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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2706

Is there religious disharmony among communities in Sri Lanka? Who is adding fuel to the fire and fanning the flames?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Although disharmony is defined simply as lack of harmony or agreement, its synonyms like discord, friction, strife, conflict, hostility, acrimony, bad blood, enmity, feuding etc., describe the real meaning of the word.

The question that is relevant in the context of the recent violence against some Muslims, and earlier, against some Christian evangelicals, is whether these unfortunate events took place because of religious disharmony amongst the communities in Sri Lanka as described by the synonyms mentioned above, or because they were orchestrated by interested parties to magnify some religious tensions for short sighted political gains over political opponents.

If some are interpreting religious tensions to be synonymous with religious disharmony, then, one could say there is religious disharmony in many countries throughout the world and Sri Lanka would not be an exception to what is happening in these countries.

The other relevant factor here is whether these tensions have been widespread throughout different communities and whether such tensions have translated to discord or strife, hostility, acrimony etc. amongst the communities.

If one wants to witness first-hand what acute religious disharmony, discord, friction, strife, conflict, hostility, acrimony, bad blood, enmity feuding, etc. all mean, it is unfolding in all its ferocity in the strife torn Middle East where sections of the same religion are killing each other in the name of the religion.

In the Sri Lankan context, it would be very difficult and dishonest to state that there has been widespread tensions or conditions that the synonyms of disharmony describe within the communities in the country now or in the past, although the headlines in the media nationally and internationally, and some world leaders, heads of international institutions and some international and national NGOs and some Diplomats of foreign governments have been portraying sporadic religious tensions as religious disharmony, as if this is something unique to Sri Lanka.

While the violence experienced during that incident cannot be condoned with any type of rationalisation, that violence cannot be used to describe a real or potential situation that simply does not exist and will not exist in Sri Lanka. Despite, at times very serious provocations, religious disharmony as described by its synonyms has not resulted amongst communities in Sri Lanka.

Religious tensions, as other tensions, have existed and they will continue to exist, and in a multi religious, multi ethnic country with a long history replete with great human successes as well as failures, Sri Lanka would be unique if such tensions did not exist.

The challenge for Sri Lankans is therefore two fold. Firstly to dispel the myth concerning the existence of mass religious tensions or disharmony and secondly to manage the tensions that surface from time to time through open and frank discussion and mutual acceptance of some ground realities.

Perceptions based on misinformation, disinformation, gossip, are formed very easily if this is not done, and these could then lead to the build-up of tension that provide fertile grounds for elements in the fringes to resort to activism, sometime violent activism, which then gets interpreted as mass religious disharmony amongst the communities.

While Sri Lanka has had several instances during the post-independence period where places of religious worship of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have been attacked, none of these could be ascribed to any planned or desired work of any community as a collective. Rather, one could safely say they had been the work of a few individuals or gangs, done at the behest of an interested party or parties.

These attacks do not represent the will of any community as the overwhelming majority of every community is peace loving and nonviolent. The failure of religious leaders of all faiths to have frank and open discussions, and the failure of political leaders to provide the leadership to ensure this happens without resorting to politically correctness or political expediency, and pushing difficult issues under the carpet, has been the problem faced by Sri Lanka, giving room for external elements to portray the country as one in religious strife.

Religious tensions can occur for any number of reasons. Primarily, any religious group that disturbs the community equilibrium would give rise to religious tension as that equilibrium is and can be very tenuous at times. Unlike in the strife torn Middle East where religious disharmony is not amongst a few but amongst a majority, and where such disharmony is due to issues connected with the Islam religion itself, in Sri Lanka, the issue that has caused some religious tension is more on account of other factors behind a façade of religious issues.

The key issue that appears to have given rise to religious tension is economic in nature rather than religious, although the outward manifestation of tension is religious in nature.

Muslim ownership of a significant component of business and commerce in many urban areas, and the community’s foray into other areas such as trading in the agriculture sector, have riled the more recent upwardly mobile Sinhala (predominantly Sinhala Buddhist) business community and it is likely, although not certain, and certainly not conclusively proven, that elements from within this community maybe responsible for sponsoring and encouraging a grouping like the Bodu Bala Sena to use religious issues to fan pockets of religious tensions in some areas of the country.

If this proposition has some validity, then, considering that some of these Sinhala Buddhist business elements have strong links to political groupings that enjoy majority support amongst the Sinhala Buddhist constituency, the proposition can be further extended to say the governing party has an indirect link to the escalation of tension and unrest in the areas that were subject to violence and strife recently as the governing party currently enjoys majority support within this constituency.
On the other hand, elements of the very same Muslim business community who fear the inroads into their commercial empires, could well be the force behind elements of the Muslim community who may be trying to consolidate their businesses and looking for further growth.

They could be throwing fuel to the fire and fanning the flames of religious disharmony as discrediting the Sinhala Buddhists and the government would help their commercial well a compliant government would rather patch things up at the surface rather than address the core issues that give rise to religious tensions.

The government has only one way to settle this issue and make sure no more religious violence takes place in the country. This is by showing strong and unwavering leadership on one key issue – law and order and guaranteeing the absolute independence of the law enforcement authorities

The law of the land, and its strict and impartial application by authorities who are independent and who have no cause to fear the wrath of the powerful if they act impartially and happen to cross the path of the powerful, will provide ordinary citizens the comfort to live in peace, unaffected by fear or retribution.

- Asian Tribune -

 Is there religious disharmony among communities in Sri Lanka? Who is adding fuel to the fire and fanning the flames?
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