Sometime towards the end of March 2016, a study commissioned by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) reportedly claimed that there are no ‘Islamic Jihadist groups in Sri Lanka’. The reliability of this inference unfortunately is highly debatable in view of the fact that the methodology adopted for the study was qualitative in nature and the analysis of data elicited was inductive. Aristotle in his publication Posterior Analytics described induction not as a process of reasoning, but as ‘the examination of instances that results in a common feature coming into view’.
Subsequently, an article in the DailyFT of 06th April 2016 under the caption ‘No ISIS in Sri Lanka’ carried the following statement “ISIS operations are not carried out in Sri Lanka and the Government has taken adequate measures to prevent foreign terrorist organisations from making use of Sri Lanka, the Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka confirmed to Parliament yesterday”.
This initially raises the question as to what exactly is meant/understood by the term ‘ISIS’ in this regard.
If by ‘ISIS’, the Government and Muslim Religious Organizations are referring to individuals (Sri Lankans or Foreigners in Sri Lanka) who are formal members of the ISIS Organization, then we are faced with an acute problem. To claim that there are no ISIS members in Sri Lanka, one has to prove beyond all doubt that there is not even one individual in Sri Lanka who belongs to this Organization. Are those who claim that there is ‘no ISIS in Sri Lanka’ able to provide such undisputable evidence to support their claim ? Or are they simply construing the ‘absence of evidence’ to mean ‘evidence of absence’ ? While seeking to prove a negative statement, the defining attributes of the subject under discussion have to be kept sharply in mind. For instance, to prove that at any specific point in time, there are no Elephants on a large grassy field such as the Galle Face Green is simple and straightforward. But can it be proved , at any specific point in time, that there is not even one Grass-hopper on the Galle Face Green ? Are those who deny the possible existence of ISIS/Jihadists in Sri Lanka making the perilous mistake of perceiving potential ISIS members in Sri Lanka as Elephants rather than as Grass-hoppers on a large grassy field ? One has to therefore act with great care and responsibility when issuing sweeping statements/pronouncements to the effect that something is totally absent in a specific environment.
The organization ISIS does not refute the fact that they are Muslims who interpret and practice Islam literally and have thereby earned the sobriquet of being ‘Extremists’. There is a however world of difference between the terms Islamic Fundamentalist and Islamic Extremist. An Islamic Fundamentalist is one who chooses to adhere strictly to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah, but does not impose such practices on other Muslims, verbally or otherwise, and who are basically at peace with themselves at the thought that they are following Islam as it was intended. An Islamic Extremist is also one who chooses to adhere strictly to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah, but however is ready and willing to go to extreme lengths including violence to ensure that other Muslims too adhere to such practices.
There is only a very thin line separating the ‘Fundamentalists’ from the ‘Extremists’. As Fundamentalism becomes more intense in depth and width within a Community, it is only a matter of time before some of the more passionate and zealous members reach a ‘tipping-point’ and develop thoughts which are compatible with Extremism. Clearly, Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam (the Sri Lankan ISIS fighter killed in July 2015) and some of his family members had reached such a point. If there is documented evidence that the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka has had the dubious honor of producing at least one active ISIS member, what is to prevent one from inferring that many more such Extremists could emerge in due course at some future point in time ? Has any Muslim Organization conducted any study to identify the factors that influenced and shaped the religious thinking and behavior of Nilam that led him to become an active member of ISIS ? In the absence of such information, how do the ACJU, the Shoora Council and other Muslim Organizations hope to introduce measures to prevent the germination and growth of extremist tendencies among members of the Muslim Community ?
The ICES Report referred to previously states ‘With regard to degenerative factionalism, the researchers also investigated the accusation made both within and outside the Muslim community that a Jihadist Movement was emerging in the East. On interviewing several Thablighi, Thawheed and Sufi representatives, it was found that while there is talk among discontented youth about espousing jihadi practices, these are just idle youth responding to the global trend in Islam, but with no motivation or the means to make this a reality. Local organisations such as mosque federations are also keeping tabs on the community and nipping such ideas in the bud. The ACJU, Shoora Council and local Mosque Federations confirmed that there are no Islamic Jihadi groups in Sri Lanka’.
What a flippant and dismissive ‘conclusion’ ! Based as it is on the public chatter of idle, discontented youth, on the supposedly strict ‘monitoring’ of the community by Muslim federations and (here’s the kicker) on the ‘confirmation’ provided by the ACJU, the Shoora Council and other exalted Muslim Organizations, can one really accept this finding ?
Therefore rather than making empty, meaningless, unsubstantiated and unprovable statements such as “there is no ISIS in Sri Lanka”, should the Organizations representing the Muslim Community not take effective steps to prevent the drift of the Community towards radical Fundamentalism. Their task should be to obviate the emergence of more S.M.S. Nilam’s in Sri Lanka.
It is clear to all Sri Lankans, that the members of the local Muslim Community have shifted and are continuing to shift to the right of the Secular – Spiritual scale over the past 30 to 40 years or more. This pace has gained traction and increased considerably due to various internal and external factors in the past 15 – 20 years. The increasing sight of men sporting beards and women in black abhayas may be conveying the wrong signals to the other Religious Communities, especially the Majority Community.
The International War against Islamic Terrorism has contributed towards the strengthening of extremist views among Muslims world-wide in much the same way as the 30-year war against Tamil Terrorism contributed towards the strengthening of extremist views among the Sinhalese and Tamil Communities. It would be a serious mistake to think that Muslim Sri Lankans have not been touched by this international trend. To continue insisting that there are no ‘ISIS/Jihadists’ in Sri Lanka would therefore amount to wishful thinking on the part of such individuals / organizations. Rather than remaining in a state of denial, it is time that the powers-that-be accept that the potential, I repeat, potential, for the emergence of Muslims with such extremist beliefs in our Motherland is extremely high.
Organizations such as the ACJU and the Shoora Council are wasting valuable time and resources on activities such ‘Raising Funds for Earthquake Victims in Nepal’ and the ‘Submission of Proposals for Electoral Reforms’. They should be spending an inordinate proportion of their time planning, implementing and monitoring strategies aimed at containing and diffusing the possible development of extremist tendencies among Muslims (young & old) and harnessing such energies for the benefit of the Community and Country. This is by no means an easy task. But the longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes.
It is time that the members of our Community took their blinkers off.
The following relevant article appeared in the Ceylon Today newspaper of Sunday 24th April 2016.
On the 20th of May 2017, the ejournal srilankamirror carried an article titled ’60 Sri Lankans join IS’.