Countering the Radical Right

(C)overt Islamophobia: the aftermath of the Sri Lanka Easter attacks

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is suffering from continuous Islamophobia on two fronts.

Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero
21 October 2019
Damaged shop after mobs attacked Muslim-owned shops in Sri Lanka in the wake of the Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people.
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Picture by Pradeep Dambarage/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On April 21st, 2019 eight explosions happened all through the island of Sri Lanka almost simultaneously. The explosions specifically targeted the West via luxury hotels and Christian churches where the Easter Sunday services were being celebrated.

The number of casualties eventually reached 253 and (unusually) 48 hours later, the Islamic State claimed the authorship of the attack in collaboration with members of a local extremist organization, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath.

The socio-political and emotional chaos provoked by a massacre of this magnitude was as expected as unwanted, ranging from the unbelievable links politicians wanted to find to explain the disaster to the high number of scapegoats searched, found and used as a mere distraction strategy to give citizens the fake impression of having assumed responsibilities. Then came the questions of the inaction of a government that had been previously warned of the radical extremist behaviour of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath by the Muslim local community several times in the last years as well as the information about the possibility of a terrorist attack by the intelligence services. But it was too late, way too late.

As it unfortunately happens in any part of the world after a terrorist attack carried out by Islamist groups, the immediate consequence is a backlash against the Muslim community. This is the latent islamophobia nesting in those who are waiting for any tragedy to happen as if the horror begot by a few would legitimate them to spread their hate. The main victim of ISIS is primarily the Muslim community. obviously not talking here of the religion of the individual casualties.-not any kind of differentiation is needed then, but what I mean is the aversion and stigmatisation the Muslim community suffer systematically as a direct result of the terrorist actions of a few.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the socio-historical and political situation of the island make the whole scene even more complicated. The bloody civil war that shook the country for 26 years (1983-2009) between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist (70, 2%) and the biggest minority Tamil Hindu (12, 6%) provoked deeply rooted wounds that are still waiting to be healed. The post-war era has shown how extremely difficult it is to overcome the memories when thousands of citizens still demand answers and justice. The post-war era however, brought up the Muslim minority ( 9,7%) as the new ‘other’, emulating a world-wide trend.

In 2018, I conducted academic research on the discourse of the ethnic clashes that took place in Digana that same year between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims after similar previous conflicts in Aluthgama (2014) and Gintota (2017). An analysis of English language comments on posts related to the Digana attacks in newspapers such as the Colombo Telegraph and the Daily Mirror (1011 comments as a whole) revealed certain patterns in the construction of the extreme discourse online as well as disclosed the dynamics of power and force exchange between the three main ethno-religious and linguistic groups: the Sinhalese, the Muslims but to a less extent also the Tamils.

The discourse of the haters on these English speaking platforms (not at all the whole population of the island) mainly revolved around a concept of a ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ which deliberately excluded any historical, religious, linguistic or cultural trace not associated with the Buddhist Sinhalese, the ‘genuine’ inhabitants of the island in the eyes of the extremist

Using a methodology (Critical Discourse Analysis) that is designed to unveilthe dominant discourses that affect oppression, injustice and inequality and criticizes them, and particularly the Discourse-Historical Approach- I was able to detect the presence of recurrent patterns, specially topoi (in rhetoric, warrants that make a connection between the arguments and the conclusions) among other revealing linguistic patterns. However, while that was the Islamophobic discourse in the island’s media, when I studied the same chain of events (the ethnic problems in Digana and Ampara) in other social media platforms like YouTube the comments on the videos about those clashes ( posted by Sri Lankans but also by speakers out of the island who are probably not fully aware of the socio-political context there), - displayed painful endless threads of hate basically praising and supporting the attacks addressed at the Sri Lankan Muslim community. A common pattern in the comments is the demonization of Muslims as inherently guilty actors just because of their faith and consequently deserving all the attacks;some speakers even encouraging the extremist Buddhist attackers to make of Sri Lanka a second Myanmar: “I stand with Buddhist monks of Myanmar & Sri Lanka”, “ Purge the land, clean it”, “Muslims are violent against EVERYONE ELSE on the entire planet, but they sure cry a lot when people fight back.”

The same situation has happened this year after the videos on the Easter Attacks. A linguistic analysis on the comments in YouTube based on the modifiers preceding key terms such as ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Quran’ or ‘mosque’ as well as a study of the sentence structures in which ‘Muslims’ (or related terms) are either Agents or Patients, that is, the perpetrators or victims of actions, frequently associated to death and destruction sadly confirm the same results: “You Cannot Trust Any Muslim around you Nowadays ...illeterate (sic) or educated U can love them but they wish (Agent) ur death”, “A 'radical' muslim is simply one that has read and believed the koran. So there is really is no such thing as a 'radical' islamist, there are only islamists. Some who kill (Agent), some who support the killers (Agent) and some who haven't read their 'holy' book, yet (Agent),mosque of muslims (patient) should be razed to the ground ”. The so called ‘us vs. them’ narrative has been dramatically replaced by of ‘us or them’.i

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka is suffering from continuous islamophobia on two fronts: in their unwanted new role as the targeted minority in the post-war era (intra-national islamophobia) or due to ISIS’ bloody actions (international islamophobia). While they try to work as much as they can to overcome this tragedy they still fear the rage of some. Luckily, there are still people in Sri Lanka and all around the world who are willing to distinguish between terrorists acting on behalf of an individual cause they have shielded with religion and the great majority of the Muslim community. In times like these, our voice cannot remain silent.

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