Groundviews

Why Religious Intolerance Makes Me Mad

Image courtesy The Nation

I am writing this in response to the various articles / comments  promoting intolerance, people basing their arguments on stereotypes, and just things that I have experienced in the recent past.  You may not agree with all I have to say but I really needed to say this out loud.

My name is Anisha, I am a liberal Muslim woman and more than anything a proud Sri Lankan. I support the Sri Lankan cricket team…always have and always will. I like Pakistan, I have an amazing friend that lives there although I have never been BUT I was born here, lived here my whole life and that makes me Sri Lankan to the core. So the idea that someone assumes that because of my religion I will support a country other than my own is laughable.

I studied under the Sinhalese stream so my mother tongue is Sinhalese. I have friends from all ethnicities because I went a mixed school, which is a blessing because I get to experience a wide range of culture and food! I work hard to earn my own money because I believe in being independent and my parents are great believers that when you reach adulthood, you need to grow up and look after your own needs 🙂 I have dedicated all of my free time to volunteering as it benefits my community as a whole and also because I believe that social change starts from the grassroots. I am educated, I rescue stray dogs from the streets…in fact all of my pets were rescued strays by my mom, my dad or me. I have great respect for Buddhism – in fact I visit temples when I can and wear blessed thread. I do not believe in the slaughter of animals. I don’t like how certain fundamentalists use Islam or any other religion for that matter as an excuse to commit acts of violence. No religion advocates the killing of human beings for the benefit of oneself or one’s beliefs. Of course that hasn’t stopped people from doing exactly that but it still doesn’t mean I am okay with it.

My dad is from the Eastern Province so you would, if you followed a stereotype think that he would be spending his retirement locking me up in my room till he found enough cows to barter me off to some unfortunate man so that we can have a million children… but being the great dad he is, he along with my amazing mom, brought me up to make my own decisions in life and that as a woman in this great country we live in, that I have more choices than most of my Muslim counterparts have in other conservative parts of the Muslim world. That is a gift that I am grateful for every day of my life.

It really is unfair to generalize anyone under a label because more often than not, that label does not fit. There are extremists representing all religions that are out there to propagate their beliefs…and if you are foolish enough to fall for that, then good luck to you. But be open minded, go out there and meet people from all religions that live here before you judge them and put them in a box. Not all Muslims are bad, but not all Muslims are good either…that rule is applicable to all religions. Not all Muslims cover their heads and grow beards, the one’s that do are not stupid…in fact some of the wisest women I know have found the perfect balance,  some of us love dogs, some of us wouldn’t touch beef if it were the last thing on earth…my point is all of us are different individually!

My late grandfather was a politician representing and winning election after election for over two decades in an electorate that is majority Sinhalese. This was when politics was a different caliber than it is now, where being a leader did not mean that you must only represent those that share your own religion. In fact I have never understood why that happens here. I strongly believe that politics should be blind to religion because it’s not who you represent that counts but the quality of work you do – we all need hospitals, schools, roads to get from point A to point B fast…we all want equal opportunities to grow up, get a good education, a decent job so we have enough money to get married, have children of our own and continue the cycle of life. That is not dependant on a religion but being a human being. That was the greatest lesson my grand dad taught me – to believe that we are Sri Lankan first and everything else later. In fact, if we all focused on what we have in common as opposed to spending so much time fighting over what makes us different, we would as a country be a lot better off.

When I was volunteering in Anuradhapura for a few weeks, I saw a poster of a politician pasted on a Bo tree. I may not be Buddhist but what I saw disgusted me because it is so clearly wrong and disrespectful. When we were visiting the historical site of Isurumuniya, the monk at the counter did not let a few of our Maldivian friends through because their head’s were covered and that if they were to come inside his temple then they must listen to his rules. He had a lot of other ‘pleasant’ things to say, which I am not going to repeat but you get my point. Apart from that being great public relations for our tourism industry, it was also a very good indication of how some people in this country think. Was I angry at all Buddhists? Did I stereotype all Buddhist monks as being close minded, intolerant and disrespectful? No, because I know what it feels like to be put in a box. I also know that you get those types in all religions, including my own. In fact, we clearly have more than our fair share.

How good or bad we are should not be defined on what we believe in or how a few of us act…it’s just a character trait and it doesn’t mean that one shallow person is the poster boy for everyone that shares his beliefs. It also does not mean that we must hate a particular religion because of that poster boy nor should we be blindly led by him, because in the end he is only propagating his own ignorance. His beliefs have no power till the day we pull wool over our eyes and believe that because of his standing in society, that he will always be right. In this day and age, when access to knowledge is so easily available, only the foolish are robots.

In a post war Sri Lanka, do we really need to focus so much on the past? Who was wronged 30 years ago? How we should get back at those who made those mistakes? I understand that mistakes happened, a lot of our leaders said and did things that formed the roots to a 30 year old war. The end result is that we all suffered as Sri Lankans, not because we were different religions. Right now, I feel that as the war is over, we have this need to find something else to fight about and the way we are going, it looks like it is intolerance towards religions.

We have 4 of the major religions living under one island and I get that my cultural practice may go against another’s cultural practice, etc,. I am sure that we can all sit together and figure it out without throwing labels at each other. In the end, like it or not, we are still an island and we have to learn to live together. We can either divide ourselves based on the little we quite frankly have as differences and build massive walls – this part of Sri Lanka for religion A, this part for religion B and so forth. OR we can hold hands, stop all this name calling and this “my religion is the greatest, my culture is the most superior” nonsense, collectively forgive all of our past mistakes (because as Sri Lankans, every single one of us are responsible for everything that went wrong) and move on. We need to focus on how we should find balance between our diverse cultures and respect what makes us different and have a strong common identity that binds us all together.

I have seen this happen. I have seen what happens when you put young people who have suffered at the hands of the LTTE and the Army in a room together. When you start communicating, that is when you realize that you have more in common that you ever thought you did…regardless of who made you suffer, empathy is in the pain that we all share and therein lies forgiveness, that in this beautiful country we live in, our future lies in the hands of not as Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher separately but as Sri Lankans as a whole. I am not asking any of you to agree with me but just think about that!