Sacred structures have become the repeated scenes of trauma from Iraq, New Zealand, France to Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government named an obscure group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), as perpetrators behind the island’s terrorist attacks, receiving alleged aid from an unmentioned “international network.”

The March massacres in New Zealand to these Easter Sunday bombings demonstrate that religious structures, with no military value and housing no armed combatants, have become repeated targets of indiscriminate violence.

These tragedies are reminiscent of the frailty of sacred architecture, with the scenes from Sri Lanka reminiscent of the Daesh rampage that destroyed Iraq’s mosques, churches and Yezidi temples, particularly the shrine of Jonah in 2014, sacred to Iraq’s Christians, and the Al Nuri mosque in Mosul, destroyed in 2017.

The events in Sri Lanka have two global ramifications. First, in terms of political violence, the island serves as a microcosm of the evolution of terrorism, having witnessed the campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) to an NTJ attack that has the hallmarks of global contemporary terrorism.

Second, the attacks revealed a tragic, symbolic double standard. The destruction of Christian churches in Sri Lanka did not generate a similar outpouring of grief that emerged after the fire in Notre Dame cathedral. An Asian tragedy could not compete with a European one.

Secular nationalist terrorism: The LTTE precedent

Founded in 1976, the LTTE waged a terrorist campaign in the name of Sri Lanka’s Hindu Tamils. The group was defeated in 2009, with more than 70,000 deaths in the decades-long conflict.

According to professor Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago’s Project on Suicide Terrorism, the LTTE did not invent the suicide bomber but pioneered it as a tactic in war. He cites how the group found inspiration in the Lebanese Hezbollah’s 1983 suicide truck bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut.

In 1987, the very first LTTE Tiger suicide attack targeted the barracks of Sri Lankan soldiers. In 1991 a female LTTE suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi of India when he was running for prime minister. In 1993, they used a suicide bomber to assassinate Sri Lanka’s president, and in 1996 killed more than 100 in a bombing of a bank.

However, unlike Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers were a secular terrorist group. While its members came from the Hindu minority of Sri Lanka, they were Marxists. They emerged during the Cold War at a time when other Marxist terrorist groups operated globally, ranging from Sendero Illuminoso in Peru to FARC in Colombia, to the Japanese and Italian Red Armies.

Just as Hezbollah inspired the LTTE, so it appears global extremist groups inspired NTJ’s attack, if not giving actual aid or assistance to the group.

Global contemporary terrorism: Daesh

The LTTE characterised a wave of terrorism that was secular and bounded by an ethnic group and limited by geography, opposed to the religious, transnational wave of terrorism represented by groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh. A Muslim could join Daesh, and even a person could convert to Islam and join Daesh. While one could convert to Hinduism, one cannot “convert” into the Tamil ethnic group. 

The LTTE was also bound by geography. They sought to create a Tamil homeland based in their city Jaffna and in areas where other Tamils lived in Sri Lanka. They did not want to rule over Tamils in India, for example. On the other hand, Daesh knew no geographical boundaries. While it once ruled a state in Syria and Iraq, they claimed that it was an expanding state, and their violence knew no geographical boundaries, striking from the suburbs of California to a metropolis like Paris.

This comparison of the evolution of terrorism raises the question as to what wave of terrorism ravaged Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Was it the LTTE or the Al Qaeda/Daesh trend?

The LTTE usually struck military facilities, or politicians representing the Sinhalese Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka. The attacks on Sunday, have been blamed on the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), a little known group whose leader has been arrested several times for inciting religious unrest.

Al Qaeda and its splinter, Daesh, developed a characteristic method of using simultaneous attacks on multiple targets to devastating effect. This modus operandi was witnessed in their twin bombings of the US embassies of Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, or the bombing of multiple commuter trains in Madrid, Spain in 2004.  

The Sri Lanka attacks targeting a church bear similarities to the 15 November 2003 bombing of two Istanbul synagogues and the simultaneous attack against the UK embassy and HSBC bank. The attacks on Sri Lankan hotels are similar to the 2003 and 2009 attacks on hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia.   

Daesh demonstrated how it could launch attacks on a music concert and football stadium in Paris in 2015, and it also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Philippines in January of this year.

NTJ’s attack bears similarities to what has been a violent trajectory of attacking civilian targets, both sacred and secular, begging the question as to whether this group had the help of a global jihadist network.

A double standard

Within the span of a week, two disasters, one accidental, the other deliberate, resulted in the damage of sacred monuments, from Notre Dame of Paris to St. Anthony’s Kochchikade, the largest Roman Catholic congregation in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.

Numerous memes emerged afterwards of Quasimodo emerged there, the fictitious hunchback of Notre Dame embracing his beloved cathedral. The Philippine and Sri Lankan churches have no literary figure to embody their tragedy that resonates globally, at least. Their destruction did not generate the magnitude of grief that Notre Dame’s destruction did.

The magnitude of grief can be measured in monetary terms. Close to a billion dollars were raised to rebuild Notre Dame and it is relatively easy to find websites to make donations, which cannot be said of the Sri Lanka attacks. Similar attempts to raise money for the Sri Lanka victims have only generated $23,624 the day after the attack.

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic took to cyberspace to mourn the fire of Notre Dame as a loss to “Western Civilization.” Ben Shapiro, for example, an American right-wing pundit with over two million followers on twitter, tweeted: “a magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.”

The Notre Dame fire fed into a narrative of a siege mentality, which conflates this tragic fire with Muslim immigration as threats to Western, White European identity. The problem with lamenting Notre Dame’s fire as a loss of for Western civilisation is that is the outcome of a myopic vision of Christianity being an inherent European faith, opposed to a Middle Eastern faith with a global following, as witnessed by the victims in Sri Lanka or earlier in the Philippines. 

The question remains as to whether sacred structures can be seen as the product of a global human heritage, and the trauma caused to their faithful as a matter which can be lamented regardless of one’s origin, race, or religiosity.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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