17 October, 2017

Inter-Religious Empathy That Waits To Be Harnessed

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

In addition to being subjected to international scrutiny on account of war-time human rights violations Sri Lanka is now coming under international scrutiny for religious intolerance.  Several incidents have highlighted the rise of Sinhalese nationalism that is at odds with the requirements of national reconciliation that includes the ethnic and religious minorities.  These have included attacks on mosques and churches.  The attacks on Christian churches have been going on for the past two decades at least.  Most of these attacks have been against the new churches that are active in attempting religious conversion allegedly by unethical means of providing for the material needs of those whose conversion is sought.  However, as most of these conversions take place at the local level and in relatively poor areas, they do not receive much media publicity. They are one of the unacknowledged problems concerning inter-community relations in the country.

On the other hand, the attacks on the Muslims have received considerably more media publicity.  This on account of the higher visibility of some of the targets that have been located in more densely populated urban areas.  The institutions attacked have been both mosques and commercial establishments owned by Muslims.  One of these attacks was on a media conference organized in a Colombo hotel by the Jathika Bala Sena (JBS) in which a mixed group of Muslim and Buddhist clergy sought to explain the resettlement of Muslim IDPs in the North.  It has been alleged that the resettlement of Muslims was on a forest reserve meant for wildlife preservation and that a Muslim Minister of the government was behind this anti national action.

BBS MuslimWhat made the JBS media conference an unusual event was the participation of several Buddhist monks who spoke alongside Muslim clergy to deny the allegations that it was illegal or anti national.  What gave the media conference even greater significance was the violent disruption it suffered at the hands of another group of Buddhist monks from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority as its main campaign theme.  With the police watching passively, this second group of BBS monks berated the first group of JBS monks for betraying the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhists and for speaking on behalf of Muslim interests.   They also ordered the JBS monks to apologise for the stance they had taken.

Moderation Alive

Incidents such as this in which the religious clergy have taken the lead role in anti-minority actions and the police has remained inactive have made the ethnic and religious minorities feel helpless and vulnerable.  If the police is unable to protect the citizens of the country they have no one else to go to for protection.  It also reinforces the arguments being made that the Sri Lankan identity as defined by the government fails to include all ethnicities and religions but favours the majority.  However, it is important to believe that the failure of the government to use the state machinery to protect the ethnic and religious minorities is not a permanent feature of life in Sri Lanka.  It is currently manifesting itself because there are those within the government who see Sinhalese nationalism as a force to be harnessed for electoral gain at a time when elections are anticipated.

At the level of the communities where people live, the situation is different.  There is a liberal and moderate spirit amongst the people at the community level that can be reached if only the political leaders are prepared to give such leadership.  The evidence of goodwill is abundant at the community level wherever inter-religious gatherings take place.  This is especially the case in areas where ethnically mixed populations live in close proximity.  Small groups of extremists can create disturbances in these areas.  But the ethos o f the larger majority is to live in peace and harmony.  In these circumstances the application of the law would suffice to quell any disturbance. It is the non-application of the law due to political interference that has made inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations within the country a potential point of conflict.

One of the Buddhist monks who attended an inter-religious conference that I attended recently had also taken part in the ill fated JBS meeting that was brought to an end by the BBS.  He related his experience of having attended multi religious functions and preached the Buddha’s message to a large number of non-Buddhists, so that the wellbeing of all sentient life could be ensured.  It was with this motivation that he had attended the JBS meeting where he had come under attack.  After the meeting I spoke to this monk. He told me that his temple was akin to an inter-religious place of worship as he had Tamils and Muslims as his community.  The Tamils in particular, who were Hindus, came to his temple to take part in religious ceremonies and to make him offerings of alms.  He said his temple was there to serve as a refuge to all.

Pluralist Spirit

These actions of religious service on all communities are indicative of the spirit of pluralism in Sri Lankan society.  This spirit was also captured by the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President to address post-war concerns.  It stated that the common values of the religions could be harnessed for national unity.  This spirit may not be visible on the surface today because the political leadership of the country, particularly in the government, is not of one mind on this very important matter.  There is a belief that one section of the government is supportive of the nationalism of the BBS and likeminded organizations.  This is why their aggressive actions are accompanied by passivity on the part of the police, even when they break the law.  On the other hand, there is a belief that the President himself is in favour of pluralist values.  The monk I spoke to said that after the attack on the JBS media conference, the President called him and told him to continue with his work.

The coexistence within the government of high level leaderships that have different views on pluralism means that both the moderate and extremist positions within the majority Sinhalese community find expression within the government.  This may explain the government’s remarkable ability to mobilize the electoral support of the Sinhalese majority across-the-board at elections.  In post-war Sri Lanka, the main mobiliser of popular support continues to remain ethnic nationalism and the government has the upper hand in this regard.  However, the government’s vulnerability lies in its present inability to win over the ethnic and religious minorities to its side, as seen at the last provincial elections held in the Western and Southern provinces.  A strengthening of the moderate approach could help the government reach the minorities too, without jeopardizing its hold over the vast majority of the Sinhalese electorate, who are moderate in the main.

Such a display of moderation on the part of the government, if it occurs, would need to be reciprocated by civil society and other non-political groups.   They need to adopt a strategy of engagement with the government and collaborate with sympathetic government members on issues where they have a shared framework of values.  Although the space of civil society has continued to shrink, the President’s telephone call to the JBS monk indicates that there still remains sufficient space for a considerable amount of reconciliation work to be done.  At the inter-religious meeting I attended, there was a request to arrange for a meeting with the President so that things could be put right.  This spoke to the need for civil society and rights groups to make a greater effort to dialogue with the government instead of shying away from it.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    4

    Good analysis. Unfortunately Christians are being persecuted because of their deluded belief that they have to convert non believers to their religion simply because their imaginary god failed to create everyone as Christian. They do not resort to the gun any more rather targeting vulnerable less educated and impoverished people’s minds enticing them with material gifts.

    Muslims on the other hand have always been living in harmony with people of other faiths as they never try to convert them.

    The problem with so called Buddhists, such as Bodu Bala Sena is that they are simply racist and practicing exactly the opposite of Buddha’s teachings. They are not only detrimental to the nation but a real threat to Buddhism itself due to the wrong impressions created among onlookers.

    • 1
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      Sensible,

      “Muslims on the other hand have always been living in harmony with people of other faiths as they never try to convert them. “

      There is a verse in the Quran that says, there is no compulsion in Religion. Almost all Muslims who know the Quran follow that.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Baqara_256

      Verse (ayah) 256 of Al-Baqara is one of the most quoted verses in the Islamic holy scripture, the Qur’an. It famously notes that “there is no compulsion in religion.”

      Sinhala “Buddists” do not follow Buddhism. They follow Para-monk Mahanama “Buddhism” or Maraism, and racism..

      ” The problem with so called Buddhists, such as Bodu Bala Sena is that they are simply racist and practicing exactly the opposite of Buddha’s teachings. They are not only detrimental to the nation but a real threat to Buddhism itself due to the wrong impressions created among onlookers.”

    • 0
      0

      “Muslims on the other hand have always been living in harmony with people of other faiths as they never try to convert them”.

      No other religion was involved in blood letting as much as Islam in its relatively short period of existence. No othe religion has prduced religious fanatics ready to kill others for the cause as much as Islam. No other religion has made forced conversions as much has into Islam – killing men and taking the women and children and converting them.

      To claim otherwise, you guys must be talking through your #$%^.

  • 2
    0

    Instead of condemning each other’s Religions, as we seem to be doing now; we should be trying to understand the Good in all Religions.

    What is needed in the present situation is the establishment of Inter-faith groups, who would meet at least once a month, if not more often, to talk about the common similarities in each other’s Religions.

    This would hopefully create a Communal Spirit of Harmony and Understanding with one another. It would be helpful if it was made a social occasion with a cup of tea or soft drink, to wind up.

    Jehan Perera, this is something for you to think about, not only in Colombo, but all over the Island!

  • 2
    1

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 3
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    Unless the police take action against those who break the law and attack others these extremist groups will continue their activities. Whole problem is with the Govt and Law enforcement which is allowing such groups to carry out their unholy activities.

  • 5
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    In a lawless country no amount of empathy will help. Leaders are driven by greed for power not empathy. That is why they support this type of racism and extremism.

  • 7
    1

    What Jehan Perera fails to underline is role of the government in seeding communal and religious discord and fanning the subsequent conflagration. Instead of considering these issues beyond and above cheap politics, in Sri Lanka all political parties, whether in government or not, make it their primary campaign tool.

    Unfortunate and sad, but true. What Jehan is pleading is for the wolf to change its nature.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 6
    0

    Jehan, Rule of Law is common to every one. It cannot be changed to fit into various communities, let it be Buddhist Priests. It is the fault of the Police force not taking stern action against those who are creating trouble for free speech. Police force has been politicized. Its time he Police powers are given to the Provincial councils so that the Police force can be disciplined. If a chief of police could not control Priests such as Gandasara Thero he should resign.

    • 3
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      Park,

      There is no substitute to secularism; a half-baked religious freedom such the Sri Lankan model will not work. The police is reticent to act because there is a clause in the constitution that upholds Buddhism to the foremost place. This is not innocuous by any stretch of the imagination! The whole state machinery is geared to protect and foster Buddhism and this is why we see inaction from the authorities. Sri Lanka will never see religious harmony until compromised secularism is implemented and supported by statutes.

      • 0
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        Sorry, it should read uncompromised and not compromised.

      • 1
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        Burning_Issue,
        Won’t the regime worry what will happen if some one attacks this Balu Bala Sena guy in public when there are TV cameras are around. If Rajiv Gandhi can be attacked in Sri Lanka while inspecting a honour guard, Gon Sara Thero getting whacked will happen sooner than later.

      • 0
        1

        It is not because of some ‘needs to protect buddhism’ clause in constitution but the obvious break down of law. That is why the ministers who publicly assault buddhist monks in parliament are free with no punishment.

        Dont try to twist things for your own propaganda.

        About the clause, i for one wants removal of it too. Because it is completely useless for buddhists and deceiving buddhist masses and giving chances for propagandists like you to twist facts

        • 0
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          Think again Such! You try and remove this clause from the constitution, then you will see what I mean. Buddha project is the cause of all the ills in Sri Lanka!

  • 1
    6

    Guys the main issues is BUDDAH, According to God fearing people, Gautham was chased away from Bengal since he said NO GOD EXIST. So this is the reason why Hindu started killing all Budist, there after Christinaty appeared, and then Islam raised. So Mother of all Bengalis loved Islam as it says Marry 4…. have many children, so the mothers like to see their grand children running around while this shit Gautham screwd 33,000 women while he was a son of a King, suddently he converted to ANTI WOMEN…. he said all good words.. then finally he said to ” Man Dont marry”/// so the problem started there on.. see good example GNASARA GAY …. so its a problem of LORD BUDDAH and that is why its failed philoposthy. [Edited out] Bidhism

  • 0
    0

    Dr. Jehan Perera,

    May be Palestine and Israel can make up. Their origin myth/history talks about a common father, Abraham/Ibrahim and a common God, Allah. Where do we begin? Can you please compile some good quotes from Budhist monks pleading for the Tamils in Siri Lanka that would show some empathy for the others and make your cause sound even remotely possible please? All that the Tamils of our generation remember about Budhism is some big saffron robed priest declaring in the CDN/Mirror during the ’83 riots that Budha has said that you are not allowed to kill an ant but a Tamil you can. It is the same mind-set of two thousand years ago (as claimed) as per the advice of the Budhist Sangha to Dutugemunu: to quit regretting the killing of so many Tamils for they count only as one and a half persons. Even Elara the just is omitted in that count. Now there is no remorse even with your king. Every pogrom looks saffron to me.They will only make a list of the participants as usual if they would let you hold such a meeting to conclusion.

    Please assure us that there is at least one Budhidt monk who will understand by showing that he has argued for the Tamil at some time. Even the best of Sinhalese Christian friends of ours who are considered the wise men of Siri Lanka cannot see that Tamils should have more say in their affairs.

    I believe non-empathy is part of the make up of every majority.(PERIOD.) Their hearts are such that they just cannot truly empathise even though their heads think they are good men. Et tu Jehan? Further, in Siri Lanka ethnic and religious repression go hand in hand as far as all the religious communities are concerned.

    ” A separatist movement can sometimes be stamped out by determined repression. Two alienated communities cannot be welded back together by similar means.”

    — from “Sri Lanka Puts a Torch to Its Future”. The Economist. 6 August 1983, pp. 25-26.

    Are you preaching to the choir? First work with the Budhist monks. If you achieve some tangible results may be there will be some chance. Till then it is a total WASTE of TIME or one of those projects that actually works against those they claim to help when they are actually a cover up of some sort camouflaged in ngo-ese. Please do not jump into that bad wagon now. Keep your breath to cool your porridge.

  • 0
    0

    In how many countries religious minorities are being persecuted by Muslims? Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq are only some countries to name a few. Muslims aim for nothing but a total Islamic world. In that Wahhabi and Salafi Tawheed are forcing aged old moderate Sufi sects to embrace fundamentalist practices or face their wrath and destruction. One would lose the count if he add the number of Christian churches destroyed by Islamists in secular Egypt.

    In his latest book, ‘The Global War on Christians’, Boston Globe journalist John Allen sees, the slaughter of 60 Catholic priests by Iraqi Islamists four years ago as a “hellish concentration camps for Christians”. In Sri Lanka too Wahhabi and Salafi Tawheed had killed many a Sufi, destroyed many a Sufi mosque and even burned their houses. I have written about it in detail. But Jehan Perera had never ever even mention it. Why?

    Buddhists in Sri Lanka have done nothing of the sort to minorities. Yet, driven by the greed for money and the crave to live a luxury life on the back of the thugs of the so-called International Community, Jehan like NGO sharks are projecting the popular work of true Sri Lankan civil societies like BBS (JBS) as terrorist outfits, and Sri Lanka is a hell for minorities. Yet we see many an unidentifiable billa roam our streets freely.

  • 4
    0

    Jehan:

    Religious tolerance is something deeply embedded in your mind and it comes from a position of strength and by that I don’t mean physical strength but a belief in yourself. It is the ability of a person to Tolerate other religious beliefs but that is sometimes compromised by the FEAR factor . But in Sri Lanka that fear factor doesn’t exist as the Buddhists control all the State apparatus and therefore the intolerance boils down to pure hatred. There is no use denying it and people like MR & Gotha ( who is the patron of BBS) feed on this intolerance and ferment hatred for political ends which is sad.
    I am a devout Hindu and I tolerate every religion because as a practicing Hindu I have the strength to appreciate and respect other peoples beliefs. I go to temple every Fridays without fail to thank God for giving me everything I have got and I have got more than most.

  • 1
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    Even in His day, The Buddha spoke about False Monks like those in these photos above:-

    “The immature go after false prestige – precedence over fellow Monks,
    Power in the Sasana, and Praise from all.
    ‘Listen Monks and Householders, I can do this, I can do that. I am right and you are wrong’.
    Thus their pride and passion increase”.

    Dhammapada Verses 73 and 74.

  • 0
    0

    “Sri Lanka was – is and always will be a Sinhala Buddhist nation, not a multi cultural dump as claimed by Juedo-Christians and Muslims” – Dr Nalin De Silva.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hDHgg3qxaes

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