Disarming the juggernaut of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka

Photograph courtesy Vikalpa

The youth of Sri Lanka express their dismay and alarm over the apparent surge in religious intolerance and communal discord that has permeated our society in the post-LTTE era and particularly in recent months. It is a pity that the  ‘infamous’  “Grandpass incident”, a subject of intense political drama a few weeks back, was neither “isolated “ nor “random”, as some conveniently assert. Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) indicates that from May 2009- January 2013 a staggering 69 attacks have been directed at places of religious worship. While the majority of these cases pertain to the Christian community, particularly non-traditional churches, this does not preclude other major religions, with reports indicating at least 10 Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques came under attack in the period under survey.

What is truly fuelling this juggernaut of intolerance is not the inter-religious attacks or the impunity the perpetrators of these attacks appear to enjoy. The members of this forum hold the view that these attacks, which are undoubtedly deplorable,  do  little to alter the mindsets of the so-called ‘moderate thinkers’ or fuel deep communal hatred or majoritarian insecurity in that sense. The driving force behind this phenomenon of intolerance is largely the virulent hate campaigns against certain religions and religious groups propagated via the online and social media. For instance a recent infographic on a Facebook page, asserted that the growth rate of the Muslim population is over 80% and if the Sinhalese are not careful, the Muslim population would supersede that of the  Sinhalese by 2014. Another infographic likened the practices of Islam such as “Halal” to that of the “Taliban”. To correct the ‘peace-loving’ groups behind these sentiments, the Muslim community constitute a mere 8%( approximately) of the total population, a fact that the followers of our forum need little reminder of. Consequently it is obvious that assertions such as those highlighted  above are nothing more than a farce, as any reasonable mind would comprehend. But when ‘sugar-coated’ with colourful images and potent rhetoric, sentiments such as these, expressed in  social media can mutate into a viable and potentially lethal propaganda tool , a tool that if left unchecked could have limitless and  dangerous consequences for communal harmony.

The “majority” are NOT intolerant
Of the many prevailing conflicts on religious lines, perhaps the most prominent of all is the apparent clash between the Muslim community and certain groups who act under the slogans of “ safeguarding Buddhism” and “ protecting the majority”.  The members of this forum seek to stress that attempts made by groups promoting malicious propaganda and religious discord to create the impression that they are through some delusion, executing “ the will of the majority”, paints a picture of the Sinhalese speaking Buddhist majority which is  simply untrue. Attempts made to project these groups, as “guardians of Buddhism” are also highly inaccurate as a true Buddhist would no doubt understand that Buddhism preaches the “middle path” and Lord Buddha himself sought to invoke ideals of  tolerance and harmony amongst his disciples.

The members of this forum note that historically the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist citizens, including those in the deep South have been tolerant and accepting of other religions and their beliefs. They have experienced first hand the effects of protracted ethno-religious disharmony  – a 30 year long conflict which claimed thousand of lives , destroyed hordes of property and hindered any hope of development. They have absolutely  no intention of seeing a repetition of this ordeal. The fact that the recent wave of ‘anti- Muslim’ sentiments occurred almost spontaneously, with no gradual progression in the ‘anti-Muslim discourse’, is testimony to the fact that groups propagating these sentiments are actually a minority voice. Their strategy could perhaps be interpreted as attempting to whip up religious discord as a majority Vs minority issue ,  masking the fact that it is only a small proportion of people that share such intolerant attitudes.

During the recent visit to Sri Lanka of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay , she raised concern over the surge in religious intolerance with top officials  including The Minister of Justice and The President. In light of the High Commissioner’s concerns it is the observation of the members of this forum , that the ‘anti-Muslim’ sentiments paraded by these groups are largely media-driven, and acquire their legitimacy via publicity in  the vernacular print media. This forum urges the mainstream print and electronic media, especially the vernacular press to exercise caution in publicizing and affording prominence to the actions and sentiments of groups ill disposed to notions of religious tolerance , which could create unnecessary communal discord and stir up hatred. It is crucial for the media to understand that groups promoting agendas of discord , draw their relevance from a naïve media, which provides their views and sentiments with the traction they so desperately require. By ignoring and dismissing these sentiments, especially in light of the fact that they represent only a small cohort of individuals, the media is automatically snuffling out the sentiments of these groups and  rendering them politically irrelevant. Playing into the hands of these groups by affording them much-needed media attention is a poor strategy will not yield any long-term benefits, unless you count a polarized society as something to be venerated.

Rule of Law: The best disarming tool
The lackadaisical approach of the law enforcement authorities to arrest the perpetrators of the attacks on places of worship and more importantly the complete and utter failure  to implement the relevant sections of the penal code dealing with issues of religious intolerance is shocking. While there is considerable lacunae in the current legislation governing hate speech and communal violence , implementing the current legislation indiscriminately is essential. The prevalence of the rule of law is the most plausible and effective method of disarming groups promoting discord, as it will send an overt message – that such acts are not permissible under any circumstances and consequently the religious tensions that prevail under the current environment would fizzle out. It is important to note section 219A of the penal code, which states, “ Whoever with deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person shall… be punished with imprisonment or with a fine or both”. Furthermore with Sri Lanka having ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) we are obliged under international law to enact the necessary domestic legislation to address issues of religious intolerance. The ICCPR notes in this regard “ any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes and incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”

Our national anthem in Sinhala states “Eka mawekuge daru kala bawina”. This sums up the need for religious tolerance in a nutshell , for a true democracy is one which respects the beliefs of all its participants, shunning the discriminatory behavior which can erode the inter-religious harmony Sri Lanka has traditionally enjoyed in the past. The link between ethno-religious harmony and economic development is unquestionable and becoming the ‘miracle of Asia’ requires us to do far more than building roads and airports, as social development must accompany physical development, for true economic progress to be achieved. Ultimately disarming this juggernaut of intolerance requires a dual approach- a commitment to Rule of law and a willingness on the part of the collective media to act in the interests of promoting harmony. We the youth have presented these solutions. I suppose the question that remains is what , if anything the decision makers are going to do about it?

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Dynalogue is a non-partisan, a-political ,youth discussion forum founded to discuss burning social /economic and political issues affecting the citizens of Sri Lanka. The views expressed in this article represent a spectrum of youth with divergent political and economic outlooks. The forum members can be reached via email at [email protected] . To learn more about Dynalogue and to follow our discussions visit our  Facebook page www.facebook.com/dynalogue8  or website www.Dynalogue.org.

  • serendiptious87

    Interesting points made and I completely agree with the the fact that the law needs to be implemented. However, I do have some questions to ask as well. If we want to move away from hate speech and intolerance then should we not also have a look at religious teachings? For example, there are quite a few teachings in the Quran that teach intolerance towards non-Musims, with the Jews being typecast as the enemies of Muslims. It is also taught that the fate of disbelievers (i.e non-Muslims) will be an eternal hell fire. The Quran forms the basis of Islam and is taught to Sri Lankan Muslim children from a very young age. I do not think such teachings engender respect for and tolerance of diversity in our multicultural society. How is this aspect of the issue going to be addressed?

    • amjad saleem

      Hi thank you for the points. What you bring up is an important point in terms of understanding religious teachings. Your reference to the qur’an underlines this in not understanding time and space for the revelations. It is not enough just to pick certain verses from the qur’an without understanding the context in which they were revealed. You neglect to mention the numerous references that exist in the qur’an that command muslims to respect other religions and their followers nor do you take into account the examples of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions in dealing with non muslims
      So I guess what is needed from all communities is greater understanding of each other’ s practices, teachings and thoughts.

      • serendiptious87

        Thank you for your reply Amjad. I don’t think understanding “time and space for the revelations” is relevant though; hate speech is hate speech regardless of when and where it was promulgated. I am only aware of very few references that exist in the Quran that suggests (not commands) respect for other religions. One being “lakum deenukum waliya deen”, however in contrast there are many, many rather hateful references owards the disbelievers and the fate that awaits them. My point is that the Quran is taught to young Sri Lankan Muslim children and it is not questioned because it is considered a holy book; how are the intolerant bits being filtered out?

    • Jason Perera

      I think you made an interesting point which I think falls in the area of stereotypes and misconceptions. I dont not know whether this is what the Quran says , but from my limited understanding of Islam I certainly do not think it advocates that followers should be antagonistic to other religions. It is clear the inter-religious education is essential from a young age to educate citizens on the TRUE practices and customs of other religions , thus reducing the ability of groups to exploit common stereotypes to fulfil their agendas.

    • Stel En

      Not a single Buddhist temple allowed in Islamic countries.

    • Stel En

      sinhalese quran has “adhewa wadheen maranu”, kill non believers of god. Buddhists do not believe in god. so they get upset reading this stuff.

      • Thunder

        What is your point mr. Can you clarify bit more what you mean by

    • Happy Heathen

      Most religions are inherently violent, homophobic, sexist and misogynist.

      Not only Quran, the Bible also propagate hate speech against the ‘other’, but according to GV hate speech is only incited by the saffron clad mob……:)

      To simply answer your question…..adopt a secular constitution, and get rid of religion meddling with public affairs.

      Furthermore, the most fundamental question yet is the need for religion in a modern world and I am yet to hear even a passable counter argument…..

      • Burning_Issue

        “Not only Quran, the Bible also propagate hate speech against the ‘other’, but according to GV hate speech is only incited by the saffron clad mob……:)”

        One important point you have missed; I am not here to assess the religions and hate speech; the point about Buddhism and hate campaigns against others in Sri Lanka is that such campaigns and groups associated with them enjoy state patronage.

        “To simply answer your question…..adopt a secular constitution, and get rid of religion meddling with public affairs.”
        I like this idea; until Sri lanka achieve this position, we will see so much troubles ahead!

  • Thunder

    This is not a new story to us . Which we have discussed many time with all type of intellectuals .but we only can see it becomes all time worst than it get better . So, why we would not think to look at these problems in different angle whether it will work .

  • Keynes!

    “a true Buddhist would no doubt understand that Buddhism preaches the “middle path” and Lord Buddha himself sought to invoke ideals of tolerance and harmony amongst his disciples.”

    I don’t think your argument works. It may be the case that the Bodu Bala Sena has misappropriated the true message of the Buddha, but one cannot therefore excuse Buddhism of all responsibility. Buddhism is not primarily a set of doctrines, interpretations or stanzas that need chanting, but a lived historical experience embodied and shaped by the empirically observable actions of Buddhists.