By Dr.Farah Mihlar
October 10 (DailyFT): A comprehensive analytical review of the horrific tragedy that took place on Easter Sunday 2019, when a group of Muslim suicide bombers targeted foreign tourists and Christian places of worship killing over 200 people, has been much awaited and necessary.
Apart from a few media articles and the very comprehensive report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), little was known about the motivations, the individual and institutional identity and history of the attackers and the systematic and strategic planning of these atrocities.
Through interviews with family members of the bombers, individuals affiliated to them and intelligence officials, Dr. Gunaratna attempts to fill this void by providing detailed accounts of the build-up and execution of the attacks.
He traces the strategic, meticulous planning of the events, the coming together of different actors through training sessions and meetings across diverse parts of the country, and proceeds to provide a nerve-wracking account of what happened on that tragic day. He offers descriptive biographies of all of the main perpetrators and provides some details on the modes of radicalisation they pursued.
Thereby, the book provides a useful illustration of the temporal and spatial trajectory of the events and insights into the thinking of the terrorist leaders.
Regrettably, the book offers little beyond this.
I want to present my critique of this book under three frames: the first relates to style and sourcing; the second is on the core claims related to the development of ISIS in Sri Lanka and the third is regarding the allegations made against the Muslim community and their religious movements in this country.
Awash with repetition, the 235-page book offers very limited new information and there are numerous inaccuracies. Written for a mass readership, the book is journalistic in style. Whilst it is understandable that sources of such sensitive information cannot be named, the content is notably poor with referencing. Most claims are made on precarious grounds of ‘accounts state,’ ‘it was said that’ or ‘it was reported that,’ all of which are somehow expected to be authoritative on account that they are being stated by the author.
As a consequence of its sensationalist style, the book provides little analytical framing. It makes only meagre mention of the effects of the armed conflict and ethno-religious violence against Muslims, with limited understanding of factors within the Muslim community, particularly in the East of Sri Lanka that may have made violent extremism attractive to a few.
More so, it exceptionalizes the Easter Sunday attacks as if they occurred in a peaceful, idyllic paradise, with no history of large-scale violence; reportedly jarring with the ‘Sri Lankan way of life’. That these attacks took place within a framework of three decades of ethno-religious violence where the State itself has a record of perpetrating mass atrocities and war crimes, has been completely excluded.
His account of the failure of the security apparatus and intelligence units is marginal compared to the subsequent Channel Four Dispatches (September, 2023) expose on the role of the state in perpetrating these attacks.
Whilst this background does not excuse the role of the Muslim attackers it is necessary in order to explain the nature and extent of the violence and the context in which they took place.
In detailing the methods of organising, planning, strategising; developing of ammunition and explosives and subsequent detonation, Dr. Gunaratna’s core thesis appears to be warning the reader of the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka.
The book details how obscure individuals can mobilise, develop terrorist cells, through violent extremism and inspiration from international terrorist groups. However, beyond the dramatic narration of the specific event, there is little substantive analysis of what this threat really is and the damage it can do to Sri Lanka.
His reference to the formation and development of the ISIS in Sri Lanka, is contradicted by his own suggestion that these individuals were mostly operating organically with no contact with the international terrorist group, apart from communicating to them that the bombings took place, which enabled ISIS to claim responsibility.
Dr. Gunaratna does provide good information and some evidence on the systematic planning and organising of the attacks, which enlightens the reader to the failure of military intelligence and the possibilities and the potential of individuals to form and operate terror groups, but this does not convincingly support suggestions of international involvement and his account does not considerably vary from earlier assertions in the media of the attacks being ‘inspired by’ or ‘related to’ ISIS, rather than executed by them.
The extent of the Sri Lankan outfit is also unclear; though several training camps hosting approximately 20-25 people per session have been listed in the book, it is unclear if these were all new recruits or repeat trainers. Much of his information suggests the camps were providing religious education and training cadres and the mistaken amalgamation of both results in a poor understanding of the growth of Islamic terrorism and thereby the existing threat it poses to Sri Lanka.
The most problematic and damaging aspect of the book
Herein lies the most problematic and damaging aspect of the book: its demonstrably limited understanding of the Islamic landscape in Sri Lanka and consequentially the portrayal of Muslims in relation to and in the aftermath of these attacks.
For clarity, I will list out my main criticisms. Firstly, Professor Gunaratna refers to large and well-established Islamic ideologies and movements with little attempt to conceptualise, define or explain them. For instance, he repeatedly refers to Salafi-Wahhabism, as the Islamic doctrinal influence that the suicide bombers aligned with, without properly defining or explaining what they mean. At more than one point he inadequately attempts to provide some explanation, conflating them into one and using them interchangeably (136 pp); ‘recycling of prophet Muhammed’s traditional practices’ calling ‘upon a return to its nineteenth-century roots’ (136 pp); elsewhere he speaks of them as a calling to ‘pure Islam.’ Both are elementary interpretations of Salafism and Wahhabism and resultantly do not sufficiently differentiate from the religious ideology of most Muslims who seek to closely emulate the life of their Prophet Muhammad in practice and align with pure Islam (note different from puritanical Islam).
Salafism and Wahhabism though often closely associated in popular writings, have different historical, political trajectories and ideological variations, especially with the latter being associated with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though often seen to be a new entry into the Islamic landscape, these ideologies had their origins in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s but they gained prominence and grew into popular religious movements following the rise in migrant workers to the Middle East, a factor Prof. Gunaratna provides no analysis of.
Contrary to his stance, it is after the 1990s that movements influenced by Wahhabism and Salafism became popular in Sri Lanka branching under the umbrella term Tawheed or oneness.
Since around the 1990s this movement has vigorously challenged mainstream Muslims to return to ‘authentic’ Islamic practices by removing what they consider ‘innovations’ borrowed from non-Islamic cultures and religions. This view is held by other Islamic movements as well, such as the Tablighi Jama’at, but where the Tawheed differ is in their approach, which is often intolerant, aggressive and can be violent. Gunaratna wrongly identifies this movement as ‘Arguably the most virulent strain of Salafi-Wahabism’ (70 pp) and repeatedly aligns the Tawheed movement with Jihadi groups and Islamic violent extremism.
The naming of Zaharan Hashim’s group as the National Tawhid Jama‘at, should not be confused with the larger Tawheed movement in Sri Lanka. Even though the exclusivist ideology and approach of the Tawheed movement is controversial among the majority of Sri Lankan Muslims, as I have explained in another work, their main target for attack has most often been within the community not outside.
Gunaratna misattributes the Tawheed movement’s critique on idol worshipers to the NTJ’s hatred of non-Muslims and license to kill them, which are in fact quite different.
Islam foundationally distinguishes its form of monotheism from polytheism and any material or symbolic representation of either, this can be interpreted by some to be exclusionary and critical of non-Muslims, but the religion does not advocate violence on these grounds.
Few elements within the Tawheed movement, especially in the Eastern Province, may advocate violence against Muslims and non-Muslims, which as Zaharan Hashim demonstrated, has potential to shift to violent extremism, but the two cannot be equated as done in this book.
Similarly, Dr. Gunaratna also wrongly and carelessly claims the Jama’ati Islami (JI), a well-founded and mainstream Islamic movement, renders itself to violent extremism. The JI is a political group in South Asia, which was founded in response to colonialism and thereby harbours nationalist ideals of a Caliphate and superiority of Islamic laws, however, it has through the years adapted to a Muslim minority context by moving away from some of these core ideas.
In fact, I found in my research, similar to the scholarly work by others such as Dr. Irfan Ahamed in India, that the JI has moulded (Ahamed refers to it as a mutation) to Muslims’ minority contexts and in Sri Lanka was one of the foremost Islamic organisations working towards co-existence and reconciliation, even interpreting Islam for this purpose.
Inaccurate, unsubstantiated and damaging
As a Muslim feminist, I do not agree with the Islamic interpretations on the role of women in either of these movements, nor do I seek to comprehensively defend their religious positioning; but Prof. Gunaratna’s portrayal of these groups is inaccurate, unsubstantiated and damaging. Drawing an analogy from Christianity in order to simplify to a non-Muslim reader (and this is extremely simplistic), what this book does, can be equated to claiming that all the Anglican and Evangelical churches are prone to extremism and terrorism in an instance where a few Anglican and Evangelical Christians, wrongly quoting their texts, may carry out organised violent attacks across the country.
More so, though he briefly mentions that some Muslims, including those in Kattankuddy, alerted the authorities to the growing violent extremism of these groups; he undermines the effort made my many Muslims to shun these individuals out of their mosques and movements and repeatedly report their activities to the police who did not act.
At the end of this book, we are left asking what the drivers are that enable a religious extremist to turn violent and organise attacks of this nature. Religious extremism, such as aspects of thinking within the Tawheed movement, can certainly be a problem but it does not obviously link to violence and terrorism.
Understanding this nuance and differentiating between religion, extremism and violence is critical in order to respond to any future threat Sri Lanka may face.
The implications of this book which vilifies major Islamic movements and as an extension presents large numbers of Muslims as being a threat to the country, is serious.
There has been a growing rise in violence against Muslims and Islamophobia in Sri Lanka, particularly since the end of the war in 2009, but the Easter Sunday attacks marked a turning point where the entire Muslim population faced collective punishment legally and in policy which targeted women’s dress code and restricted religious and educational institutions and gatherings. Several Muslims were discriminated against on a daily basis, harassed at the everyday level and many feared to identify with their religion.
Muslims who identify closely with their religious beliefs and practice remain seen as extremists, fanatics, even a threat, in the psyche of non-Muslims. As research from Europe has shown these factors increase grievance and social alienation and harness the capacity for terrorist groups to recruit.
In my recent travels to the East, I found Muslim religious and community leaders remained concerned about the threat of Islamic violent extremism. They continue to report this to the police and military but to little avail.
The Channel Four documentary is testimony to the role of the State and the former ruling elites, the Rajapaksa family, in these atrocities. The country’s President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was also responsible for enabling these attacks as he was Prime Minister at the time, not to mention his continuing role in protecting the Rajapaksas. They faced no accountability for these attacks, whilst Muslims continue to be framed as extremists and terrorists; Prof. Gunaratna’s book being the latest contributor to this view.
If Sri Lanka remains at risk to Islamic terrorism, it is not ISIS we should be worried about but the danger of unabated violent extremism that exists not only among Muslims but within all religious groups. These are also inter-connected; academic and media research has shown that the Buddhist extremist attacks against Muslims enabled the NTJ to increase recruitment.
Such violent extremism can easily breed in the absence of accountability and denial of justice, in a deteriorating socio-economic context which offers few alternatives and where hostility is fanned between ethnic and religious groups by politicians.
The majority of Muslims do not want to be the problem, they want to be part of the solution and for this they need to be listened to, properly understood, supported and worked with in order to deal with any future threat.
(Dr Farah Mihlar is an activist scholar and a senior lecturer in human rights at Oxford Brookes University.)