Religious pluralism and amity: The way forward | Daily News

Religious pluralism and amity: The way forward

At the mere mention of the word ‘pluralism’, a lay person might not instantly recognize its meaning. To many, the term may sound foreign, but it is very much embedded within all of us, and we are oblivious to it at times. The concept of pluralism is attributed to engaging with the many differences and idiosyncrasies that we witness around us and branches out to various other segments such as cultural pluralism, philosophical pluralism, linguistic pluralism and gender pluralism to name a few. To engage in pluralism is, therefore, to attempt to understand and appreciate how the other is different from you and me. Therefore, all groups should have the space to express themselves, have freedom of expression, religion and so on.

Dr. Jehan Perera
Sheikh M. Arkam Nooramith

This opinion piece will solely focus on the topic of religious pluralism. This term symbolizes positive and supportive collaborations between people from different backgrounds, religions, faiths or spiritual beliefs, with the motive of endorsing a level of mutual understanding between those different religions and aim to elevate a sense of acceptance and tolerance. According to this worldview, it is the community that should have the foremost place, and not religion.

Sharing his insight on the concept of pluralism, Dr. Jehan Perera, who is a Peace Activist and the Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka (NPC), an independent advocacy organisation, said: “Whether we are Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, we tend to restrict ourselves within our comfort zones and stick to being amongst our own communities and it feels easier to engage within our own groups. The most any of us would have in the form of a relationship with someone from another ethnic group, is sometimes confined to being one that is transactional. An instance such as when we visit a particular shop and interact with the shopkeeper who happens to be from another ethnicity or religion other than one’s own. It stops there when we leave that situation. No other relationship is formed while we are there. That is a natural instinct which we form, within our own silos.”

The NPC works to set up structures, inter-religious committees at district levels. Dr. Perera explained that the NPC organizes such committees, mobilizes participants and provides them with training and knowhow.

Interfaith cohesion-building

A successful example was a recent initiative conducted by the NPC, a North–South Exchange visit to Paramankirai, Navakkuli in the Jaffna District. The initiative was aimed towards youth members who represented regions such as Hambantota, Moneragala, Kurunegala, Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Galle. The exchange visit included a discussion on pluralism, and a range of interactive activities – from trust-building games and a volleyball match to a food culture exploration event. The initiative was appreciated by all who took part and the members from Galle expressed the need to help initiate a similar programme where youth members from Jaffna can get to visit the southern part of the country and interact more with people from other regions.

Another well-known local organisation is the Sarvodaya Movement, with a history spanning over 50 years that has been instrumental in instigating educational activities throughout the nation. Sarvodaya first emerged with the aim of uplifting villages in Sri Lanka, enabling the advancement of a comprehensive social transformation and promoting self-reliance, community participation through a holistic approach to community awakening. Amongst the numerous programmes they have conducted over the years, was the ‘Pillars of Resilience’ programme which helped bring together religious leaders to one place, where they could be recognized as these ‘Pillars of Resilience’ and showcase their significance to society in terms of playing a critical role within their communities, especially during disasters, emergencies, crisis and conflict.

The ‘Pillars of Resilience’ project was aimed at building the capacity of 200 faith leaders from all major faiths in Sri Lanka, on community resilience and a community resilience interfaith symposium was initiated for 100 faith leaders who took part. Sharing her thoughts on the programmes that Sarvodaya focuses on, MEAL Officer at Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, Rashmi Mallawaarachchi said, “Faith leaders are equipped with unique assets that help support communities during such adversities, and so, furnishing them with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes would further enhance community resilience. At Sarvodaya, we believe in helping to create people-centred and inclusive, sustainable development through a practical model of self-help and give back to the society through greater active participation.”

For such action to take place, it isn’t necessarily big and well-funded organisations that are capable of instigating such programmes. It is also refreshing to know that communities of like-minded people, without any sort of regular grant funding also come together and initiate similar interfaith programmes with great success. A good example is Interfaith Colombo, which is unlike other well-funded NGOs and similar entities.

In contrast, Interfaith Colombo relied on a more informal set-up which was co-founded by Suchith Abeyewickreme and Shifan Rafaideen in 2017 with the aim of creating a safe space for youth who reside mainly within the region of Colombo and its suburbs where they can interact, congregate and participate in interfaith events and religious activities. One such event conducted by them, was Interfaith Vesak and Ramadan 2020. Participants from around the world and from different faiths were present. Primarily, the event was conducted in all three languages and emphasized on the facet of multi-culturalism.

In one segment for instance, participants were put into break-out rooms with various names under a facilitator and very interesting discussions were opened on Vesak and Ramadan. Sharing his thoughts about Interfaith Colombo, its co-founder, Abeyewickreme explained, “We wanted to create a safe space, especially with youth in mind that still focuses on religions and beliefs. Usually, we notice most of the time inter-religious groups and activities led by religious leaders. Interfaith Colombo looks to engage people of different faiths and beliefs with the idea of building understanding, positive relations and trust among them and their communities. I believe when we as young people of different faiths and beliefs, walk into places of worship together, we are advocating for change so that we are more open towards each other and can learn to live together with respect, empathy and solidarity.”

Interfaith Colombo is an outfit that has always funded itself or through donations from kind donors. Apart from the co-founders and enthusiastic volunteers, they also function with the inclusion of individuals who come under different levels of engagement. In the near future, however, Interfaith Colombo hopes to form an Interfaith Leadership Team and strengthen their approach with similar programmes.

Community perspectives

To get a perspective from a member of the Muslim community about the significance of exchange visits and initiatives such as the ones conducted by NPC, Sarvodaya and Interfaith Colombo, we spoke to Sheikh M. Arkam Nooramith, Assistant General Secretary of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama. He also holds position as a member of the Wakfs Board of Sri Lanka and is also a member of the Advisory Committee on Muslim Law Reforms. He says, “In my professional life as a scholar of Islam, I have often been asked whether Islam is truly a religion that advocates tolerance of peoples of other faiths. Does it encourage Muslims to live in peace with people of other faith, or is it an ideology that is prone to create conflict, be it interreligious, intercultural or international? Furthermore, I have been asked to comment on the role that Muslim religious beliefs play in instigating individual Muslims to commit acts of terrorism and violence against peoples of other faiths. What I am rarely asked are questions concerning pluralism, unity in diversity and tolerance in Islam and how people of other faith survived historically under Muslim rule,” Sheikh Arkam stated.

He reminisced a moment from his childhood and disclosed that there was indeed a time when those differences never posed an issue and everyone was equal and understanding of each other. “This way, polarization will not persist. I definitely encourage the stance taken up by NPC and would be eager to see more of these instigations taking place in the future, inspire more engagement amongst all ethnic communities and would promote the idea of getting the public to really take a moment and learn more about their fellow countryman,” Sheikh Arkam reiterated.

Convener of the Kandy District Inter-Religious Committee, Gamini Jayaweera shared his views of the NPC Exchange Visit, on behalf of the Sinhala community, and said, “I came to know of the youth members from the selected DIRCs who participated in the exchange visit and the feedback we received was indeed very positive. Since the aim of the exchange visit was to enable these groups of people to come together in solidarity, setting aside any differences and experiencing the culture and mannerisms of their fellow countryman.”

Expressing his appreciation for the initiation of these, Senior Lecturer and Head of Media Studies at the University of Jaffna, Dr. S. Raguram too agreed on the timeliness of these events. “Programmes such as this pave the way for a root cause to be identified, especially with regard to instances that get triggered in the name of race and religion and in other ways and they are able to find a common ground amongst each other. Even though we have divided ourselves as Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils, we have some common traits. So, if we can find that common trait and a common platform where we can arrive at to build up ourselves, then I believe that this type of interactive platforms will provide an opportunity to achieve that. So, I would encourage these types of involvements. In addition to this, there should be serious efforts made to explore other cultures, history, their richness, values and gain a deeper understanding of each other.”

On the other hand, Head of the National Movement for the Release of All Political Prisoners, Rev. Father Marimuthu Sakthivel did not agree with the implementation of such programmes as he felt that the aim of promoting pluralism steered away from what mattered the most when it came to members of the public who needed real help. He said, “I do not work with NGOs anymore as I feel that they only conduct or feel compelled to work on promoting such programmes because they get a budget to do it. So, they have to do it anyway. I see them all as money-minded initiatives at the end of the day. They fulfil their agendas and use a majority of these funds to fuel their own expenses. If we need real change in this country, then we need a political solution. NGOs trying to promote so-called pluralism is far from focusing on real issues being faced by people, especially in the North. There are mothers who have been left with nothing and have to fend for themselves. Nobody talks about those issues but are trying to build bridges between the North and South.”

Ethnic integration and interfaith initiatives have been taking place for decades and during many of these occasions, getting children, students and youth to engage in such proceedings has always been a highlight. Exchange visits for instance, are also a form of education and through education comes awareness and a strengthened message that promotes peace-building and contributes to social transformation. One good example of an international ethnic integration programme to have taken place was the Youth Ethnic Integration Project which was funded by USAID, held in partnership with the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and implemented by the Macedonian Civic Education Centre, to improve inter-ethnic integration and strengthen civic culture among youth in North Macedonia. There are countless such activities that take place worldwide and the most significant part of such programmes is that eventually, people come together and it helps to stir up dormant empathetic emotions and a sense of renewed belonging.

(This article was supported by Internews Sri Lanka. The writer is a journalist and PR consultant.)