In March 2018, two Islamophobia-related developments that were local and unfolded in different regions took an international dimension by sparking concerns among Muslims globally. These developments also risk fueling existing or potential communal tensions that governments and community leaders in multicultural countries are working hard to prevent. Of course, news channels and social media have a role in globalising such local but distressing developments. Malicious actors from both ends of the hate spectrum – Islamists and Islamophobes – could seize upon these developments to perpetuate fear, distrust, and instigate acts of violence and terrorism.
Asia – Anti-Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka
In Asia, Sri Lanka imposed a state of emergency from 6 – 18 March 2018 and blocked access to social media due to an outbreak of communal violence in which Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups had targeted Muslim neighbourhoods around the town of Kandy. The scale of violence was unprecedented and this was the first time that the Sri Lankan government imposed a state of emergency after lifting the last one in 2011 following the end of the civil war.
The outbreak marked an escalation of ethnoreligious divide that has been festering in Sri Lanka over the recent years since the Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups rose to influence. These groups have grown bolder given the government’s inaction on quelling violence and prosecuting those responsible for organising it. The siege mentality that the Sri Lankan national identity – Sinhalese Buddhist – is under threat from the Muslim minority remains unchecked and in September 2017 had embolden the groups to storm a United Nations shelter for Rohingya refugees near Colombo.
There is a risk of the communal violence in Sri Lanka being perceived as an extension of the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Buddhist extremist groups in Sri Lanka have reportedly relied on the same methods that were used to spread hatred against Muslims in Myanmar. Islamophobia – that Muslims are terrorists – is exploited in extremist narratives to justify why Muslims are a threat. Misinformation – such as Muslims using underhanded means to enrich themselves economically and undermine the Buddhist population – perpetuates the siege mentality among the Buddhist majority.
The parallel between anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar is hardly surprising as Buddhist extremist groups from both countries since 2014 have had exchanges and vowed to unite against what they perceived as the threat of Islamist terrorism. Wiranthu, a radical anti-Rohingya monk from Myanmar, addressed Sri Lankan Buddhist groups at a convention in Colombo in September 2014. Buddhist nationalism is the political force that drives these Buddhist extremist groups and dissuades governments from clamping down on them. The situation in Sri Lanka, if it remains volatile, could draw the attention of Islamist terrorist groups the same way they were drawn to the Rohingya crisis.
Europe – Anti-Muslim Narratives in United Kingdom (UK)
In Europe, several cities in the UK reported that anonymous letters titled “Punish a Muslim Day” were distributed via mail to people and shared online. The letters are an incitement of violence – scheduled for 3 April 2018 – against Muslims in the UK hence creating fear and concerns over safety among both Muslims and non-Muslims. The fact that this development has resulted in the Police investigating it as a possible hate crime and several Members of Parliament (MPs) condemning it demonstrates that communities in the UK are largely united against ethnoreligious divide and communal violence. The Muslim community, as a counter-narrative, responded by creating a “Love a Muslim Day” letter to promote kindness and harmony among people of different faiths.
The letters, which incites violence against Muslims, are hardly surprising given the current sociopolitical climate in Europe (and North America), which are seeing more incidents of xenophobia and Islamophobia – a surge in right-wing extremism. Islamophobia is becoming increasingly mainstream in political discourse there. Islamophobes, as a form of misinformation, are blaming Muslims not only for terrorist attacks but also – as stated in the letters – for “overrunning White-majority countries” and undermining democracy. The implications to communal peace and national security are perturbing, as Europol had stated in its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (2017) that attacks by right-wing extremists have been on the rise. Of concern, Islamist terrorist groups could seize upon the repercussions – from acts of right-wing extremism – in their narratives to radicalise disaffected Muslims and justify terrorist attacks.
Islamophobia and Islamism – Mutually Reinforcing Threats
The existence of Islamophobia in religious nationalism (e.g., Buddhist nationalism) in Asia and right-wing extremism in Europe is a problem that risks adding to the list of Muslim grievances that sustain the drive of Islamist terrorist groups across the globe. While Islamist terrorism was born partly out of the rejection of colonialism, modernity and its evils, Islamophobia could proliferate feelings of vicarious victimhood and disenfranchisement among Muslims worldwide. Islamist terrorist groups could exploit these feelings on the backdrop of the Muslim Ummah identity to perpetuate their jihadist ideology hence sustaining the various paths to radicalisation.
This problem also exemplifies how the poisonous mix of misinformation, social media, racial and religious politics could divide a nation and the communities within by creating a vicious cycle of hate and violence. Non-Muslims would feel that their way of life is under threat hence fueling religious nationalism and right-wing extremism. Conversely, Muslims would feel that they are being increasingly marginalised hence may turn inward and distance themselves from the larger society. With globalisation and social media, the implications would be felt in countries and cities with multicultural populations.
The Fight against Hatred
While this problem is complex and requires a whole-of-society and global approach for solutions, the Muslim community worldwide on its part could take the lead in certain efforts. It could be more of enhancing current efforts rather than creating new efforts in countering Islamophobia.
First, mainstream Muslim organisations should continue engaging Muslims in understanding Islam amid contemporary issues such as socioeconomic pressures, misinformation, finding identity and purpose, and regional issues. This effort should aim not only to help inoculate Muslims against jihadist ideology but also to help them make sense of and deal with other forms of extremism – such as religious nationalism and right-wing extremism. The Muslims’ response to other forms of extremism should be one that espouses peace rather than reinforces hatred.
Second, mainstream Muslim organisations should continue reaching out to reliable media and grassroots channels, and other religious organisations to assert the narrative that the Muslim identity is compatible with the national identity; that Muslims are an integral part of society. Concurrently, it is important that these channels and other religious organisations help to portray the Muslim community as one of society’s source of strength rather than as a community at risk. Society as a whole must recognise that Islamophobia spreads hatred that afflicts not only Muslims but also the entire humanity.
*Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.