On July 30, a remarkable event took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when representatives of multiple religions — Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism — came together to express solidarity with the victims and survivors of the terrorist attacks that shook the island nation in April. Three churches celebrating Easter Sunday mass, as well as three luxury hotels filled mostly with foreign tourists, were targeted. The National Tawheed Jamaat, in concert with the so-called Islamic State (IS), orchestrated eight attacks across the capital and cities around the island.
At least 259 people were killed and scores more injured. In some cases, entire families perished. With no history of jihadist violence, the attacks came as a shock. Since January 2017, there were reports from multiple Muslim community members about the National Tawheed Jamaat becoming increasingly sympathetic with Islamic State ideology and its methods. Furthermore, the US and India warned about impending attacks weeks in advance. Despite these warnings, the Sri Lankan government did not arrest individuals who joined IS (which later claimed responsibility for the attacks), because at the time joining foreign terrorist groups was not a criminal offense.
In the wake of the onslaught, which caused sharp divisions between Muslim and Christian communities, a Sri Lankan pastor called for reconciliation, offering a message of forgiveness. While some 150 suspects were apprehended in connection with the attack, there were also physical reprisals against the Muslim community, not by Christians, who form a small minority in Sri Lanka, but by the Buddhist majority. Hundreds fled to other parts of the country; Islamic face veils were also banned following the attacks.
Recriminations resulted in the resignation of nine Muslim government ministers, who were later cleared of all terrorist charges and then reinstated. As the state of emergency continued, Sri Lanka’s burgeoning popularity as a travel destination suffered a tourist slump. In this context, the solidarity mission of the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL) NGO sent a meaningful message.
Messages of Inclusivity
The summit, officially titled the National Conference on Peace, Harmony and Coexistence, had as its aim to “promote the values of interfaith, peace, harmony, coexistence and tolerance among the people of Sri Lanka,” to “encourage people of all communities in Sri Lanka to adopt and live according to Sri Lankan culture, tradition, and to make sure that Sri Lanka [is] the most harmonious country for all diverse communities to live in,” as well as “to project the image of harmony and respect for culture, tradition, and social values between people of the Buddhist faith (the majority religion) and people of other faiths.” While an event of this sort was unprecedented in Sri Lanka, this was not the first interfaith or outreach event for Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa.
Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, an organization that hundreds of millions of Muslims know and revere, has tackled head on controversial topics such as Islam and the Holocaust; joined the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) to sign the It Stops Now agreement to combat hate, bigotry and fanaticism at the Center for Jewish History; has taken the stage alongside Jewish leaders and ambassadors from several Muslim countries to elaborate on his condemnation of Holocaust denial at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage; announced his intention to join the American Jewish Committee on a trip to Auschwitz; and has included Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish participants (including this author) in his various conferences in the United States.
The summit in Sri Lanka, however, was the first time al-Issa brought Christian and Jewish leaders to a trip abroad, including an interreligious affairs representative from the Vatican, an American Sephardi Federation board member, a well-known hakham (scholarly leader) in the Syrian Jewish community, Rabbi Elie Abadie, as well as ASF’s Executive Director Jason Guberman (who is married to the author).
Rabbi Abadie, in a statement addressed to participants and shared with the author, drew on convivencia (coexistence), a tradition that marked the Golden Age of Jewish and Muslim scholarship in Andalusia, Spain, to provide a model for mutual respect, friendship and collaboration: “First, as Religious Leaders, we must lead by example and communicate to our own congregations that peace is a basic human right. Jewish Scriptures in Leviticus 19:18 teach us to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’” His message was that leaders should take pride in their own religious history, cultures and strength, but also understand other religions and challenge congregants who are ignorant or intolerant.
To move from the theoretical to the real world, Rabbi Abadie proposed three specific aims for interfaith understanding and unity, including joint action following harassment or attacks, joint responses to local or international events that impact intercommunal relations, and coordination on educational programming to overcome misrepresentation, stereotyping, bigotry and ignorance.
The summit was at once symbolic and substantive. The president of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sheikh M.I.M. Rizvi Mufthi, delivered a strong denunciation of the terrorists and stated that he had issued a ruling forbidding the attackers from being buried in Sri Lanka’s Muslim cemeteries — an unequivocal message that there would be no tolerance for terrorism or extremist activity from the Muslim community.
Sheikh al-Issa underscored MWL’s stand with any community facing bigotry or extremism. His words made the organization’s position on the intent of these and other such attacks clear, calling them “a terrible crime which deliberately Christian worshipers and Westerners, desecrating places of worship and hotels.” He went on to say that “This was just the latest manifestation in a trend of religious tragedies. Just a month prior, the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, was the scene of a brutal attack on two Muslim mosques, also targeting worshippers as they sought refuge in prayer. And in the United States, Jewish synagogues in California and Pennsylvania have endured similar ruthless attacks.”
In addition to his unifying message, al-Issa unequivocally condemned ideological extremism and hate speech, which facilitates the spread of bigotry and makes such attacks possible. While the conference “asserts the solidity of good will” he stressed that “we mustn’t deny our lack of resolve in allowing the evolution of the primary material of violent extremism and terrorism, and in particular the rhetoric of hatred, racism and despicable superiority against others under the guise of the hegemony of religious and ethnic ideology.” He called for counterextremist actions to restrict hate speech and to combat the spread of malicious and hateful ideas through education and law enforcement.
Al-Issa was referring to the proliferation of online propaganda by the Islamic State, which targets isolated or vulnerable Muslims. Indeed, in some ways, these attacks foretold the future of IS, which has shifted its activities to Southeast and Southwest Asia following the loss of its territories in Iraq and Syria. It has reverted to terrorist attacks as a tool, after a land-based caliphate was no longer viable, and used violence as a visual recruiting platform for new supporters, who continued to flock to the terror group despite the organization’s apparent defeat. Indeed, following the attacks in Sri Lanka, IS supporters rallied for more attacks.
The attacks also revealed the Islamic State’s strategy of building an extensive global network through collaboration with local extremist groups. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a propaganda video shortly after the Sri Lanka attacks, stating that they are part of the group’s revitalization.
The propaganda also extends to mosques, where, alongside Facebook, one of the local organizers of the Easter bombings preached violence, without ever being investigated by the authorities. According to community members, the organizer had been posting such videos online for several years, recruiting followers and eventually forming an Islamist group behind the attacks, which received assistance from IS. The Islamic State took advantage of the tensions between local extremist Muslim groups and moderate Muslims, as well as Buddhist, to advance its own agenda. Sri Lankan extremist groups have had prior history of violence against each other as part of internal Sri Lankan civil strife. In the past, they also had the history of linking up with foreign organizations. Thus, their contacts with IS and al-Qaeda should come as no surprise.
IS and its local affiliates had an opportunity to exploit known legal and security vulnerabilities as well as the government’s failure to act on intelligence. However, it also fed on and exploited ideological divisions in Sri Lanka, where minorities may have lived in peace but have also been looked at as being separate from the majority Buddhist culture. Despite public claims to the contrary, the divide inside Sri Lanka had not been between Muslims and Christians, but between Buddhists and Muslims. Some of the local ties to the Islamic State date back to as early as 2016; at the same time, one of the ministers who made that claim had ties to anti-Muslim Buddhist prelates.
Contrary to the overall tradition and perception of tolerance and pacifism, a hard-line variation of Buddhism gave rise to extremism and the baiting of minorities in 2017. Some of this is evident in the repression and expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims from the nearby majority-Buddhist Myanmar, following a brutal military campaign in reaction to terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists. There, foreign fighters took advantage of the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which engaged in attacks on the Myanmar government in defense of their minority rights, and hijacked the conflict to advance the agenda of a global caliphate and to further alienate the Rohingya from the rest of society — a common pattern with global jihadist groups.
These elements carried out attacks on non-government targets supposedly in the name of the Rohingya cause, and used social media networks to attract Rohingya activists to the global jihad movement. Al-Qaeda, for instance, referenced Myanmar six times in its Resurgence magazine, clearly viewing the ongoing conflict as a vulnerability worth exploiting. The Islamic State also targeted vulnerable Uighur refugees and Rohingya activists in Myanmar. One of them was arrested in India in connection to an improvised explosive device detonated in West Bengal in 2014. Other groups allegedly working to advance Rohingya rights also emerged in the shadow of these tensions, making it harder and harder to distinguish between local insurgents and state-backed militants.
In Sri Lanka, religious sectarianism grew in part out of the colonial ethnic conflicts and religiously-influenced nationalism as a reaction to the perception of favoritism by the British for the Tamil Christian minority over the ethnic Sinhala majority, which is mostly Buddhist. However, the same pattern as in Myanmar is repeated, with major global terrorist organizations using smaller local groups to recruit new followers, even if the local insurgents were initially motivated by ethnic tensions or a sense of religious oppression.
Sri Lanka has a long history of ethnic and religious sectarianism, of which the conflict between the government and the ethnic minority Tamil Tigers is best known. Muslims comprise nearly 10% of the population; many speak the Tamil language. Some of the Islamic “missionary” movements came to the country in the midst of the conflict with the Tamil Tiger separatists, which took place between 1976 and 2009, bringing with them the ideas of political Islam — a contrast to the more prevalent, traditionally inward-looking practices — and leading to clashes between traditional Muslims and Islamists. An attack on a Sufi mosque in 2006 by Islamist extremists was an early sign of radicalization and division within the Muslim community.
According to Rajpal Abeynayake, writing in the Nikkei Asian review, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks see themselves as the guardians of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. They enjoy a highly respected social status that translates into political influence, which some have used to increase tensions between communities. There were marches of solidarity with Myanmar, after insinuations that Muslims were “slaughtering” Buddhists. When a group of 30 Rohingya refugees arrived in Sri Lanka, one of the Buddhist leaders claimed that they were “invading” the country.
Abeynayake describes an incident around the discovery of a UN refugee house near Colombo, when some of the Buddhist monks spread rumors that they exposed a terrorist hideout, which led to increased suspicion and overall hostility. When some of these monks were arrested for spreading fake news, it only sparked further outrage rather than condemnation of this deliberate incitement against the refugees.
Although there was evidence of increasing radicalization within the affected Sri Lankan community, such as the tons of explosives recovered by the police in mid-January, no action was taken by the government. While Islamist terrorism is new to the country, the targeting of Christians is not. In 2008, a Sri Lankan pastor was gunned down during the violation of the ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers.
The message of the summit, as far as Muslim World League is concerned, is that the organization is standing with Sri Lankans and all peoples in solidarity against extremists and revolutionaries of every persuasions. The organization acts by delivering universal messages through their conferences aimed at youth, religious and community leaders, government officials and human rights defenders. The league seeks to raise generations that respect each other. Working with local entities, it seeks replicate successes globally.
A thorny issue to emerge from the summit is the MWL’s push to criminalize hate speech. The Colombo Doctrine, a series of joint MWL and Sri Lankan government proposals, included provisions to stop the “incitement to violence” and restrict “speech that carries hate on the basis of ethnic, racial, national, or religious background.” Following the attacks, Sri Lankan government temporarily restricted Facebook and other social media due to their role in promoting extremist content. Facebook eventually placed technical restrictions that would limit the target audience for using its Messenger app in Sri Lanka.
This measure should, in theory, slow down the reach of extremist content among groups that were looking to use social media for that purpose. In the past, social media, including Facebook, had also been used to incite ethnic hatred and to fuel separatist conflicts. Facebook had worked to limit the visibility of hate or extremist content. However, MWL’s joint commitment with the Sri Lankan government would further advance this issue by targeting types of permissible content. Sheikh al-Issa’s long-term plan is to engage organizations and other governments to support his strategy of philosophical outreach and soft power.
This proposal would be controversial in the United States, where the First Amendment is enshrined in the Constitution, as well as in other Western countries where restrictions on free speech could easily end on a slippery slope of excessive political correctness. According to al-Issa, the US Constitution protects liberty and rights, but does not grant absolute freedom — and certainly does not grant a license to violate existing laws. An individual’s freedom falls short of infringing upon the freedom of another. Furthermore, he contended, the Constitution should not be taken literally, but rather in the context of the original intent of the Founding Fathers, who could not possibly have wanted to protect the wholesale, deliberate defamation of entire groups of people.
Perhaps the issue is not with freedom of speech itself, but with the fact that our laws were not written in the face of the threat posed by extremist ideas that would once have been relegated to fringe groups now infiltrating the mainstream, backed by foreign funding and social media campaigns. If that is the case, the MWL’s push for legal protections against extremist ideology may be best served in highlighting the problematic nature of funding with no transparency or accountability, and by continuing to do what the league is already doing — raising public awareness of hate speech, whether in religious institutions or in the media, and providing clear examples of the consequences of the spread of extremism and the dehumanization of the Other.
The discussion about the best ways to counter extremist threats will continue. It is promising to see how organizations like the Muslim World League and dedicated religious leaders are at the forefront of confronting the most contentious issues surrounding extremism. The Colombo summit went beyond talking points and feel-good speeches, tackling head on the divisions deepened by the attacks in Sri Lanka with actionable measures. Following concrete steps to create more inclusive societies guarantees that over time, the wounds will mend and there will be progress in countering divisive ideas with ones of unity and cooperation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.