As we enter into the fifth month of 2019, we acknowledge and pay our respects to the lives lost in Sri Lanka last week. On the 21st of April, while many were observing Easter Sunday mass, three churches across Sri Lanka and three hotels in the capital of Colombo were the targets of a series of coordinated suicide bombings. 253 people were killed and up to 500 were injured in the attacks, many of whom were children. Moreover, a further 10 civilians were killed this weekend in a police raid. The scale of human loss and devastation is obscene and we stand in solidarity with Sri Lankans and all those affected.
Speaking as an editor born in Sri Lanka, I am at a loss for words at the scale of human suffering that befalls our country. As a majority Buddhist nation, it’s unimaginable that the inescapability of human suffering described in Buddhist philosophy extends beyond metaphysical description to reality time and time again. A motivating factor in my move to Australia was the horror of the civil war, and its impact on civilian populations – Tamil, and Sinhalese. My parents constantly grew up in a climate of fear, with one insurgency after another. Despite escaping the trauma, this horror is inherited by the diaspora. As we hear, story by story, of family, friends, acquaintances whose lives were torn apart, we vicariously inhabit the lived experiences of the generations preceding us. As a Sinhalese man who had benefited from the wealth and prosperity of Colombo life, it’s confronting to understand that my pain is an infinitesimally small part of the collective suffering of my people.
I cannot do justice to the history of what has happened. From colonisation to independence, from ethnic cleansing to mass-killings, from poverty to governmental despotism – my perspective captures only a minority of conflict fought along class, ethnic and gendered lines. This event to me is another iteration of the flux between small periods of prosperity, and large periods of pain. Amanda’s amazing feature article on the following page elucidates the horrors of Governmental despotism in the 80’s and 90’s. Anyone with beliefs in democracy, press-freedom and civil liberties were challenged by tyrants who tried to maintain a status-quo on the accumulation of their private wealth. Even the so-called Democratic Socialism espoused by post-independence Sinhalese nationalists is fraught with violence. Modern Sri Lanka was built on the displacement and subjugation of the rural, Tamil poor whose hopes of well-being were squandered by the Civil War, Indian paramilitary occupation, and economic warfare. The revolutionary socialists of the ‘80s continued the tradition of Sinhalese chauvinism, whose visions of utopia excluded those who were Tamil. While it’s difficult to go in length to the complexities of Modern Sri Lankan history, I can only point to our constant division. Whilst this polemic may sound naive in nature – to unite in the face of suffering, it is necessary to mention in a place confounded by so much division – on class, on ethnicity, and now, on religion.
In the wake of the attacks, mob violence has led to the assault of Muslim communities all across Sri Lanka. Multiple reports have been made over Sri Lanka of gangs of men breaking into houses, smashing down doors, dragging people into the streets, and beating up children. Islamophobia is a phenomenon that needs to end before we end up in the next mass conflict. How many more must suffer until we understand that our divisions – whether they be socioeconomic, ethnic or religious – constantly draw us into conflict?
In spite of Islamophobic discourses, it is important to recognise that the ideology informing these terrorist attacks is alien to the majority of Muslims in the world. The spread of hyper-conservative Wahhabist interpretations of Islam is not the result of some inherent deficiency in Islamic theology. Rather, they are the result of highly cultivated, century-long geopolitical strategies from the dominant imperial powers of the day.
Before the 19th century, the dominant interpretation of Islam around the world was Sufi; emphasising a personal relationship with God and an appreciation of other religious traditions, within and outside Islam. Similar ideals predominate in the practices of most Muslims today. To brand someone a kafir, a non-believer, was unheard of among Muslims of the time, yet it is a discourse that predominates among ISIS and other similar groups.
The roots of Wahhabist ideology can be found in Islamic revivalist movements of the 19th century, however its modern manifestation is primarily the result of British colonial designs. To aid in the domination of the Arab world after WW1, the British cultivated an alliance with the most reactionary force in the region – the House of Saud. For two centuries, the al-Saud family had been one of the most powerful Arab tribes in the Hejaz, and had wedded themselves to the rigid doctrines of Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahhab (from whose name Wahhabism is derived). Wahhabi doctrine proclaimed a return to the golden age of Islam, condemning mainstream progressive interpretations of Islam as innovation, contrary to the word of God. When the British chose to grant the al-Saud family a state, they institutionalised the chauvinist ideology of Wahhabism in the Saudi state.
Since then, imperialism has used Wahhabism as an ideological bulwark against progressive and revolutionary movements across the Global South. In a rare moment of candidness, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia admitted that the Saudi-operated Muslim World League had been used to spread Wahhabism across the world throughout the Cold War to assist the United States in countering the rise of progressive national liberation movements. In South Asia, the military dictatorship of Pakistan engaged in a period of “Islamification”, turning the country into the de facto base of Wahhabism in the Indian Subcontinent. This is the context out of which the terrorists in Sri Lanka emerge. Only recently, it was demonstrated that Saudi backed Wahhabist groups in Colombo have been actively victimising Shia and Sufi Imams, refusing them Islamic burial and even inciting violence against them.
In such a context of hatred, we should know that colonialism divided us once, but it should never divide us again. We reject the politics of fear. We reject inter communal strife. We stand in solidarity with the victims of these attacks, and with all oppressed people fighting for their liberation.