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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2555

Tolerance of intolerance is worse than intolerance: Sri Lanka’s secularism in danger from local Talibanisation?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

As Mahatma Gandhi said, intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit. Democracy is made meaningless when there is intolerance of differences of opinion and beliefs, and although the Mahatma went onto say that one must not lose faith in humanity as humanity is an ocean and even if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty, unfortunately and paradoxically, the opinions and activism of minority elements promoting intolerance have tended to dictate and shape the lives of majorities.

In Sri Lanka, the activism of Buddhist activist organisations like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, have, even consequentially, resulted in a growing cancer of community disharmony that threatens the health and well-being of the broader society.

To a greater or lesser extent, all countries still battle with intolerance towards those perceived to be different and it is incumbent upon all of us to combat this attitude, fortunately, every so often throughout history, an individual emerges whose strength of character and personal commitment to equality and justice serve as a powerful inspiration to all of us and remind us that one person can make a difference. Nelson Mandela is such a man - UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang.

Although the BBS denies it, many analysts are of the opinion that the BBS is responsible for the hatred campaign against the Muslims in Sri Lanka, and the recent violence against them culminating in the attack on a clothing chain store in Pepiliana on the outskirts of the capital Colombo.

The issue has reportedly been amicably settled now and the official slant to the violence perpetrated against the Muslim establishment has been that this had occurred due solely to an altercation between a boy and a girl.

Sri Lanka probably does not screen enough comedies in its cinema’s, as this story could have been a good comedy if not for its blackness and the destruction caused to property and the self-esteem and self-respect of Muslims in Sri Lanka and the fast deteriorating secular fabric of the country.

The growing intolerance towards the Muslims, as a way of “protecting” Buddhism is neither Buddhistic nor protectionist and it is simply an expression of insecurity amongst some who call themselves Buddhist, and a thirst for power and consequently domination, by a very un Buddhistic minority of citizens.

The regrettable outcome of the actions of this oraganisation is that it has sullied the good name of a majority of Buddhists in Sri Lanka who would not have anything to do with the BBS and the hatred being spewed by the BBS against Muslims.

The Buddhists of the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya, Monks as well as lay people associated with them may be reminded, in case they have forgotten, the message of tolerance that Lord Buddha gave all of humanity. In the Dhammapada (197-200), he says “Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Among those who hate us, let us live free from hatred. Let us live happily and free from ailment. Let us live happily and be free from greed; among those who are greedy”.

If the BBS and Ravana Balaya were following their mentor, Lord Buddha, they surely must accept that tolerance is the acceptance that other people hold different views from them. Tolerance is the willingness to allow others to be different in their views and actions. Above all tolerance is the absolute avoidance of using power, violence or coercion to force other people to think and believe as we do. Tolerance is an attitude of loving kindness (metta) towards those who hold views which are different from ours and even towards those who hold views which are repugnant to us.

Intolerance on the other hand is the willingness to use, and the use of force, violence and coercion to make other people behave as we want them to and hold the views we want them to hold.

The danger to Sri Lanka and its secular fabric is twofold. Firstly, this minority has had a disproportionate impact on the majority and secondly, the majority has chosen to be silent, tolerating the intolerance. One is reminded how the majority of Germans remained silent when Jews were being persecuted and exterminated in the millions by the Nazi’s.

The Mahatma was right in saying that tolerance and reconciliation are keys to a just and equitable society. He may find both attributes being eroded in Sri Lanka if he were alive and able to visit Sri Lanka.

The activities of organisations like the BBS and Ravana Balaya seem to be promoting the Talibanisation of the country through the imposition of hateful thinking and practices, by coercion and force and the indoctrination of innocent Buddhists who unfortunately have a practice of venerating the robe rather than the character and disposition of a Buddhist Monk.

Intolerance is not unusual in various societies. There is open intolerance and there is latent intolerance. Some countries who preach about lack of tolerance in other countries probably have deep routed intolerance within their own societies, especially in regard to race relations although such intolerance maybe latent and shielded by laws that prevents or limits any outward expression of racial intolerance.

There are also many forms of intolerance. Religious intolerance, political intolerance, racial intolerance, among all forms of intolerance has a common thread that precipitates it, namely, insecurity and power.

The BBS, Ravana Balaya and similar extreme Buddhist organisations who contend that Buddhism is threatened in Sri Lanka by other religions are acting unconstitutionally as they are challenging secularism in the country and therefore liable for legal action against them as the constitution of the country has established it as a secular country.

Although Buddhism has been afforded a special place constitutionally, other religions have been given equal rights not inferior to Buddhists in any sense. The rights of Buddhists therefore are not superior to any other religious group in Sri Lanka; they are equal to any other religious group.

The BBS, Ravana Balaya and similar organisations who claim that Buddhism is threatened by other religions, should examine rationally and objectively whether the sense of insecurity (feeling threatened is an expression of insecurity), that has arisen is because of other religions or whether the insecurity has arisen due to the failure on the part of Buddhist establishments to teach and promote the essence of Buddhism as per Lord Buddha’s doctrine.

As stated at the outset, intolerance is not limited to religious intolerance. Political intolerance has often raised its head when a political party has tasted power and they are intoxicated with their own sense of self-fulfilling prophecies resulting in a desire to continue drinking the elixir of power in order to pursue such prophecies.

Robert Merton, a 20th century sociologist, actually coined the term of self-fulfilling prophecy. In his definition, in the book Social Theory and Social Structure published in 1949, the prophecy or prediction is false but is made true by a person’s actions. In the modern sense the prophecy has neither false nor true value, but is merely a possibility that is made into probability by a person’s unconscious or conscious actions.

As in politics, in religious as well as ethnic issues too prophecies can be made about the dangers posed by the actions of a section of a minority community. Continuous indoctrination of people against that prophecy can then make the prophecy probable from a possibility. History tells us that Adolf Hitler was a master of this art, and the Jewish people suffered immensely as a consequence.

Any governing party in such a situation would gradually consolidate their power through autocratic ways, and the clever amongst them would do this leaving a false impression of democratic propriety.

In such a democracy, the need to strengthen one’s grip on power arises from a sense of insecurity that voters might really exercise their vote against them and remove them from power. Removal of any person or institution opposed to a governing party from their positions of power and influence or denying them the ability to challenge the establishment or their methods then becomes the modus operandi for them.

Sri Lanka fortunately has not reached these depths. However analysts opine that signs of political intolerance are there and the increasing centralization of power and a reticence for effective decentralization even to local government levels is indicative of a desire to guard against insecurity arising from such a dilution of power.

While this might be the opinion of some analysts, others counter that no undemocratic or unconstitutional decisions have been taken and that centralization has been done mainly to facilitate the speedy implementation of development projects consequent to the destruction of infrastructure in the North and the East during 30 years of terrorism and war.

However, the dismissal of the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka through a process not seen to be fair, limiting the independence of the several Public Commissions, including the Police Commission, the extension of the Presidential terms (subject to elections), are not viewed as actions that enhances confidence in democracy or in the government, amongst the public.

The government’s tolerance of unsavory elements and thugs, even as members of parliament simply on account of their ability to garner votes is not viewed favorably by many, and this too does not inspire confidence in democracy or in the government. In the event, tolerating what should not be tolerated is seen as a sign of insecurity on the part of the government just to ensure being in power.

Some examples of intolerance have been cited here. Those who purportedly tolerate this intolerance have also been cited. Equally or more guilty of tolerating intolerance is the general public of the country, especially the Buddhist majority, civil society organisations, professional and academic bodies, trade unions and other organisations, and whose voice in protest at these unBuddhistic activities would have made a difference in securing Sri Lanka’s secularism and good name as a tolerant country.

Some who support the actions of organisations such as the BBS have expressed the opinion that Muslim and Christian extremism and missionary work including the use of unethical methods to convert Buddhists to Islamic and the Christian faiths have largely been ignored by many who have taken umbrage at what the BBS, as stated by them, has done to protect Buddhism. They also contend that when they take direct action (nonviolent as claimed by them) to arrest extremist and unethical practices of other religions, they are labeled as extremists.

No doubt there is a feeling of frustration and anger amongst a section of Buddhists about the activities of some elements within the Islamic and Christian faiths.

Recent events surrounding the Halal certification issue is a clear example of a lack of dialogue between the Buddhist and Muslims and the involvement of the government, where noninvolvement and direct discussions between those “offended” and the “offenders” may have been a better option.

Considering the sensitivities associated with religious conflicts, it does appear there is a clear need for a better dialogue amongst religious leaders from different faiths to avoid the precipitation of conflict, and where they have occurred, to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions. There is also a need for such a dialogue to occur outside party political forums as constituency politics and votes that constituencies deliver to political parties would get in the way of rational and objective discussions and solutions to conflicts that are religious in nature.

It is not too late to leave the resolution of thorny issues associated with religions to representatives of the religions. If government action is required, it should be on the basis of consensus decisions and recommendations emanating from such religious forums.

In conclusion, it is worthwhile for all Sri Lankans to heed the words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama who stated-

“If a harmonious relationship is established amongst societies and religious beliefs in today's multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural world, then it will surely set a very good example for others. However, if all the sides become careless, then there is a danger of imminent problems. In a multi-¬ ethnic society the biggest problem is that of between the majority and the minority. For instance, in the capital Leh, Buddhists constitute the majority of the population whereas Muslims belong to the minority community. The majority must consider the minority as their invited guests. The minority, on the other hand, should be able to sensitise with the majority. In other words, both sides should live in harmony. In order to sustain this harmony, both sides should not take lightly the sensitive issues between themselves. Indeed, the majority should pay attention to and appreciate the views and opinion of the minority. Both sides should discuss and clearly express what they think about the other's view and opinion. The minority, on the other hand, should be careful about where the sensitive issues of the majority lies and express whatever doubts they have in their minds. If problems are resolved in such a friendly manner; then both sides will gain. Suspicion of each other will only harm both communities. Therefore, it is very important to live in harmony and analyse where the opinion of the other lies. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue, dialogue and dialogue”.

Excerpts from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's address to the inter-faith seminar organised by the International Association for Religious Freedom, Ladakh Group, in Leh on 25 August 2012.

- Asian Tribune -

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