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Sri Lanka: Church Attacks Surfacing Culture of Rising Intolerence

Saturday 16 January 2010, by siawi2

Sri Lanka:

Source: The Island, 15 January 2010 ( from SACW, Jan 11-16, 2010)

by Lynn Ockersz

At one time the economic performances of the majority of the countries of South East Asia were so exemplary that these countries were appreciatively nicknamed the ‘Leaping Tigers’ by an awe-struck world. Even Sri Lanka was anxious to follow their lead in all matters economic and drew considerable inspiration from these ‘Newly Industrializing Countries’, as they were then labeled, in its economic liberalization efforts of the latter half of the century past.

Then the dazzling performance bubble burst most unexpectedly, it seemed. The South East Asian currency crisis of the late nineties, which also marked the initial stirrings of the global economic recession, exposed the flimsy foundations on which the ‘Miracle Economies’ of South East Asia were based. To be sure, these economies, though badly jolted, managed to survive the currency crisis but the fundamental vulnerability of these market-based economies was exposed. As never before, the risks of being overly external-oriented and of giving prime place to speculative capital, were underlined.

The seeming explosive emergence of religion-based violence in Malaysia over the past few days proves that things have never been the same for at least some of these South East Asian countries. The ruling UMNO coalition in the times of former charismatic Malaysian Premier Mahathir Bin Mohammed, was a veritable uniting umbrella for the country’s ethnic groups. Any efforts at identifying Malaysia too closely with the majority ethnic Malays, who are mostly of the Moslem faith, were deftly defused. As in the case of Singapore, the destabilizing impact of ethnic and religious tensions was insightfully grasped by the then rulers.

However, the current spate of attacks on Christian churches in Malaysia, while pointing to rising economic pressures and shrinking material opportunities among sections of the general populace, signifies also expanding internal political space for the assertion of majoritarian extremism. Apparently, the negative impact of the global economic recession is combining with ethnic chauvinism among sections of the power elite, to breed religion-based violence in Malaysia. In short, driven mainly by external factors, some sections of the people are regarding each other with suspicion and hostility. Minority religionists are becoming the target of political forces which are intent on breeding religious tensions and violence with a view to consolidating their support bases.

The things seemingly at issue in the current wave of religious friction in Malaysia, which does not have the backing of the Malaysian state, need to be seen as the proverbial ‘trigger’ factors in the bout of violent religious intolerance gripping parts of the country. The heated debate over the use of a form of address in religious texts, for instance, is only the ‘symptom’ of the ‘disease’, which cannot be diagnosed without reference to the external factors just outlined.

The problem of rising religious tensions needs to be countenanced also in Algeria at present and in Egypt. Here too Christians are reportedly the target. It is not clear whether an economic backdrop exists to the ‘troubles’ in the latter states too, but it is plain to see that the internal space for the unleashing of violence of this kind is expanding in these countries which are marked by a degree of religious plurality.

It could very well be that the US’ seemingly interminable ‘war against terror’ is helping to unleash religious tensions in these states in view of the fact that the Al-Qaeda is associating itself with Islam. This line of probing needs to pursued by the US to arrive at an accurate assessment of the full costs of its ‘war’. Unfortunately, there is a tendency among those political forces which are opposed to the West, the world over, to identify Christian communities anywhere with the dominant powers of the West and this way of looking at the issue tends to have serious implications for national unity, integration and law and order in those parts of the Third World where a Western military presence in particular exists.

However, if a state is staking a claim to a democratic identity, religious intolerance and violence could in no way be tolerated by the rulers concerned. The Malaysian state, for instance, could in no circumstances put-up with violence against Christian churches. The violence has to be put down and the offenders brought to justice.

As has been pointed out by this columnist before, it is a lack of democratic development that provides the fertile ground for the perpetration of religion-based violence. It could not be emphasized enough that religion and the state should be rigorously separated if religious extremism is not to be offered an opportunity to flourish. In other words, there could be no democracy without secularism and secularism is the hallmark of democratic development.

Ideally, political parties laying claim to democratic credentials, need to not only swear by secularism but also steer clear of political forces espousing religious chauvinism and intolerance. If religious friction has shown a tendency to make its presence felt in Sri Lanka in recent times, for instance, it is because some major political parties have found it opportune to form alliances with parties peddling religious chauvinism. This amounts to eroding the purportedly democratic basis of the Lankan state.

The religion-based violence in Malaysia proves that countries claiming to be democratic cannot remain complacent about their level of democratic development, if indeed there has been any development of the sort. What needs to be constantly aimed at is the increasing accommodation of all cultural groups within a country and their steady empowerment. The latter is another essential indicator of democratic development.

There is no way in which a pluralistic country could thrive, in the absence of a programme to increasingly usher in democracy, in the sense the term is understood here. As Sri Lanka has bitterly learnt, development of any kind is unthinkable without peace and peace in the fullest sense of the word is not possible if minority communities do not feel at home in the country of their birth.

The time is also ripe for moderate opinion within religious groups to openly and unambiguously denounce religious extremism and violence. They need to play a key role in alienating democratic and moderate opinion, which is usually in the majority, from extremist fringe groups.