Easter Sunday Attacks and the Conscience of a Muslim
I was traveling by bus with my daughter on the morning of April 21st, 2019 when I heard the news over the radio that a large number of people were killed and injured in a huge explosion at the St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade. For a moment I couldn’t believe my ears as we have not been hearing about bomb blasts for the past 10 years.
I was more puzzled with the story which was broadcast after abruptly discontinuing a song with the response by the fellow passengers. They seemed unmoved by the story which should have ideally created a commotion inside the bus.
We alighted from the bus at “Town Hall” and after sending my daughter to her tuition class in another bus and I went to the office where our entire editorial staff was glued to a television screen. It was a horrifying sight that we were watching. Although I, as a journalist, had the experience of covering bomb blasts of huge magnitudes at places like the Central Telegraph Office in Colombo Fort, this was the most horrendous sight I had ever witnessed. I am not a champion of capital punishment, yet I asked one of my friends at the office who is also against the death penalty what is wrong in implementing a death sentence against people who can carry out this type of barbaric act, for which he just smiled.
Information on attacks on several other churches and tourist hotels started to flow in. Various theories on the perpetrators of the attacks were floating across the editorial space when one of my friends who had been hanging on to the phone stood up all at once saying “it was the IS” and ran to the Editor’s room. It was clear he meant the dreaded Middle Eastern terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
To hear that the killers of hundreds of innocent churchgoers happen to be of my own faith, filled me with an extreme sense of guilt and shame. Later in the day, authorities identified the persons involved in the attacks and it was further revealed that they had calculatedly targeted Christians on an Easter Sunday, a day holy to all Christians. My heart was cursing these savage brutes, but hesitant to speak out as I was skeptical as to how many of those around me were prepared to absolve me from the sins of this carnage after it came to light that this crime has been committed in the name of my faith? My conscience was struggling to accept the bitter reality of a group of people who were so vicious living within my community.
I was closely monitoring the response of the Sri Lankan Muslims to this catastrophe during the days that followed. Not a single media outlet or a website run by Muslims or an individual attempted to at least faintly justify the attacks, rather they were highly critical of the cruelty unleashed against a community that had stood with them when they were under attack by various racist groups.
Yet, one cannot be blind to the reality; a group from among my community has committed one of the gravest crimes in the history of this country. A large majority of Muslims including myself woke up to that reality only when a series of massacres took place in the name of their own faith. Hence, it was obvious that there must be more people indoctrinated with that killer ideology. The sense of guilt and shame coupled with the insults heaped on Muslims by a politically motivated media campaign initially brought about an introspective discourse among Muslims. However, the anti-Muslim media campaign took a horrendous turn very soon and swerved that discourse from introspection to self-defense.
Sinhala and English media – mainstream and social –, except for few outlets and journalists, while claiming that all Muslims were not to blame for the Easter Sunday carnage, portrayed not only the entire Muslim community but also their religion, culture, and way of life as savage, intolerant, uncultured and inimical to all others in the world. They forgot and made the country forget within days that the Muslims in this country had been a peaceful community living side-by-side with the majority Sinhalese and Tamils for more than a thousand years with the same religion, culture, and way of life, despite there being several isolated unfortunate incidents, in the past.
The media created such a devilish image of Muslims in the minds of the people from a largely peaceful community that some pockets of Muslims in Gampaha District came under an arson attack, but not by Christians, the victim community of the terrorist attack. The fact that the arson attacks took place not immediately but three weeks after the Easter Sunday carnage also clearly holds the media responsible for those attacks. It also made the introspective discourse among the Muslims fade away. I, who had started to peruse Islamic literature and discuss with fellow Muslims and try to understand what really had gone wrong, was too distracted and overwhelmed by fear of being attacked by mobs.
Nobody knows to what extent the killer ideology of the terrorists who cold-bloodedly murdered over 260 innocent people has infiltrated the Sri Lankan Muslim community. The authorities proved themselves incapable of distinguishing extremism from the ordinary faith that has been followed by the Muslims for so many centuries. They have still been looking for extremism in the century-old Madrasas, the Islamic religious schools, and Quzi courts, which have nothing to do with extremism, despite them requiring a major overhaul due to their outdated structure. It would only be the Muslims who could weed out the black sheep from among them.
I still strongly believe that the Muslims would have continued with their introspection which could have helped clearly distinguish the true faith and extremism, had they been let live for some time with the sense of guilt and shame that they experienced soon after the terrorist attacks, without being distracted.