The most puzzling aspect of the multiple bombings of Churches and Luxury Hotels in Sri Lanka, was the targeting of Christians. Certainly, for those who live in Sri Lanka, this was totally unexpected.
Prof Kym Fraser
All seven of the suicide bombers were Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties, previously known for only attacks against Buddhists.
Why then suddenly did they target Christians and Westerners on such a mass scale?
Put simply, the NTJ became globalized when it came under the influence of ISIS, and had to follow ISIS’s orders and carry out dastardly and well-coordinated attacks against Christendom. These attacks are expressions of a rage that lurks within modern Islam of Christendom and of Christian values; which it believes has displaced Islam as the World’s preeminent religion. Let us now consider why this rage has arisen, and how it is empowering militant Muslims worldwide.
It is all to do with religious history. According to Prof Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of NSW, Islam sees itself as the successor to the Abrahamic faiths of ethical, prophetic monotheism. Mainstream Islam holds that the earlier revelations of Judaism and Christianity were incomplete. For this reason, Islam’s mainstream scholars have long held that it incorporates and carries forward all that is right and good in Judaism and Christianity. And what is not good or authentic, Islam rejects.
For 1000 years Islam survived the challenge of its great trans-Mediterranean rival, the world of Christendom, withstanding even the era of the Crusades. But eventually it succumbed to what we might call “post-Christian Christendom”, or Europe and the Western world.
The long crisis that the Islamic world, in the form of the Ottoman Empire or caliphate, entered was dramatically signaled at the end of the 18th century by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. During the following century, the world of Islam was overwhelmed. It was defeated and routed by the application of modern attitudes and techniques, born of the Enlightenment and the new scientific revolution, that the European powers commanded and developed and began to deploy ever more thoroughly – and which the world of Islam lacked.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, much of the Islamic world had fallen under European colonial domination. Its collapse and humiliation was accomplished by what we now call “modernity” — social, economic, administrative, technical, military, intellectual and cultural. It was dismembered and parceled out among different Western powers — notably France, Britain, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia and more recently, the USA.
No longer able to live in the world on their own terms under Islamic law, the Shariah, the lands of Islam fell under derivatively foreign legal systems. The sudden lack of congruence or “fit” between this conviction of Islam’s primacy, and the abject condition of its lands under colonialism inflicted a deep wound within the heart of the modern Islamic world. It posed a conundrum: if Islam alone were the completed and perfected religion of God — and if its political completeness was the basis for its long-lasting worldly success, which itself was proof of its religious superiority — then why was it now so comprehensively defeated and impotent? What had gone wrong?
Out of their failure came a new but old approach: a return to religion, to the belief that Islam is not the problem but the solution. That Islam has not failed the world’s Muslims but that they have failed Islam, failed to understand and live by it properly. For some, back to the Shariah. For some, even, restore the caliphate, a form of Islamic sovereignty capable of enforcing the Shariah.
A “Resurgent Islam”, in its benign and also its more activist and militant forms, is the latest attempt to heal a deep wound. This frames the religious and historical consciousness of most believing, loyal and sensitive modern Muslims, moderates and radicals. Though they may be only a minority, the radical Muslims, or militant Islamists, do not merely feel the pain of this wound. They also seek to act forcefully to “set things right again”.
Mainstream Islamic society and its leadership has sought to reject and disown radical Muslims as “not us, and not our problem”; or saying “what they do has nothing to do with Islam”.
The fact is that it has everything to do with Islam.
There is no other way to explain it. What the violent militants do may have little to do with “Islam as decent, progressive people choose to understand it”. But it exists within, feeds off, and is explicable only within Islam and in Islamic terms. Those Muslims who wish to repudiate the action of the militants must assert themselves emphatically within Islam. And they must assert their control over how Islam is seen by their non-Muslim fellow citizens, i.e. over its “brand”.
Simply acting “behind closed doors”, with intra-community diplomacy, will not suffice. True, there is no way this will be solved without Muslims playing the primary role, but this is not just an internal problem. What goes on in the world of Islam today, as recent gruesome events worldwide and now in Sri Lanka have repeatedly shown, is everybody’s business.
An adequate Muslim response cannot rest solely on issuing fatwas and similar religious condemnations of the militants and their atrocities as an offence against Islam. What they do is an offence, and much worse, against all of us.
The Islamic community leaders must do more. They must constantly deepen their own and their community’s commitment to modern, liberal, democratic and pluralist values, principles and forms of action. Their fellow citizens, those on other faiths, and even atheists, have the right to expect and ask this of them.
After the recent terrible events in Sri Lanka the question must be posed: “And what do we need to do now?”
There are two parts to the answer.
One part has to do with Muslims themselves. Nobody wants, or should want, to see our Muslim fellow citizens targeted as a group, or “picked off” as individuals on public transport or in the street — scapegoated, vilified, marginalised or isolated. We do not, or should not, want that to happen to them for their sakes, and also for the sake of Sri Lanka. Neither the society as a whole, nor any part of it, stands to benefit should that kind of division, antagonism and scapegoating occur, or be condoned.
However, the Muslims must also look inwardly. In recent times, they have collectively taken a confrontational attitude by not only differentiating themselves from the non-believers, but also wearing clothing completely alien to Sri Lanka. Muslims getting their women to dress in a Burka or Niqab is one obvious example. Muslim women in the ‘70s wore sarees, with the saree fall covering their heads. It was completely acceptable to their faith, and was also non-confrontational to those of other religions. In Indonesia, a country which I visit often, has one of the largest Muslim populations. Women in Indonesia are given the option of covering their heads, and that too with brightly coloured hijabs that are non-confrontational. It is the misreading of Islamic scriptures that has led to the current situation of many thousands of Sri Lankan women, some forced by their husbands, to wear the Burka or Niqab. The men too have, in recent times, confrontationally demonstrated their “Muslim-ness” by growing beards and shaving parts of their face that clearly differentiate them. Further, by using the economic clout of markets in Arabia, they have insisted that we all pay a tax for certification of food, some as common as Munchee Biscuits, to be certified as Halal.
Such confrontational differentiation is relatively new to Sri Lanka; and was imported here only since the 1970s, after the formation of the OPEC cartel. Saudi Arabia has used its oil money to export its own brand of orthodox Islam, called Wahhabism. This was something new to Sri Lanka and the recent deadly attacks against Christendom can be directly traced to this new brand of imported Islam. Muslims in Sri Lanka needed more enlightened leadership to overcome these confrontational attitudes.
The second part of how we could minimise the re-occurrence of terrorist episodes, is to understand the roots of radical Islam better. The all-too simplistic approach of social psychologists to counter such terrorism is to treat the problem as basically one of individual psychology (perhaps in a “group context”). They incorrectly see the problem as one of fragile, malleable — but remediable — misguided individuals; and propose “de-radicalisation” by some direct remedy or technical fix. But the recent Sri Lankan events show that the alleged perpetrators were individuals from all walks of society, with differing levels of education, who came together as a group with deadly consequences.
Ultimately, the problem is not an individual problem, but of Islamic itself: with its inherent tensions, its unresolved problems, and its interpretations of the Koran itself – which it finds difficult to acknowledge and resolve within itself. It is from their reading (or mis-reading) and their use (or misuse) of Islam’s holy books, the Koran and the Hadith, that these monsters draw their inspiration, as well as the supposed justification for their appalling actions.
Here is one such extract from the Koran (8:39) “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone [in the whole of the world]. But if they cease (worshipping others besides Allah), then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do.”. Other extracts that could be interpreted as giving permission for the recent events in Sri Lanka can be found in the Koran (9:29); (9:5); (9:11); (9:56-57); (2:193) and (3:83).
The Hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad, with accounts of his daily practice (the Sunna), constitute the other major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran. There are many saying in the Hadith that extremist Islam considers a call to action. Here are two examples:
"When you meet your enemies, who are polytheists (which includes Christians), invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them ... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them” (Sahih Muslim, 19:4294).
"Testify that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, or else I will chop off your neck!" (Bukhari, 59:643).
Clearly, militant Islam draws its inspiration from Islam itself. The result is terrorism that is constant and recurrent: its nonstop in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East such as Yemen, and beyond as with Boko Haram in Nigeria and in Somalia and Kenya, and with the mass slaughter of schoolchildren by the Taliban in Pakistan. Terrorist acts in Christendom, such as the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York, the museum in Belgium, the Ottawa parliament, Sydney’s Lindt Cafe or Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It just goes on and on, and all too frequently. And now, Christendom is attacked in Asia, in Sri Lanka.
Often the catchcry of “Islamophobia” is used to silence all serious, responsible discussion of the Islamic tradition and its desire to fulfil its historical destiny. It has to be overcome. We are all in this appalling situation together. We must think and act accordingly, our national political life and debates must reflect that fact, and our national political leaders must face the matter squarely and not be content with unhelpful banalities and misleading platitudes and the mindless blame-game.
If a tree bares rotten fruit, one can pick and destroy the rotten ones. But if the tree itself is rotten, then it must be cut, roots and all. But that is not enough. If the soil from which the tree draws its nutrients has traces of poison, then that poison needs to be extracted and eliminated before a new tree is planted.
The first thing that Sri Lanka must do is to remove the foreign tree of Wahhabism from Sri Lanka, roots and all. This includes closing all its schools and proposed universities. Forget about all the so-called aid lost in such a move. Sri Lanka’s economy has lost far more after these deadly attacks. Already Australian Muslim leaders have dispatched ‘moderate’ clerics to Australian universities to counter radicalization of students, especially foreign students studying there. Further, all garb that depict confrontational differentiation must be banned. Just uncovering the faces of women is not enough. Sri Lankan Muslims must return to the traditional dress codes that enable its people to live in harmony for centuries.
Extracting the poison from the soil will be more difficult.
(Prof Kym Fraser has held the position of adjunct professor at Australian, European and Indonesian universities)
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