A timely move against extremism

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By 2017-03-21

By Rathindra Kuruwita

This Sunday's Ceylon Today had reported that the government has restricted visas for foreign religious scholars and preachers owing to security reasons and that all visa applications of foreign religious scholars and preachers will be sent to the Defence Ministry for vetting prior to approval.

Although Immigration and Emigration Chief Nihal Ranasinghe, this is another reason why I love this news story, it is sourced to an actual person and not attributed to a 'source' or an 'informed source,' states that 'they are not targeting one particular religion,' everyone knows that he is talking about Salafist preachers because,

a. No other religious sect, be it Christian or Ahmadiyya, seems to have that kind of zest anymore
b. The rest of the story goes on to say 'it was only the other day that the authorities in the South Indian State of Kerala charge-sheeted an Indian national who is alleged to be a recruiter for the Islamic State (IS) terror outfit and was operating in a religious school in Sri Lanka. India's National Investigation Agency (NIA) said that the suspect, Abdul Rashid Abdulla, had instigated 22 youths from Kerala to join the terror outfit. According to the charge sheet filed against Abdulla and Islamic Research Foundation's Guest Relations Manager Arshi Qureshi, Abdulla and 17 other Indians, at the school in Sri Lanka, were warned never to raise such issues again, and were categorically told, "Jihad is to fight with bad elements within your own self, Jihad does not mean fighting and killing innocent people." Among those who attended the religious school, which had arranged for special classes on the Quran, there were 80 Sri Lankans and 18 Indians. The six-volume NIA charge sheet includes statements of 49 witnesses. Among them are statements from three of the 22 youths who were allegedly instigated by Abdulla and Qureshi to join the fight in Syria.

Welcome news
Anyway for a lot of people, including me, this is welcome news. For a number of years, the activities of foreign preachers were viewed with increasing alarm by people, who want to live in a stable and peaceful country, who had urged the government to prevent them from arriving in Sri Lanka because the spread of Salafism is always followed by tension between those who believe it and don't and conflict.

We have seen many countries that were 'changed' by these preachers, backed by the long purses of Gulf States, and those changes have been synonymous with violence, repression of women and mass exodus of anyone who has the money and the means.

Another reason that really irks me about Salafism and Salafists is that they remind me of another ideology and its adherents that I despise immensely, i.e. neoliberalism and its supporters who talk about a 'hemispheric open market.' Just like neoliberalism wants an undifferentiated global population, raceless, genderless, identityless, meaningless, consuming sugar, consuming drugs, while watching porn on VR goggles while they max out their credit cards, Salafists want to create an Ummah, the collective community of Islamic peoples, that is indistinguishable from one another. What a sad world these people want, a world without roots, a flat grey-on-grey world and ultimately the destruction of all peoples and all cultures around the globe. And I am really happy that this government has done something Chandrika Bandaranaike or Mahinda Rajapaksa should have done a long time ago.

Gulf countries, Salafism and preachers
A lot of people have the habit of equating all sects of Islam with terrorist activities of groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS or Boko Haram. However, as with anything, and despite the attempts of Arabic countries to convince people of the oneness of Islam, Islam is not a monolith and to suggest that mystical Ismāʿīlism and the harsh fundamentalism if Salafism is the same, in my opinion, is an outrage.

Almost all Islamic terrorists adhere to Salafist (Wahhabism falls under this broad umbrella) ideology and despite being marginalized and villainized by almost everyone no Druze or Kurd or Ahmadiyya have blown themselves up targeting civilians or beheaded a captured soldier. That kind of barbarism is almost exclusively the purview of Salafists and almost all Islamic preachers that come to Sri Lanka belong to various strands of Salafism.

Salafism dates from the 18th century and has been inculcating in its followers the belief that anything apart from their harsh interpretation of Islam is wrong and those who do not adhere to that faith deserve strict punishment, including death. They were behind the sacking of Karbala in 1802 when they killed 2,000 –5,000 inhabitants of Shia and other minorities and plundered the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad and son of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

And what do you think are the reasons for this massacre? Did the Shia steal something valuable or raped women from the Salafist tribes? No, it was because Wahhabis found some of the Shia practices 'such as veneration of the graves of their holy figures and Imams, which they called Bid'ah, and did not limit themselves to academic confrontation.'

Essentially if someone practises anything that Salafists/Wahhabis find offensive, which is pretty much anything, it is enough to provoke a Salafist to 'not limit himself to academic confrontation.' And Salafism is the driving force behind almost all the most hideous actions of ISIS or Al Qaeda, and we have been allowing Salafist preachers to enter our country for a few decades now.

Salafism and Sri Lanka

Salafism was essentially alien to Sri Lankan Muslims until a few decades ago as it was alien to most of the Muslims in Asia until the early 1980 when preachers from wealthy Gulf States started arriving in these countries with a lot of money and a new Arabic ideology. The money and the fact that some Muslims have a soft spot for Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and where most sacred sites of Sunni Islam are located, soon won these preachers new converts. Over the years we have seen the slow Arabization of certain Muslim communities and these Salafists are often at the head of initiatives to thwart any kind of reform into laws governing Muslims.

Last year they were the main group clamouring against the review of the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act (MMDA) and the amount of influence they seem to have on some young Muslim men was clearly visible during the BBC interview with human rights lawyer Ermiza Tegal on MMDA last week. It was obvious that the fact that a woman dared to come forward and talk about issues faced by Muslim women had offended these people.

A lot of people might say if anyone who wants to learn about Salafism and become radicalized can do so by going online and it is a valid point. But often the presence of someone to direct you in one direction and to egg you on while you have doubts is more important than watching a YouTube video online, and getting rid of scholars and preachers who spread extremist ideologies, is a good first step in ensuring that we don't end up in a really dark place.

The writer can be contacted via [email protected]





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