‘Why I’m Not a Terrorist’: Victim of Extreme Hate in Sri Lanka
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka— Raghu Balachandran has something in common with the nine suicide bombers who killed at least 257 people, including 45 children, and injured over 500 others on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Just like them, Raghu belongs to a persecuted religious and ethnic minority wrestling with a sense of alienation in this Buddhist-majority nation. What’s more, he has witnessed the brutal murders of his father and brother.
“I had all the reasons and justifications to join a terrorist group because of what has happened to me,” said Raghu, a Christian and former spokesperson of the opposition leader in parliament. But, he added, “right teachings” changed his life.
The Islamic State claims their teachings influenced the bombers, from relatively wealthier families than Raghu’s. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in a video message, published by Al Furqan media network, that the attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were to avenge the recent defeat of his fighters in Syria.
Even though Muslims and Christians have historically had amicable relations in Sri Lanka, IS succeeded in indoctrinating the nine bombers - along with more than 100 other Sri Lankan youth - with hate, by selling its warped narrative about the West’s war against Muslims and Islam. The nine were part of a local Islamist extremist group called National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), which is believed to have ties with IS. Some have speculated that parts of the Sri Lankan Muslim community have been trading Sufism for more strict interpretations of Islam after working stints in the Middle East, and in this context, IS’s violent ideology had an easier time finding adherents.
Churches and Western tourists were targeted even though the local Christian community has often defended and expressed solidarity with the Muslim minority as it came under attack by the Buddhist extremist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The BBS has been running an anti-Muslim campaign in Sri Lanka and also attacking churches and Christians.
“As for your brothers in Sri Lanka, they have put joy in the hearts of the monotheists with their immersing operations that struck the homes of the crusaders in their Easter,” the IS leader said in the video, according to a transcript posted online by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group.
Raghu resists tarring a whole community over extremists’ sins, and he even believes in forgiving the bombers to bring healing in a nation that is still recovering from a 25-year-long intermittent armed insurgency by the Tamil Tigers in the north and the east of the island. Raghu, Head of Relief and Development at the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, is from the Tamil minority, the majority of whom are Hindu.
The civil war ended with the military defeat of the Tamil rebels in 2009, which according to human rights defenders took the lives of around 100,000 civilians, mostly Tamils. The BBS was formed, which the backing of influential politicians at the time, to promote Buddhist nationalism, which would portray the military victory over Tamil Tigers as a victory of the majority Singhalese Buddhists and thereby garner support for the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, then the President of Sri Lanka, amid calls for accountability for crimes against humanity. And this pursuit of justification for civilian casualties cost Muslims and Christians their security and made them “unwelcome” citizens - a fertile ground for IS recruitment.
A week after the tragic attacks, as extreme restrictions and tensions carried on in Colombo, I took my mobile phone camera and hopped on to Raghu’s car for a ride around the city to speak to him about how he looks at the Easter attacks and why he hasn’t given in to hate and revenge.