The rise of Islamophobic sentiments, particularly in the form of hateful commentary on social media, in the wake of an attack such as the Easter bombings must be countered through education and strengthening laws against hate speech, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Minister Rauf Hakeem said today (9).
Speaking to RepublicNext on the sidelines of a press conference held in Colombo by a collective of Muslims parliamentarians and civil society activists together with the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the Minister said rabble-rousers must be identified using information and communication technology at the government’s disposal.
“Whenever a situation like this arises, it’s quite natural that some mischievous elements create this feeling of insecurity and heightened state of fear among people. We should not be unnecessarily perturbed about what is happening through social media. In the immediate aftermath, the Government took a precaution to block social media and did it again when riots were about to break out in Negombo. These are all precautionary measures. But it cannot be done permanently,” he said.
Asked what he proposed as a longer term solution, Hakeem said, “the long term solution is to educate the people and also to keep a keen eye on rabble-rousers. Now we have very sophisticated electronic equipment to trace the uploading of news and social media comments. We need to maintain a high state of alertness, and we must use that machinery and use the emergency to track down the mischief makers, isolate them and perhaps rehabilitate or punish them.”
The SLMC leader and Cabinet Minister also called for the introduction of stringent hate speech laws.
“We have been trying to do this for a long time. But for a variety of reasons, some people who have been too focused on human rights issues were against introducing hate speech as a punishable offence in our penal code. It’s time for us to bring hate speech into the penal code and then take stern action against the culprits. We have to have some deterrent legislation in place quickly,” he said.
Hakeem also commented on businesses affected by the prevailing situation in the country.
“The impact is so huge and widespread that a quick assessment is not possible. But direct damage due to riots or attacks is assessable, and that is being done at the moment. If you’re to do a comprehensive assessment, that would apply to everybody. There is a serious impact on all businesses generally. And the Government is taking steps to give some relief, through deferring VAT payments, helping them increase their liquidity and maintain their businesses in the short term,” he said.