By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, April 25: Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, a leading Sri Lankan expert on terrorism, particularly West Asian terrorism, says that Sri Lanka urgently needs a Singapore-style “Harmony Act” to curb hate speech and hateful religious preaching.
Talking to this correspondent on the rise of Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka and the ugly manifestation it took on April 21 Easter Sunday, Dr.Gunaratna said that Sri Lanka should emulate multi-ethnic and multi-religious Singapore and criminalize hate preaching by passing a Harmony Act.
The Singapore act passed in 1992, provides that a restraining order can be slapped on any pastor or religious leader forbidding them to address any congregation or group on any subject.
Any criticism of another religion is considered a violation of the “Harmony Act.” One Christian pastor was warned to cease criticizing Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism in church publications and from the pulpit.
Islamic religious leaders were also called down for promoting a religious leader for a political office, which is also forbidden by the Harmony Act.
Singapore and Canada have become test labs for ecumenical legislation that limits “soul winners” from speaking against the sin of the sinner when witnessing. The ecumenical, one-world-religionists advocate unity and harmony as the goal between the religions of the world.
A Turkish expert said that even in entirely lslamic Turkey the government tells mosque preachers what to preach every Friday. The line is laid by a distinguished State-appointed panel of Ulemas. All mosques are under government control.
Dr. Gunaratna, who is Professor of Security Studies at the S.Rajaratnam Center for International Studies in Singapore and author of “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror” published by the Colombia University Press, decried the new phenomenon of ghettoization of Sri Lanka Muslims and also the formation of ethnic enclaves in the island nation.
“Ethnically and religiously mixed schools, mixed residential localities and multi-ethnic provinces should replace the existing ethnic and religious segregation in these areas. The demand for mono-ethnic or mono-religious territorial units should be rejected,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
In Singapore where he lives, the government insists that residential flats are multi-ethnic, with Chinese, Malays and Indians living together cheek by jowl.
“Isolation breeds suspicion, distrust, unfounded notions, fears, alienation, avoidance, tension and finally violence and terrorism,” Gunaatna said while noting that with the growth of Wahabist or Salafist preaching, Sri Lankan Muslims are isolating themselves from other religious groups.
Some Tawheed groups had started preaching hatred for other religious groups called “Kafirs” or non-believers in Islam. Videos made in Tamil Nadu spread such ideas. They are on Youtube and therefore widely watched.
Many of the Tawheed speakers are excellent orators. They hold audiences, especially the youth, spell bound by their orations in chaste Tamil. One video from Tamil Nadu called upon Muslims to hate Kafirs even if relations with them, at the inter-personal level, were excellent.
According to Dr.Gunaratna there has been a tendency among a section of Sri Lankan Muslims not merely to change their dress and deportment to resemble the Arabs but also decrease interactions with non-Muslim groups to keep away from what they consider to be un-Islamic influences.
“A Harmony Act is therefore a dire necessity in Sri Lanka. It will criminalize hate speech and hate propaganda. If the Harmony Act was there, the hate speech and radicalization preached by Maulavi Zahran of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) would have been curbed long ago, the youth would not have been radicalized to this extent, and the bombings would not have taken place,” Dr.Gunaratna said.
According to the expert, the radicalization of Lankan Muslims and Muslims in India and the Maldives began when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) changed its name to Islamic State (IS) on June 29, 2014. Having been ousted from Iraq and Syria by the US-led Western coalition forces, the IS had become global and had started spreading its tentacles to India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Dr.Gunaratna said.
The ISIS uses sophisticated propaganda instruments and styles which help it reach out to even the most educated and wealthy classes. No wonder, among the nine suicide bombers in the recent incident, there were young men from the educated and wealthy classes with foreign degrees. Despite their education and high life style, they thought nothing of blasting themselves and scores of other kafirs to go straight to heaven.
Only A Minuscule Minority
However, according to Dr.Gunaratna, only a tiny fraction of Sri Lankan Muslims are influenced by such wile preaching.
“The typical Sri Lankan Muslim is a most peaceful person, coexisting with other communities as a trader,” Dr Guaratna said. “Our people are far away from organizations like the National Tawheed Jamaat”, said Hilmy Ahamad of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.
And Sufi leader H.M.Ameer of the Badriya Jumma Mosque in the all-Muslim town of Kaththankudy in the Eastern Province said that only 150 people would have been following the Tawheed leader Moulana Mohamad Zahran Hashmi, the spirit behind the Easter Sunday bombings.
“When he addressed meeting here in Kathankudy, may be 3000 or so would have gathered. But actual followers would have been only 150 or so,” Ameer said.
Ameer had been complaining about Zahran’s preaching to the authorities. Hilmy Ahamad too had complained about his activities in Mawanella in the Central Province. And both said that the authorities had taken no follow up action despite ample documentary evidence. The police believed that action would not follow the preacher’s words.
According to Ameer and Dr.Gunaratna, the Tawheed movement has undergoing a series of splits over the years with the splits taking place on ideological lines. IS propaganda had speeded up radicalization which preceded these splits.
IS and Zahran Not NTJ Inspired Bombings
The Tawheed group which carried out the Easter Sunday bombings was the most radical. Dr.Gunaratna believes that it was inspired by the IS which was in collaboration with Zahran.
Dr. Gunaratna, who was the first to say publicly, that the Easter Sunday blasts were the handiwork of the “Islamic State with the help of its local branch,” said that the Sri Lankan cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne was wrong when he told the media that it was the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ) which had carried out the blasts.
“The blasts were the handiwork of the Islamic State (IS) with the involvement of its Sri Lankan affiliates,” Dr.Gunaratna stressed.
Asked whether Zahran himself carried out the strikes or whether he merely directed them and kept himself at a safe distance, Dr.Gunaratna said that all he could say about Zahran at this point of time is that “he is a very creative person.”
Government too is unsure if Zahran is alive or was one of the suicide bombers. His body has not been identified yet. Out of the nine bodies of suicide bombers one remains to be identified.
(The featured image at the top shows boys of an excluively Muslim school)