By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
There is cause for hope as well as despair in the way the various religious communities in Sri Lanka look at each other after going through a most recent research work entitled: “Tracking co-existence: Understanding perceptions of the religious other,” by Ranmini Vithanagama with contributions from Mario Gomez and Kasun Pathiraja.
The monograph, published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, takes into account Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholic Christians.
The research work indicates that, in most contexts, there is tolerance and understanding among the various religious groups in Sri Lanka. This is the most heartening and encouraging part. But on the other hand, there are also pre-conceived negative notions about each other which stand in the way of ethnic and religious understanding and the development of harmonious relations which are needed for equity, democracy, peace, and development in Sri Lanka.
The research work asks the following questions: what does one religious community think of ‘the other’? What are the social, economic, cultural, and other factors that influence and shape one group’s views of the religious ‘other’? In what circumstances may groups be willing to pursue coexistence? How do schooling, friends, community, access to the media, and travel, shape perceptions of ‘the other’? Under what conditions may communities be willing to resolve differences through dialogue rather than through violence?
The study involved interviewing 1000 informants from carefully chosen background to reflect the ground reality.
Positive About Oneself, Negative About Others
Vithanagama and her colleagues found that a large majority of respondents in the sample were logical and rational economic agents whose decisions on several matters of importance were not based on communal considerations.
“For most of them, day to day consumption decisions, as well as more strategic decisions (purchase of land in this situation), are predicated on reasonable and analytical considerations. Even where respondents may factor in ethnicity as a variable in their decisions, it is very possible that a logical and practical thought process precedes this consideration, rather than an oversimplified rejection of ‘the other’,” they observe.
However, a “binding commonality” among the respondents was how a large majority of them thought positively of themselves, but did not see the others in the same light. Similarly, most of the respondents did not see in themselves the negative traits that others ascribed to them!
An intriguing finding was that people with higher educational attainments scored lower on the “Coexistence Index”, compared to those with primary education only. Younger groups scored less than more grown up groups. Respondents who were less active on social media fared better on the coexistence index. Those who had been to non-Buddhist schools scored more than the others, as did respondents with more neutral political views. Respondents with friends from religions other than their own; and among respondents who lived in a community in which the majority of the residents were not from their own religion, scored high in the Coexistence Index.
The study shows that the higher one’s education the more communal one is. Younger people are more communal than the older ones. Those into social media tend to be more communal than those who are not. Those who have studied in uni-ethnic or uni-religious schools tend to be more communal minded that those who studied in mixed schools.
These patterns bring out issues that are of use in different policy domains. “For example, how can education and the educational institution framework be geared to promote coexistence? How can the cyber legal framework be strengthened to ensure that youth are protected from unchecked exposure to social media content? How can ethno-religious diversity be promoted in the workplace?,” Vithanagama asks.
She says that the empirical analysis reiterates the need to address the structural weaknesses that fuel ethno-religious misconceptions and tensions in Sri Lanka. Further, the study also highlights the importance of exposure to heterogeneous social contexts in becoming sensitized to the others.
“Clearly, Buddhists lack this opportunity the most. By virtue of being the ethno-religious majority, they have limited opportunities to interact with those outside their own cluster. As children, Buddhists tend to attend Buddhist schools, which in turn have the least tendency to celebrate other religions. They are more likely to have Buddhist friends and relatives, learn from Buddhist teachers, and live in a Buddhist community, compared to non-Buddhists who are more likely to interact with those outside their own ethno-religious groups.”
“Having navigated much of their life in an ethno-religiously homogeneous community, it stands to reason that Buddhists may not know much about the other. This hypothesis possibly explains at least in part why they score so low on the coexistence index, and appear to be rather rigid in their perception of ‘others,” Vithanagama says.
The same reasoning may hold for many Muslim respondents, who do not mingle with other groups due to institutionally or self-imposed “seclusive’ practices and the values of some Muslim sects.
“In fact, although the tensions between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists are the most obvious and has resulted in the most outbursts of recent violence, the analysis shows that it is not just Buddhists, but also other non-Muslims who have strained relations with Muslims. In fact, although Buddhists may have risen to notoriety because of perceived extreme views on Muslims, the preceding analysis actually shows that Non-Roman Catholic Christians in particular and Roman Catholics also share some of the same sentiments as Buddhists in relation to Muslims,” Vithanagama points out.
Interestingly, Hindu and Muslim respondents are largely more accommodative of each other. For these two groups, the Tamil language is most likely to be a bridging factor, which is not available to Buddhists, Non-Roman Catholic Christians, and Roman Catholics to connect with Muslims (and Hindus).
According to the study by and large, Buddhists appear to hold themselves in high esteem. A large majority of them consider themselves to be peaceful, humble, friendly, helpful, trustworthy, kind, patriotic, protective of the environment, and respectful of the law. However, a significantly lower share of non-Buddhists respondents seem to associate Buddhists with these characteristics. Among non-Buddhists, more Roman Catholics and Other Christians, compared to Muslims and Hindus, agree that Buddhists are peaceful, humble, friendly, helpful, trustworthy, and kind.”
“Hindus make up the lowest share of respondents who agree that Buddhists are peaceful, trustworthy or kind, and Muslims, the lowest share of respondents who believe that Buddhists are humble.” This is probably because of the 30 year ethnic conflict marked by Tamil terrorism and state military action supported by the Buddhists.
Interestingly, while Buddhists don’t think that they are smart in business, the non-Buddhists think they are. Among non-Buddhists, Muslims make up the largest share of respondents who consider Buddhists to be loud, disorganized, suspicious, extremist, selfish, violent, superstitious, cunning, and secretive. In comparison, less Hindu respondents associate Buddhists with these negative adjectives. Overall, many non-Buddhists share the perception that Buddhists are selfish and violent, the survey finds.
A sizeable share of Muslims, compared to the other non-Hindu groups, associate positive perceptions with Hindus. The share of respondents who agree with these positive traits is particularly less among Buddhists. More Roman Catholics and Other Christians see positive traits in Hindus compared to Buddhists, Vithanagama says. Again, this could be due to the three decades of Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic conflict.
By and large, only a very small share of non-Muslim respondents believes Muslims are peaceful, humble, or trustworthy. Only a small minority of Buddhists consider Muslims to be patriotic or respectful of the law, the survey reveals.
As stated earlier, not everything in the study is palatable. It brings out the nature of Sri Lanka with its warts and all. But there is enough of commonality to offer hope of harmony. As the blub says, the study seeks to enhance our understanding of inter-group and intra-group relations, as the country struggles to build social harmony and religious cohesion. “It seeks to “influence law, policy and social interventions that can eliminate or least reduce religiously motivated violence, and promote respect for and tolerance of the other.”