Language matters: What is terrorism?

Academic and terrorism researcher David Tucker once wrote: “Above the gates of hell is the warning that all that enter should abandon hope. Less dire but to the same effect is the warning given to those who try to define terrorism.”[1] Today, his words still aptly describe the continuing search by states and international bodies for a definition of terrorism.

A search for consensus

The United Nations (UN) has made several attempts to provide a general definition of terrorism, in contrast to describing specific acts of terrorism. It had a degree of success in the 1990s, with some progress made towards a general definition. In 1994 the non-binding ‘Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism,’ endorsed by the UN General Assembly, defined terrorism as  “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.”

This was followed by a 1996 General Assembly Resolution 51/210, which established an ad hoc Committee to find a Draft Comprehensive Convention. However, when the Committee presented its report, the proposed definition was met with controversy and disquiet in the ad hoc Committee.

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Sri Lanka: One year on from the 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings

On Easter Sunday 2019 a small relatively unknown Sri Lankan Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath, conducted a series of bombings targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka and killing more than 250 people, predominantly Christians. The BBC reports that on 21 April, the anniversary of the attacks was marked by the ringing of church bells but no public events, the result of a government curfew imposed to address the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed seven lives on the island.

Amid a nationwide two-minute silence in honour of the dead and wounded, the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said in his anniversary message that while the church had “spiritually forgiven” its attackers, it continued to call for justice.

Justice remains elusive, with investigations ongoing in a country in which the need to confront past crimes and pursue forgiveness, healing and national reconciliation is more complex as a result of the legacy of a 30-year civil war characterised by serious internal political strife.

There is also the challenge of populist leaders seeking to mobilise religion for their own ends, nurturing an exclusive vision of Sri Lanka as a homogenous Buddhist state.

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A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

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Indonesia’s elections reveal a nation at the crossroads between pluralism and intolerance

When the official results confirming the re-election of Joko Widodo as President of Indonesia were announced on 21 May, supporters of his rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, took to the streets. Riots led to carnage in the capital, Jakarta, with at least six people dead. The divisions unleashed by the election campaign were exposed in their ugliest form.

Until that point, Indonesia’s elections had been peaceful and orderly, despite what almost all observers describe as the most divisive campaign in the country’s recent history. On 17 April, over 190 million people cast their votes for the presidency and the national, regional and local legislatures, in one of the world’s biggest and most complex democratic exercises in recent times. To conduct such a poll, in the world’s third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation, across the world’s largest archipelago of 17,508 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, is a significant feat.

I spent three weeks in Indonesia during the election period. I witnessed the final week of the campaign, election day itself, and the first twelve days after the elections. I travelled to four cities – Jakarta, Medan in North Sumatra, Surabaya in East Java, and Pontianak in West Kalimantan – where I met civil society activists, religious communities and government advisers. I left Indonesia with profoundly mixed feelings.

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Long read: The history of religious persecution in Egypt

In November 2018, seven Coptic Christians were killed and 18 injured when terrorists attacked the bus they were travelling in to visit the Monastery of Anba Samuel the Confessor in Minya, Upper Egypt. The attack took place in the same location where 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 23 injured less than 18 months previously by masked gunmen who opened fire on the vehicles they were travelling in.

These violent attacks are part of a wider, longer term pattern of religious discrimination and persecution faced by Egypt’s Coptic community. The term ‘persecution’ is not used lightly; according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, persecution is ‘the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.’

In order to understand the root causes of religious persecution in contemporary Egypt, it is important to examine the ideological, socio-political and cultural factors that have historically underpinned the persecution of religious minorities in the country.

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