Stopping Islamophobia: Reassure the public and restore law and order

Saturday, 18 May 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The public need to be able to draw the distinction between the few hundred terrorists who were involved (with a couple of thousand supporters at most) from the millions who have done nothing and don’t want to be involved with it – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne



By Ravi Ratnsabapathy

The senseless attacks on Easter Sunday shook the nation and sparked a wave of anti-Muslim hysteria that is in danger of going out of control. There is a tangled jumble of emotions and causes that need to be sifted through to understand the problem. The fears arise from:

The entirely unexpected nature of the attack (there being previously no Muslim-Christian animosity).

The unknown nature of the threat. Since ISIS is involved apprehension that local Muslims are enmeshed in a shadowy, global terror network, with unknown objectives. Alarm that further attacks could take place – but for which no local causes or solutions can be found. Unlike the LTTE which had clear objectives and targets, there seem to be so many unknowns with this threat that people don’t know how to deal with it.

Inability to distinguish between the terrorist and an ordinary Muslim. Anyone with a long beard or with their head covered is seen as an extremist and therefore either a terrorist or a potential terrorist. Although Tamils faced similar suspicions they were less visible; with the Muslims, panicky people are seeing “terrorists” on every street corner.  

In addition, a lack of political leadership has led to a breakdown in confidence in the Government. There is the obvious bungling; failing to act on warnings that could have prevented the attacks. Then the absence of coherent, consistent and clear messages from the Government that the situation is under control has left a vacuum which has become the perfect breeding ground for rumours and mischief. 

Interested parties who seek to gain political advantage have cleverly exploited the situation by adding to the fears, spreading rumours of possible attacks, unfounded allegations against the Muslims and general messages of hate.

Irresponsible and sensationalist media reports on discoveries of knives or swords reinforce these suspicions, never mind that these are hardly the weapons of choice for mass murder.

The centre of the problem is therefore one of trust. People feel unable to trust the Muslim community who they view as a collective threat, neither can they trust the Government to protect them from this threat. These fears are completely unfounded but remain real in the popular imagination.

The Muslim community themselves have to deal with a different but equally complex set of emotions. The overwhelming majority of the Muslim community were as shocked and as horrified by the bombings as everyone else. Many are also filled with a lingering sense of guilt and shame that the terrorists came from their community. 

The innocent also find it very hard to deal with the fact that they have come to be held responsible for something that they did not do and do not support. This complexity and the lack of Government leadership has left the community uncertain of how to respond. They are also fearful, unable to trust the Government to protect them or their property.

Naturally a tragedy on this scale will lead to a confused outpouring of passions. The Government should be marshalling all these complex, sometimes conflicting emotions into one coherent response, drawing all citizens together against the common enemy. 

In the absence, the mutual misunderstanding and fears are feeding into panicky response and counter-response that is breeding a spiral of mutual mistrust and hatred. 

Much of Sri Lanka’s post-independence era has been marred by cyclical violence that has followed the classic pattern of escalation described by theorists. 

“Conflicts have a definite tendency to escalate, i.e., to become more intense and hostile, and to develop more issues, i.e., what the parties say the conflict is about. Therefore, escalating conflicts become more difficult to manage. The process of escalation feeds on fear and defensiveness. Threat leads to counter-threat, usually with higher stakes at each go-round. Selective and distorted perception justifies a competitive and cautious approach as opposed to a trusting and cooperative one…

“...competition breeds competition… Each party believes in the evil intentions of the other and the inevitability of disagreement, and therefore takes precautionary actions which signal mistrust and competitiveness (Blake, Shepard & Mouton, 1964). When the other party then responds with a counteraction, this is perceived as justifying the initial precautionary measure” – Dr Ronald Fisher.

Unless arrested forthwith, which demands firm leadership, we may be about to embark on yet another cycle. To prevent this, the first step is to reassure the public and second is to restore law and order.

Independent experts seem confident that the security forces have dismantled the IS network but the Government needs to send a clear message that it has done so. This needs to come jointly from the Government, the security establishment and supported by independent experts, since the Government is short on credibility. People need to be reassured that there is no further immediate threat. It is only then that tensions can be defused.

Second, the public need to be able to draw the distinction between the few hundred terrorists who were involved (with a couple of thousand supporters at most) from the millions who have done nothing and don’t want to be involved with it. 

The Government, the security establishment and the Muslim community need to be seen to be working together to identify and isolate the rogue elements within the community. The Muslim community leaders are already cooperating but the effort must be visible and consistent. It must be seen as a joint effort by all communities to counter rogue elements. 

The fight is, and needs to visibly be, between citizens and terrorists, not Sinhalese against Muslims. Given the tensions, in the short-term avoiding the distinctions in dress (which the community leadership has endorsed) will be helpful.

The wider public needs to understand that the Muslims who follow the austere form of Islam are not any different from the evangelical Christians. Both place more emphasis on their respective holy books than the rituals and forms that characterise their mainstream cousins. Neither is inherently more dangerous than the other. It is just that the Muslim’s adopt a distinct style of dress that makes them easily identified. Fundamentalist churches have come under attack because they proselytise but their followers are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. The fundamentalist Muslims look odd, but they are not necessarily dangerous. 

Common sense alone should tell us this. In over a quarter of a century that this form of Islam has been prevalent, we had a single attack, carried out by a handful of individuals who seem to have been radicalised overseas.

The Muslim community needs to redouble efforts to send a clear message that they want none of this. Cool heads need to bring community leaders together and work out practical programmes to rebuild trust.

There have been sporadic outbursts of violence in several areas. Reports of vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to check identities and police localities point to breakdown in law and order that must be immediately arrested. A message of zero tolerance of vigilantism and mob rule must go forth. At the first sign of violence, curfews need to be swiftly imposed with Riot Police deployed if necessary. Police must be ordered to detain and if necessary, shoot anyone disturbing the peace.

In the long-term, we need to bridge the social and cultural distance between the communities which must take place through education.