Before and after the election
Concerns for physical security secured a foremost place in people’s expectations and influenced the way many voted. An ‘enemy’, among us but not us, had to be contained.
But some of this was already happening. Regular reports on the work of Commissions inquiring into the Easter Sunday incidents, the visible presence of state security personnel at everyday meeting points and pictures of handcuffed officials, signaled the law was at work; alert, and closing in.
All that remained for closure, the prevention of a repeat, was a people’s mandate.
The mandate came with a burst of emotive triumphalism. A first, sure step had been taken to eliminate the forces that spread fear and suffering. For the vast majority of modest men and women, the euphoria was a passing sigh of relief.
What threatened to stay on however, was a defiant sense of animosity. In waves of supremacy speech, the majority ethno-religious culture was exalted and numerically smaller cultures dismissed. Overnight, citizens were left to anguish over whom to fear and whom to trust. The promise of national security, had come face to face with its first, post-election challenge.
The responsibility to promote trust
Regardless of how people voted, these anxieties and rhetoric, must not be allowed to spoil whatever gains achieved in national integration over the years. If we are to grow as a united nation, we are to grow as a united people, and growth as a united people is determined by an equal place for each within a shared space by all; not only in the constitution but on our screens and streets as well. It is as sensible as that.
The responsibility to promote a safe and dignified space for all, in these circumstances, is however not without hope. We are inheritors of a long tradition and stand in the middle of a courageous story. The terrible things we did to each other, in the name of God and religion, in the past, has been somewhat compensated with a counter narrative of trust and empathy built among the religions, by wise and generous Sri Lankans.
Paradox as teacher
This journey highlights a helpful paradox. When left to relate with the ‘religious other’, on their own, people tend to do so with characteristic hospitality. But when party politics or institutionalized religion have sought to define the identity and agenda of the ‘religious other’ or interpret religious behavior and trends; tensions and conflict abound. This is because, both party politics and institutionalized religion are more concerned with power and control than with good-will among people.
Party politics that embraces religion is also known as the politicization of religion. Here, politics pervades religion to widen its power base by reconstructing and reinforcing barriers that divide people. If unchecked, entire religions can be caricatured as a threat to the common good.
A feature of institutionalized religion, is the recurring temptation to claim supremacy for itself over all others. Unless contested with teachings on generosity and introspection from within, religious supremacy will inevitably proscribe all others as inferior, impure or ignorant. When this happens, an equal place in a shared space is a waste of time.
Hope for the people in the people
Hope therefore for inter-religious trust and stability, without which there can be no integrated nation, lies with people, free from the politicization of religion and established religion.
A place for each within a space for all, mutually nourished for decades by friendships of trust; on the streets and in the market place, in universities and schools, offices and factories, within family life, villages and urban neighborhoods, through sports, culture and entertainment and in times of sickness, grief, joy and fulfillment, must be endorsed and encouraged. It is then, that empathy with the ‘religious other’, will contest inter-religious animosity and fear to announce that loving kindness for all living beings, and the inclusion of neighbor, is within our reach.
A recent, moving incident in the London Underground, makes the point. When a Christian man flaunting a Bible, hurled racist abuse at a Jewish family with three little children, a Muslim woman spoke up to caution the aggressor. Others then stepped in and the man moved away. Later on, the Jewish father gratefully acknowledged that the turning point in a threatening experience came with the woman’s intervention.
‘Closed’ as well as ‘open’ religious societies, the world over teach, more lasting lessons. ‘Closed’ religious societies, ultimately suffocate all, including its champions. The ‘open’ religious society, on the other hand, is the best known social arrangement for facilitating the common good. While it undoubtedly has its own challenges, there is no better investment for social stability and democratic well-being in a modern state.
The sharing of life among people of religion and secular persuasion does not eliminate grievance or conflict. It rather creates thousands of inter-personal platforms for conversations on contentious issues, beyond the grip of party politics and established religion. As these differences are addressed and people learn to clarify misunderstandings and hurt, each will rise to affirm the value of the other and protect her rightful place among all.
This security that each offers the other, is an indispensable and central aspect of human security.
With peace and blessings to all!