children and youth of Kathankudi should be given scholarships by the top 100 schools and the top 100 firms in the country.

Non Muslim civil servants who understand the value of building ethnic and religious partnerships should be posted to Kathankudi to engage all sectors. Over the next decade, the landscape and demography of Kathankudi should reflect another city in Sri Lanka and not the Middle East. There are other towns in the East that needs to be developed into multicultural hubs to counter the deepening of exclusivism and extremism but none is in such urgent need of transformation than Kathankudi.

Q. There is a strong view in Sri Lanka that it is the ethnic and religion-based politics led to the government not taking any action against the extremists despite early intelligence warnings. What is your view?

A. As communities, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese suffered gravely because of ethnic and religious politics. Rather than think as Sri Lankans they are thinking narrowly of their own interests eventually damaging their own ethnic and religious community severely. To change the last, it is paramount to encourage the formation of multiethnic and multi-religious parties rather than racist parties along ethnic or religious lines.

To enlist the Tamil vote, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime delisted the LTTE front, cover and sympathetic organizations overseas proscribed under UNSCR 1373 for providing the LTTE with funds, procuring weapons and shipping. Listed by the Rajapaksa regime, soon after the delisting by the Wickremesinghe regime, the LTTE affiliates overseas rekindled separatism. The LTTE reemerged in Geneva faking as human rights activists and in the north starting to openly commemorate on November 26 the terrorists that committed suicide or were killed. Similarly, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime did not regulate the hate speeches of Zahran and his associates, foreign preachers and free flow of funds, and other signs, clues and indicators of a IS build up. Playing with security for votes prompted Sri Lanka face twin threats from both the LTTE and Islamic State. The politicization of security had a spillover effect. Although the dysfunctionality was reflected everywhere, it was most pronounced in the security sector. Ethnic and religious based politics should be outlawed in Sri Lanka. The first step is to stop registering and new parties. The second, step is to give a timeline of activities to transform their parties to reflect the Sri Lanka’s multicultural spirit. These valiant efforts should be accomplished super-fast - 12 - 24 months - to educate formally and informally the leaders. This should be followed by fining parties and taking action against personalities who refuse or resist national efforts at harmony.

Q. Should religious and ethnicity-based schools be allowed to operate and do you feel that these are the breeding grounds of extremist ideologies and teachings?

A. Ethnic and religious-based schools have produced a generation that views “the other” with suspicion and prejudice. To be Sri Lankan, the first step is to create an inclusive education system. Although we speak of a national educational policy, it does not exist in practice. The strategy to build a safe Sri Lanka is to write a legal and policy framework to raise a generation of Sri Lankans who can coexist with each and every member of the Sri Lankan family.

The education ministry should bring under its supervision not only schools but the madrasah and the international schools registered as societies. In addition to honouring the national flag and anthem every morning, Sri Lankan history and culture should be introduced as a subject. The current education system is creating a stream of exclusivists vulnerable to extremist and terrorist ideas and ideologies. Working with the national Security Council, the education minister and his staff should work to break the radicalization pipeline that produced religious fanatics like Zahran. Sri Lanka has neutralized the imminent threat of a terrorist attack but system that produced Zahran and the terrorists is intact. To break this pipeline, the madrasahs and other Muslim institutions promoting sectarianism needs to be reformed. One year after Easter Sunday attack, Muslim leaders have miserably failed to reform the Muslim institutions especially the mosques and Muslim international schools. Even some school text books are promoting radicalism and terrorism.

Q. There are thousands of people from around the world going to join the Islamic State. As an expert on terrorism, do you know if these individuals are being monitored?

A. As the threat is global, regional and national, Sri Lankan security and Intelligence services should build three types of relationships with foreign governments to fight IS. First, interagency cooperation, second, collaborations and third, partnerships in exchanging personnel, building common databases, conducting joint training leading to joint operations, sharing of expertise, experience and resources, especially technology.

A new mind-set and capabilities are needed to monitor the Islamic State threat for Sri Lanka. We all live in two worlds - the physical and cyber. The young spend more time in cyber space. Terrorists and criminals have penetrated the cyber domain and governments needs to catch up.

All the Sri Lankan security and Intelligence services were hunting for Zahran and his close group in the lead up to Easter Sunday attack. However, Zahran and his team was using Threema, an encrypted platform for secure communication.

The Islamic State operatives worldwide including in Sri Lanka had developed mastery of harnessing the cyber space for recruitment, radicalization, financing, and communication and other functions. To monitor, track and counter terrorist operations in Sri Lanka and worldwide, government should train cyber warrior teams within all the armed forces, the police and the intelligence community. Without dominating the cyber space, Sri Lanka cannot effectively fight against the current and emerging threats.

The cyber space can also be used by governments and partners not only to monitor developments but to counter the extremist message and to promote moderation, toleration and coexistence. As exclusivism leads to extremism, cyber space can be used to build understanding that humanity is above religion. To build bonds of understanding between communities, the cyber space should be harnessed to build resilience among vulnerable segments of Sri Lankans.

Q. The wife of one of the Easter Sunday bombers exploded her suicide vest killing herself and her children too. Is it possible that females too could take an active role in such extremist activities in the future?

A. The Easter Sunday attack on April 21, 2019 is a paradigm shift in the Sri Lankan security landscape. The terrorist attackers included Fathima Jiffry, 25, the wife of Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim, 31, the Shangri-La suicide bomber. At the three-storey luxury home in Mahawela Gardens, Dematagoda, Fathima was equipped with a suicide backpack given by Ilham who believed in the ideology of the Islamic State. Fathima was radicalized by Ilham and radicalized other family members and friends. When Fathima detonated she was pregnant and hugged her three young children. She killed three Sri Lankan police officers and caused extensive damage to the house. Inshaf and Ilham Ibrahim are the sons of Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim, 65, one of Sri Lanka’s most successful spice traders. He had six sons and three daughters including Ilham’s brother

Inshaf Ibrahim, 33, who attacked the Cinnamon Grand

The Easter Sunday attack disrupted the relationship between the Muslims and other communities living in Sri Lanka. The affected Sinhalese and Tamils will always view the Muslims suspiciously. Unless national and community leaders work hard to restore the trust between the communities, it will take one generation to rebuild the damaged relationships. An entire generation of Sri Lankan Muslims suffers by the actions of a network of Muslims that embraced a version of Islam introduced from the Islamic State. Although the attack damaged Sri Lanka, the greatest threat is from the ideology of radical Islam that threatens future attacks where not only men but women are likely to participate and support.

Q. Zaharan had allegedly obtained the explosives for the Easter Sunday attacks from India. Is there a strong connection between the Sri Lankan extremists and those in India?

A. Zahran Hashim was radicalized by an Indian Wahabi scholar and preacher P.J., also known as P. Jainulabideen. After PJ broke away from Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazagham in 1995, he created Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath. Zahran was inspired by his rejection of traditional Islam and advocacy of Quran and Hadith as the sole sources of religious authority. To stage attacks Zahran was guided by another Tamil Nadu radical.

Zahran established the training camp and operational base of the Islamic State in Vanathavillu, so that they can transport supplies and personnel back and forth to and from India. He named the facility in honour of Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam, the first Sri Lankan national to die in an air strike in Syria in 2015. The name of the facility was Abu Shurayh al-Silani, who Zahran never met but was close to Latheef Mohamed Jameel, one of the suicide bombers. Jameel visited Turkey in 2014 but then returned home to plan and prepare an Islamic State support group. Jameel came from a family engaged in the tea trade, studied in the UK and Australia.

If Vanathavillu was not detected by the Criminal Investigations Department in January 2019, Zahran would have unleashed more attacks. Due to the raid, Zahran’s plan was partially disrupted. Nonetheless, Zahran moved to another set of safe houses and started to operate.

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