Yet the due season never brings the rain
Even the cactus-thorns sobbed on the plant
Your work, and this state wakes my mother.
When the lips of field bunds are parched with heat
Then cometh the month where there is naught to eat
As the grain matures rain winds brawl anew
O God, of power, Aiyyanar, where are you?
– Mahakavi (T Rudramoorthy) – translated by Mendis Rohanadheera
Shining brightly ln the sky
Like a plate of gold –
The moon that I know so well,
The moon that sparkles on the fields at home,
The moon that sparkles on the temple sand.
Mahagama Sekera – translated by Wimal Dissanayake
Last week we referred to Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian physician from the Gaza strip, who lost his wife from acute leukaemia despite the best possible treatment she received in an Israeli Hospital. Barely three weeks later, a shell fired indiscriminately by the Israeli defence forces killed three of his daughters as they slept in their home in Gaza. Despite these tragedies, Abuelaish never lost his vision of peace and justice for all people. He refused to allow hatred or revenge to overtake his life and he dedicated himself to work for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. He wrote in his book ‘I Shall Not Hate’, “I have hopes for the future. I believe that Einstein was right when he said life was like riding a bicycle; to keep balanced, we must keep moving. I will keep moving”. He has met moderate people as well as extremists on both sides of the conflict. He has learnt many lessons in dealing with people on either side of the divide and says he wishes to share the lessons thus learnt from his experience in a spirit of mutual learning. These lessons are universal for all people who are caught up in conflicts that lead to senseless violence. If only the moderates could assert themselves, call the bluff of the extremists and ensure inclusiveness in multi-cultural societies, the world would be spared unnecessary tragedy and violence. The eighteen lessons that Abuelaish has listed are:
1. Peace is humanity; peace is respect; peace is open dialogue. Peace is not the absence of anything because that just puts it in a negative light. Let’s be positive about what peace is – rather than what it is not.
2. The absence of war does not mean there is peace. Is a person who is ill at peace? Is a person filled with confusion and doubt (and fear) at peace? Do all countries that do not engage in outright war live in peace?
3. Hate is blindness and leads to irrational thinking and behaviour. It is a chronic, severe and destructive sickness.
4. Hatred may be reversible if we allow it.
5. Anger is not the same as hate.
6. Anger can be productive. Feel the anger, acknowledge it, but let it be accompanied by change. Let it propel you toward necessary action for the betterment of yourself and others.
7. We do not merely accept what is happening around us. We all have the potential to be agents of change.
8. I have every faith in women and their potential. Women, by their very nature, bring people together. It is time for women to take the lead. We need to give them every opportunity to be educated and have the chance to act on what they know is best for all humanity.
9. When your core values align with your heart, they become non-negotiable. If this is your guide, you can make decisions with the utmost integrity.
10. If you always base your judgements on truth, you will earn respect and trust.
11. To be seen by others as trustworthy, is one of the greatest gifts you can receive’
12. Judging people based on another’s assessment of them does not leave you open enough to consider other possibilities.
13. By exploiting other’s weakness, you are missing the opportunity to see the great contributions they are capable of making.
14. Our children’s dreams can continue to be manifested through the success of others when we put the opportunities in place for them.
15. Trust children’s opinions. They are the most likely to speak the truth and far less likely to have a personal agenda.
16. Good ideas become great ones when shared with others.
17. It is not enough to sow the seeds of wisdom; we are called to action if we are to reap a bountiful harvest.
18. Whatever you do, if it is done with a sincere heart and for the betterment of others, things are more likely to fall into place (and) happen as you envision it.
Our National New Year
The vast majority of our people of all communities will celebrate New Year on Sunday of this week. It is for this reason that Ferial Ashraff, our genial High Commissioner in Singapore, wanted to call it the National New Year. And the lessons that Abuelaish has listed have a special meaning for us. We obtained independence from colonial rule sixty five years ago but we have still not learnt to live together in peace as one people. There are extremists amongst us who have kept our people apart by a lack of vision, by a lack of belief in inclusiveness which alone can unite us and ensure peace, justice and reconciliation. These extremists have kept us captive to their obscurantist ideologies. If Sri Lanka is to emerge as a country that can hold its head high among the nations of the world, the moderates amongst us have to take up the challenge thrown by the extremists. The moderates in our religious cultures and in civil society have to be courageous enough to withstand the insults and abuse that are hurled at them by the extremists. They have to be courageous enough to speak up for truth and justice, for the weak and the marginalised in society and for democratic values that will promote peace and reconciliation.
The people of our country would have been heartened by some religious leaders who have in recent weeks spoken up for peace and reconciliation and against the hatred that some other religious leaders seem to whipping up against sections of our people. In particular, we need to mention the sane voices of leaders like Professor Bellanwila Wimalaratne, Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Ven Baddegama Samitha and the Ven Dambara Amila. There have also been groups such as Sri Lanka Unites who have done some splendid work in promoting peace and reconciliation among young people throughout the country. These are the voices of reason and sanity that do not condone extremism, violence and terror as ways of expressing opinions in a democratic society. But these leaders need to be supported by strong public opinion. The independence and impartiality of some of the institutions that should be enforcing the law or dispensing justice unfortunately appear to have been compromised in recent times. We need to raise our voices to ensure that these institutions return to uphold the values of the rule if law. All classes or groups of our citizens should have the confidence that they will receive justice without any political or sectarian interference.
It is equally important that all citizens of the country, irrespective of their religious or ethnic or political beliefs or economic status, will be recognized as having the right to live with dignity. There should be institutionalised mechanisms, including a free and independent media, in place to hear and to inquire impartially into their grievances, real or imagined. Our leaders must set an example must set the example by providing the necessary space for the marginalised groups to be heard with dignity. Strong action should be taken against those groups that seek to arouse hatred and dishonour of the ‘other’.
Our Duties and Obligations
Recently, Bishop Duleep de Chickera wrote what he called a reflection on the current situation in our country. He pointed out that in the prevailing climate, the moderates among our citizenry, as opposed to the extremists, had several obligations to fulfil in a multi-religious country like ours if, as we all hope, peace and reconciliation are to be established and Sri Lankans are to become an integrated community. Bishop de Chickera was writing in the context of the current religious tensions targeting the Muslim community. But his valuable insights are equally valid in respect of all politically, economically and socially marginalised communities. He listed the duties and obligations of moderates amongst us as follows:
1. Moderates of all religions should sustain mutual relationships of friendship and trust in times of tension as well as in harmony.
2. Moderates should together discern how best the adherents of any one religion are to be free to live by their core teachings and practices, integrate with other religions whose freedom to live by their own teachings and practices is to be recognised and upheld and find a dignified way forward when these interests run into conflict.
3. Moderates should welcome the distinct presence of the other, gather the liberating resources that their respective religions offer and strive together to eliminate humankinds’ common life threatening enemies such as poverty, greed, violence, abuse, discrimination and so on. (We have done this with ease in the areas of food, dress and music. But it has to spread to include moral values and spiritual insights that impact on the socio-political quality of life as well).
4. Moderates should sustain a restraining dialogue with those within their own camps whose categorical views and behaviour are likely to hurt the religious sensitivities of others.
5. Moderates should engage in self-scrutiny; keep an ear to the ground and an ever vigilant eye on any provocative or offensive message that the practice and behaviour of their respective communities may convey to others, no matter how sincere the intention may be.
Bishop de Chickera rightly went on to add that it was ‘precisely a disinterest and bankruptcy in the potential of these obligations that had polarised, paralysed and prevented the religions from anticipating the emergence of the current anti-Muslim campaign and arresting its escalation…….
The point is clear. None remains neutral when sectarian violence becomes a trend. All inevitably get sucked in as victims or violators whether active or passive. So all, including those who think they are neutral are to repent. They are to stop, take note of happenings, look within, examine their inner motives in relation to the highest values of their religion or ideology and re-emerge with a reconciliatory stance…..
At a recent inter-religious conversation, a participant turned to the others and invited a critique of his own religious community in order that it may engage in self-correction. This type of question usually says more than is asked and has a lesson for all. Each is privileged to learn from the other about one’s own religious behaviour. But this can only happen when sufficient goodwill and trust has been built and the religious ‘other’ is invited with respect from the periphery into the middle of the discourse. in a multi-religious country like ours…..
Living with integrity with other religions is never a betrayal of one’s own; rather it exposes the superfluous and sometimes harmful beliefs and practices that have accumulated within our respective religions over the years. From here the courage to discard these excesses ironically draws us back to the core of our own legitimate beliefs and practices and motivates us to welcome, live with and work with the ‘other’.
This week, we have quoted extensively from Izzeldin Abuelaish and from Bishop de Chickera’s reflections. It is unfortunate that the latter has not received the media publicity it deserved. But together, Izzeldin Abuelaish’s and Bishop de Chickera’s reflections point to the theme that all of us, irrespective of our individual identities, should adopt for the National New Year. On this national day, let us be clear that the country cannot move forward unless we acknowledge the right of all to live in dignity and integrity.