National Security

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.

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.