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Terrorism in Sri Lanka – or anywhere – isn’t about religion

The hills of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. (Jeevan Ravindran/YJI)

PARIS – As a child growing up in the sleepy hill town of Nuwara Eliya during the Sri Lankan civil war, I was barely aware of what was going on elsewhere in my country, with tensions raging between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups. Despite being Tamil and raised as a Hindu, I was well-informed about all of the country’s groups and minorities, and my mother would take me to visit Buddhist viharas and Christian churches as well as the local temple.

My class at school was diverse and everyone was respectful of the religions of others – we were all aware of Eid, Diwali, Christmas and Vesak. Our school even introduced a program in which Tamil-speaking children learned to speak Sinhala and Sinhalese children learned to speak Tamil.

Diversity was valued.

So naturally, the series of bomb blasts which destroyed the Christian community in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday this year – killing 253 people – was a huge shock to me. The terrorists also targeted five-star hotels, killing several foreign citizens and tearing families apart. This wasn’t the Sri Lanka I knew, but for my parents and several older Sri Lankans, it marked a return to civil war-era violence which ravaged the country for 26 years, from 1983 to 2009.

However, the civil war was an ethnic conflict waged between the Tamil Tiger militia and the Sinhalese-led Sri Lankan government. It centred around the desire for an independent Tamil homeland in the north of the country and Tamil people fighting back against decades of systematic discrimination.

What is different and terrifying about this attack is that Sri Lanka’s Christians are the smallest religious minority, and an inconspicuous community composed of both Tamil and Sinhalese people. The fact that they were targeted, therefore, is cause for alarm – because nobody knows who the next target will be.

It is suspected that national terrorist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath was responsible for carrying out the attacks, with a video surfacing online of group leader Zahran Hashim and several other masked men swearing their allegiance to the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks. This led to widespread dialogue around Islamic extremism in the country and around the world, as radicalization of Muslims has never historically been a problem for Sri Lanka.

Along with this has surged a disgusting wave of Islamophobia. More than 1,000 Pakistani Muslim refugees in Sri Lanka had to flee their homes after being targeted by mobs in what was supposedly “revenge” for the attacks.

People forget that the attackers are an extremely small minority who do not represent Muslims whatsoever, just as Christian, Hindu or Buddhist terrorists also do not represent their respective religions. Very few people actually take the time to understand Islam, which is at its core a religion of peace and harmony. The Qur’an states, “You may fight in the cause of God against those who attack you, but do not aggress. God does not love the aggressors,” and also specifies, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”

But all this is too easy to forget when media reporting has focused on the fact that these were “Muslim” terrorists, and that they were radicalised by “Islamic ideologies.” Coverage rarely, if ever, questions whether the attacks are in line with Islamic principles or beliefs, or whether the terrorists are fit to represent the religion.

And it is this attitude which leads to such attacks, and the widespread belief that Islam is a religion of intolerance and violence. But did we take the same attitude toward the Buddhist mobs who attacked Muslim communities in Sri Lanka in March 2018 last year, destroying 450 homes and killing two people? Did we take the same attitude to the Christchurch terrorist, who killed 49 people?

I think not. As a society, we have become hypocritical. We assign labels to people when it fits our narrative and not when they are deserved. If a terrorist is not Muslim, it’s not such a neat narrative, especially when the terrorist’s racial or religious identity aligns a little too closely with that of the country’s majority. We can see this in the attack in Christchurch, or in the deaths of nine African American people in their church in 2015. We’re reluctant to call the attackers terrorists.

But this isn’t fair. Every act of terrorism is a brutal meditation dreamed up by an individual or a group of people – it never represents the wider ethnic or religious community, and this is something we need to remember.

The attack in Sri Lanka was allegedly revenge for the Christchurch attacks – which shows the nature of the chain reaction we’re dealing with here. And just like the Muslims at Christchurch mosque in New Zealand, Sri Lanka’s Christians were killed in prayer, during Easter Sunday Mass.

I’ve heard numerous stories about St. Anthony’s Church, where so many lost their lives. My mother has been there several times, and it’s a church that draws people in regardless of their religion – a symbol of religious unity.

Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike would go to the church. My mother’s friend, a Hindu, came out of the church just minutes before it blew up.

In times like this, when diversity is becoming a reason for war and terrorism, and individuals are taking it upon themselves to exact revenge and cause devastation to communities, we need to hold onto love and tolerance, whatever it takes – because that’s the best weapon we have to fight terrorism.

Resorting to hate and anger isn’t going to solve anything, but instead will start a chain reaction that will cause even more devastation. We need to ask ourselves how peace can be achieved in Sri Lanka, and how an atmosphere of religious tolerance can be reinstated.

We must think of how we can start building bridges instead of burning them.

We need to remember that if we can celebrate diversity in the classroom as children, we can do it in the world as adults. I hope we are up to the task.

Jeevan Ravindran is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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