Peace | Speeches

State and Terrorism

Muhammad Zafrullah Khan Memorial Lecture

King's College, London

December 12, 2012

Terrorism poses the most serious military challenge to the modern world. It is no more contained within the boundaries of one State. It has an extensive global outreach. Terrorist organizations born in one country have the capacity to attack the furthest lands. The most militarized States have not been impervious to the activities of the terrorist.

The international community, especially the super powers has been engaged for the past few decades in searching for solutions to the problem of terrorism and violent conflict. The strategies often employed are military. The responses of States appear to be that of meeting the challenges of violence with violence, treating the symptoms, the surface manifestations of the problem.

Recognition of the importance of searching out the deep-rooted causes of conflict and seeking to resolve them seems to be a rare occurrence in the planning of counter-terrorist strategies. We can witness, all around us, the dismal failure of mainly militarist methods to address violent conflict.

I believe that militarist strategies must be employed only as the solution of the last resort. The deep-rooted causes of each conflict must be understood and managed. This will, no doubt, take time and involve complex operations. However, it is such a holistic approach that has proved to finally overcome violent protest and conflict in a durable manner.

In the post-colonial and especially the post cold war era, the subject of conflict has moved from territorial or land issues to that of Identity, as defined by race, language, religion, caste, ideology. Identity based conflicts are complex and prove difficult to manage, as they are so emotionally charged, combining perceptions of inequality and discrimination in several spheres.

Such perceptions arise from denial of access to resources and public facilities such as education, jobs, land, government portions and so on. They are heightened by the realization or perception that one's identity-individual and collective is threatened, generating the fear that one's existence, the sense of who one is, is in danger of destruction. The most potent source of violent conflict today is identity. The denial of rights to or the exclusion of certain groups with common identity becomes the bedrock of dissent and violent conflict.

Studies have amply demonstrated that exclusion and inequality between different groups has been the major cause of intra-national conflicts. When inequality occurs among groups which have similar economic and social status – that is, horizontal inequalities, the disadvantaged group feels the discrimination more sharply.

Perceived injustice as well as frustration and despair caused by continued social marginalization, economic deprivation and political defeat has been known to result in violence. It has been said that “young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs”. The continued existence of inequality gives rise to violence and even terrorism – that most dehumanizing phenomenon of our times. Economic regression and political instability follows.

I wish to affirm here that marginalized groups have been found to perceive injustice not only as economic deprivation, but also through the prism of social and political inequality. The exclusion of some communities from an equitable share of the benefits of prosperity causes inequalities in every sphere.

Economic development is no doubt the priority requirement for addressing the challenges of poverty and deprivation. Most developing economies have attained accelerated growth and development in the past few decades

However, hundreds of millions of our citizens have been left behind, continuing to live under conditions of extreme poverty and are even becoming poorer than before.

They remain marginalized, while the benefits of economic growth are enjoyed by a relatively small number of the privileged classes.

Lack of access to education and knowledge, jobs, land and other public assets, by an ever increasing number of our peoples causes frustration and anger. They are no more willing to tolerate the inequalities.

Economic Development happens to be only one part of the solution. We need to adopt a holistic plan of action which will encompass the socio-political aspects of the problem. All those communities which have been excluded historically or even in modern times must be included as equal partners, having equal rights in the economic, social and political spheres. In formulating policies for development, an inclusive approach is required, so that the benefits of growth reach the disadvantaged and they are included in the implementation of the programmes.

Studies have also ascertained that when all communities living within a State are guaranteed equal opportunities and their separate identities are respected and given free expression, they will become a productive, vibrant part of the State, celebrating the richness of its diversity, while building a united, strong and stable country. Such a society is called a Cohesive or Shared or Inclusive Society.

It is a society where the political, governmental and societal structures are designed to allow the equitable distribution of and equal access to the benefits of development and prosperity for All, irrespective of the community to which they belong. The Constitution of the State, its political structures such as Parliament and other elected bodies, its government and administrative structures will all have to be constructed in a manner as to accommodate free and active participation of all, in political and governmental processes, as well as the guarantee of equal rights to all.

The contrary instance is where differences among diverse communities living within a country have been exacerbated by rulers, to their advantage. They tend to conjure up “an enemy” from peoples who belong to different ethnic, religious, caste or political groups. History is replete with examples of States and Governments employing the concept of the “other”, represented as the “enemy” as tool of government management. For a large part of human history the “enemy” has helped forge national unity, as well as entrench weak rulers and Governments in power. Governments whip up hatred against the “other” by maintaining the myth of the dichotomy between “us” and “them”. This requires the oppression of the other and the denial of their rights. Such exclusion takes place not only through outright hostility but also through neglect of minority groups. Sustainable development, prosperity and peace necessarily imply that the “other” be brought in and included fully and honestly into the processes of economic development, as full and equal partners of the process of government – to power sharing, for instance. To end poverty and hunger in a durable manner, we need inclusive and sustainable development.

Here I wish to quote from the great Indian poet and philosopher – Rabindranath Tagore “Bigotry tries to keep Truth safe in its hands, with a grip that kills it”.

Stewart and Brown in an Oxford University study affirm that cultural, economic, political inequalities occurring between specific groups cause deep resentment, resulting in violent struggles. Violence in multi-religious and multi-ethnic Nations is not caused by the presence of diversity or by the “clash of civilizations” as stated by Huntingdon, but is due to the exclusion of the less powerful groups. The marginalized groups then mobilize around their group identity – be it religious, ethnic, linguistic, ideological.

Prof. Rehman Sobhan affirms in his work on poverty and injustice that Poverty, Injustice and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunity structures for the excluded.

Horizontal inequalities between communities of equal social and cultural status has proved to have engendered a remarkable number of conflicts

- Economic and social inequalities have been found to cause a significant increase in the probability of conflict, increasing threefold when they occur horizontally between different ethnic groups.

Indonesia, the Moro rebellion in the Philippines and the Maoist uprisings in Nepal are examples of conflicts arising from economic and social deprivation of some communities.

- Inequality in the cultural sphere has led to violent conflict and even terrorism.


- Language discrimination in Peru and Guatemala, Sri Lanka

- Racial and religious discrimination in Malaysia, Ivory Coast, Northern Ireland, and Palestine

- Political in equality has also proved to be a major cause of conflict. The case of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Bolivia, Malaysia, and India have managed to contain conflict by effecting political inclusion through power sharing

Although Peru and Sri Lanka have militarily crushed their rebellions, the causes of conflict have yet to be resolved.

I cannot emphasize more that an essential pre-requisite for Peace, political stability and prosperity is a democratic, inclusivist, pluralist State that binds together peoples of diverse ethnic linguistic, religious and cultural communities into a united Nation.

Terrorism is the extreme manifestation of long unresolved conflicts. However, it is important to understand that conflict is not always a negative thing. Conflict is the result of interaction between different and opposing aspirations and goals and is a place where disputes are processed. It is essential for the proper functioning of democracy and it can mobilize energies for social change and improvement.

Conflict becomes negative and destructive when its expression takes a violent form.

Democratic governments permit disputes to be expressed and respond to them. Democracy can operate as a platform for conflict management, if the right tools are employed. What is required is not to suppress nor resolve conflict, but to manage them. The root causes must be alleviated.

At this point it would be pertinent for me to raise the issue of militant Islamism and its ideology. We are aware that Global Islamism is different to Islam. Islam is the religion of the Muslim peoples, while Islamism is a political ideology.

The chief ideologue of the Global Islamist movement – Osama bin Laden’s many statements present the major causes to justifying his call for Muslims to take up arms against the infidel.

First it is the presence of non-Muslim, infidel troops on Hijaz land. It was intolerable that the powerful caliphates and the Ottoman Empire had declined to the point, where the caliphates were abolished by the western colonial occupiers, and the holy lands occupied by Western troops.

Secondly, the non-resolution of the Israel–Palestine problem and the occupation of Palestinian lands by Jewish troops

These formed the basis for Bin Laden’s complaint of a so-called crisis for all Muslims. There is no longer a problem for one country, but a crisis for the Umma itself. Thus was fashioned a Global Islamist movement. The enemy was not a national entity, but the Western infidel forces, that were violating not only the holy lands of Jerusalem but also the Hijaz itself.

At the same time a movement for Muslims to adhere closely to a pious lifestyle, was put in place. A political, Islamist movement was created in individual Muslim countries whose governments were pressurized to adopt Sharia.

The Islamist concept is an account of the Muslim predicament during the last century or so. In his excellent treatise on Islamism, Meghnad Desai, states that Islamist ideology “appeals to a deep hurt in the Muslim psyche, and it is this hurt we need to understand. But we need to mount a critique of the ideology since its presumptions are false in many ways, and its recipe for assuaging the hurt of the Muslims is counterproductive”.

In this context, an ideological army of youth, fighting to free the Muslim world of Western influence and presence, came to be born. The reach of the Islamist movement across the globe, was certainly facilitated by the spread of modern communications technology and air travel.

What then is the strategy to overcome the challenges of modern terrorism including the terrorist activities of Global Islamism?

- First a serious attempt must be made to comprehend the socio-political, cultural and economic roots that led to the conflict.

- Then the inequalities, discriminations must be addressed effectively

- Governments must possess a clear Vision and an honest political will, to effectively implement the solutions.

- The rebel group must be engaged in dialogue.

- In case they refuse dialogue, strategies must be formulated to address their supporters, by effectively addressing their needs and to win their "hearts & minds". This will ultimately draw support away from the rebel organization.

- When weakened, the rebels will feel compelled to negotiate or may be isolated and dealt with militarily.

I wish to emphasize that every workable strategy to first find solutions to the causes of the conflict, must be tried out, before employing extensive military attacks.

I dare say that if such a strategy was undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrorist or rebel groups as the case may be, would not have found reasons to strengthen themselves in their extreme stances.

Do we not have sufficient evidence from most of the theatres of military engagement against terrorism, that guns and bombs alone cannot bring an end to violence.

At this point permit me to describe my personal experiences as Head of State of Sri Lanka. I was committed to the concept that Federalism and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka's minorities' question. I had ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belonged to a small minority of the elite ruling class politicians and clergy and others closely linked to them. The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.

We understood that we must negotiate with the minorities and their leaders and bring in suitable concessions. Sharing what we possess with others will not reduce our strength. Instead, it will enhance it by bringing together divided communities working together bringing in skills, talents and knowledge of the marginalized that were deprived to us since the beginning of the conflict. The diverse skills and talents of all peoples, actively participating in the nation building process, will immensely enrich and unify our divided Nation.

Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the path of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of sharing political power through a federal constitution and by building a Cohesive Nation and an Inclusive State. We won three major elections within eighteen months, with an increased majority vote at each one.

A Gallup poll we conducted at the time my government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 percent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. We undertook extensive programs to take the message of peace and shared societies to the entire country. We held seminars, workshops, street theater and used the media widely. At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 percent.

I must emphasize that my government only employed democratic methods, never force nor violence against our opponents.

The vision and actions of leaders of government have been instrumental in defining the choices made by the Sri Lanka people.

For the first time in the history of independent Sri Lanka, my government offered a comprehensive solution to the minorities' problem. Even while war had to be waged, we began and completed a large number of essential development projects in the North and East Infrastructure damage during years of war was reconstructed - roads, bridges and culverts, irrigation works, telecommunication, electricity, schools and the University, hospitals, saw extensive reconstruction and we made available credit for agriculture, small industries and fisheries.

This no doubt created employment locally for youth, who until then had seen no hope of a better future for themselves. Thus we were able to demonstrate to the Tamil civilians that there could exist Sri Lankan governments with honest intensions of including the Tamils and all other citizens equitably in the development process. Empirical evidence showed that the numbers of youth joining LTTE armies were considerably reduced, since we adopted these policies.

However, we understand that economic development along could not succeed in creating a society where all our peoples would feel they were fairly and equitably included. For this, it was required to share political power which we the Sinhalese had jealously guarded to ourselves since independence, marginalizing all others not only in practice but also by law, by means of various legal enactments Constitutions and laws.

Hence we proposed to enact a new Constitution, containing extensive devolution of power to the minorities, together with various other measures adopted to guarantee their rights. This draft Constitution also contained measures to abolish the Executive Presidency which accords excessive power to the President.

We could not translate our dream of enacting this constitution and transforming a divided, violent Lanka into a united nation where peace prevails, because of the consistent and violent rejection of our Peace Proposal by the LTTE, as well as the obstinacy of the parliamentary Opposition in refusing to give the government the few votes required t make up the required 2/3rd majority in parliament.

We believed that educating the young was important for building a Shared Society and a united country. We introduced new subjects to the schools curricula and established Peace Education in every one of our 10,000 schools and educated young students about coexistence and the rights of all citizens to equal status politically, economically and culturally.

We adopted the policy that to respond to the terrorist in his language of violence could cause serious damage to democratic governance. If we employed the language of Peace, the terrorist would be weakened, as he does not possess weapons in his arsenal of violence, to respond convincingly to the discourse and practice of Peace.

This in fact, began to yield positive results -

- The LTTE was compelled by the Tamil civilian population in the war zones, to permit the government to undertake development work

- The Tamil youth began to move away from joining the rebel forces, as they saw an alternative and peaceful future.

- A slow but definite whittling away of the terrorist's argument that there existed no alternative to terror and a separate State, was taking place. The government's offer of an extensive devolution of power, as well as the development of infrastructure presented an alternative to the politics of terror. Attitudes began to change.

- This, together with the unexpected yet positive fall-out of the destruction wrought by the Tsunami in 2004, persuaded the rebels to sign a landmark agreement with the government to work with the government for the first time, in the process of reconstruction of the Tsunami affected areas.

In conclusion, I wish to assert that if we are to overcome terrorism and establish a durable peace, we have to -

- Engage actively to seek out the root causes of each conflict and implement strategies to manage them.

- States must employ legitimate means in the fight against terrorism.

- This implies that the Rule of Law must prevail and that governments promote open liberal & democratic societies, in contrast with the intolerant, exclusivist monotheism of Bin Laden and the ideologies of militant Islamism.

- This does not eliminate the essential need for vigilance and strong democratically organized security systems, to prevent terrorist activity within States.

- Liberal Muslim leaders, thinkers and States could undertake an active discourse on the inexactitudes of the claims of militant Islamism and that the philosophy of Mohammed was an accommodating and peaceful one, that there existed no all pervasive Muslim Umma in ancient times, that the Caliphates of yesteryear were not spiritual kingdoms as claimed by Bin Laden, but temporal, political powers and that his Umma is a post-modern reconstruction evolving from the revival of the one sect of Islam - Wahabbism.

Hence the fight against terrorism must enter a new phase. The weapons of understanding, accommodation, discourse and negotiation must take primacy over military arms.