24 April 2020

The resurrection and the life

Illustration courtesy Aysha Maryam Cassim

It’s been just a year since the Easter Sunday attacks shocked the nation and took the lives of over 300 Sri Lankans. It was a rude awakening for a nation that truly believed that terrorism was a thing of the past. It reminded everyone that the demise of one kind of terrorism does not mean the end of all terrorisms.

So we got to know about the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) which literally means ‘National Monotheism Organization.’ The name itself indicates intent and obviously absolute intolerance of religious others.

The dominant narratives are also informative. There are those who quickly jumped on post-attack attacks on Muslims and their properties. Nothing as violent and destructive as the Easter Sunday attacks of course (which seriously impacted tourism and therefore the national economy), but we had people talking about these incidents almost to the exclusion of the ‘antics’ of the NTJ. We were told ‘all Muslims are not terrorists.’ Absolutely. Does not mean that the terrorists weren’t Muslims. Indeed we saw a quick slip from ‘attacks orchestrated by terrorists adhering to the Islamist faith’ to ‘Easter Sunday attacks.’ That’s neat sidestepping. That’s sweeping things under the carpet. That’s dangerous.

The very same boys and girls padding the above narrative also interjected a subplot of victimhood. Muslims were a besieged community, we were asked to believe. In other words, if the  extremism of the NTJ had ‘roots’ they were to be found in other communities, religious or otherwise. Some pundits even urged people to ‘look for the funders,’ either directly or indirectly suggesting ‘Western Conspiracy.’

We do know the the West, the USA in particular, play the game of founding/funding terrorist organizations, creating and sustaining wars for political and business reasons. That said, it is laughable to think that the NTJ members who carried out the attacks were ‘in the know’ about such things, if indeed they were true. It is laughable to think that they blew themselves up by way of saying ‘thanks’ to the funders or were simply ‘doing the bidding of the master(s)’. No, it is abundantly clear that they were affirming their faith (the way they understood it). It was an act of faith, nothing more and nothing less. 

The above preamble is necessary because it is missing in the dominant narrative. So, let’s say ‘done!’ For now. Done with the preamble or, if you prefer, a framing of the issue that takes into consideration important elements of the story. 

Now we can and must talk of things within our control. For example, prevention. The then government failed miserably in this regard. Key individuals knew. They did nothing. The former Chief of National Intelligence, Sisira Mendis has revealed that the National Security Council hadn’t met for weeks despite early warnings about such an attack. This he mentioned to Parliamentary Selection Committee on the subject the first time they met. He was removed from his post a few days later. We saw the callousness of senior ministers who had the gumption to laugh about the attacks. 

There are lessons here. First, we can never let our guard down: national security is a priority. Secondly, it is better to be prepared because preparation helps prevention. The then government in word, policy and action not just let the national guard down, they essentially issued invitations to one and all terrorists. ‘Come attack….the paths have been cleared,’ is essentially the message that was given. And the ‘guests’ duly arrived.

My friend, Dr Udaya Liyanage, a surgeon now domiciled in the USA, made an interesting observation in a different context.

‘I, in my simple mind, have made a list of “bottom feeders” of the world. One simple criterion qualify admittance to the list. Does the person or organization monetize misery? If so, then you are a bottom feeder. BBC. Red Cross, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group, most NGOs, most religious organizations qualify easily to the bottom feeder list.’

That’s the third element. The bottom feeders moved in after the attacks. Well, it’s not that the misery was ‘monetized,’ but capital (political and otherwise) was made of the misery unleashed by the attacks.

So did Sri Lanka roll over and die? We got hit, that’s obvious. It was not the first hit we’ve suffered and it won’t be the last. We stood up. In this, we need to salute a few people.

First of all the Catholic Church and several organization of other christian denomination. They showed tremendous patience and restraint in the main, apart from a few incidents in Catholic-majority areas which, thankfully, did not spread. The Catholic Church has officially forgiven the perpetrators. The other cheek has been offered. And the distance for slapping, as the Very Reverend Fr James Amerasekara observed when he was Chaplain at St Thomas’ College, is also the distance that enables embrace.

Secondly, the Muslim community in general has demonstrated overwhelming remorse on behalf of those who perpetrated these horrific acts of terrorism in the name of the faith they share or, to be more precise, who worship the same god (but affirm faith in very different ways, obviously). It must be noted that the first victims of NTJ violence were Muslims of a different denomination, the Sufis. They were the first to suffer. They were the first to alert relevant authorities including politicians. They were the first, tragically, to be ignored.

I firmly believe that the Muslim community has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they do not subscribe to the extremist interpretations dished out by the NTJ, even though they show a marked reluctance to voice objection to the brands of Wahhabism which affirm and spread the doctrine of intolerance embedded in the notion of monotheism, perhaps for defensible reasons. They are peace-loving, I have no doubt, even though I have reservations about the demands that some of them make for a secular state given the thumb-twiddling approach to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). It is archaic and violates the principle of equality on multiple counts. That’s another story, however. Clinging to such things is not the preserve of the Muslim community.

It is patently unfair to blame an entire community for the violence unleashed by a few in that community. The NTJ’s terrorism made the entire Muslim community vulnerable. They are obviously uneasy. They’ve done everything possible to distance themselves from the NTJ. Alleviating their fears is something all other communities must do. Actively. The Catholic Church has led the way in this regard. Various Buddhist prelates have articulated the same sentiments. A lot more needs to be done, obviously.

In other words, we have a considerable reservoir of elements that make for reconciliation, moving forward. It takes just a few extremists to ruin things of course, but then again, all that is required to combat extremism is a few, determined men and women who will see beyond identity. We have such people in abundance. In all communities and as far as this issue is concerned, among Christians and Muslims. This is very important. It’s a fertile ground. A solid foundation. Call it whatever you will, we are blessed. Resurrection is not ‘out of the question.’

There are reservations of course. There is uncertainty. There is fear. All these are natural after-effects. Memories don’t die easily. We forgive and that’s a good thing. We should not forget for that could lead to us having to pay even stiffer prices if things go wrong. And they can.  There’s no substitute for caution. Alertness at all levels helps and unfortunately is a non-negotiable given contexts.  

In the end people, of all communities, have a role to play. They make resurrection possible. They must embody ‘the life.’

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