"Tragedy” only mildly describes Sri Lanka’s bombing spate. It was heinous, stirring the wrong juices, pitting the wrong spiritual brethrens against each other. It was evil, not only fanning flames between two religious groups, but also imposing this upon the scars of a country already reeling from two prior ethnic conflicts. It was despicable, snatching away the innocence and lives of God-fearing churchgoers, adventure-seeking tourists, and civilians caught flat-footed pursuing their routine tasks.
Its consequences similarly stink. At stake is not just the unravelling of a laboriously-consulted peace from the brutal 1983-2009 conflict, which suppressed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but also spillovers across South Asia. If New Zealand’s March 2019 massacre was a bolt out of the blue, Sri Lanka’s was the most coordinated since 9/11. Measuring those spillovers could be treacherous: a networked 9/11-type connection stares us in the face.
Two groups claim responsibility: the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The former is too small and too local to coordinate attacks without external support, the latter’s claim remains unverified. Both may be fringe Islamic groups, but they are interconnected and independent free-riders of shock.
Understanding plausible battle lines may not be so uphill. If the bombings were in retaliation for the Christchurch massacre, our lack of anticipation and inability to go beyond the “lone wolf” thesis is embarrassingly exposed, leaving the most damning of legacies: other possible reactions will now be encouraged. Since Sri Lanka seemed almost as far from any jihadi radar as New Zealand, we must now guard almost all non-descript countries or locations against such actions. A “lone wolf” perspective, which should shift spotlight to populists of all stripes to identify any “black sheep”, must now be combined with a jihadi red-herring: how NTJ’s Indian links shifted Sri Lanka’s wrath against a struggling Muslim minority (constituting barely 8 percent of the population), should open more than eyes.
Plenty of struggling Muslims dot the South Asia landscape. Only last week, Hazaras in Quetta faced an alleged jihadi assault; India’s election season witnesses extremists hounding Christians and Muslims; and Bangladesh’s 1.2 million Rohingyas, though secured from harm, remain exposed to cross-border ideational infiltration. Our intelligence needs to grow as crisscrossing populist-jihadi currents come out of the cracks.
Sri Lanka’s systemic failure prior to the bombings must be as censured as the jihadis punished. Even in Dhaka there were discussions of a US red alert in the second week of April. We were not amused, but fortunately escaped the jihadi net this time. Sri Lanka’s similar warning at roughly the same time went from certain desks, but not to critical others, exposing an egregious neglect, itself capitalising and feeding inter-personal political conflicts: the head of state, Maithripala Sirisena, sacking the chief executive, Ranil Wickremesinghe, until the court reinstated him, a rivalry with Indian connections.
If this vile petty politics taints sympathy for Sri Lanka, it only scratches the surface. At heart is the one-sided battle-victory sounded a decade ago against the Tamils. Whatever the details, it left a divided country even more divided, indeed segregated. Into this seeped the secularly developed Buddhist-Muslim wedge, not just in Sri Lanka, but mostly in Myanmar, and in both stemming from the origin rupture: the Bamiyan destruction in 2001. Other variables infiltrated, but targeting Islam assumed newer contours. When one of the historically most peaceful religions, Buddhism, moves towards a warpath, rival groups beware, specifically Muslims. Pushing that, Bangladesh must beware of Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalism, particularly if India, which is not on the same page as us over the Rohingyas, exploits this.
Now if we return to Sri Lanka, we get a more nuanced picture why Muslims seem riled, how they can be driven out of the mainstream as the Tamils were a decade ago, and what might follow. The only missing blank is the Christian component; and the Christchurch massacre supplied that. In contrast to Sri Lanka’s handling of the crisis (including its background), New Zealand may have shown the world through a strong and almost unanimous leadership why another massacre is less likely in New Zealand than elsewhere, like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s dilly-dallying Wickremesinghe is no Jacinta Ardern, the Rock of New Zealand.
Nor is Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Up for election next year, we might find a chauvinist anti-Rohingya voice becoming more strident, meaning, not all can be well on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. As Bangladesh despairs hosting the Rohingyas and Myanmar neglects them (shielded as it is by a formidable China-India-Russia axis in the United Nations, where the genocide labelling still remains without feet), only vultures show interest.
Meanwhile the ghost of Christchurch could haunt even other locations. Exploiting the Christian-Muslim disjuncture, other groups may settle other scores. Israel automatically comes to mind after populist Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory. His Golan Heights goals amid the Syrian imbroglio dittoes his Gaza Strip policy-actions, and how he has dragged an inept populist US leader deeper into an Iranian quagmire. Russia will be out prowling too, with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un also stirring the pot. As bedfellows get created out of adversities, the original jihad-driven Muslim bait is expected to harden ordinary Muslim lives in many more locations.
Samuel P Huntington wrote about a “clash of civilisation” in 1990. It simmered for quite a while, but instead of “torn” countries sparking it, as he prescribed, lone wolves have taken over. That opens a dangerous 21st-century trail.
Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).