26 February, 2024


Freedom Of Speech & Religion

By Mass L. Usuf

Mass Usuf

The cyclical emergence of the persecution syndrome of the Sinhala-Buddhist community has started. Or, more succinctly, ‘persecutory delusions’, which are said to be ‘persistent, troubling, false beliefs that one is about to be harmed or mistreated by others in some way’.

Popular tag lines are insult, conspiracy, deception, collusion, Buddhism, Sinhala race etc. If the past is any indication, it is the Sinhala Buddhists who often initiates the uproar. The furore is amplified by the main stream and social media depending on the circumstances and the people involved. Like the return of the ‘Superman’, all those who were in the rabbit hole, away from the public eye, suddenly come to the limelight. The who’s who of this bad breed from amongst the saffron robed gentry and the ‘patriotic’ laymen are well known to the people. Obviously, the majority of the respectable monks maintain and, are careful about their Vinaya (discipline). Our deepest respect to all of them. Generally, reviling any religion is unacceptable but, this comes with a caveat. There are exceptions where ‘selective’ law enforcement is seen depending on the personality concerned. The elite ones can say anything, as the law enforcement ‘would not notice’ it, while the lesser fortunate ones are arrested, remanded, investigated and dealt with as per the law.  

Is it right to say that all this fuss is either because of ignorance or arrogance?  Racial chauvinism or excessive nationalism?  In some instances, innocence. Yet, others would say, politics or political opportunism. Or, is the average humble Sinhala Buddhist confused?  

To understand this, the reasoning of Professor of politics and international affairs, Neil de Votta seems helpful. With regard to those on whom the average Sinhala buddhist looks up for guidance, he writes, “The problem for Buddhists is that even as monks have become increasingly involved in politics, the concomitant forces of modernization and their attendant materialistic culture have in turn corrupted the monks. Thus, some monks run nursery schools, garages, taxi services, and even operate as investment specialists (Seneviratne 2001: 16). Others discard Vinaya (monastic) rules and demand that alms given to temples include chicken (Obeyesekere 2006: 135). Some monks smoke, imbibe alcohol, maintain paramours, take bribes, and resort to homosexual activity with samaneras (novices).” (Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology, Pg. 12 Policy studies 40). 

It is interesting to analyse if there is a clear disconnect between all of this hoo-ha and reality.  


One wonders whether in Sri Lanka Buddhism has crossed from its pristine pure, dhamma, to the area of politicised Buddhism. The core teachings of non-attachment and non-violence has been commonly substituted by the opposites like greed, avarice, power and so on. Violence, hate and vengeance is plentiful in contrast to the Dhammapada, where the Buddha said, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The psyche of a Sinhala buddhist nationalist ideology had been gradually institutionalised in the past few decades taking a political dimension. The constitutionalising via Article 9 giving the foremost place to Buddhism and casting a duty on the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana is a further step. Then comes race based populism calibrated in line with an oversimplified version of Sinhala race and its nexus with Buddhism. Some may argue that the Sinhala buddhist nationalist approach is not sanctioned by all the Sinhala Buddhists. However, there is widespread endorsement by them, as clearly evidenced by the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power.

In all this mix up, one is forced to think if there is a lack in clarity between Sinhala Buddhism (popular Sri Lankan practises), political Buddhism and doctrinal Buddhism. In this context, it may be difficult to see what in Buddhism or which aspects of these have to be protected by the State? A fundamental question that may be asked is, “can anything that does not conform with the doctrinal Buddhism be considered as forming part of the Buddha’s pure teachings?”  

Encouraging Debate

Why is speech of an interrogative, intellectual or curious nature itself questioned when it matters religion?  How can learning and education progress when questioning or critical analysis is stifled? For me, as a Muslim, should I take offence, when someone tells me, “Muslims believe in Allah but have you really seen Allah?” Personally, myself and, I do not think any Muslim, would be offended by such a statement. On the contrary, I will thank him for his question and endeavour to answer his question satisfactorily using science, logic and philosophy. 

Speech, debate and discussion must be permitted as it forms part of the fundamental right of expression. A person called Jerome Fernando recently had stated that in the 99 names of Allah there is no mention of ‘Love’ or, something to that effect. Muslims, I believe, should never be offended by this. No need to protest or demonstrate or engage in non-intellectual response. No need to go to the CID to lodge a complaint. No need to demand the arrest of that person. What Muslims should do is simply correct the record and explain what is the truth and leave it at that.  After all, the Quran clearly states that there is no compulsion in religion (Quran 2/256).

Kalama Sutta

Now assume in the same vein, if someone asks a Buddhist a question of this sort, what should this person do? Run to the CID to lodge a complaint and demand arrest or engage intellectually or keep quiet? What does Buddha himself teach us in the Kalama Sutta?

Historically, were not the Kalamas experiencing the same thing we see today? They said to Buddha, “There are some monks and Brahmins, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces.” What was Buddha’s response to the Kalamas?  The Preface to the book, ‘The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry’ reads, “The instruction of the Kalamas is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance. (Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera 1994).

In an era of scientific advancement and knowledge growth open discussion on faith, religion and inter-faith religious discourses should be encouraged. Debate and discussion benefits in enhancing knowledge and understanding, clarify bias and prejudice, triggers innovative thinking and promote ideas and more. In speech or writing, an expression can take the form of satire, comedy, assertions and whatnot.

The comedy and satirical actor Mr. Rowan Atkinson famously known as ‘Mr. Beans’ had this to say regarding freedom of speech. “The clear problem of outlawing insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties. Ridicule, easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison or merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult.” 

Quoting the British Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights he said, “while arresting a protestor for using threatening or abusive speech may depending on the circumstances, be a proportionate response, we do not think that language or behaviour that is merely insulting should ever be criminalised in this way.”

Protect from whom?

Examining further into the confusion brings up another reality. Intoxicants of all forms are discouraged or prohibited by all religions. The fifth precept of Buddhism strongly advocates refraining from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness. However, there are close to 4,500 licensed liquor shops in Sri Lanka.  

The Asian Tribune report states that about 9 million or an estimated 40% of the population of Sri Lanka consume alcohol. This incidentally, is the highest per capita alcohol use among the SAARC countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan). Is it not a shame on us? About 23,000 alcohol related deaths occur annually in Sri Lanka or about 65 people die daily due to alcohol abuse. It is reported that about 48% of about 4000 of suicide deaths in Sri Lanka are directly related to alcohol abuse.

When drinking has become a national pastime, how can the teachings and practices of Buddhism be protected?  Why is there no public outrage by the monks and the Sinhala Buddhist activists about this dangerous phenomenon?  This social evil is eating into the very root of the Dhamma and the Sasana? How can there be mindfulness (sati) when the mind is clouded?

De votta writes, “Significantly, political Buddhism emphasizes politics over Buddhist values (Schalk 2007) because it disregards Sri Lanka’s polyethnic heritage and seeks to institutionalize a Buddhist ethos for the entire country. Criticizing political Buddhism, which resorts to antidemocratic and ethnocentric practices, is not to criticize the Buddhist religion: the former merely highlights how laymen and monks alike have manipulated Buddhism for political ends and contributed toward Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.” (ibid).

So, then, where is the disconnect? What should be the priority? 

* Mass L. Usuf, LL. B (Hons) UK, Attorney at Law (Ex-Advisor to former Presidential Private Department of UAE). Can be reached via email at: ctcolumn@yahoo.com

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Latest comments

  • 8

    For once, a very readable, engaging and analytical expose’ of realities in that hypocritical land formerly known as the resplendent isle, the pearl of the Indian Ocean and in many ways a paradise in nature’s bounty. Yes, Buddhism is not practiced to any observable degree by its self-proclaimed protectors of a noble philosophy that sought to awaken our minds and seek solutions. The author does justice in stimulating rational thought regarding these practices, the ridiculous way in which the justice system is perverted to suit political agendas and bigoted ideas that are cloaked in a rather transparent veil of righteousness. He being a Muslim, puts to shame, the stark silence of writers belonging to the majority in the country.

    • 5

      Freedom of speech and religion is far better in Srilanka than in any Muslim country. Every Religion is blasphemous to other and yet we hear of Blasphemy charge only in Muslim countries. In a London hospital, I was having lunch in the staff room and an Iraqi doctor was also having lunch. Only both of us were in the room. Spontaneously he started to lecture that Islam is scientific. I did not bother to listen to him and continued eating. Once he finished, I asked him how can you say Islam is scientific when Koran says that earth is flat. That was enough for him. He stopped eating, chucked his food into the bin and dashed out of the room. I finished eating, came out and asked the staff, where is he. They said he reported sick and went home. Surely he was not physically sick. If such thing can make this Muslim mentally sick, what do you expect. Thank God it was in UK, had I said it in a Muslm country, I would have been killed.

      • 4

        Five cardinal sins are Murder, Theft, Adultery, lying and Intoxication. Muslims are well known to tell lies when confronted by Muslims, which is permitted in the Koran. Theft and Adultery are rampant among Muslim clergy. Muslims will never hesitate to murder non-Muslims which is permitted in the Koran. So what is happening in Srilanka is nothing different in Muslim countries. After the collapse of Apartheid, Muslim countries are the worst racists. Even in Srilanka the worst racism is the Muslim claim of eastern province, where they went as refugees fleeing persecution by Portuguese. There is to be a truth and reconciliation commission to be set up soon. Let us see how many Muslims will appear before it and admit to the crimes they had committed on Tamils and tender apology.

  • 4

    If one can say there is a GOD/GODS another can say there is no God. Freedom of thought.

    • 3

      In Srilanka where Buddhism says that there is no God, one can openly say that there is God. Can any one say in a Muslim country that there is no Allah without being imprisoned or killed. Unlike other religions, Koran preaches hatred, to treat non believers as infidels, kill them and destroy their places of worship. Muslim extremism has everything to do with religion. Buddhist extremism has nothing to do with religion, but born out of hatred contained in Mahavamsa.

    • 3

      “Jerome Fernando recently had stated that in the 99 names of Allah there is no mention of ‘Love’ or, something to that effect. Muslims, I believe, should never be offended by this. ……After all, the Quran clearly states that there is no compulsion
      Now assume in the same vein, if someone asks a Buddhist a question of this sort, what should this person do? Run to the CID to lodge a complaint and demand arrest or engage intellectually or keep quiet? “
      The author is comparing apples and oranges. Asking the question about Allah in ,say, Riyadh, would get you a stiff whipping, notwithstanding what the Quran says. All religions are repressive when they achieve political power.
      Ideally, Buddhists should be more tolerant than Muslims. But the two are sliding closer.

  • 1

    Mass Usuf

    There could be a warrant out for your arrest for bringing allegations against good honest Buddhist monks who are trying to safeguard the Sinhala race & Buddhism (despite being separate issues) from anti Buddhists. A comedian is banged up without bail, such was the crime for making jokes about Buddhist folklore, & here you are making irrelevant comments on alcoholism in SL to discredit Buddhism, perhaps, even an act of terrorism to over throw the govt by upsetting staunch Buddhists.
    Watch your step mate.

  • 2

    ” Like the return of the ‘Superman’, all those who were in the rabbit hole, away from the public eye, suddenly come to the limelight.”
    Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalis always produce “super Man” suddenly. The latest “Super Man” gave birth now is again “RW”. Cycle will continue.

  • 2

    Freedom Of Speech & Religion

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi address at the inauguration of World Sufi Forum at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on Thursday, March 17, 2016

    Here are the highlights of his speech.

    Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious,” Modi said.

    “Jerome Fernando recently had stated. So who read the books and said the facts, Prophet do not speak of hurting others, “God’s word is the mirror to see your flaws, not a lens to see other’s faults.”

    “Of the 99 names of Allah, none stand for force and violence and the first two names denote compassionate and merciful. Allah is Rahman and Raheem.

    • 1

      How can Allah be compassionate and merciful, when he asks his followers to treat non believers as infidels, go in search of non believers and kill them and destroy their places of worship. How can Allah be the creator when he says that earth is flat. How can Allah be a moralist when he says to his followers to tell lie to escape when confronted by non believers.
      Shame on those who are blindly following him.

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