Easter Sunday Attacks

Excessive regulations in tourism – ‘So Sri Lankan’

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dhananath Fernando

Tourism – a topic that politicians and bureaucrats never get tired of. Following Easter Sunday, the tourism industry is now on a different trajectory. Security concerns have affected over 170,000 people directly employed and 220,000 people indirectly employed in an industry that contributes about 5% of GDP. The initial plan the Government had for 2020 was to increase tourism earnings to $ 7 billion from its current earning position of about $ 4.3 billion, and increase spending per visitor to $ 264 per day from the current position of $ 178 per day in 2018.

The approach taken by every successive government to increase numbers has been to make their mantra “promotion”. Just as the country follows the same traditions every new year, every successive government and the minister of tourism proposes a new campaign and a slogan for the Sri Lankan tourism industry. They produce scenic showreels and graphics of this splendid island to showcase at many travel exhibitions and to run promotions online as well as offline. We were the “Wonder of Asia”, then converted to the “Little Miracle” for a short time, and to the “Land Like no other”. And now we are “So Sri Lanka”.

While the slogans and promotion campaigns are of paramount importance, governments have failed to provide sufficient focus on the actual details that matter to the industry. This is reflected in the debt relief package offered in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. It might seem unrealistic to expect the Government to address concerns across such a large and diverse industry – when stakeholders range from high-investment airline operators to the destination point trishaw. However, a few simple business principles can be applied regardless of the stakeholder category.

  1. Minimum regulatory barriers to enter and exit the market

  2. Lower taxation so the prices will be affordable

  3. Minimum government intervention to allow greater efficiency at the ground level

Let’s go into detail with a few regulatory barriers mentioned on the website of the Tourism Development Authority for registrations of online/offline travel agents (destination management companies).

Travel agents and destination management companies are entities that coordinate an entire trip within Sri Lanka for tourists. They recommend the travel route, book the hotels and lodging on behalf of the tourist, and arrange everything from airport pick up to drop off. In short, they do an extensive coordination job. These travel agencies can be found on the internet and tourists can directly reach them over the web. There is also a business to business (B2B) model which is common in the industry. In the B2B model, the respective agent from another country approaches the local travel agents and the local travel agent acts as an agent of the particular company, and this works vice versa.

The profile of tourists shows that about 2.3 million tourists only spend an average of $ 163 per day over 10.8 days. The industry needs to be accessible for business newcomers to enter the travel market and create new value propositions to attract more tourists to Sri Lanka, especially at a time where the entire industry is shaken by the Easter attacks.

In the category of registering as a travel agent of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), there are certain requirements which have to be met. Prospective businesses must show a 1.2 million working capital for a sole proprietorship and a one million working capital for a limited liability. Additionally, a bank guarantee of 10% of the working capital is required. Furthermore, SLTDA wants the new travel agent to have 250 square feet of furnished office space with a reception, telephone line, fax line, and a computer reservation system.

They have further made it mandatory to employ a minimum of three professionally qualified or experienced staff to work on transport, accommodation, currency, outcome regulation, reservation of airline tickets, and general information on travel and tourism-related services.

I am sure all these guidelines must have drafted with good intentions, but this has made it almost impossible for a new entrant to enter the market as a travel agent. To fulfil all the guidelines to get a license, you need more than Rs. 3-4 million, which makes it very difficult for a small and micro entrepreneur to enter the industry. In reality, a small operation as a travel agent would require one laptop with internet an individual with excellent coordination and communication skills. It would require a maximum of two to run a small-scale operation. A reception is not required as your clients are visiting scenic destinations and staying in hotels – they will not be visiting your office.

Even if a company wanted to impress their clients with attractive office space, there are many co-working spaces in Colombo where you can hire a desk space and a board room for a few thousand rupees on an hourly basis. While other industries, most notably tech recognising the benefits of a co-working space for start-ups, SLTDA still wants telephone and fax lines for an industry where most clients communicate on email and database call apps.

The guidelines provided for recruitment are a clear-cut case of how government agencies create bottlenecks affecting the ease of doing business. An entrepreneurial individual starting small will never take a risk of having three professionals on the payroll during the start-up period. They will instead hire a semi-skilled person who has the capacity to learn on the go. A travel operation simply does not require a professional graduate to run a small-scale business.

The Government initiated “Enterprise Sri Lanka Loan Scheme – Erambuma” provides a maximum of Rs. 1.5 million for a young graduate with an innovative business idea. While this is commendable, the regulations brought in by SLTDA will make it virtually impossible for a young graduate to set up a travel agency, even with the loan.

If the Government is serious about getting tourism on the track, it is of paramount importance that they reduce entry barriers for new entrepreneurs. If not, the plan of creating a tourism industry worth Rs. 7 billion will remain a castle in the air.

While regulation is important, especially to maintain standards and ensure quality, it is also important to distinguish between regulations that will help the industry grow and those that will stifle it. SLTDA regulates more than 25 such industries from hotels to scuba diving, and bringing all these regulations to light would fit a decent-sized book. It is necessary that SLTDA revisits its guidelines, keeping in mind how these guidelines affect both established players as well as new entrants who would really make a difference.

It is said “how you do small things will determine how you do big things”. While tourism authorities run promotions on the “So Sri Lanka” slogan, it would be useful for them to keep this phrase in mind too, before imposing regulations which restrict entry into the market.

Drowning in a sea of hatred

Originally appeared in the Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

In Singapore, we start with the irrefutable proposition that the alternative to multi-racialism… is genocide in varying degrees. – S. Rajaratnam, then Minister for Culture (1959–1965)

The flood of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media is a disturbing phenomenon. Are organised groups using social media to radicalise people and to encourage ethnoviolence?

Hate speech is a pre-requisite for violence but understanding the role it plays requires examining its psychological underpinning.

Human minds tend to stereotype - it is a convenient means of classifying information. Placing people, ideas and objects into different categories makes the world simpler and easier to understand. Survival in a jungle dictates judging everything on first impressions and stereotypes may be particularly useful in such a setting, although life in the urban jungle demands a subtler set of rules.

We may thus form unconscious beliefs about the characteristics of social group; that the French are romantic, or that the old are incompetent. These may not be particularly harmful but we may also develop prejudice—an unjustifiable negative attitude to a particular group; Indians, Chinese, Muslims.

Humans also need to feel that they are part of a group, as tribe or clan. People identify with and feel affinity for their own group but not to other groups, something social psychologists term in-group/out-group dynamics. While we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-groups as an undifferentiated—stereotyped—mass. When we feel threatened by perceived outsiders, we instinctively turn toward our in-group—those with whom we identify—as a survival mechanism.

Stereotypes, prejudice and in/out group dynamics form the axes of inter-communal tensions but to turn tensions to violence people must first overcome natural inhibitions and their fear of the law.

Attacking others becomes easier if they are no longer seen as human. We may hold prejudices and anger against people we view as an “outgroup” but this is more likely to turn to violence if the outgroup is seen as less than human.

This is the role of hate speech - it dehumanises.

Dehumanisation, is defined as ‘divesting people of human qualities or attributing bestial qualities to them’ such that they are ‘no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes and concerns but as subhuman objects’ Bandura (1996).

“Denial of the humanity of others is the step that permits killing with impunity. The universal human abhorrence of murder of members of one’s own group is overcome by treating the victims as less than human. In incitements to genocide the target groups are called disgusting animal names – Nazi propaganda called Jews “rats” or “vermin”; Rwandan Hutu hate radio referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” The targeted group is often likened to a “disease”, “microbes”, “infections” or a “cancer” in the body politic.”

The current campaign against Muslims consists of two strands; one dehumanises them, the second portrays them as a threat-to Buddhists, Sinhalese and Sri Lanka in general. The second strand features rumours, false or misleading news stories that are designed to stir suspicion or fear; triggering in-group responses.

While some hate speech is easily recognised, being blatantly spiteful they also include more subtle caricatures, racist slurs disguised as jokes, teasing or “edgy” comments. The latter and some of the false news were widely shared by those who were not otherwise openly racist. These work subconsciously, reinforcing or instilling prejudices and fears into the non-Muslim community.

It can be far too easy for non-Muslims to dismiss these as silly; a bad joke at worst but they all contribute to the same end. Some people who shared hate speech on social media were later seen sharing calls for calm in the aftermath of the riots, seemingly ignorant of their own part in the crisis.

The question is where is this leading?

This hatred cannot be dismissed as a passing reaction to the Easter attacks because:

  1. Anger abates with time, this is expanding instead of dissipating;

  2. the almost complete absence of any reference to the victims.

Normally after a disaster, such as a flood there is an outpouring of sympathy and rush to help victims. The dominant emotion in the public is one of sympathy. While there have been some efforts in this respect they have been relatively small. The actual victims; indeed even the incidents seem largely forgotten. Instead of sympathy or charity towards victims, the nation seems gripped in a virulent wave of hate.

After the riots (that created a second set of victims, who are also forgotten) the blood lust seems temporarily satiated but the hatred has not abated. Much malicious and misleading material is in circulation. Muslims encounter routine hostility and discrimination; from neighbours, in the street and even friends. This is frightening them into greater insularity.

Meanwhile some non-Muslims, especially families with children are still wrapped in their own fears of further attacks, unable to think beyond their own concerns over security.

Fear often shuts down our ability to experience empathy so the different communities are retreating into isolation and insularity within their own groups. The social fabric is in shreds, breaking down under the strain of fear and anger.

Equality, and equal safety for all humans, is dependent not only on the law, but also on the empathy everyone in a community has for each other. If this is lost and society is divided along ethnic or religious lines into fearful and mutually suspicious groups it creates a potent cocktail that can burst into flame at the slightest provocation.

This is more so since the government seems to have only a tenuous grip on law enforcement. Impunity breeds contempt for law, and emboldens thugs, who can literally get away with murder.

These create the potential for further episodes of violence. New flashpoints are building in Kurunegala and Negombo.

Does the political leadership realise that we face a prospect of intermittent, internecine ethnic violence? Do the media houses realise their contribution to this? The media are potent and pervasive communicators; false, misleading and alarmist stories are as important as hate speech in ethnoviolence.  

Putting the genie back in the bottle seems an almost impossible task and demands a strong and coherent response.

  1. The Government needs to regain control of the narrative and reassure people.

  2. A zero tolerance policy for those who break the law.

In the aftermath of a disaster the political leadership should have acted jointly, sending a unifying message, channeling the emotions of the population. It should have emphasized the jointly shared societal values among all communities and stressed that this was a battle between all citizens against violent extremism.

That moment has been lost but even now those central themes must inform all communications. People are frightened, so they must first be reassured:

  1. That the threat from ISIS has been effectively dealt with. They must explain the extent of the threat, the measures taken and progress toward ensuring the populations safety.

  2. That structures are in place to prevent future threats: to detect and prevent radicalisation.

An information vacuum permits rumours and falsehoods to flourish, exacerbating tensions. The government needs to dominate the narrative-and match it with actions.

For example, experts seem to confirm that there is little immediate threat-the security measure must reflect this. In any case the convoys, checkpoints, road closures are a throwback to the LTTE and has little relevance today.  When MP’s cocoon themselves behinds layers of security people will be suspicious as to whether the threat has actually abated.

Pardoning a central actor implicated in previous Islamophobic incidents sends entirely the wrong message, about the commitment to upholding the law and the rights of citizens, including tolerance of violence.

Sensationalist news reporting of police raids uncovering weapons or other suspicious items add fuel to the fire. These may simply be ordinary criminals. So far little evidence is presented to connect them to a genuine ISIS threat but the reporting creates the misleading impression of a widespread ISIS presence that instills a general fear of Muslims. These reports seemingly confirm the false narratives on social media and are equally dangerous.   

Formal action needs to be taken against media for false or misleading reporting, even censorship may be necessary given the blatant rabble rousing by certain media houses.

The strength of a nation lies in how well you treat all your people. It’s a mark of strength when you celebrate everyone who lives alongside you. We move forward when everyone has the freedom to live their lives as they wish, to contribute to their society as they see fit, and to be the people they want to be
— Osama Bhutta, Amnesty International's Communications Director

The leadership must quickly resume normal activities and encourage people to maintain daily routines which help shift focus away from factors that maintain fear and uncertainty.

These collective strategies are needed to calm people, preventing fear and panic spreading in the population.

The second part of the strategy is to rebuild bridges between communities.

Islamophobia doesn’t just affect Muslims. It affects the entire city because it breaks social cohesion
— Jaume Asens, Deputy Mayor

Barcelona suffered an attack by ISIS in 2017 but the municipal government put in place a shock plan to combat rejection and discrimination towards the Muslim community.

We need to do the same because it affects us all.

All eggs in the tourism basket?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The Easter Sunday attacks devastated Sri Lanka. As much as the attacks shattered lives, the economy too has taken a hard hit. According to Reuters, full-year median growth could drop as low as 2.5%, with analysts concerned that second-quarter growth could be zero or even drop to negative. To give these numbers context, these growth numbers are the worst the country has seen since 2001, when Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) was attacked. The economic hit to the tourism sector is the most visible, due to the nature of the attacks, with occupancy dropping drastically from 75% to a paltry 5%.

Officially, the tourism sector accounts for 5% of GDP, but in reality, the industry adds a lot more to the economy. The growth we see in the formal tourism sector is also an indication of the growth created in the informal sector. If one gets off the train at Ella or walks around Sigiriya, it is clear that a large number of tourists backpack throughout the country; staying at low-budget homestays and eating at local eateries. The result is a boom in local industries as people work as tour guides, make cheese kottu, drive a trishaw, and take a loan to build a homestay on their property.

This addition to the economy is notoriously difficult to enumerate, and it is virtually impossible to include all economic activity created by tourism into national figures. However, one can conclude with certainty that tourism is an important sector on which the livelihoods of thousands of people are dependent.

While this seems positive, the downside is that this means that the lull in tourism has an impact that goes far beyond what’s calculated. The economic losses and instability brought to thousands of livelihoods is difficult to comprehend. The Government put forward a relief package for the industry, and while this is timely, it is also important to look at the rest of the economy.

Before the attacks, the industry was optimistic – Lonely Planet ranked us the number one destination for 2019, and the Government launched the “So Sri Lanka” brand. It is clear that growth in this sector was and continues to be a priority. However, if we want to create long-term, sustainable growth for the country, more needs to be done.

Resilience beyond the comfort zone

While tourism is important and we do need to focus on this, we cannot neglect the rest of the economy. Ideally, our economy should be resilient, with other sectors of the economy able to absorb a shock, reducing the time taken for the country to recover. While we have a comfortable comparative advantage in tourism, we need to move into other areas.

For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka opened its economy in 1977. While we were one of the first countries in the region to open up, our export sector failed to keep pace with our comparator countries. Nationalist sentiment drove mainstream discourse, and free trade is perceived as a threat to local industries and local jobs. Successive governments were swayed by or actively promoted this perception, resulting in a country which is in practice, not very open.

The Government’s role

Export diversification has been a buzzword over the last few years. GDP growth in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia was driven by strategic export diversification. As is visualised in the chart, these countries are miles ahead of Sri Lanka in the contribution their exports make to GDP. Sri Lanka has recognised the importance of export growth, and key areas have been targeted through the National Export Strategy. However, export diversification will not happen overnight, and it will not happen in isolation. There needs to be a legal and regulatory environment that is conducive to this growth, creating the right incentives for businesses to take the initiative and diversify. As such, the Government should push a much wider reform programme.

The Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2018, was the first trade agreement we signed in a decade. This is only a partial victory – the trade agreement faced significant opposition, even after it was signed. The Government needs to take the initiative, not only to sign free trade agreements, but also to make sure the local businesses are in a position to take advantage of these agreements.
A vital part of creating buy-in on a national scale is the effective and timely dissemination of information. Open, transparent discussions should be held before signing free trade agreements; these would go a long way in countering anti-free trade mentality.

In addition, regulations should be eased for export-oriented businesses; making it easier and not more difficult for an entrepreneur to sell their product abroad. Finally, the Government should speed up its current programme of tariff removal. Restricting imports to the country via tariff barriers actually suppresses the growth capacity of our export industries. Free trade works best when borders are truly open and intervention is limited, and our export industries often depend on imported inputs which are cheaper than local alternatives. By removing tariffs on these imported inputs, the Government will allow export industries to produce goods at lower prices, and price their final goods on par with global competition, creating opportunity for our export industry to grow and diversify.

While it is important that focus is given in the short term to industries that have been hit the hardest, a responsible government would take this opportunity to assess the health of other key sectors of the economy, and take steps to facilitate their growth, as opposed to hindering it.

Stopping Islamophobia

Originally appeared in the Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The senseless attacks on Easter Sunday shook the nation and sparked a wave of anti-Muslim hysteria that is in danger of going out of control. There is a tangled jumble of emotions and causes that need to be sifted through to understand the problem. The fears arise from:

  • The entirely unexpected nature of the attack (there being previously no Muslim-Christian animosity).

  • The unknown nature of the threat. Since ISIS is involved apprehension that local Muslims are enmeshed in a shadowy, global terror network, with unknown objectives. The alarm that further attacks could take place – but for which no local causes or solutions can be found. Unlike the LTTE which had clear objectives and targets, there seem to be so many unknowns with this threat that people don’t know how to deal with it.

  • Inability to distinguish between the terrorist and an ordinary Muslim. Anyone with a long beard or with their head covered is seen as an extremist and therefore either a terrorist or a potential terrorist. Although Tamils faced similar suspicions they were less visible; with the Muslim’s panicky people are seeing “terrorists” on every street corner.

In addition, a lack of political leadership has lead to a breakdown in confidence in the government. There is the obvious bungling; failing to act on warnings that could have prevented the attacks. Then the absence of coherent, consistent and clear messages from the government that the situation is under control has left a vacuum which has become the perfect breeding ground for rumours and mischief.

Interested parties who seek to gain political advantage have cleverly exploited the situation by adding to the fears, spreading rumours of possible attacks, unfounded allegations against the Muslims and general messages of hate.   

Irresponsible and sensationalist media reports on discoveries of knives or swords reinforce these suspicions, never mind that these are hardly the weapons of choice for mass murder.  

The centre of the problem is therefore one of trust. People feel unable to trust the Muslim community who they view as a collective threat, neither can they trust the government to protect them from this threat.

These fears are completely unfounded but remain real in the popular imagination.

The Muslim community themselves have to deal with a different but equally complex set of emotions. The overwhelming majority of the Muslim community were as shocked and as horrified by the bombings as everyone else. Many are also filled with a lingering sense of guilt and shame that the terrorists came from their community. The innocent also find it very hard to deal with the fact that they have come to be held responsible for something that they did not do and do not support. This complexity and the lack of government leadership has left the community uncertain of how to respond. They are also fearful, unable to trust the government to protect them or their property.

Naturally a tragedy on this scale will lead to a confused outpouring of passions. The government should be marshalling all these complex, sometimes conflicting emotions into one coherent response, drawing all citizens together against the common enemy.

In the absence, the mutual misunderstanding and fears are feeding into panicky response and counter-response that is breeding a spiral of mutual mistrust and hatred.

Much of Sri Lanka’s post-independence era has been marred by cyclical violence that has followed the classic pattern of escalation described by theorists.

“Conflicts have a definite tendency to escalate, i.e., to become more intense and hostile, and to develop more issues, i.e., what the parties say the conflict is about. Therefore, escalating conflicts become more difficult to manage. The process of escalation feeds on fear and defensiveness. Threat leads to counterthreat, usually with higher stakes at each go-round. Selective and distorted perception justifies a competitive and cautious approach as opposed to a trusting and cooperative one….

...competition breeds competition….Each party believes in the evil intentions of the other and the inevitability of disagreement, and therefore takes precautionary actions which signal mistrust and competitiveness (Blake, Shepard & Mouton, 1964). When the other party then responds with a counteraction, this is perceived as justifying the initial precautionary measure”(Dr Ronald Fisher)

Unless arrested forthwith, which demands firm leadership, we may be about to embark on yet another cycle. To prevent this, the first step is to reassure the public and second is to restore law and order.

Independent experts seem confident that the security forces have dismantled the IS network but the government needs to send a clear message that it has done so. This needs to come jointly from the government, the security establishment and supported by independent experts, since the government is short on credibility. People need to be reassured that there is no further immediate threat. It is only then that tensions can be defused.

Second, the public need to be able to draw the distinction between the few hundred terrorists who were involved (with a couple of thousand supporters at most) from the millions who have done nothing and don’t want to be involved with it.

The Government, the security establishment and the Muslim community need to be seen to be working together to identify and isolate the rogue elements within the community. The Muslim community leaders are already cooperating but the effort must be visible and consistent. It must be seen as a joint effort by all communities to counter rogue elements. The fight is, and needs to visibly between citizens and terrorists, not Sinhalese against Muslims. Given the tensions, in the short term avoiding the distinctions in dress (which the community leadership has endorsed) will be helpful.

The wider public needs to understand that the Muslims who follow the austere form of Islam are not any different from the evangelical Christians. Both place more emphasis on their respective holy books than the rituals and forms that characterise their mainstream cousins. Neither is inherently more dangerous than the other. It is just that the Muslim’s adopt a distinct style of dress that makes them easily identified. Fundamentalist churches have come under attack because they proselytize but their followers are indistinguishable from the rest of the population.  The fundamentalist Muslims look odd, but they are not necessarily dangerous.

Common sense alone should tell us this. In over a quarter of a century that this form of Islam has been prevalent, we had a single attack, carried out by a handful of individuals who seem to have been radicalised overseas.    

The Muslim community in needs to redouble efforts to send a clear message that want none of this. Cool heads need to bring community leaders together and work out practical programmes to rebuild trust.

There have been sporadic outbursts of violence in several areas. Reports of vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to check identities and police localities point to breakdown in law and order that must be immediately arrested. A message of zero tolerance of vigilantism and mob rule must go forth. At the first sign of violence, curfews need to be swiftly imposed with riot police deployed if necessary. Police must be ordered to detain and if necessary, shoot anyone disturbing the peace.

In the long term, we need to bridge the social and cultural distance between the communities which must take place through education.


The ban that did more harm than good

Originally appeared on Daily FT

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter attacks, one of the first steps taken by the Government was to announce a social media ban. This ban was ostensibly to protect us; the rationale being that this would stop the spread of hate, stop the spread of misinformation and fake news, and prevent the inciting of violence. In the Government’s eyes, this ban was the all-encompassing panacea to these problems.

Was the social media ban effective?
Rumour is a powerful weapon at any given time. In the context of a nation that is wracked with grief and fear it was a veritable weapon of mass destruction. Fear is also one of the most effective drivers of hate. If the objective of a social media ban was to prevent further violence, then in retrospect, the first step the Government should have taken would be to speak to the country addressing the fear that would drive retaliatory violence. Instead, the main method of communication was banned, even before the President or Prime Minister of the country addressed the nation. Effectively, the Government followed the precedent of the CEB, and left the entire country in the dark – with no reassurance that anyone in a decision-making position had a grip on the situation.  

In practicality the social media ban was ineffective, as VPNs were immediately downloaded, and people were active on Facebook and WhatsApp. This meant that fear mongering, fake news and hate was prolific. The irony is that if this ban was not in place, the Government would have been able to better monitor and address the slew of fake news. 

Does the Government have the mandate to ban social media?
The right to freedom of expression can arguably be curtailed in instances of hate speech. However, if one group of students organise a rally in campus grounds, and this rally is used to spread hate and incite violence against a different group of students, the answer is obviously not to ban rallies on campus grounds. Banning rallies on campus grounds would first, punish a majority for a crime they did not commit, unfairly infringing on their freedom of expression. Secondly, it would not address the problem. Rallies that incite violence are not exclusive to campus grounds – it could simply be organised elsewhere.

This analogy stands for the ban on social media. Banning social media at such a crucial point meant that the Government officially shut down communication lines among individuals, and importantly cut people from an important source of information. 

This goes completely against the mandate of the Government. What would have been effective was if the Government maintained clear, open lines of communication with constant, timely updates from verified Government sources. As the ban was ineffective, social media was rife with fake news, and the only effective method to combat it proved to be the counter-sharing of verified news alerts or first-hand reports from credible journalists, which disproved the fake news. 

A small but effective group of individuals took up this task, and spent hours sharing verified information and addressing the fake news which incidentally ranged from ‘there’s a tsunami heading this way’ to ‘my neighbour’s aunt’s brother-in-law said that another bomb has gone off’. The Government failing its mandate, restricting the country’s right to expression, and limiting access to information just exacerbated an already volatile situation. 

Who deals with the consequences?
A dangerous precedent has now been set. Last year, during riots in Digana, the Government imposed a similar ban on social media. The Government’s first reaction to the Easter Sunday attacks was to re-introduce the ban. 

According to the OECD, when the Egyptian Government blocked internet for 5 days in 2011, it cost the national economy $90 million. As the internet was still running in Sri Lanka, we can hope that the economic fallout from this disastrous decision will be less in our case. However, this is important. According to Statista, $88 million was spent on social media advertising in 2018 alone. The social media ban negatively affected the plethora of businesses which use Facebook or Instagram as platforms to run on, of which it is safe to assume that small and medium enterprises would have been hit hard. While Government officials are clamouring to propose plans to revive our tourism, they are silent on this front. 

Moving beyond these immediate, short term losses, the long-term consequences are worrying. This ban sends a negative signal to the international community. The Government mismanaged the crisis, to say the least, and the social media ban was the cherry on the top. It is clear that the Government favours this ban in times of crisis, even after the first ban came under criticism and scrutiny. This disregard of individual rights in the face of crisis, the fact the Government clearly has no qualms in compromising these rights, even when they do not translate to increased security or safety is not a message a country wants to send to investors or donors. 

The attacks were a national tragedy, and as a country we need to grieve and recover from this. However, once we do, and once a semblance of normalcy returns, the impunity with which the Government blocked social media with complete disregard for individual freedoms is not something we can ignore or forget. 

Social media ban

Combatting the Cult of ISIS

Originally appeared on Groundviews

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Featured image courtesy AFP

It now seems clear that the attacks on Easter Sunday were carried out by local radicals, under the aegis of foreign fundamentalists. The problem is contained in that there is little support for this group from the wider Muslim community. While those involved must be swiftly identified with and dealt with, the bigger question is how to check the spread of radicalisation?

A paper [1] by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann offer an approach that is summarised below.

The central problem with focusing on beliefs is the issue of variation. Simply put, if “radical” beliefs produce terrorists, then why doesn’t every Salafist or political-Islamist mosque produce terrorists? Even more complicated, why have most of those providing material support to Islamic terrorist groups shown little understanding of theology, but instead seem to be attracted to the thrill of jihadi adventurism (Venhaus 2010)

Violent extremism is a cult, not a religion

According to the authors, treating violent extremism as a problem of religion or belief is a mistake. The process of radical, violent mobilisation shows closer links to that of a cult.

Accordingly counter strategies based on empowering moderate, liberal voices to preach inclusion and tolerance to seemingly more “extreme” mosques may not be effective, indeed even counterproductive.

It is therefore problematic to assume that “countering narratives,” showing extremists the error of their ways, or debating theology would do anything other than produce hostility and even spur heightened aggression.

When confronted with countering evidence, individuals may become defensive and cling on initial beliefs more strongly, driving fence-sitters towards radicalisation.

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub. The killer was believed to have been gay, consumed alcohol, not known in the local mosques but showed signs of identity confusion, anger, isolation, and other attributes shared with violent individuals of all sorts.

Countering a cult

To deal with a cult the focus should be on weakening the organisational ties within the movement, not on debate. In debate people tend to rely more on intuition than reason. If people are not working from ideological standpoints there is little possibility of making headway through discussion so it may make more sense to counter the networks and personal ties between individuals and terrorist groups instead.

This model maintains that since ideology fails to predict or abet terrorist violence, other social factors such as alienation, mental health, or bonds with other bad actors explains violence. It is not that ideology doesn’t matter at all, but rather that ideological pulls exist within a social context. It is the social context that counter strategies should be focusing on.

How do cults work?

Cults Create Affective Bonds Around Friendship, not Belief

Most recruits to cults and new religious movements come from those who know one or more members of the group. The personal connection between recruiter and recruited is far more persuasive than the content of the belief system as the testimony of former cult members shows:

“The way the Jesus Army worshiped was a bit odd at first … but I soon got used to it. What really attracted me was the sincerity of the people and the obvious love and bonding that they had with each other”.

Likewise, a participant in another cult reported that:

“after his first visit to the FWBO center, he thought members of the centre were crazy and decided not to go back. However, he thought about all the people he knew there, and he recalled what a great time he had with them. Subsequently he turned up for the rest of the course.”

Similarly, terror networks operate around bonds of kinship and friendship. Scott Atran found that 95% of foreign fighters who joined ISIS were recruited by friends or family. Similarly, in his study of Al Qaeda networks, Marc Sageman found that friends and family ties were involved in the recruitment of 82% of the jihadists in his study (2004, 111–112).

A vast literature finds that terrorists are not goal-seeking or strategic, but instead are motivated by a desire for friends and comradery (Abrahms 2008). It is worth recalling that 6 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were brothers (Wickman et al. 2013).

Social Connections are Deep and Meaningful

A cult is not simply a quixotic fringe group with unorthodox practices: they are a community of practice. For alienated, isolated individuals, cults create affective bonds of love and attention received from nowhere else.

The culture of jihad is more than ideology: a burgeoning literature has found that terrorist groups have cultures of practice that go far beyond doing terror. Terrorists read poetry, weep and hug, sing, eat, and have a culture that can be observed outside of the material threat they pose.

This phenomenon is the “soft power” of jihad, which pulls recruits in not with force, but with cultural appeal and interrelational ties.

Cults Thrive on Intensive Interaction Between Recruits and Elites and Forge Social Encapsulation

Cults rely on exclusive, and isolating bonding practices that forge the conditions necessary for violence. Social encapsulation inoculates the recruits from outside influence, neutralises the stigma frequently associated with participation in such groups, and masks their deviant behaviour.

Conversely, the more civil connections a group has with others, the more engaged they become in the democratic process. Cohesion and overlapping, bridging ties between communities can prevent splintering, ideological isolation, and foster mutual respect.

Cults Offer Direct Compensation and Provision of Goods in Exchange of Allegiance

People may join associations to procure goods they could not otherwise get on their own. For cults and extremist groups alike, rewards can include power, material provisions like food and shelter, as well as ego and cosmically driven outcomes. The former Saddam Hussein Baathists joined ISIS not for ideological reasons, but to procure power and goods they were otherwise denied following the US deBaathification policy.

Many foreign fighters in ISIS don’t have experience in Arabic, which indicates that the ideology cannot be very well developed. Instead, they are promised wives, adventure, and alternatives to the lives they live in the West.

Women are promised comfort, the ability to raise a family in a pure Muslim environment—the utopia is even complete with houses, clothes, and even blenders (Speckhard 2017). None of these core elements of cult-recruitment and radicalisation operate around ideology per se.

Towards a more social strategy to counter extremism

Terrorist groups, like cults, are friend and kin networks that isolate and encapsulate new members, offering various forms of compensation and affection those members could not get elsewhere. Instead of ideology, policymakers should focus on the bonds of affection between friends and kin and build campaigns that target the correct avenues of extremist radicalisation.

The first step is to be able to identify early signs of radicalisation and those best able to do so are an individual’s friends or family. However if reporting can lead to harsh government reprisals, they will be reluctant to do so.

Community-based mosques, youth clubs, and social services should be given more resources to gain the trust of entire friendship networks. Local basketball tournaments, food-drives, open shari’a classes, and drop-in counseling sessions are civic trust-building exercises. Within these civic institutions, friends can feel safe to report warning signs because they trust the community to carefully reprimand and rehabilitate the offender and act as a social bridge to law enforcement. Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalization than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

For example, Denmark has recently employed an affective bond-based counter-extremism program that focuses on linking up would-be jihadis with mentors, learning skills, and providing avenues of hope. This actively combats the cult-like mechanisms of friendship, love, intimacy, and compensation.

Danish mothers have also established a peer network called “Sahan,” where mothers worried about a child can seek advice and counsel from others on how to intervene.

In Canada and Germany, groups have sprung up called “Hayat”—the Arabic word for love—to highlight the loving network that ISIS sympathisers actually have at home.

Second governments should not be about policing -reporting “strange ideas or behaviours.” The government needs to support vulnerable communities-job fairs, tutoring, recreation, and civic engagement to ensure people are productively engaged.

Since religious ideology doesn’t predict violence, but rather the social conditions of groups, governments should think of CVE as simply providing good government. In essence, we guard against violence by making our societies less vulnerable to cult-like groups seeking to isolate, encapsulate, and predate on weak individuals

Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalisation than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

We should target and counter all types of “extremist violence.” The cult analogy points to the social factors that give ideology meaning, but all types of violence have social conditions that constitute actors in particular ways. Countering extremism should be conceptualised as engaging a social phenomenon, not just a set of beliefs and ideas.

As Robert Putnam has argued, the fabric of a healthy democracy is the relational bonds between citizens (Putnam 2001). Similarly, the fabric of a strategy to counter extremism is to build a social network of alternatives to the appeal of violence.

The attacks were carried out by a few individuals, with little broader support. The government, civil society and the Muslim community need to work together to defeat this.


[1] Joel Day & Scott Kleinmann (2017) Combating the Cult of ISIS: A Social Approach to Countering Violent Extremism, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 15:3, 14-23, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2017.1354458