Sri Lanka's Muslims brace for Islamophobic backlash

Sri Lanka's Muslims brace for Islamophobic backlash
Comment: With the memory of last years' social media led violence against them, the country's Muslim minority is already bracing for the backlash, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
24 Apr, 2019
Sri Lanka has about two million Muslims, roughly 10 percent of the population [Anadolu]
As Sri Lanka begins burying its dead, questions surrounding the motivations of the attackers remain as troubling as they are conflicting.

But these are early days and they are days of concern for all segments of the population, from the government to its intelligence agencies; from the country's Christian minority, who were the targets of the attack, to the roughly two million Muslims who risk being vilified and blamed for the deaths of more than 300 of their countrymen.

First, here are the things we know: The government has identified individuals tied to an Islamic cultural group known as National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ); the suspected suicide bombers had declared allegiance to Islamic State group (IS); revenge for Christchurch mosque attacks allegedly explains at least part of their motive; and that Sri Lankan intelligence agencies absolutely should have interdicted this attack well before it was carried out.

"Foreign intelligence has informed that Mohammed Cassim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashmi, the leader of the National Thoweeth Jamaath and his followers are planning suicide attacks in this country. The reports noted that these attacks could target Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission in Colombo," reads a memo from a top Sri Lankan police official to the country's security services 10 days prior to the attack.

This makes the memo a far greater indictment of the Sri Lankan government than the warning ignored by the Bush administration prior to 9/11 that read, "OBL Determined to Strike in US."

The tragedy will be compounded if the government is unable or unwilling to portray the country in a struggle against all forms of extremism

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has responded by promising a full investigation into the intelligence failure, and by directing his security forces to implement a nationwide curfew to prevent misinformation regarding the identities of the attackers igniting an outbreak of violence across the island nation.

But the identities, motives, and allegiance of the attackers is now well known: They are indigenous Sri Lankan citizens who pledged allegiance to a global violent jihadist movement.

The question now becomes what measures will the government put in place to both protect further "Islamist" extremist terrorism against Christian targets, and counter-violence, or terrorism against the country's Muslim minority, by both Christians and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

To that end, it's worth noting that there's never been a history of conflict between Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka, which emphasises the international-jihadist component to the attack, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert in terrorism and extremism.

The history of communal violence and discrimination by the country's Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who represent three-quarters of the total population, however, is both recent and frequent.

In March of last year, for instance, the government had no choice to but to declare a national emergency and impose a curfew on social media platforms after anti-Muslim conspiracies and rumours shared on Facebook and WhatsApp ignited a nationwide outbreak of violence against Muslims by the Sinhalese majority. The violence left three dead and a number of Muslim-owned businesses and properties destroyed.

"This whole country could have been burning in hours," had the government not put a temporary block on social media, the country's telecommunications minister told The Guardian, and to emphasise his point, telecommunications minister referenced a Facebook post that read, "Kill all Muslims, don't even let an infant of the dogs escape."

Sri Lanka, like other southeast Asian countries that suffer from low information literacy rates, is already grappling with how to prevent hateful and racist posts on social media platforms from sparking conflict and communal violence. Sanjana Hattotuwa, an analyst with the Centre for Policy Alternatives in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo,  recently observed, "The population can read and write but tends to immediately believe and uncritically respond to that which they see on social media."

Yanghee Lee, a United Nations investigator, described Facebook as a vehicle for inciting "acrimony, dissension and conflict," adding it had "turned into a beast," while also blaming it for driving the Rohingya Muslim genocide in Myanmar.

With the memory of last years' social media led violence against them, the country's Muslim minority is already bracing for the backlash.

So far, however, the signs are not good, with the government announcing on Tuesday it is considering passing a law to ban the niqab

"My cousins sent me messages saying they're concerned, and have been advised to stay in their homes and not send their children to school," Tasnim Nazeer, a British journalist and daughter of Sri Lankan parents, told me.

"They feel so helpless because they want to go out and support their fellow Christian and entire Sri Lankan community as they deeply despise the acts of those terrorists who have gone against the very religion they claim to be part of."

Doubly frustrating for the Muslim community is the fact that they were the ones who warned the government about the radicalisation of members within National Thowheed Jamath, a fact that will likely be overlooked when miscreants take to social media to spread fear and hatred of Muslims in the coming days, weeks and months.

"Targeting the non-Muslim community is something they encourage - they say you have to kill them in the name of religion," Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Bloomberg on Monday.

Read more: Sri Lanka suicide bombers pledged allegiance to IS before killing 321 civilians

"I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They have sat on it. That's the tragedy."

The tragedy will be compounded if the government and social media platforms are unable or unwilling to portray the country in a struggle against all forms of extremism, and not in a war against Muslims - a community that has long proven its devotion to its fellow citizens, and not nefarious outside groups.

So far, however, the signs are not good, with the government announcing on Tuesday it is considering passing a law to ban the niqab, which only perpetuates the mislabeling of Muslims as a security threat. This, in turn, will invite the sharing of hateful anti-Muslim memes and conspiracies online.

Pray for Sri Lanka. It's going to be a rough ride.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.