I have visited Sri Lanka over 15 times now, living there for several months every year for the last 10 years. Early visits were during the civil war and there were inconveniences such as roadblocks, curfews and limitations on travel.
On one occasion my friends arranged an escort to the airport. There were no problems with me giving lectures at the University and to audiences containing Sinhala and Tamils.
The Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were terrible in all respects; made more terrible by our inability to understand why people would do such a thing. One can perhaps understand a stressed and mentally imbalanced person flying ‘off the handle’ and committing an atrocity. People like those perpetrating school shootings in the USA; loners, young minds detached from reality and without a developed social sense. The Sri Lankan bombings took a community of co-ordinated people dedicated to one evil purpose.
The Sri Lanka bombers, 8 or 9 of them, colluded and were directed. They had collaborators, suppliers of explosives, friends in high places and must have met and planned over many months to organise the explosives and manufacture of the bombs, the timetable and the locations of the attacks. They must have been mentally manipulated to accept suicide despite having full lives with wives and children and they must have had a reason for what they did. That is most puzzling of all for us to understand.
They knew they would bring death, as many deaths as possible and preferably, but not exclusively, Christian deaths. They knew that children would be killed, wives and mothers also. They knew that, in the long run, society would harden against them and their kind, but the world would go on, just as it has after the twin towers. They knew, too, that they would be received in Paradise by 40 (or is it 72?) virgins. I do not think the Quran specifies the number of these beings called HOURIS but 72 seems an accepted number. Female martyrs can have them also, presumably a male variety.
It is difficult to believe that not one of these people asked of themselves or others ‘Hey! Is this really what we should be doing? Can we not achieve more without killing ourselves?’ It seems that these matters are never discussed outside a very tight and secret circle; if they were, someone would tell them to be more sensible.
After the civil war was over, the Muslim population, about 10% of the total, became active. Mosques, some of them elaborate and expensive buildings, were built or restored. Visas were granted to Imams to visit and prominent Muslim clerics arrived from Saudi Arabia to preach, teach and set up madrasses where young boys could be taught Arabic, the Quran and a rigorous form of Islam. Many young men were granted scholarships to go to ‘universities’ in Saudi Arabia where they were versed in Wahhabist Islam.
On our early visits we became familiar with the Shalwar Kameez form of dress, one rarely saw the Niqab. Now Niqabs are common but the government is seeking to ban face coverings. Will that include motorcycle helmets and the face masks favoured by Japanese and Chinese tourists?
There have been Arab traders in Sri Lanka since before the time of Mohamed, they are called Moors. They had been granted the right to settle and marry Sri Lankan women in ancient times and had settled in the East around Batticaloa. Many became fishermen and farmers, but the Moors were and still are traders. Their form of Islam is Sufism, a gentle, mystical, non-belligerent form of the faith.
One Muslim trader I know in Kandy is a very good tailor, his shop carries a huge range of fabrics and he can get you a shirt made in a day or two (unless Sri Lanka is playing a test match when it takes a little longer.)
Inter-faith and intra-faith altercations break out from time to time. There are difficulties around Batticaloa where incoming Wahhabists disapprove of the established Suffists.
The government, after independence in 1947, had a British style constitution thanks to Sir William Ivor Jennings who drew it up. Over the years it has been changed and one of the serious changes has been the weakening of the independence of the justice system from politics. A senior retired police officer told me that the police just had to accept that some crimes could not be investigated by order of politicians. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the previous president, tried to sack the Senior Judge and replace her with someone more amenable to his desires. The Rajapaksa government achieved great heights in kleptocracy, nepotism and the ability to make critics disappear into white vans, never to be seen again.
The present government, under Sirisena, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket and they have tried to improve things but under their watch, billions of rupees in government bonds were spirited away by politicians who now live abroad. The government majority is slender and they have internal problems but the white vans of disappearance have gone though the security forces seem demoralised and lacking direction.
In January this year a spate of acts of vandalism against Buddhist statues broke out near Manawella and a group of Muslim men were caught in the act. Their interrogation lead to a coconut grove in Puttalam on the West coast where 100Kg of C4 military grade explosive was found along with other bomb-making chemicals. It is said that a government minister, Kabir Hashim, provided information and assistance and seven men were arrested. Later, two of the men were released on the orders of a high ranking politician – no one dare say who this is. In March Kabir Hashim was assassinated in Kandy but the killing was not widely publicised though Muslim extremists were implicated.
Meanwhile, in Batticaloa, Muslim clerics had given several warnings and made complaints about Zahran Hashim, a charismatic preacher who was preaching radical Islam including the need to destroy all non-believers. He was the leader of a radical group called NJT, National Thouheed Jama’ath. This group was known to the security forces in Sri Lanka and India, even the Indians knew that churches were likely to be bombed at Easter. Why did the Sri Lankan government not know, or say they did not know? Even one of the ministers was advised by his ailing father not to attend church on Easter Sunday.
Why was nothing done to stop the atrocity? Were the security forces afraid of being criticised by parliament? Did they not circulate their knowledge in case it reached fundamentalist sympathisers? Were their plans to try to identify other members of NTJ thinking that the bombings would not happen until later?
What makes a suicide bomber?
What motivates bombers? It is not poverty, not excessive wealth, not education or lack of it. It is religion, one religion versus another. All religions, as part of their belief, state that they are the one true religion and the others are wrong. From time to time this idea flowers as evil. Think of the Crusades, ISIS, the Middle East conflicts, Antisemitism, Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis versus Shia. This is one reason I subscribe to no religion.
Are there any good signs? There are a few and they come from the middle of society rather than from the leaders of government. In Sri Lanka the newspapers are now more likely to publicise corruption and name names though there is a long way to go yet. The corruptions they report seem to be on a lesser scale than previously. It was the Muslim community that reported Zahran Hashim and the same community is refusing to accept the remains of the bombers for burial. A leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim Conference said, ‘We are shamed and outraged. We must try to address issues within the community.’ He called for a period of introspection.
The Sri Lankan government is now aware, late in the day, of the extent of infiltration of radical clerics and the establishment of madrasses. Visa application from clerics are more carefully vetted. Ordinary people are beginning to question religious leaders. Religions demand tolerance, though they themselves are not always tolerant, they demand respect and understanding. They are averse to questioning but we need to question more, all of us, whatever our religion or none. Whatever our beliefs, we are all part of the human race and we are all born without belief or bigotry.
Here is what the leader writers in Sri Lanka are discussing in their papers:
- The closing of the gates of ‘ Ijtihad’ (Independent Reasoning) was a period in Islamic history where the rulers, fearing revolt from the masses, imposed strict and harsh interpretations of religion
- An Islam that is lost without art, culture or literature and in complete denial of the essence of the liberation of the soul. Instead, it has been usurped by a version which has suppressed any creativity
Recently I heard that Sri Lankans are returning to work but are still avoiding public gatherings like the cinema and churches remain closed. Two-thirds affirmed that their country was more important to them than their religion and two-thirds think their government is incompetent.