Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) held its 10th International Research Conference at the university premises on August 3 and 4 on the theme “Changing Dynamics in the Global Environment: Challenges and Opportunities”. The symposium featured an interesting yet disquieting presentation by Col. L.C.R. Jayasuriya of the Sri Lanka Army on a topic entitled ‘The Influence of Global Islam Radicalisation to Sri Lanka’. The message in Col. Jayasuriya’s presentation is a rather dangerous one. It is one that has been regularly tossed out by “terrorism expert” Rohan Gunaratne, who has made numerous unsubstantiated and sensationalist claims on political violence. Gunaratne was even convicted for defamation and ordered to pay US$ 53,000 by a Canadian court in 2014 for linking a Toronto-based Tamil organisation to the LTTE. The message, in short, is that ‘Islamic radicalisation’ / ‘militant Islamism’ is on the rise in Sri Lanka, and it needs to be stemmed.
Having listened to the entirety of Col. Jayasuriya’s presentation, I was not at all surprised when he quoted Gunaratne towards the latter part of his speech! The parallels in their proposition are hard to miss; essentially, the simplistic, reductionist and misguided notion that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is driven by radical theology and religious fervour.
Whereas there is ample of evidence to show that the conflicts in the Middle-East and elsewhere allegedly driven by so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ are actually not about religion but about political power. In talking incessantly about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘radicalism and ‘militant Islamism’, factors such as demands for foreign forces to leave the territories of others’ are deliberately overlooked or conveniently ignored.
The message in Col. Jayasuriya’s presentation is a rather dangerous one. It is one that has been regularly tossed out by “terrorism expert” Rohan Gunaratne, who has made numerous unsubstantiated and sensationalist claims on political violence. Gunaratne was even convicted for defamation and ordered to pay US$ 53,000 by a Canadian court in 2014 for linking a Toronto-based Tamil organisation to the LTTE.
I wonder if the KDU had given any opportunity for someone to make a presentation from a Muslim perspective at any of their events. Details of the programme such as the agenda are unfortunately not available on the KDU website and I did ask for a copy of the programme via email the very next day (05th August) to which I have not yet received a response. It would have certainly been appropriate for them to have given a platform for at least one from a Muslim perspective on what Col. Jayasuriya himself acknowledged is a sensitive subject. Recently, journalist Kusal Perera pointed out how it has become very fashionable to project an ISIS bogey and Islam as a “potentially dreadful” enemy of humanity. With the end of the war and the LTTE, attempts are now being made to create an ‘enemy’ locally to justify a greater role for the armed forces, in line with similar international attempts to justify the entry of foreign forces into otherwise peaceful countries. The new bogey is ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ though there is no consensus on what it means.
A recent study for the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism revealed that foreign fighters in Syria lack even a basic understanding of Islam A recent study for the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism revealed that foreign fighters in Syria lack even a basic understanding of Islam. The timely report which was based on interviews with 43 people from 12 countries found that the returned fighters were ‘novices’ in their religion and some did not even know how to pray.
“Religious belief seems to have played a minimal role in the motivation of this sample,” the report found, pointing out that economic factors had become more important as terrorist groups promised wages, homes and even wives.
The UN report also warned of “significant policy implications arising from perceived injustice and discrimination”.
Similarly, political scientist Prof. Robert A. Pape’s solid, myth-busting research on terrorism has convincingly shown that the causes of terrorism are secular, not religious and that terrorism is a reaction to military intervention and occupation.
Prof. Pape, as founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago, together with his colleagues put together a complete database on all suicide attacks from 1974 to June 2016 - a total of 5,430 attacks in over 40 countries. According to Prof. Pape’s research:
What 95% of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon and the West Bank in the 80s and 90s, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and up through the Paris suicide attacks we’ve just experienced in the last days, military intervention—and specifically when the military intervention is occupying territory— that’s what prompts suicide and terrorism more than anything else.
The real beneficiaries of these conflicts are only the weapons manufacturers and their agents who work behind the scenes to put forward these grossly misleading ideas
Britain’s Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said as recently as May 2017, “UK’s involvement in military actions abroad has fuelled the risk of terrorism at home.” He said further “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our govt has supported or fought in other countries such as Libya, and terrorism at home”. But they need an enemy to keep their arms factories busy!
Back at home, Col. Jayasuriya makes the pitch that the growing influence of ‘Islamic radicalisation’ and the potential involvement of Sri Lankan Muslims in terrorist activity is a legitimate concern for Sri Lanka. He supports Gunaratne’s view that “If ideological extremism is neglected and ignored by any govt, it would lead to terrorism in the future”. Col. Jayasuriya’s presentation, replete with references to Sunni-Shia differences, glosses over the real issues recently highlighted by a UN expert; specifically that freedom of religious belief and practice has been endangered and that religious minorities have been heavily victimised by members of the majority community in post-war Sri Lanka. It only adds to the anti-Muslim sentiment that is widely prevalent, the Aluthgama mayhem of 2014 being the clearest example yet of violence predicated on prejudice.
That a minority community with a history of over a 1000 years in this island and continues to remain at under 10% of the country’s population will precipitously overtake the majority of over 70% is a claim that is absurd. A 2014 report by Statistician Delano Uduman noted that the Buddhist lead of 1,500,300 in 1881 had grown to 12,255,617 in real terms by 2012
The demographic issue
Col. Jayasuriya has tried to give credence to baseless fears of a ‘Muslim take-over’; that Sri Lanka will have a predominantly Muslim population in the future. He states that the Muslim population has increased from 1981 to 2012 more than that of the Buddhist population, while the Hindu and Christian populations have dwindled. This claim of a Muslim demographic take-over is one that has been flatly refuted by the Department of Census and Statistics.
While it is true that there has been a percentage increase for both the Sinhala and Muslim communities, this is mainly attributable to 2.8% of Tamils, comprising mainly Hindus and Tamil Christians migrating to other countries due to the war and other related factors. It does not take a rocket scientist or a statistician to figure out that the 2.8% drop in the country’s Tamil population would result in a population increase in percentage terms for the other communities respectively. Yet why do some people continue to raise this as an issue knowing well that is it absolutely baseless? Spreading such myths at an official level is a threat to national reconciliation and will serve to promote hatred, division and conflict between the Sinhalese and Muslims.
The real beneficiaries of these conflicts are only the weapons manufacturers and their agents who work behind the scenes to put forward these grossly misleading ideas which justify the wholly unnecessary purchase of security equipment, arms and ammunition. It is tremendously fascinating that in many narratives about ‘radicalisation’ such as Col. Jayasuriya’s, the role of the global arms industry and its interest in fuelling conflicts throughout the world hardly ever gets mentioned. If we are to earnestly examine the real roots of radicalisation, then we cannot turn a blind eye to its covert role in creating frictions within and between communities by giving oxygen to false propaganda.
If we are to earnestly examine the real roots of radicalisation, then we cannot turn a blind eye to its covert role in creating frictions within and among communities by giving oxygen to false propaganda
That a minority community with a history of over a 1000 years in this island and continues to remain at under 10% of the country’s population will precipitously overtake the majority of over 70% is a claim that is absurd. A 2014 report by Statistician Delano Uduman noted that the Buddhist lead of 1,500,300 in 1881 had grown to 12,255,617 in real terms by 2012. Each successive census has shown that the lead-gap, in real terms, between the Buddhist and Muslim population has been widening with the Buddhist lead increasing.
So it is implausible to claim that the Muslims will come anywhere close to catching up with the Buddhists numerically! It would damage the high reputation of Sri Lanka’s armed forces and its intelligence services to allow persons within the forces to put out such absurd claims which will negatively impact on the credentials of our forces under critical examination in the UN Human Rights Council.
Concept of ‘homeland security’
This was the other disturbing aspect of Col. Jayasuriya’s presentation, but I should perhaps not have been altogether surprised because the proposition was one being made by a military officer. Col. Jayasuriya waxes eloquent about the necessity for a ‘homeland security concept’ to deal with issues of ‘Islamic radicalisation’ and calls for new laws to enable Sri Lanka to face the challenge of ‘global Islamic radicalisation’.
In the entirety of his presentation, there is no evidence to back this claim of ‘growing Islamic radicalisation’. He makes reference to some sectarian issues which are by no means exclusive to the Islamic faith, and doesn’t even remotely point to ‘militant Islamism’ in Sri Lanka! It is well known that the threat of terrorism is often used as a ploy to justify more repressive laws. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been used, according to UN experts, by successive governments to harass Tamils in this country and now the proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), it is feared would be used to target the Muslims and Buddhist extremists.
Sri Lanka is not in need of a bloated, black-hole type of concept such as ‘homeland security’. The existing criminal laws are more than sufficient to deal with terrorism-related issues. The challenge for Sri Lanka is not from so-called radicalisation but from religious intolerance. The problem has to be first identified correctly before solutions are prescribed. Endless allusions to Islamic terrorism / radicalisation / fundamentalism where it doesn’t exist, only adds to the prejudices that are already prevalent against the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka.
Public policy responses to the question of terrorism should be driven by facts and not personal prejudices. It should be tempered by a genuine desire to promote and protect fundamental rights and the liberties of citizens. It is imperative to act responsibly and refrain from further inciting religious-based hatred. There are plenty of zealots, some of them tragically in saffron robes to champion bigotry here in our beloved island. We don’t need men in uniform openly following suit.