Religions need leadership

Loudspeakers are heard across our island today arousing suspicion, mistrust, and fear between religious communities. Sadly, many of these exhortations are from voices ostensibly of the clergy of religious communities or, of people claiming to represent religions. Even more sadly and alarmingly, these exhortations are followed, soon after, by acts of violence by lay followers of these religions. Homes, shops, even religious institutions are attacked: burnt down, damaged, ransacked, symbols of faith desecrated.

Worse, religions are identified with ethnic communities on many sides of this persistent conflict, thereby further embedding and broadening the social conflicts that still beset our ‘Dharma Dveepa’. Buddhism is identified with ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’, Islam is identified with ‘Muslim’ (Moors and Malays), Hinduism is identified with ‘Tamil’ and, often, culturally westernised and English-speaking social groups are identified solely with Christianity.

The last is the sad result of our history of European colonial invasions and occupation, much of it done with ideological justifications that used Christianity as inspiration. The European colonials used religion to undermine religious communities and cultures in their colonised territories.

In many parts of the world today, such religious justifications of domination and exclusion, of enforcement and violence, are major drivers of conflict within nations and, between nations and geo-political power blocs. Over many decades, our country won a name for itself for this same, awful, phenomenon rather than for many desirable and positive attributes such as our rich culture, geographical splendour and human warmth.

The most important lesson of our recently ended internal war should be that, unlike sport, in real-life contests, especially war, there is no ‘winner’. Since humanity is inexorably socially intertwined, even if one human kills another in contest (let alone murder), yet the so-called ‘winner’ suffers a diminishing of her/his own supportive human community – that is, the mutually aiding society which enables human survival.

When whole communities fight other communities, any supposed or claimed ‘victory’ by one community pales beside the sheer destruction of the collective human capacities.

In Sri Lanka, our dreams of achieving that once-touted ‘Singapore model’ were lost amid the thunder and screams of ethnic violence and internal war inspired by ethnic motivations on both sides of the armed conflict. While many other nations that are our post-colonial contemporaries forged ahead with investments in economic development, education, health and other aspects of modernity, for us, the goals became either ethnic dominance or survival and the investment was in warfare.

The more our leaders mobilised inter-community rivalry, the more such rivalry became dominant social drivers, the deeper the whole country went into destruction and chaos. Today, we are beginning to enjoy the socio-economic fruits of peace – the relative affluence, the better highways, communications, education, healthcare, affordable consumerism.

As we enjoy the stirrings of prosperity, we are sharply reminded of the many decades of delay in achieving this prosperity due to war. Not only have we lost our youth on the battlefield, but whole generations of our nation could not enjoy the prosperity that we have only now, begun to achieve. At the same time, entire cohorts of our intelligentsia have fled our war-ridden land for greener and safer pastures – a huge loss of social capital that will take a whole generation to replace.

And, despite the ending of armed conflict, those old communal mindsets persist. The losses suffered due to the war only serve to sustain the inter-community bitterness, to retain the primacy of ethnic and religious consciousness over other social dynamics. These identifications have become mindsets that colour much of our thinking - despite the compulsions of modern life that have little relevance to such social differentiation.

Old political tactics that thrived on such identity consciousness are yet used by some forces for their narrow political ends. Thus, other social dynamics like entrepreneurship, economic class mobility, intellectual and cultural innovation are deprived of space for fulfilment by the persistence of communal division and conflict.

While social enmity constrains social collaborations, the very instability caused by the continued communal violence and tension discourages investments in new endeavours.

Today, the predominant voices that seem to incite social enmity and violence in the country may appear cloaked in Buddhist garb. There is a similar phenomenon in Burma. In some other parts of the world a similar social enmity is incited by voices in Islamist garb. At least one global power internally resonates with triumphal Christianity. Across the Palk Strait, another saffron garb, Hindutva, drives communal enmity.

It is important that the followers of all faiths and philosophies strive to better understand actual doctrine and discern when and where doctrine is manipulated by groups and individuals – some being clerics themselves.

Such doctrinal purity can only be led by ecclesiastical leaderships. Rigorous philosophical and theological work is needed so that those elements of dharma/doctrine that are easily used and abused for purposes of oppression, discrimination and social division need to be identified and faith followers alerted. From an internal, religious point of view, all religions need that constant renewal so their claims to inspiration resonate with our contemporary reality in a harmony that is only true of divinity and supreme humanism. Religious institutions and hierarchies must exercise such leadership and discipline.

This challenge must be taken up with vigour by all the religious and philosophical schools that mould our communities. It is only then that the abusers of dharma/doctrine can be separated from the genuine inspirers. It is only then that such perpetrators of social conflict can be truly identified and dealt with not as ‘clergy’ but as criminals. 

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