Behind the explicit instruction for the Muslims of Sri Lanka to sacrifice Tawheed, the motivations of this proscription lay bare the desire to set a precedent of explicit Islamophobic discrimination in legislature – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
- “Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance” – Albert Einstein
Before the dust had settled on the Presidential Commission’s (PCoI) investigation into the Easter attack, a draconian terrorism law with hereto unknown punitive measures came into effect.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a Gazette notification under Section 27 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979, read with the constitution, banning 11 Muslim extremist organisations, on the permission of Attorney General Dappula de Livera. Closely following the April 2019 Easter attack, the Government alleged that members of the NTJ (National Tawheed Jamath) were responsible, and swiftly reacted by banning the NTJ (along with other organisations, such as Jama’athe Milla’athe Ibrahim (JMI) and Willayath As Seylani by Gazette Notification specified as the Prevention of Terrorism (Proscription of Extremist Organisations) Regulations No. 1 of 2019. The ban was a result of the identification of these three organisations as the extremist outfits involved in such a heinous crime.
There is little to dispute with the proscribing of any notorious terrorist outfits but there must be scrutiny about such blanket proscription when it comes to organisations which have never been implicated; either with the Easter attacks or any other extremist activities or ideologies promoting terrorism within or out of the country. The responsibility for such proscription is also vague: though reported in the media that the decision was taken by the PCoI to ban all Tawheed organisations on the basis that they promoted Wahabism, it is the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Attorney General (AG) who approved the recommendation without further scrutiny.
Such compliance is not always to be expected however – despite recommendations to ban BBS (an extremist Buddhist organisation), the AG determined it to be above the law and blatantly ignored the recommendation of the PCoI. This preference is at odds with the Prevention of Terrorism (Proscription of Extremist Organizations) Regulations unreservedly setting out in its objective the “furtherance of the efforts of the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the continuance of peace within the country and in the interest of national security, public order, and the rule of law”.
In the words of Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, speaking on the sentencing of the BBS boss, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, for contempt of court: “It sends a clear message to the nationalists that the conduct of Ven. Gnanasara is unacceptable to the people of Sri Lanka. He should have also been investigated and prosecuted for his role in the violence of Dharga Town; that was a tragedy for the country.” Though there is not always agreement between myself and Prof. Gunaratna, I cannot help but consider his comments on the Sinhalese extremist elements spreading hate and inciting violence such as Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya, Mahason Balakaya – and likeminded groups – as a clear indication of the need for their proscription.
This view was partially reaffirmed by the then Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who said that he was informed of CID investigation of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and vowed that “law should be implemented against the perpetrators of Aluthgama violence regardless of their status.” As seems to be commonplace, such strong condemnation against the violent Sinhalese extremist groups never amounts to more than words, and the exclusion of his organisation from being banned sets another precedent that law would not be implemented when it comes to Buddhist clergies or their organisations.
In the end, it was Thero’s words which finally resulted in his sentencing to prison for contempt of court, albeit for the lesser charge of intimidating a Sinhalese woman and disrespecting a Judge during court proceedings. It is hard to ignore how such an outcome worked out favourably for him: he was protected from the trial of Dharha Town prosecution, where the complainants were Muslims, and the trial would have led to nationwide commotion.
As the public have no access to the PCoI’s report, it is not clear whether the PC specifically named those 11-terrorist organisations, especially those Tawheed organisations who have had no record of practising violence or preaching extremism. The fault line is the composition of the Panel of PCoI which excluded members from any other communities or had a consultative process in place to explore the dichotomy between Tawheed movements and other sectarian organisations.
However, statements from an MP who has had the privilege of having read the PCoI’s report, not only specify that there is no mention of the names of the proscribed organisations, but that BBS was highlighted as an extremist entity. If these claims are to be believed, perhaps it can be assumed that the AG took it upon himself to look specifically for Islamic organisations with the name of Tawheed and/or the names of those organisations identified by his advisors with a view to promoting Wahabism.
For the benefit of the reader, some definitions:
Wahabism is associated with its founder, Abdul Wahab who was a reformist and advocated the revival of Fundamentals of Islamic faith, seeing it to be adulterated over the centuries. His objective was to return to the Islam as enjoined in the Quran and preached and practised by the Prophet (Sunnah). Accordingly, innovations to Islam are vehemently rejected to ensure that believers observe Islam puritanically. This is true for many of those in the Gulf and beyond, who – without identifying as Wahabis – strive to follow Islam in its original, unadulterated form. Comparatively, variations of Islam typically feature these innovations, such as the Sufi custom of venerating saints or Shia approaches to deceased religious leaders (Imams).
Tawheed is the fundamental article of faith: oneness of God, as declared in in the Shahadah (“witness”): “There is no god worthy of worship, but Allah (God) and Muhammad (PBUH) is His slave and messenger.” Encyclopaedia Britannica adds further to this definition “Tawheed refers to the nature of that God—that he is a unity, not composed, not made up of parts, but simple and uncompounded.”
As is often the case, incorrect association and conflation of terms result in a poor understanding of the faith and its followers, with characterisations that are neither kind nor true. This is evidenced by the conflation of Tawheed with Wahabism, and the allegation that Wahabism promotes extremism. On the former, it must be understood that whilst Wahabism is Tawheed, Tawheed is not Wahabism. What this means in practice, is that while the puritanical form of Islam relies on the principle of oneness of God, belief in this principle does not make one a Wahabi. On the latter, the narrative of extremism – politically driven and penned by many in the Western world, but slowly adopted elsewhere – has incorrectly imputed the terminology of Wahabism to the unjustifiable and violent actions of extremists.
For Sri Lanka, any Muslim organisations with Tawheed in its name has not been made to feel very welcome, both by a section of the Muslim population who perceive it to be varying from traditional Islam, and by the hard-line Buddhist population, blaming it as propagandist of Wahhabism. A clear example comes from the former Governor of Western Province, Azath Salley. In November 2015, he personally delivered a letter to the then Secretary of Defence, Karunasena Hettiarachi, whilst copying his letters to the former President Maithripala Sirisena, the former premier Wickremesinghe and Inspector General Illangakoon.
His request, was for the Secretary of Defence to immediately cancel the visa given to Jainul Abdeen (PJ) who was then leader of Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaat (TNTJ). He alleged that the movement had been associated with and identified for its radical and extremist positions, and that PJ was responsible for extracting a ‘sub-sect’ of the group (known as SLTJ). He also alleged that PJ had been deported during the time of Chandrika Kumaranathiunga for his extremist views at the request of Former Western Governor, the late Alavi Moulana.
Shortly afterwards, Azath Salley and a few others made the unlikely union with Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero against Tawheed organisations. Whatever their intentions – and it remains unclear as to what benefit was anticipated to come out of such a union – the Muslims were soon placed at the receiving end of their sectarian dissention.
Opportunist and provocative retort
Fast forward to the present, and it is clear to see that the provisions relating to the banning Tawheed organisations are not only an infringement of religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution, but an opportunist and provocative retort. Almost automatically, the punishment for the actions of the Easter attackers is doled out on the rest of the population, with the weak allegation that all other Sri Lankan Tawheed organisations are promoting terrorism. Less clear are the motivations of the PCoI and the negligent compliance of the AG.
If the Government wrongly believes that Tawheed is Wahhabism and the organisations carrying the name of Tawheed are thus aligned, the duty of the AG should have been to ensure the existence of substantial evidence produced by the PCoI in its investigation into the Easter attack or any other extremist activities. It is arbitrary for the AG to grant permission to the President to ban Tawheed organisations without any objective evidence, as demonstrated by his inability to produce or charge a single individual among the members of such organisations involved in or promoting extremism in any form.
From many Muslims, there can be no stronger condemnation of the actions of such violent extremists – the moral penalty of harming an innocent is too great a sin. And yet, the penalty paid by the Muslim community is dear, with Islamophobia, discrimination, the too-often witnessed burning and rioting of Muslim neighbourhoods and livelihoods. It is abysmal that the Government rushed to make regulations before the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday attack to appease the hard-line Buddhist and the Christians faith leaders.
The proscribed Tawheed organisations were not provided an opportunity to put forward their case before the lawmakers, thus deprived of their fundamental right to have a fair hearing by the judiciary. In this background it is inevitable to see how such miscarriages of justice embolden notorious terrorist organisation in diaspora communities seeking review to cleanse its atrocities. For the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TNGTE) – a proxy to the LTTE – their challenge the proscription of the LTTE from the list of terrorist organisations in the UK and Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), was later allowed an appeal on the statutory test claiming that they are not ‘concerned in terrorism.’
Though the outcome is still pending with the Ministry of Home Affairs, at least mechanism exists with which to provide an opportunity for appeal to the POAC. If such a decision is taken by the British Government, it would be subjective and in no small way aid the attempted historical erasure of one of the world’s worst terrorist organisations. The key learning from this is not the de-proscription of any terrorist organisation involved in terrorist attacks and promoting extremism which happen to have Tawheed in its name; but that the proscribed Tawheed organisations should not have been marked as extremist organisations at the stroke of a pen when they were not ‘concerned with terrorism’.
In addition, there should exist a transparent and fair mechanism to challenge the decision through the judiciary within Sri Lanka, allowing the Superior Court in the country to dispense with justice. However, given previous excuses on the issue of his own community, it remains to be seen whether the one and only Muslim judge in the Supreme Court will we bothered to hear such a case.
In the rush to appear a credible ‘expert’ following the Easter attacks, every Tom, Dick and Harry has since gathered to offer their half-baked and poorly researched conclusions, at the dear expense of the Muslims. Some choice theories include Israeli sponsored terrorists as claimed by Rauf Hakeem; India sponsored terrorists as claimed by Dayasiri Jayasekara; the former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the USA as previously contrived by the now-appointed Minister of Public Security Admiral Sarath Wijesekara. In the same vein, the recent outcry of Father Cyril Gamini is without substantial evidence.
Yet the impact of such conspiratorial theories is clear and quantifiable: though the number of Muslim ‘extremists’ identified with terrorist organisations numbers less than a hundred, with nearly half of them are indicted on terror charges, over 100 mosques have been forced to close.
Ultimately, it is the silence of the Sri Lankan Muslim civil society and political and religious leaders, once again, on an issue that direly demands their attention and effort, that is deafening. The Muslim population of Sri Lanka is often unable to rely on them to represent their interests, and instead, depend on those with low stakes, such as the Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who remarked, “What we see in this is not religious fanaticism or a love for a religion, but the attempts of certain forces to consolidate their political position.”
Without strong and united representation, issues faced by the Sri Lankan Muslim population are in danger of once again becoming a political football, making them vulnerable to fickle statements of support and opportunistic capture by the maliciously intentioned. For Cardinal Ranjith, it was not long before he ate his own words, soon claiming that it was ‘all about Wahhabism’, ultimately adding fuel to the fire.
The Sri Lankan Muslim population will no doubt bear the brunt of the Church massacres for generations. Behind the explicit instruction for the Muslims of Sri Lanka to sacrifice Tawheed, the motivations of this proscription lay bare the desire to set a precedent of explicit Islamophobic discrimination in legislature. To condemn the Muslims without adequate investigation not only exposes the ignorance of those involved, but of the simple fact that belief in the Oneness of God, is not expendable.
Disclaimer: Sacrifice or slaughter? An assault on monotheism By S M M Bazeer - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view