Use And Abuse Of Religion And Nationalism

The conflict of intertwined forces of nationalism and religion with similar opposing forces has been the cause of many horrendous wars during the last millennium. These unfortunate conflicts keep repeating themselves in varying degrees and last week we witnessed the flaring of one such incident at Dambulla which the government commendably doused out soon.

The conflicts of different nationalisms—quite often intertwined with religion— are of global occurrence and right now the Middle East is a powder keg with devastating potential.

Marxists – now a near extinct variety— will recall nonchalantly the dictum of their prophet, Karl Marx: Religion is the Opium of the People. Others will quote Samuel Johnson on Patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. We know that these observations are not universal in their application. There are billions of religious adherents who are not made insensate by their religious convictions and quite a lot of people who love their country and would not fall into the category of scoundrels of Samuel Johnson.

But it has to be admitted that there are hundreds of exceptions who exploit religion and nationalism for promoting their demagoguery. The potential demagogues lie dormant in our society and the country saw them on TV last week attempting to destroy what they described as a Muslim place of worship that they claimed had come up illegally on land belonging to the historic Dambulu Viharaya.

Certainly any person has a right to protest if an unauthorised structure has come up in a religious site dear to him. But in this day and age there are ways in which protests can be launched and buildings if they are illegal removed from the places that they should not be in.  But the scenario at Dambulla was a mob led by a Buddhist monk demanding that the construction be destroyed. Had the government officials and police not been able to avert the threat and convinced demonstrators that the problem would be resolved after due inquiries there could have been incalculable consequences.

At a time when learning political lessons are in vogue it appeared that some of the bitter lessons learnt  commencing from the communal riots of 1958, the 1983 Black July (the consequences of which we are still suffering)and the resulting terrorist war, we seem to have forgotten.

It is undeniable that Sri Lanka is today in the dock in the court of world opinion for violation of human rights and the ‘patriots’ are aflame on the accusations that are levelled against them by world leaders and the international media. The TV footage from Dambulla with a monk leading the demonstrators would have been manna from heaven to those waiting to sling mud at Sri Lanka.

No doubt this TV coverage will be used to substantiate the allegation of suppression of religious freedom in this country.

Today everybody who is somebody and even nobodies who get on to public platforms breakout into the refrain that Sri Lanka is a multi racial, multilingual, multi religious country. But to the world beyond our shores this seems to be empty rhetoric as seen from what happened at Geneva recently. The majority, the Sinhalese should do their utmost to protect the interests of minorities and minorities too should join and help to build this multiracial society.

Where religious minorities are concerned care should be taken by them not to provide opportunities for rabid communalists to exploit the situation. While the freedom of worship extends to those of all faiths, irritants to other communities should be avoided.

The blasting of loudspeakers to insufferable volumes, the construction of places of worship at sites which would obviously cause resentment and result in protests is not the best way to promote communal amity. It could be argued that such acts would not in the strict sense contravene the law but for peace and harmony in a community the best principle to follow is, to live and let live.

Undesirable situations do arise when such actions which grate on the feelings of the majority community are made. The construction of a mosque— a few blocks away from Ground Zero where the two towering structures of the World Trade Centre stood—created a furore not only in New York but among a widespread section of Americans who were infuriated by Osama bin Laden’s mass orgy of murder and mayhem.

It is a credit to the American political system that the construction of this structure was not stopped upholding the principle of the freedom of worship guaranteed in the American constitution.

Paradoxically, the bellicose acts committed in the name of religions are quite contrary to what the founders of these great religions like the Buddha and Christ taught. The Buddha did not claim that he was a Buddhist nor did Christ call himself a Christian. But to the demagogues, the names of these great founders are cannon fodder for their vile purposes.

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