By Jude Fernando –
Against Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Ageism, and Ableism: Sri Lanka Needs a Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity – Part I
The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of the liberal ideology must be cracked because it makes people believe that something is being achieved when in reality the artificially integrated circles are a soporific to the blacks while saving the consciences of the few guilt-stricken whites. – Steve Biko
It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep – Malcolm X
“We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”- Jimmy Carter
What does it mean to be a human in a multicultural society such as Sri Lanka, a country comprised of groups with culturally, historically, and territorially distinct identities, and with a history of contentious relations among them? This should be the central question for all efforts to create good governance (Yahapalanya) and domestic mechanisms of accountability and reconciliation. Here, I applaud President Maithripala Sirisena plan to eradicate corruption and formulate a code of conduct for Parliamentarians; his recognition in his Independence Day speech (unprecedented in the history of such speeches since Independence) of the failures of the reconciliation process, and his promise to rectify them.
The President’s efforts will succeed only if he supplements them with a comprehensive broad-based plan to create a culture of inclusive governance by establishing a certain ‘mindset’ – a critical awareness of, and fundamental changes in the way society thinks about race, gender, age, physical ability, and sexuality. Why do we need to engage in such a reassessment? Simply put, they shape our identities and relationships that inform our perceptions of the root causes of sexism, homophobia, ableism ageism, and racism that create and reinforce social stereotypes, oppressive power differentials, prejudice, discrimination and violence. These are also primary sources of xenophobia and conspiracy theories that survived the previous regime and continue to threaten the stability of the current regime, and prevent society from productive engagement with the domestic social, economic, political issues and international concerns regarding the country’s human rights abuses.
Arguably, those ignorant of and complicit with racism, sexism and homophobia are likely to hero-worship those leaders who uphold such negative attributes and do not have qualms about having them holding important leadership positions in society. Without addressing these instruments of domination, the current or any future governments cannot expect to fulfill its promise of good governance, stability, and reconciliation. We cannot take for granted the meanings and social functions of race, gender, and sexuality as fixed in time and place. They are in a continual process of becoming, hence, they warrant reassessment of their social impacts. This is a multi-pronged, multi-layered process that must occur at the individual and institutional levels in every community within the country.
To this end, I propose a new Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity (MID). The MID should replace the redundant Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration (MLSI). The MNLSI lacked a clear vision and strategy. It lacked clarity as to the meaning of integration with respect to the specific realities of Sri Lanka’s multicultural society. Its narrow focus on ethnicity and language, and the ways in which it conflated integration with multiculturalism, made it irrelevant to the lives of its citizens and assist the post-war reconciliation, good governance, and transitional justice efforts. The MNLS functioned as a smokescreen for the Rajapaksa regime to disguise its prejudicial and discriminatory ethnonationalist and national security policies that endangered post-war transitional justice and peaceful coexistence of different cultural communities of the country.
Without a clear vision of multiculturalism, the MNLS failed to have any impact on schools, university curricula, oversees government ministries and administrative agencies to ensure they function in a manner that respects diversity and inclusion. Misunderstanding its purpose due to nepotism, and the resulting failure to access the necessary intellectual capacities and skilled persons, the MNLSI wasted public funds (for example, putting up trilingual posters throughout the country), rather than mainstreaming multiculturalism within government agencies, Ministries (Justice in particular), and public educational and cultural institutions. It is the job of the Urban Development and Road Development Authorities who is responsible to put Trilingual sign posts in public places. The job of the MID would be to providing the ‘software’ (rather than the ‘hardware’) necessary to mainstream multiculturalism in National and Local Governance administrative system of Sri Lanka.
The MID should develop an official policy of multiculturalism – as articulated in the Multicultural National Vision for Peace in Sri Lanka (Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake et al; 2001). Darini’s articulation of multiculturalism is deeply rooted in the conditions of Sri Lanka. It is about fostering and enabling equality, justice, equal opportunity. It seeks access for all, through a mutual understanding and respect for those coexisting in the mosaic of cultures that is Sri Lanka, and establishing a cosmopolitan citizenship. It is about freeing society’s pursuit of freedom, equality and justice from prejudice and discrimination. It is not about imposing integration and assimilation, as envisaged by many states, including Sri Lanka, but creating a free and dynamic environment for different communities to evolve and coexist without compromising social and environmental justice.
The multiculturalism I am proposing is not British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism,’ which would dismantle ‘state multiculturalism.’ Muscular liberalism is a security driven paradigm to address the insecurities and vulnerabilities brought about by the state driven multicultural policies. It is about securitization of multicultural societies driven by global national security and anti-terrorism paradigms. Taken in the context of current ethnic relations, this could lead to the ‘suspicion, surveillance and repression’ of certain groups. Muscular liberalism’s advocacy for “the values of equality, law and freedom of speech across all parts of society” is not an adequate response to racism targeted against specific groups that exist in everyday society. It rejects the state driven multiculturalism that “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.”
The target of Cameron’s speech was undoubtedly Muslims, and it appeared more like a counter terrorism strategy that confuses national integration with multiculturalism. Muscular liberalism is an ‘authoritarian articulation of shared values’ that defies the acknowledgement and acceptance of what Charles Taylor calls “the plurality of ways for citizens to belong to their country.” It forces integration predicated on a superficial sense of belonging without creating a space to deal with pre-existing racial tensions, prejudices, and discrimination exacerbated by increasing economic inequalities and the reduction of state investments in social development.
David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary points out “David Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ has little to offer in giving greater sense of security for those who feel discriminated and alienated from society. The risk is that significant numbers in this group leapfrog to latent hostility or active enmity.” Pitting muscular liberalism against multiculturalism is a recipe for inciting extremist responses to discrimination, which could eventually undermine national security. The apparent shortcomings of muscular liberalism, in fact, make a stronger case for multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism advocated here is not opposed to integration, nor is it a recipe to encourage separation between cultures. Rather, it is about inclusion and diversity within a larger cultural mosaic that includes justice and equality. Multiculturalism entails the recognition of, respect for, appreciation, and tolerance of cultural diversity and differences in ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, national origin, disability, education, and religion. Inclusion requires that all individuals be valued and respected as human beings worthy of dignity. This will ensure equal opportunity. The idea here is to create not only procedural and administrative changes, but also a culture that is not fearful of engaging with difference and diversity, or challenging stereotypes, and one that will not scapegoat minorities.
The multiculturalism advocated here, begins with human rights and human security, whereas integration begins with crises that arise rights and security of the nation. It is not about regulating and managing the differences between different groups, but rather, creating an awareness of prejudices and injustice, and building solidarity against them, with the hope that people will embrace laws and administrative structures of inclusion and diversity voluntarily, and meaningfully. Nor is multiculturalism synonymous with integration or assimilation of different cultures, as commonly understood. It is about remaking of the national identity (and “national story”) in which fear, prejudice, and discrimination do not undermine the scope for different individuals and groups maintain their distinctive individual and collective identities. Multiculturalism imagines national identity as a cultural mosaic with diverse rather than single dominant culture and history. Multiculturalism is a process that could very well open the possibilities for meaningful integration and assimilation and pave the way for cosmopolitan national identity.
Responsible multiculturalism does not endorse a benign celebration of diversity or the rejection of all universal norms, rules, or truths. Nor is it a means to allow those who violate these universal norms to exploit cultural diversity (cultural relativism) to escape accountability and justice. It also does not endorse rabid secularism, which I consider hypocritical and counter-productive to the humanistic goals of multiculturalism advocated here. Anti-theistic and anti-religious secular multiculturalism could become another form of prejudice and discrimination when it turns against those with firm religious beliefs, and fails to provide a space for the potential of religion to play in freeing role in society. Multiculturalism is not a panacea for curing the ills of secularism. As G.K. Chesterton noted, secularists’ contradict themselves and undermine their own position when they deny equal place for religion that they provide for secular worldviews and ideologies. In a truly multicultural world, tensions between the secular and religious are blurred through negotiation as they are provided equal space to strive to free themselves from the prejudices and discrimination that are inherent to them and the larger society.
Sri Lankans have too often viewed diversity and multicultural policies as threats to, rather than opportunities for the nation, or its culture. Between ultra-nationalist fears that cultural diversity will destroy the unitary nation-state on the one hand, and empty ‘celebrations of diversity’ on the other, we need a well-articulated national multiculturalism policy framework to promote inclusion, value diversity, and offer equal opportunity for all – individuals, communities, and social groups. Post-war Sri Lanka needs to engage with cultural diversity head on. We need to face the shameful aspects of our own past, as well as present prejudices and discomfort with cultural diversity, and challenge assumptions about race, sexuality, gender, disability, and age, to foster personal and collective responsibility in everyday practice and attain genuine reconciliation.
Thus, the MID should be tasked with developing a well-articulated national vision and policy framework for multiculturalism to promote not only equal opportunity for individuals and groups who have suffered systemic marginalization, but also post-war reconciliation. This would require education, the training of educators, and the mainstreaming of concepts and practices aimed at promoting inclusion, and valuing cultural diversity in national institutions, the private sector, and society. The MID should also seek to set standards and work collaboratively with governmental ministries and departments to ensure equal opportunity in state institutions, and compliance, monitoring, and evaluation at all layers of governance, including through mandatory training. The multiculturalism policy framework would aim to create an empowering environment to ensure the necessary conditions for individuals and groups to achieve their full potential, without being subject to discrimination and prejudice, through education and the media.
Compared to many other countries, Sri Lanka is trailing in addressing these root causes of discrimination, prejudice and violence. In this regard, Sri Lanka is an anomaly when one considers it’s an impressive success in related areas of the social welfare state, high literacy, and general friendliness toward progressive social policies. During the war and its aftermath, we have seen a backtracking or stagnation of the progress the country has made since Independence – the gap between superficial and substantive changes have widened.
Part II of this series will explore the reasons for Sri Lanka’s slow progress and setbacks in addressing these root causes of prejudice and discrimination.
*To be continued ..
 Senanayaka, Darini, ((2001) Identity on the Borderline: Multicultural History in a Moment of Danger, Colombo: Marga Institute.