We can feel diminished by the tragic events that happened in Sri Lanka when our neighbours were targeted in the anti-Muslim riots or we can consider it an opportunity for everyone to take action.

The extremism seen in the Wahabbi movement, and the emergence of extremist Tamil nationalist and Sinhala-Buddhist movements pushed by demagogues are reaching vulnerable and fearful people. In the absence of the correct knowledge, they can be lead to think that their community can be liberated at the expense of another.

People join these movements at the spur of the moment, out of their own need for belonging and a sense of self-importance for what they think is a just cause are met.

Religions, which originated from specific regions of the globe, spread through peaceful means, migration or violent crusades to Sri Lanka, where they have separated people.  Unfortunately, government policies and systems are institutionalising this separation, through language policies, schools, politics, socio-cultural settings, regions, neighbourhoods and communities.

The attachment of race, religion and culture to people’s identities have made it so emotional and personal that people are willing to kill and destroy the ‘other’. They do not realize nor have empathy for the other as a fellow thinking, feeling, suffering human being, who is also striving for happiness, joy and well-being.

At the same time, over four centuries of migration and trade, an interconnected, intertwined global village dominated by technology has brought diverse people together. We have no choice but to find common ground to live with each other in peace.

What can we – as individuals, as citizens – do to prevent separation and stem the support for extremist movements, to pave the way for unity among the people?


Our Moral Compass and my Optimism

I am an optimist; having worked and travelled to every continent on this earth, I learned that conditioned cultural differences are superficial and when we go below the surface to the unconditioned, we find the same human being with feelings and needs guided by a moral compass.

At the core, we seek respect, autonomy, to belong, to be appreciated, loved and fed to not only just live, but thrive.  When these needs are met, the chances of a person joining extremist movements become less. As such, if we create opportunities for people from a young age to live, play, learn and work together, we will understand each other in different ways, also finding common ground.  That way, when the call comes to attack a Muslim shop, your friendship with a Muslim person may cause you to think twice.


Stories of Getting to Know Each Other

I want to share a few stories from my own experiences in bringing different people together and challenging individuals to create more fellowship among different communities.

I conducted a training session in Hambantota for about twenty youth in 2006. I began by asking the participants to pair themselves and get to know each other for about 10 minutes. They shared their names, backgrounds, education, interests and hobbies and finally their expectations from the programme. I encouraged male and female participants to mix as well. After these instructions, three Muslim girls decided they would speak among themselves.

I suggested they each pair up with one of the boys, which they resisted. I responded saying the purpose of this programme – which they had willingly signed up for – was to step out of one’s comfort zones and learn new things. If they were not comfortable in doing so, I let them know that they were free to leave. I was eventually able to encourage them to pair up with three boys, who happened to be Sinhala.

When we regrouped, I asked them to introduce their new friend and the person who had resisted the most said “It is amazing that we live as neighbours and we are still alien to each other. This brother has similar interests, aspirations and values as me, yet we live such separate lives not knowing each other in this same town.”


Seeking Empathy – Understanding Feelings and Needs

The connection they made was based on empathy; understanding the feelings and needs of someone they otherwise perceived as a stranger. We discussed that our separateness comes from a space of fear, scarcity and suffering, while our unity comes from openness, compassion, trust and abundance. This connection, once made, is bound to have a lasting impression.

I had the privilege to be a part of innumerable such programmes, during the war and after. These programmes, often foreign-funded, happened at a time when any Western initiative was perceived as promoting an agenda that was counter to Sri Lanka’s war effort. What many people did not realize was that the facilitation and the delivery of the programmes were tailor-made by Sri Lankans, who ensured they benefited diverse communities across the country.


First Time Encounters

We invited ten girls from Hindu Ladies College in Wellawatta to join ten boys from D.S. Senanayake College in Colombo, which enrolled students of diverse backgrounds.  Inviting girls to a boy’s school and asking them to mix was fraught enough. At the height of the war, asking Tamil girls to come for three days of training with boys from DS Senanayake to work together over a week was a huge challenge.

Some of the girls’ parents hovered around for most of the first day, as they feared leaving their daughters behind. After reassuring them, they left the girls to participate alone. When they all arrived at the sports event, they were delighted to see what the young leaders had achieved together.

At the end of the programme, the assignment for the twenty young leaders was to organize a sports event for about 100 children. It was a daunting task for them, yet with the training, their youthful ingenuity, their skills and great teamwork, they organised a very successful event.

I remember feeling surprised during the introductions on day one, when the Hindu College girls said they had never met nor spoken to a Sinhala, Muslim or a Burgher boy before and this, while living in Colombo.

Tears welled-up as I listened to the reflections when the young leaders spoke passionately about how their lives have changed forever. They learned experientially that the religious, cultural, language and racial differences were superficial and at the deep core, we humans are all the same.

These examples show that it is not too difficult to build unity among diverse people through such targeted programmes. However, as long as there are governing policies that separate students through schools and through mediums within schools, people, neighbourhoods and communities will be separated.


Great Example of Unity in Singapore

Singapore has achieved harmony among its communities by creating and enforcing a secular state where religion and the state do not mix.

It does not mean religions do not exist or people are not religious – most Singaporeans are religious and come from a rich diversity of religions and cultural backgrounds. It simply means religion or cultural affairs do not dictate the running of the state.

Singapore is guided by Public Reason first, as espoused by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century and later developed by contemporary American Philosopher John Rawls. They reasoned that all citizens in a pluralistic society share in the common good equally and not derived from any particular scripture or doctrine.  Yet, decisions made for the common good would be acceptable to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

This avoids any religious or cultural ceremonies and rituals from entering the process of governing in Singapore. This enables policies to be established for the common good rather than in favour of one or the other religious or ethnic majority or even a minority, especially if the minority has political power due to for example, economic might.

One could say that Singapore is a new state, unlike Sri Lanka which has a long history with religious and cultural tradition. If that is an excuse for inaction, we will continue to see fissures and tragic circumstances that leading to distress, often with dire economic consequences as well.

Demagogues will exploit these differences to meet their own political ends. It will also enable outsiders to undermine Sri Lanka’s integrity for geopolitical reasons. Therefore, with an open mind, Sri Lanka can learn from the example of Singapore and other peaceful nations, in its journey through the 21st century.


Finding our own Way

I am not espousing us to follow Singapore unquestioningly, yet Sri Lanka can deliberately enact policies that build common spaces to foster understanding and trust between communities and work hard to prevent isolation and mutual exclusion.

Having common schools and safe neighbourhoods allow children of all cultures and religions to grow up, study, live, play and work together. The socio-economic indicators of a harmonious and a united Singapore reveal the rest of the story.

Citizen Action

As I was writing this article in the middle of anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka, I was thrilled to receive this e mail from a Sri Lankan in Toronto, pained by what was happening in his home country.

Riyaz Rauf, who I have not met, stated the following;

It is the duty of the majority communities to protect the minorities and its the responsibility of the minorities to respect the majority communities to create the perfect balance and for all to prosper. 

I am committing my family to invite a Buddhist, Christian and Hindu family to our home for lunch on our Ramadan Eid day and to honour and to respect them we will be serving only vegetarian food on that day.

As Rauf says, it is the duty of the majority community to protect the minorities.

These violent actions of a few seemed to be perpetrated in the name of Sinhala-Buddhists, and I was happy to see the true nature of Buddhist teachings of Metta (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion) being displayed by the neighbours who helped families rebuild from the carnage.

In the same way, Riyaz rightfully says minorities have to respect the majority communities too. Perhaps, like the girls in Hambantota, it requires open minds and hearts to go out of comfort zones and get to know each other better.

It is the unfair demands or actions of a loud few, such as the clamour for Sharia law for all, that drown out the balanced and moderate people among all the minority communities and may raise the fears of many. We have to continue our crucial conversations on how we balance between assimilation and protecting our own religious and cultural values through empathy and understanding. Let us take some action everyday to make sure what happened in February and March 2018 does not happen again by finding that middle ground to live in harmony.


Related articles: The Art of Connection: Two organisations take on reconciliation