Easter Tragedy in Sri Lanka; Radical and Intolerant Beliefs Need to Be Addressed

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Wed, 2019-04-24
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St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. (Photo: Stringer/Getty Images)


Last Saturday I wrote my newsletter about Pesach, Easter, and Ramadan. Who could at that moment have imagined that extremists, claiming to act in the name of Islam, would commit such a huge attack on eight churches and hotels in Sri Lanka leaving 321 people dead with the death toll still rising. Easter, the feast of the risen Lord Jesus, is the most important feast in Christianity and thus churches were packed with worshipers. They spread death on a day that should have been a day of joy for the families and communities of the victims.


The Sri Lankan government identified National Throwheeth Jamaath, a small Islamist terrorist organization, as the perpetrators. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility two days later on Tuesday April 23. Amaq, the group’s news agency, stated that “that the bombings had been intended to target Christians, as well as citizens of countries belonging to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.” They spoke about Easter as “the infidel holiday.”


Amaq published a video apparently showing masked Sri Lanka attackers “pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī], the leader of ISIS, whom they called ‘emir of the believers.’” Only one of the attackers, Mohammed Zaharan [Muḥammad Zahrān], was not masked. Sri Lankan officials identified him as the leader of the group that carried out the bombings. ISIS had repeatedly called for attacks on churches, in particular since the attacks on the two mosques in New Zealand (New York Times, April 23).


The New York Times states that these claims do not mean that there were direct instructions from ISIS but it does indicate “that the assailants were steeped in its ideology, and familiar with the terminology and rituals of carrying out an attack in ISIS’ name.”


People steeped in extremist ideology, regardless of whether they are Islamists or right-wing ideologues, such as the attacker in New Zealand, are not interested in nuance.  Attacks on Muslims in previous years were not carried out by pious Christian believers, but by Muslim radicals on innocent Muslim worshippers such as the Sufi mosque a few years ago in Sinai and people with distorted right wing ideologies. Thus, ordinary worshippers, Muslims in New Zealand and Christians in Sri Lanka who had nothing to do with these radical ideologies, became yet the victims of radical Islamophobes and radical Islamists. This is very sad!


On April 17th, I gave a lecture for the Anthroposophical society in The Hague. One of the attendees asked what we do when we are encountered by fundamentalists or extremists. Islamists used the first free parliamentary elections in Egypt to come to power, and when they later lost ground they threatened violence. This is of course much more complex then what I can describe here. But, in this period we have been open to meetings with Islamists and have interviewed many of them, which has been documented and placed in Arab-West Report. I believe that we should always be ready to meet with anyone who is willing to talk and listen to their stories. It is important to understand their arguments and, if possible, engage in dialogue. We met in 2013 with Jihādī Salafī leader Ahmed Ashush [Aḥmad ʿAshūsh] and recorded the interview. It was strange. The man did not listen to our questions. He was preaching to his own followers who had come with him and of course they nodded in agreement. This was for us a lesson showing how much they are locked in their own ideology. We have documented this and hope this will help others in formulating answers to such ideologies. Just stating that their ideology is evil is insufficient. There is a distorted logic behind this that needs to be addressed.


Dutch sociologist Ruud Koopmans recently published a new book with the title “Het vervallen huis van de islam,” (in translation: the dilapidated house of the Islam). Muslims, he writes, often state in response to Islamist motivated violence that these are not true Muslims and true Islam is peace. The problem, in particular for Muslims, is that these radicals base their claims on the Qur’an and Hadith. In any religion with holy texts these texts can be interpreted in multiple ways. The answer of prominent institutions such as the Azhar is that more efforts are needed to teach true Islam. Koopmans does not want to go into arguments about what is true and not true Islam, but looks at massive statistics that show actual beliefs, behavior and consequences. The main problem, Koopmans argues, is an intolerant understanding of Islam. Koopman’s own wife is Turkish. He is familiar with the Islamic world and he argues against Western Islamophobic claims that Islam in general is at fault. Islamic history shows that Muslim empires were generally very tolerant towards people with different beliefs. This has changed with the growth of an Islamist fundamentalist understanding of Islam that calls for hate and violence against people with different beliefs. Those victims are both Muslims and non-Muslims. The core problem, he argues, is in the belief that the Qur’an is the literal word of God that is always valid independent of time and location. Many Muslim scholars are aware of this. An example is the late Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd [Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd]. He always remained a devout believer but also saw that the text and interpretation of the text is human. Such an understanding makes one cautious in making absolutist claims.


Koopmans is an example of a scholar struggling with the phenomenon of intolerant extremist forms of Islam. It would be good if his book and many other books would be translated in Arabic and other languages that are spoken by Muslims and to see authors from the Muslim world translated in Western languages and that such books would be discussed by scholars from both the West and the Arab world.


There are different views in how extremism should be addressed, but that radical intolerant ideologies need to be addressed is certain.


April 24, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report