Justice Minister’s statement without full clarification

RELIGION, WARLORDS AND TERROR (Sunday Observer Editorial)

The Minister of Justice made reference in Parliament last week to Sri Lankans apparently joining the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL), and linked those Sri Lankans to a single religion without full clarification about this linkage. After all, it is of significance whether these persons did so purely for genuine, religious purposes, for economic gain or security or, simply because they were joining in obedience to a family elder.

This parliamentary reference, bringing with it, widespread news media coverage, immediately placed the Muslim community on guard for a possible renewal of religious tensions and violence. The news media grabbed this opportunity to sensationalise the Minister’s speech in the House. This inevitably drew attention to the activities and culture of a single ethno-religious community rather than to the specific issues that arise from the joining of ISIL by Sri Lankans.

The nature of ISIL – or, ‘Da-esh’, as it is known in Arabic – is such that it causes much sensation, usually sensations of fear and disgust, but also enthusiasm and exultation, among some people, possibly enamoured with the organisation’s military exploits.

To date, ISIL can only boast about exploits of violence, indeed, public bestiality, in addition to the breaking of the entire gamut of law: from illegal obtaining and use of weaponry, slavery, mass rape, devastation of social and economic infrastructure and destabilisation of whole states. The exultation it arouses is through the much publicised upholding of a pseudo-religion over and above the laws and practices of civilisation.

This can only be done by the clever manipulation of religious themes to claim that their ‘religion’ is above the rules of humanity – that is, the constitutions of whole societies and international law adopted by the global community of nations. Such exaltation by ISIL of the superiority of their own pseudo-religion above all else can and does appeal to people who feel, for whatever reason, trapped by societies’ laws and norms; those who feel dis-empowered by their citizenship to the degree that they fantasize about creating their own special ‘citizenship’ in a pseudo-religious pretence of a ‘state’.

The so-called ‘state’ created by gangs of illegally armed groups is no more than a large area on the remote margins of several states that have been weakened by decades of war and internal instability. This so-called ‘state’ fails to match even the vestiges of a genuine, orderly and civilised state-society. Further, the very nature of its creation – enabled solely by that power vacuum in corners of several West Asian states (i.e. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey etc) – renders this so-called ‘state’ extremely temporary in terms of territory and existence.

It is important to understand that this mobilisation of the frustrations and anxieties of people on the basis of their religion is a ploy that has been used time and again in modern times – including our in own country. There is hardly a major religion on earth that has not been abused for the purpose: of mobilising people on the basis that their faith empowers them to transcend the general societal framework which they perceive as disempowering them.

Right now, in this world, we see one popularly elected governmental leader openly declaring the resort to the physical elimination of narcotic drug dealers and users with only the minimum recourse to legal justification. We also saw election campaign mobilisation in another country that encouraged people to look beyond governance and constitutions and be guided by racial differentiation without regard to social norms. That that election mobilisation was successful prompted that country’s analysts to conclude that their country, despite its affluence, did have sizeable segments of its population that felt disempowered and marginalised and, consequently, wanted to break the bounds of existing norms and practices.

In our own country, we had one insurgent endeavour to create a similar separate territory seemingly as a new home for those who felt ethnically marginalised and disempowered. Thankfully, that enterprise did have genuine socio-political origins and, even if the militarily dominant insurgent group did attempt to drag a whole community towards a separatist extreme, the larger social movement of that community turned to more genuinely representative and, more importantly, civilised politics.

Also in our own country, we have seen people claiming to be clergy of a religion who carried out actions in open contempt of the law, indeed, in blatant violations of laws in the very presence of the guardians of law and security. We saw these ‘clergy’ openly incite racial and religious hatred, but more significantly, claiming the right to such actions on the basis of their ‘higher’ religious inspiration which they claimed to be ‘above’ the law.

As long as there are sections of the population that feel trapped in their predicament with existing frameworks seemingly of no help to them, there will be people susceptible to appeals to a ‘faith’ inspiration that is ‘above’ the laws and norms of society.

The Justice Minister must not only raise his warning about such misguidance of people. He must also offer at least ideas – if not active measures – for initial steps to mitigate the dynamics of social frustrations and misperceptions. The Minister is well aware of the many incidents of communal violence and incitement to violence in recent years and should be aware of the ominous, persistent patterns of behaviour by some groups and, more recently, the emergence of new groups. As Minister of Justice, he has the wherewithal, at governmental level, to take quick action to probe past violence and to prevent or mitigate newly emerging trends.

The Government will do well to share its intelligence with the relevant religious and community leaderships and to support actions for internal disciplining with religious establishments.

Already, many major religions in the country are organising themselves in response to this challenge by opportunist, power-seeking, elements attempting to misguide the faithful away from the genuine dharma or doctrine that ensures civilised human community in transcendence rather than a destructive nihilism.

It is a challenge to the faithful of all religions in the country to be vigilant for such deviant behaviour on the one hand and, on the other, to identify areas of social marginalisation and discontent and, cooperate in supportive interventions, including creative theology and philosophy, to meet such contingencies.