Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). His research interests are in radicalization, terrorism, diaspora politics, post-war reconstruction, and the sociology of religion. He is the author of Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Activism in Canada (2015), and the co-editor of Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War (2016). He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, The Atlantic, and Foreign Affairs.
Prof. Amarasingam conducted over fifty interviews with former fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) throughout the former war zones of Sri Lanka in 2013 and 2014. He has conducted field research in Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Somalia, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine and also co-directed a study on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq for six years.
Given his extensive expertise, the talk with Prof. Amarasingam will encompass a range of different topics.
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Question: You are among the scholars who conducted the most extensive fieldwork with current and former foreign fighters. How would you summarize your perspectives about the so-called returnees and their families? What approaches are Western countries adopting?
Dr. Amarasingam: In Al-Hol camp alone, based on recent numbers, there are over 70,000 people from fifty or so countries. This is a massive issue. Only twelve of these countries have even made an effort to repatriate some of their citizens — and even then, the whole process has been disoriented and scattered. Some — like Australia and Trinidad — only took orphans. Others brought back entire families. The United States has brought back the individuals they think they can charge quickly but has left others behind.
I’ve been saying this for a while, but there is nothing about this situation that wasn’t obvious several years ago. Even after people started leaving in 2012, several of us academics and analysts were talking about how many of these guys and girls are going to come back, that it is wise to have that policy conversation now, that we should be prepared for children who have experienced years of trauma, interrupted education, and early exposure to violence to come back. Also, get the general population accustomed to the idea that they are coming back. We may have underestimated the scale, but it certainly should not have been a surprise.
Question: You are also an expert in social and political movements in Sri Lanka. What is the terror alert in the country in the aftermath of the April 21 attacks? Have authorities taken any new measures to face the threat?
Dr. Amarasingam: At least in the immediate aftermath, the country’s leaders made all the wrong choices. They didn’t come out and make it clear that the attack was the work of a small network, that Muslims are fundamentally part of the Sri Lankan ethnic and religious fabric, and that the Muslim community in the Eastern Province had been complaining about these very individuals for at least two years. Instead, they let the hate mongers, the radical Buddhists, once again steer the conversation and did very little to stop what happened next — days and days of rioting, targeting mosques and Muslim-owned businesses. The government had a real opportunity to bring the country together, but like so many times in the past it failed miserably.
Sri Lanka is a wounded country, which just a decade ago emerged from an almost 30-year war, which killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, including my family. It stubbornly refuses to learn any lessons from the past. This is all not to mention the Tamil community, and the ongoing challenges it faces in the former war zones: disappearances, ongoing arbitrary arrests, forced demographic change, and militarization. When you ask whether “measures” are taken to face the threat, the answer is they’ve done everything possible to ensure the continuing presence of threats by acting in heavy-handed ways.
Question: EER pays special attention to the similarities between different forms of radicalization. In particular, I believe that the far-Right is now characterized by increasing spectacularization and that it is now taking inspiration from the latest wave of jihadism — which is ideologically weaker than the older ones and more focused on action. What similarities and differences do you identify between jihadism and far-Right radicalism? What are your outlooks on far-Right radicalism in the West?
Dr. Amarasingam: I think one of the mistakes some analysts have made recently is to downplay the importance of ideology. They seem to basically suggest that since jihadist ideology and far-Right ideology are both inspiring violence, then this must mean that ideology is simply canceled out as a factor. Just because the ideological particularities of these two movements are different, doesn’t mean it is not important. Ideology isn’t the only thing that matters, but it’s still a very important element of what keeps movements together, and what sometimes pushes individuals to violence.
The similarities are interesting, and it has been something I have been thinking about more these days. Both movements, for instance, have a notion of a past golden age when things were at their best, blame a variety of “others” for why this golden age has been lost, and they both have a utopian vision of what the ideal future looks like. Even in their particulars, both have various conspiratorial ideas in common, common views on gender, and both tend to be quite antisemitic. But, there’s definitely an opening here for some enterprising research to really dig into the commonalities of both of these movements. I think we can learn a lot.
Question: Ideology does play a major role and it should not be underestimated. However, I personally see a simplification of far-Right exploitation of ideology in order to make it fit for immediate action, which is similar to what happened with the so-called third wave of jihadism, embodied mainly by the Islamic State. Is this simplification real? What will its consequences be?
Dr. Amarasingam: I think this is true for most movements. There seems to be a large misunderstanding on whether members of groups need to be experts on the ideology or the tenets of the group to be deeply committed to those tenets. A soldier in the American military may be an over-the-top patriot without fully understanding the constitution, liberalism, democracy, etc. Their commitment to the country is not dependent on an “academic” understanding of what makes America the kind of country it is. The same is true for jihadists.
We have that famous case from a few years ago where a bunch of kids were arrested with “Islam for Dummies” in their backpack. And people then concluded that everyone who joins ISIS doesn’t know anything about Islam, and therefore religiosity and ideology were not important. The American soldier analogy applies here: someone can be completely committed to religious ideas and ideals without being a “scholar” of that religion. Most religions, in fact, make this distinction clear: there are lay people and there are the clergy. This is why I often make the distinction between religion and religiosity. The latter term allows for the young and naïve, but still deeply believing, kind of commitment we are seeing more and more of these days.