Photo courtesy of Himal Southasian

With the onset of the Aragalaya earlier this year, discussions about harmony, unity and coexistence took center stage and became popular topics among people. The Aragalaya, and especially GotaGoGama at Galle Face, provided a much needed, never before seen setting for people of all backgrounds to come together. Without a doubt, this was a remarkable period and a watershed moment in Sri Lankan history. The gathering of people from all walks of life, from various religious backgrounds and ethnic groups, served as a powerful symbol of the people’s movement. This new space appeared to be effective in contesting and challenging several long held beliefs about the status of inter-communal unity and harmony. Many people, including those working to promote inter-communal coexistence, saw the turn of events favorably and were reassured by the events at GotaGoGama that inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony was no longer a pipe dream. As researchers, we see this unprecedented turn of events as a crucial turning point in the tumultuous history of inter-communal tensions.

However, it was critical for us to assess the extent to which such a turn of events or the presence of a common enemy could change the status of unity among communities on the ground. More importantly, what are the challenges at the local level for the full realization of unity that the Aragalaya attempted to establish?

Our research conducted earlier this year, which sought to understand the state of religious freedom among the most vulnerable religious communities, revealed a number of challenges to exercising religious freedom in their day to day lives. This article focuses on some of these key challenges to exercising religious freedom at the local level, which is an essential component of achieving unity.

We examined whether the Aragalaya and the space it has created changed the lived, day to day realities of communities whose religious freedom is under threat and if it has improved their ability to exercise their religious freedom.

One of the main challenges revealed in the study is that there are more deeply rooted factors – reasons that are knitted into communities at the local level. On one hand, these factors are based on long held political goals of politicians seeking electoral benefits, as well as political motivations of voters. These reasons are sometimes embedded in and linked to economic factors and market interests. While on the other, some of the reasons of inter-communal tensions are based on differences in customs, interests, values, beliefs and the level of tolerance we are capable of demonstrating toward other religious groups in our daily lives. Unfortunately, the Aragalaya, which is largely a national level movement, may not have been able to handle such complexities at the local level on its own nor address the dynamics of such issues affecting religious freedom and coexistence faced by various religious groups dispersed throughout the country.

One of the more interesting findings of the study is that, while politically motivated events at the national level that target religious communities may only occur on occasion, the impact of such events at the community level usually lasts longer. For example, the anti-Muslim sentiment was found to persist in several communities despite the absence of visible incidents or tensions at the local or national level. But whenever there is a national trigger specifically targeting the Muslim community, an immediate response happens and escalates to the local level, leading to hostile behaviours directed at the group. One clear example of the effects of such national level triggers at the local level was the anti-Muslim propaganda that emerged during Covid-19 over the burial of Muslim dead bodies. This implies that unfavorable attitudes toward particular religious groups are difficult to eradicate from society and that there is always a chance that they could resurface in response to certain triggers.

Negative attitudes and beliefs about religious groups that have become ingrained in society for political reasons may continue to persist because there could be acceptance for such beliefs among ordinary people. In many ways the continuation of negative attitudes and hostile behaviors toward certain religious groups is determined not only by the political interests of politicians but also by the political interests of the people. The findings of the study reveal that people from certain religious communities are aware of the intricate relationship between political power and religion. Such conscious groups are concerned about the possible consequences of losing their political power and the subsequent impact. For example, the loss of political power of a specific religious group could have cascading effects on the loss of privileges associated with applying for government jobs, access to public resources, infrastructure and the ability to receive efficient services from public institutions, among other things.

The findings suggest that business interests and market competition play a role in determining whether religious groups are united or divided at the local level. Profit maximization and fierce market competition frequently drive certain generalized attitudes and behaviors, which sometimes target specific religious groups. In such a situation, exploiting every possible opportunity to undermine a potential competitor is unavoidable. Such competition frequently has a cascading effect, putting the religious freedom of such targeted groups at risk.

The study also reveals that cultural differences in mannerisms, interests, values and beliefs have an impact on ensuring religious freedom and coexistence. Differences in how religious groups interact with one another, how they choose food, how religious rituals are performed, how language is used, attitudes and opinions about gender roles, the number of children in a household, employment choices and lifestyle differences all contribute to how opinions about religious groups are formed among one another. For example, the negative impression built around the consumption of beef by the Muslim community, hate speech directed at the Hindu community for the colors they use or the way they wear their ornaments, ostracizing religious groups for their religious practices, such as over healing practices or religious preaching of the non-Roman Catholic Christian community, and the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies. These practices and differences, which are part and parcel of the day to day lives of people, thus plays a considerable role in influencing the opinions held about other religious groups. Such biases, which are ingrained as a result of incidents from lived realities, cannot be addressed without long term interventions.

Another important finding from the study is how religious groups living in different regions have different perspectives on other religious groups. The opinions and views held about religious groups differ from one location to another. While Muslim and Buddhist communities may have stronger economic ties in one area, economic factors may be the enabler for conflict between Muslim and Buddhist communities in another area. Furthermore, the religious group perceived as the “other” varies by region. For example, in some areas, the Buddhist community may regard the Muslim community as the “other,” whereas in other locations, the Buddhist community may regard the Hindu or Christian communities as the “other.” In these areas, the “other” is also heavily reliant on locally constructed narratives, which are shaped by business or political relationships, as well as shared historical and cultural associations. Thus, expecting a national level approach to address such diverse realities that have persisted at the community level for years may not be adequate or realistic.

In addition, it is important to acknowledge that there are also intra-community issues, that persist within communities that are determined by caste divisions, denominations, regional and geopolitical reasons that affect the status of religious freedom and coexistence.

We want to emphasize that ensuring religious freedom and coexistence is a complicated social, political, economic and cultural issue that goes beyond piety or religious principles and beliefs. The Aragalaya created a significant space that showed that it was possible to engage in conversations and dialogues about the many challenges and issues that arise when attempting to ensure inter-religious harmony and coexistence. At the same time, our research shows that there is a critical need and importance of expanding these conversations and dialogues on religious freedom beyond the national level while acknowledging and recognizing the complexities that exist in the day to day lives of religious communities on the ground.

This article is written based on the findings of a study conducted for MinorMatters on the Status of Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka by Shashik Silva and his research team of Kaushini Dammalage, Ammaarah Nilafdeen, and Ishan Weerapura. The data for this study was collected in the months of April and May 2022. Link to the full report: