In recent years, the rise of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka has lead to a dramatic increase in attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship. This includes Christians and churches, mainly coming from non-traditional church establishments like evangelical house churches led by lay leaders. What should Sri Lanka do to confront this new rise in religious intolerance and how should the South Asia island country protect its Christians?
9/7/2013 Sri Lanka (Ground Views) – The youth of Sri Lanka express their dismay and alarm over the apparent surge in religious intolerance and communal discord that has permeated our society in the post-LTTE era and particularly in recent months. It is a pity that the ‘infamous’ “Grandpass incident”, a subject of intense political drama a few weeks back, was neither “isolated “ nor “random”, as some conveniently assert. Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) indicates that from May 2009- January 2013 a staggering 69 attacks have been directed at places of religious worship. While the majority of these cases pertain to the Christian community, particularly non-traditional churches, this does not preclude other major religions, with reports indicating at least 10 Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques came under attack in the period under survey.
What is truly fuelling this juggernaut of intolerance is not the inter-religious attacks or the impunity the perpetrators of these attacks appear to enjoy. The members of this forum hold the view that these attacks, which are undoubtedly deplorable, do little to alter the mindsets of the so-called ‘moderate thinkers’ or fuel deep communal hatred or majoritarian insecurity in that sense. The driving force behind this phenomenon of intolerance is largely the virulent hate campaigns against certain religions and religious groups propagated via the online and social media. For instance a recent infographic on a Facebook page, asserted that the growth rate of the Muslim population is over 80% and if the Sinhalese are not careful, the Muslim population would supersede that of the Sinhalese by 2014. Another infographic likened the practices of Islam such as “Halal” to that of the “Taliban”. To correct the ‘peace-loving’ groups behind these sentiments, the Muslim community constitute a mere 8%( approximately) of the total population, a fact that the followers of our forum need little reminder of. Consequently it is obvious that assertions such as those highlighted above are nothing more than a farce, as any reasonable mind would comprehend. But when ‘sugar-coated’ with colourful images and potent rhetoric, sentiments such as these, expressed in social media can mutate into a viable and potentially lethal propaganda tool, a tool that if left unchecked could have limitless and dangerous consequences for communal harmony.
The “majority” are NOT intolerant
Of the many prevailing conflicts on religious lines, perhaps the most prominent of all is the apparent clash between the Muslim community and certain groups who act under the slogans of “ safeguarding Buddhism” and “ protecting the majority”. The members of this forum seek to stress that attempts made by groups promoting malicious propaganda and religious discord to create the impression that they are through some delusion, executing “ the will of the majority”, paints a picture of the Sinhalese speaking Buddhist majority which is simply untrue. Attempts made to project these groups, as “guardians of Buddhism” are also highly inaccurate as a true Buddhist would no doubt understand that Buddhism preaches the “middle path” and Lord Buddha himself sought to invoke ideals of tolerance and harmony amongst his disciples.
The members of this forum note that historically the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist citizens, including those in the deep South have been tolerant and accepting of other religions and their beliefs. They have experienced first hand the effects of protracted ethno-religious disharmony – a 30 year long conflict which claimed thousand of lives, destroyed hordes of property and hindered any hope of development. They have absolutely no intention of seeing a repetition of this ordeal. The fact that the recent wave of ‘anti- Muslim’ sentiments occurred almost spontaneously, with no gradual progression in the ‘anti-Muslim discourse’, is testimony to the fact that groups propagating these sentiments are actually a minority voice. Their strategy could perhaps be interpreted as attempting to whip up religious discord as a majority Vs minority issue, masking the fact that it is only a small proportion of people that share such intolerant attitudes.
During the recent visit to Sri Lanka of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay , she raised concern over the surge in religious intolerance with top officials including The Minister of Justice and The President. In light of the High Commissioner’s concerns it is the observation of the members of this forum, that the ‘anti-Muslim’ sentiments paraded by these groups are largely media-driven, and acquire their legitimacy via publicity in the vernacular print media. This forum urges the mainstream print and electronic media, especially the vernacular press to exercise caution in publicizing and affording prominence to the actions and sentiments of groups ill disposed to notions of religious tolerance, which could create unnecessary communal discord and stir up hatred. It is crucial for the media to understand that groups promoting agendas of discord, draw their relevance from a naïve media, which provides their views and sentiments with the traction they so desperately require. By ignoring and dismissing these sentiments, especially in light of the fact that they represent only a small cohort of individuals, the media is automatically snuffling out the sentiments of these groups and rendering them politically irrelevant. Playing into the hands of these groups by affording them much-needed media attention is a poor strategy will not yield any long-term benefits, unless you count a polarized society as something to be venerated.