Some moons back, in the course of a conversation with an overseas-based Sri Lankan academic who was then in Colombo on a short vacation, I was struck by a remark he made on what he discerned as the growing religiosity of Sri Lankan society. He was of the opinion that Sri Lankans – broadly speaking – were becoming increasingly assertive of their religious identities, and reckoned that this development did not bode well for our future. The rising influence of religion, he felt, was going to be one of the country’s next major challenges.
As someone fairly conscious of my own religious identity, my immediate reaction was, “If people are becoming more conscious of their religious identities, is this something we should be afraid of?” His response was that it could become a concern if the assertion of a particular religious identity has a negative impact on others. The basic underlying assumption here was fairly clear; the more ‘religious’ a society was, the greater the propensity for dissonance and even violence.
The link between religion and conflict has been the subject of much debate over a long period of time, attracting amplified attention post 9/11. It is not a debate that will end any time soon. For many secular thinkers, religious beliefs and their manifestations represent an impediment to the creation of harmonious, cohesive societies because of fundamental disagreements over what constitutes ‘the truth’. Secularists seem convinced that a policy of ignoring or marginalising religious believers and groups is a necessary requisite for unity.
Granted, promoting peace and co-existence in contexts where religious groups show great gusto in emphasising their distinctiveness, as opposed to their commonalities, can be tremendously challenging. Yet it is a fallacy to think that religious diversity is at odds with social cohesion.
Religion is not a gremlin to be contained; it can actually be a powerful counterweight to narcissist, supremacist thinking and a force that unites, not necessarily divides. Its potential must be recognised, not feared.
As Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s leading thinkers on comparative religion, has rightly noted, every single one of the world’s major religions accords pride of place to the concept of compassion – the ability to feel with the other. The Golden Rule in all religions is ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This, if applied with true religiosity, helps adherents to view matters in a much broader – not narrower – perspective.
The real problem in my view, is not increased spirituality, which by itself would most certainly be a welcome development. Rather, it is the shrinking space for religious freedom, expression and most importantly, tolerance. Sri Lanka’s recent history, unfortunately, is littered with incidents that point not to the country’s supposed religiosity but to growing intolerance of differences. This is borne out in the recent spate of attacks on minority-owned business and places of worship in the country, and also in the manner in which advocates for minority rights have been targeted for their activism.
Threats, intimidation and hate speech as well as direct attacks on religiously and culturally distinct communities have no place in a civilised, democratic society. While it is absolutely necessary to bridge the gap that exists in terms of legal action taken against perpetrators of such acts, this alone will not suffice to promote sensitivity and confront intolerance. As evidenced in Aluthgama, where tolerance has a weak societal foundation, it is easy for political entrepreneurs to mobilise mobs to wreak havoc on innocents.
Promoting tolerance at the community level is an area where intervention is required. The business community, the Chambers in particular, can play a vital role in rolling back the rising tide of intolerance. Protecting religious freedom and promoting a culture of mutual respect and tolerance will help create a climate that is conducive for sustainable development. Businesses must support religious beliefs and practices both internally, and at the community and national levels as it will be beneficial for them as well as the country, generating long-term economic benefits.
Religious intolerance and economic prosperity cannot co-exist. A 2014 study by researchers in Georgetown University and Brigham Young University identified freedom of belief is one of vital factors that contribute to economic success. The study looked at the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of 143 countries while controlling for other theoretical, economic, political, social, and demographic factors. Further, it found that innovative strength was more than twice as likely in countries with low religious restrictions and hostilities. The study noted:
“…religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies. Such has occurred in the ongoing cycle of religious regulation and hostilities in Egypt, which has adversely affected the tourism industry, among other sectors. Perhaps most significant for future economic growth… young entrepreneurs are pushed to take their talents elsewhere due to the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities.”
Space to flourish
Religious influence on society is not an entirely new concern as noted previously nor is it one that is unique to Sri Lanka. But the role of religion in society is not one that is always fully understood by secularists as a result of which they can at times be anti-religious in outlook. All religions should have the space to flourish; across the board they all incorporate principles of peace, justice and equality and these are the values that have to be tapped into in order to build a culture of tolerance.
Those who feel strongly connected to their religious and cultural beliefs as well as their social systems often feel threatened when outsiders try to ‘reform’ or ‘interfere with’ their way of life. Karen Armstrong has argued quite convincingly that secularisation when applied forcibly has provoked a fundamentalist reaction and history shows that movements which come under attack invariably grow more extreme, as the Middle-Eastern experience exemplifies.
Sri Lanka is at a juncture where the issue of religious intolerance has to be earnestly addressed. The country’s national debt is a huge concern as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has acknowledged. At the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the Viyathpura Green Professional City in Pannipitiya on 17 July, the PM stated that the total debt which the country has to repay within the next three years is Rs. 4.2 trillion. He stressed the need to build up a competitive market economy if the country was to be debt free.
Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development Dr Harsha De Silva at a recent panel discussion on the benefits of the GSP Plus trade concessions called for a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the need to move away from a culture of entitlement to overcome the challenges facing the country. Businesses can help create an environment for this.
One of the ways they can do this is by articulating their opposition to intolerance and being proactive in discouraging religious confrontations. They can also step in as agents of peacebuilding and formulate long-term strategies to foster cross-cultural understanding as part of their CSR initiatives.
Together with religious leaders, they can identify places that are susceptible to outbreaks of religious hostilities, and draw up and support programmes to encourage inter-faith dialogue, social harmony and justice with a view to repairing damaged social relationships over a period of time.
Sri Lanka is also in dire need of foreign investment to create opportunities for growth, particularly in the country’s poorest districts. Last year saw FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) slump 54% to USD 450 million compared to USD 970 million the previous year which International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickreme himself admitted was “extremely low by any standard”.
If Sri Lanka is to gain a reputation as an attractive destination for international business, religious intolerance needs to a part of our history, not future. Furthermore, religion need not be viewed suspiciously or contemptuously. In a world where religion has been hijacked, an unhealthy and unwarranted fear of religion is exactly what zealots want. We must avoid playing into their hands.