Thursday, 7 April 2011

'The War on Terror' – from Birmingham to Batticaloa

                                                                                S.M.M. Bazeer

"Radical Islamist extremists, often called 'fundamentalist', were USfavourites in the 1980s, because they were the best killers who could be found. In those years, a prime enemy of the U.S. was the Catholic Church, which had sinned grievously in Latin America by adopting ‘the preferential option for the poor’, and suffered bitterly for that crime. The West is quite ecumenical in its choice of enemies. The criteria are subordination and service to power, not religion." 
Prof. Noam Chomsky  

George Bush  & Co. do not have intellectual property rights on the slogan 'War on Terror.' It was originally coined by Ronald Reagan to focus his war of terror on Central America and the Middle East. This long war has been ramified in different forms by his successors. Maybe the new 'War on Terror’ will soon spread all the way to Eravur in Batticaloa in its search for Sadam Hussain

From Birmingham to Batticaloa
In the early 1980s, the late Dr. Fareed Meeralebbe, the then Deputy Minister and MP for Batticaloa district, pioneered a free housing scheme for the Muslims among his constituents. During an official visit to Iraq, Dr. Meeralebbe persuaded Saddam Hussein to help the poor Muslims of his birthplace in Sri Lanka. The "Saddam Hussein Village"  was thus erected near the border between Eravur and Thalavai. Coincidentally, in the late 1980s, a mosque in Birmingham in England was also named after Saddam  Hussein following his generous donation towards its construction.

Almost two decades later, things have changed dramatically: Saddam Hussein has been deposed and is being hunted down in the pursuit of the 'War on Terror.' The coalition forces have not stopped with Iraq. They have now forced the trustees of the "Saddam Hussein" mosque in Birmingham to strike out the name of "Saddam Hussein." In a context where the coalition has failed to find either Saddam Hussein or the reputed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), they have turned to the symbolic destruction of Saddam rather than the evasive man himself, commencing with the destruction of his statues in Iraq and then the wiping out his name from a Birmingham mosque.

Ranil Wickramasinghe has provided ultimate justification for the war on Iraq, and sent out his response to George Bush's infamous " You are either with us or against us" – Bush's ultimatum for unity in the 'War on Terror." So with the US administration in hot pursuit, this may soon force Ranil Wickramasinghe's government to change the name of the Saddam Hussein village in Eravur as it may seem downright anathema to Bush’s allies.

Terror on the Saddam Hussein Village

The Saddam Hussein Village had become one of the targets of the terror of the LTTE in 1990. Innocuous poor Muslims who were fast asleep were brutally butchered by the Tigers without the sound of a gun being fired, and the village still bears the scars of the massacre. The villagers were terrorized, and had to evacuate their houses and shelter in makeshift refugee camps in Eravur. Until recently they have lived as 'internally displaced' people together with those refugee populations who were expelled from Rugam, Iluppatichenai, Kardiyanaru, etc. Ironically the LTTE, the attackers of the Saddam Hussein Village, was itself later designated as also a foreign terrorist organization in the US by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in October 1997, a designation which has been renewed every two years ever since.

Muslim Radical Elements and the SLMC

In the early 1990s Kautilya wrote in The Island newspaper that the international wave of Islamic fundamentalism was infiltrating into Sri Lankan Muslim politics and he saw the SLMC as a party in line with Iranian 'fundamentalism,' but this proved to be a myth. The SLMC has never been a religious party as alleged by the ultra-nationalists, despite the claim that their constitution is derived from the Quran per se.   It remains a political party that is mainly concerned with winning elections. The question of extremism has never arisen in the party, insofar as their supporters mainly concern themselves with political concessions. The SLMC's political beliefs are very middle-of-the-road, encompassing people from Anandarajah (the SLMC Jaffna candidate in the 2001 General Election) to Asitha Perera (former SLMC MP and confidante of Mr. Ashraff). The formation of the NUA, along with Mr. Ashraff's last statement that he was bidding farewell to the SLMC, indicated that he needed a non-racial national political party as an alternative to the SLMC.

Like his late leader, Mr. Hakeem has also never wanted to promote the emergence of extremism among Muslims. They have been most conscious of what happened to Tamil leaders at the hands of their own youths who took up arms. There may be any number of political gimmicks in democratic politics, but things usually turn sour when there is an element of militancy among the communities who would favour armed struggle. The SLMC had been always cautious about their own survival. They have given religious flavour to their election propaganda as a ploy to bag votes but would never dare promote such a phenomena. Mr. Rauff Hakeem publicly condemned the Taliban as fanatics. Moreover, the leaders of the SLMC address their supporters as 'Poralikale' (fighters) in order to arouse them as kind of ‘fighters’ in their election contests. Their contests have nothing to do with arms, but with bunkum. Nevertheless, it has also a history of intimidating their political opponents in an 'undemocratic' way through the use of their local hooligans.

Unfortunately the recent communal disturbances between the Tamils and Muslims have created a breach, and the Muslims tend to believe that they are helpless. In the absence of strong local or national Muslim political leadership, they may gain tendencies to call themselves "Osama Group" or some other name identifiable with extremism, without actually having any links to international organizations of such calibre. This radicalism may gain ground in a time of oppression. Interestingly, terrorism experts like Rohan Gunaratne may find a new niche for his research to propound his theory of “Osama’s links in the East.” Maybe he could have gathered some clues if he had been to the Eastern Province during the last election, when Segu Dawood, the SLMC candidate, and his minions were freely distributing T-shirts with Osama's portrait to entice voters at the time of the Afghan War in 2001. As a political gimmick, he portrayed his supporters as followers of Osama bin Laden, who they would have never heard of prior to September 11th. This type of idiotic exposure of innocent Muslims may well fuel tales of extremism.

Security Situations of the Muslims Since the Tamil Struggle

During the eighties, the UNP government established many paramilitary units, including the now notorious 'Home Guard' units.  These units were purported to provide security to Sinhala and Muslim border villages but mainly served to unleash counter-terror on Tamil villagers. JR and his successor’s government exploited the volatile security situation of the Muslims to recruit youth to form Home Guard units. However, this move was not supported by many Muslims, and in fact, some Muslim youths even joined the LTTE in the late 1980s. Then there was a series of attacks on Muslim Home Guards in some parts of the East in 1987. The LTTE issued the following statement:

"The Muslim people clearly understood the LTTE’s position and supported us. Increasingly large numbers of Muslim youths joined our liberation organization on whose representation, insistence and active participation the LTTE was compelled to launch attacks on this armed Muslim home guard's group killing 30 of them on the 30th December 1987 at Kattankudy and another 9 of the same home guard groups at Oddamavadi in November 1997. The LTTE has also banned the EPRLF and TELO as these groups are also engaged in treacherous activities to create tension and division among the people, for their own ends." (LTTE statement, 2 January 1988) Ironically all these groups have now united under the TNA and have accused the Muslims of extremism so as to force them to fall in line with the LTTE.

However, the security of the Muslims became a major question after the LTTE began carrying out massacres against Muslims in the East and began kidnapping numerous Muslim individuals in the period between 1987 and 1990.  Those Muslim youths in the LTTE deserted when they found out that their own people were massacred in 1990. History has repeated itself. The recent disturbances between the Tamils and Muslims have once again raised the question of Muslim security. As far as the politicians and the government are concerned, police recruitment may be an alternative solution for them to avoid such an emergence of militancy among Muslims. Thus they can easily recruit poor Muslim youth who have no choice of easy employment other than joining the police force. The Muslim parliamentarians will also bag more votes as job providers. But everybody should bear in mind that the bottom line is that the Muslims are extremely concerned about their security as they have been persecuted by Tamil militias in the North and East for more than two decades.

The Information War

The Tamilnet website has been waging an anti-Muslim propaganda war for quite a long time without contemplating the possible consequences. A few months of the official cessation of hostilities brought about hostilities between the Muslims and Tamils, when leaders like Karikalan openly accused the late SLMC leader, as Minister of Ports, of stockpiling arms in the Muslim villages. The Tamilnet has always been the primary source for spreading canards about Muslims. The Tamil Guardian (London, 13 February 1999) reported, “There are several Islamic fundamentalist groups active in the East that are agitating for the strict implementation of Islamic Law.”  The Tamilnet has always been the source of information to the international Tamil media. In or around July 2002, the Tamilnet accused, among other things, that the Muslims of Valachenai had kidnapped a Tamil woman; and when this turned out to be a media mockery, they never apologized to the Muslims. This website has masterminded a series of anti-Muslim campaigns at times of interracial mix-ups and violence.

There has also been deliberate attempts by other Tamil media and politicians to belittle the Muslims' radical points of view, their aspirations and even their demonstrations. It was unfortunate that Eelanadu (10-16 January, 2003) highlighted such a fear of Muslim "extremism" in line with the major southern Sinhala news media. This was also reflected in the speeches of the President and the former Foreign Minister Kadirgamar. We have also seen how antagonistic Joseph Pararajasingham is towards the Muslims of the East. During the recent 2001 Valachenai violence he alleged that those who were against the legitimate rights of the Tamils being realized through the peace process, “..were systematically instigating armed Islamic extremists to attack Tamils and create general violence in the East" (Tamilnet, 27 June 2002). He has never blamed  the Tigers whenever they have systematically violated the human rights of Muslims. Ironically it was around this time that Suda Ramachandran wrote in the Asian Times: "The Eastern Tigers are opposed to negotiations, and whether the LTTE's eastern cadres are fuelling the violence is a moot point." It has been the history of the Eastern Tiger leaders and their mouthpiece Mr. Pararajasingham, who, unlike the leaders of the North, have raised the temperature in the confrontation between the Tamils and Muslims.

Preparing a Case for the 'War on Terror'

Misinformation is another form of war, and is aimed at sanctifying one community and vilifying the other when concerns are raised for social justice and political rights. It seems that the way in which the government, the major national parties and the LTTE portray a handful of belligerent Muslims in the East as ‘extremists’ is paving the way for the preparation of a case for war in the name of ‘extremism.’ This is how the Sinhala government has unwittingly promoted extremism among the Tamils by the suppression of their legitimate political rights, but there now appears to be a coalition between the government and the LTTE against the Muslims. In the context of the globalization of the 'War on Terror,’ the LTTE could well infringe the rights of the Muslims in the guise of exterminating extremism, calling it a ‘Crackdown on Muslim Extremists.’ 

It appears that war has not ended in Sri Lanka. As they say in Tamil, "Although the rain has ceased the drizzling has not." In Sri Lanka, on the one hand, a historic ceasefire between the Tigers and the Government  has been achieved; and, on the other hand, a confrontation between the Muslims and Tamils has been triggered off in the form of racial tension and violence. There are also warnings from the Tigers and counterblasts from the People's Alliance and the JVP. Would it not be politically apt to say in the words of Plato that "only the dead have seen the end of war," if there was no end to conflicts between the Tamils and the Muslims.

Hindsight in Three Dimensions

This is the time for stopping the clashes between the Tamil-speaking communities of the North and East in light of the lessons of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.  

To put an end to confrontation between the Tamils and Muslims and bring on a lasting solution, we need to learn from our past as well.  

"The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement and reconciliation of, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of human rights of all." (Declaration of Support -- Northern Ireland Peace Agreement)
lines publication Volume2 Issue 3
November 2003

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