The veil is off, yes, but…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The whole-sale, whole-hearted support of the nation’s Muslim community to the Government’s decision to ban face-cover of every kind should send out clear signals to all stake-holders to peace-building that the shoe has to the worn by the rightful owners. The Government and the political class of all hues will have to accept varying degrees of responsibility – and possible culpability – for the events leading up to the deteriorating situation leading up to the Easter Day blasts.

In this context, the hope and expectation is that the three-member panel, headed by a Supreme Court Judge, to uncover not only the plot and the perpetrator behind the carnage, but also fix political and moral responsibility on all those that had failed their people(s) and the nation.  Yet, if recent experience is any indication, the new panel should not go the way, either of the Justice Paranagama Commission into war-crimes and the like and/or the Presidential Commission that probed the ‘Central Bank scam’, even more recently.

For their part, Islamic community organisations in the country, starting with the All-Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), have welcomed the presidential ban on ‘face-cover’, or burqa, as being worn by Muslim women in the country and elsewhere. However, as they are not unwilling to accept and acknowledge, the practice has a more recent origin in the country, often forced by the first-generation radicals, whose successors have since taken to explosives and massacres of the Easter Day carnage kind.

The tempting question is why the community leadership(s) did not intervene when it was still possible, but let things drift to the current state and status. It is not as if they were not wholly for it, but then they were also not wholly against it. It may also have owed to the freedom of worship that every individual was/is entitled to.

A week into the blasts and police investigations, raids and more deaths, other communities, including the victimised Christians, especially the Catholics, have come around to sending out right and positive signals. It is sad that in a joint media appearance with Ven Ittapane Dhammalankara Thero, the Mahanayake of Kotte-Kalayani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha, Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had to say that they trusted community probes than Government investigations. But their appearing together, and also similar pleas for peace and forgiveness by other Christian priests across the country may have set the right tone for early return of peace and normalcy even as the police investigations continue.

Greater exposure

In this case, it purportedly derived from the greater exposure of the local Islamic youth, to the traditional ways being followed in the Gulf-Arab region, where the religion was born. It is another matter that the earlier generations of nation’s Islamic youth who benefited economically from the Gulf oil-boom and the petro-dollars since the seventies had to earn for a living and also earn for their families at the time.

True, they lived in the midst of the ‘Palestine crisis’, which was all about territory in a distant land. But in later years, as it turned out, it was not any more about territory but much more about faith. The Palestinian protestors did seek too had tried to exploit religion and faith for sub-serving their nationalist/territorial cause – but could not convince all Muslims across a wider geography.

There was an additional reason why Islamic extremism did not work earlier in Sri Lanka. Islam came to Sri Lanka through Arab traders and other seafarers, who were here even before Islam was born, back home. When the Arabs in the Gulf region took to Islam in a big way, they brought it to southern India and Sri Lanka.

To both nations, the religion came the peaceful way. A few centuries later, it also came to common maritime neighbour in Maldives, again through peaceful means. It was unlike the way the religion entered the rest of South Asia, through sword and blood-shed, through the north-west.

That made the difference to the approach of Muslims in these parts to their religion and others’. It also dictated the attitude of peaceful co-existence and cooperation, between other religions and Islam, hereabouts. All of it changed only in recent years and decades. The oldest clashes/riots in which Sri Lanka’s Muslims were involved dates back to just over a century, 1915-16, to be precise.

The rest is all history. The LTTE, the BBS and the rest persecuted the community, in quick succession. Even last year, there were the Batticaloa and Kandy episodes, where the local Muslims were targets. The collective message is clear. Greater the tools and means of communication, greater the chances of alienation – and consequent radicalisation.

Yet, can any or all of it be a cause for mass carnage of the Easter Day kind? It is conceivable, to say the least. It is unjustifiable even otherwise by any stretch of imagination. In a nation where the militancy of the JVP kind and terrorism of the LTTE type may have created a mind-set over the past several decades, it was not entirely inconceivable that it might have left an impact, a scar….

Globalised terror

Yet, none of it can justify or even explain the Easter carnage, even remotely. The other explanation that it all owes to the ‘IS influence’ may have some purchase, but it is accompanied by the question identifying with the fragility of young Sri Lankan mind – from the JVP to the LTTE to the current era of globalised terror closer home.

Therein is the difference. The JVP’s was local militancy of a kind, with limited external assistance, if any. The LTTE became a globalised terror, yes, but the issues and concerns were local. Wherever the SLT Diaspora was located, they were forcibly ‘taxed’ under the very eyes of the host-Government and the proceeds used to procure weapons in the international black-market and smuggled into Sri Lanka through international waters.

Once the Rajapaksa Government stood firm, and cultivated global nations and capitals, especially in the post-9/11 international anti-terror climate, the much of the rest of the things fell in place, as far as blocking the logistics and diverting international political support were concerned. There were multiple local elements, including strengthening and motivating the armed forces and the intelligence agencies, more than already. Once done, the end was predictable – after a time, even the deadline(s).

It’s not in the case of the nation’s sudden return to terrorism of a third and newer kind. As the Government has reiterated time and again, all perpetrators are locals, not from outside the country. But as with the JVP and the LTTE, were their ideological moorings or socio-political compulsions/contentions too ‘local’ or even regional? The answer is a big ‘NO’.

The immediate cause and justification, however veiled and thin they may be, could be Sri Lankan. It is not true of the ideological basis and bearing for the blasts, and there definitely is ideology. It has a global bearing and also reach. Sri Lanka is only the latest peg and victim. It may not be the last, though that should be the hope and prayer.

Self-motivation

It is becoming increasingly clear that the IS provided the ideology and self-motivation for the Sri Lankan perpetrators – unless proved otherwise. The Indian intelligence inputs that Sri Lanka chose to ignore or overlook through the fortnight before the blasts also implied the existence of an external angle – as also an internal dynamics.

If Indian agencies were tracking down it, all the same, it could not have been otherwise in these decades of cross-border terrorism. As is known, both IS and Pakistani ISI have been using the territory of friendly neighbourhood nations to target India through cross-border terrorism.

The IS aims at motivating Islamic youth across the world to fight for the ‘caliphate’ that is in their imagination. In the contemporary Sri Lankan context, it is closer to say, either a ‘greater Eelam’ or even a ‘TGTE’ of the kind, which the global community has still not discouraged. If nothing else, less than a week after the Easter blasts, the TGTE was holding the third round of their world-wide ‘elections’ for a ‘parliament’.

The LTTE was/is possibly the first insurgent/terrorist organisation to run a ‘government’ in and through the virtual world. They did not have to use the virtual world of internet and other tools of IT for ‘recruitment’. Their sympathisers and supporters were all already there even when the war ended.

Not in the case of the IS, which was seen as a second edition of the Al-Qaeda, post-Osama, first, but moved away to encompass a larger ideology, purpose and goal – again, if they were any. They were neither fighting for or/and in a territory, as the early escapades in Iraq and Syria made the world believe. Thus it was also not a repeat of the ‘Palestinian cause’.

Instead, the IS has been fighting for the mind-space alone. By expanding their goal to cover as much of physical space as mental space, the LTTE lost out on the first. It was inevitable, too. That was also the case and problem with Al Qaeda. At the end of the day, Al Qaeda had a ‘state-less’ people with their ‘faceless leader’, in Osama bin-Laden. He is lost and the sham of their territory too lies in a shamble.

The IS was/is unlike the Al Qaeda, even in terms of their modus, the use of technology, to be precise. The Al Qaeda, for instance, used the internet and the like only for propaganda. It was the way the LTTE too did in their overlapping time-lines, when the IT knowhow too was in relative infancy.

In its time, the IS has used it the way, the post-war, pro-LTTE elements have been doing – to run a ‘virtual caliphate’ without anything else to go by. Whatever part of Iraq and Syria they had occupied is not theirs anymore. However, they have also used technology for brain-washing and recruitment, given the width and depth of the internet in its time.

The irony is that the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies may be the only one in the world that has had vast and varied experience of and with the LTTE, post-war included. Yet, not only did they fail to detect it all by themselves, but did not even act on the information that their Indian counterparts readily shared, and possibly unasked for – and repeatedly in a fortnight.

That’s saying as much as what the IS brand of long-distance motivation, recruitment and invitation for them all to travel back to their home countries have been able to do. If the IS lost Iraq and Syria, they did not lose all the ‘soldiers of the caliphate’ or ‘of the faith’. They have taken with them not only the IS ideology but also t he methodology – terror!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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