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The radicalizing effects of religious hatred

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Iraqis raise copies of the Quran, Muslims’ holy book, during a protest in Baghdad, Iraq, July 22, 2023. (Pic courtesy Al Jazeera)

Only time will tell whether the Sri Lankan government’s recent decision to lift a ban on several Islamic organizations which were outlawed following the Easter Sunday carnage was advisable or not. In the interim, it is best to remember that every government claiming to be democratic is obliged to promote religious tolerance and amity and from this viewpoint the government’s decision needs to be seen as non-controversial.

Moreover, the government’s decision is unlikely to have been taken in knee-jerk, ad-hoc fashion considering the weighty security questions at the heart of the decision. Right now, though, the crucial need is religious and ethnic harmony and the governmental decision should not be needlessly chafed at.

The recent rapid rise in the West in particular of anti-Islamic sentiments among sections of hardline opinion underscores the need for unflagging moves on the part of states the world over and other relevant stakeholders to foster religious harmony in their countries and outside. In South Asia, Sri Lanka ought to be ranking high as a country where religious harmony has been consistently dipping and a special duty is cast on it to ensure that inter-religious harmony is built-up within it steadily.

The past two decades or so have seen a dramatic rise in anti-Islamic sentiments within Sri Lanka. This needs to be viewed with profound concern because Sri Lanka just cannot afford to have any more outbreaks of mass-scale murderous violence, focused on its religious minorities. Another July 1983-style holocaust and Sri Lanka could consider itself as good as permanently ruined. Accordingly, Islamophobia needs to be eliminated and governments should be leading from the front in this exercise.

Rising religious hatred in countries such as Sri Lanka has brought to the fore the question of the radicalization of sections of the local Islamic community. Confusion abounds on this issue, including that of a conceptual kind. There is a tendency among some sections of local opinion to see a link between the rapid rise of Islamic radicalism abroad and its spread locally, particularly among impressionable sections, such as some young adherents of Islam.

While the latter possibility cannot be ruled out, what is glaringly obvious in Sri Lanka’s case is the role played by some governments from the time of ‘Independence’, and other powerful social actors, in victimizing the local Islamic community and in visiting harm on them in manifold ways with a view to reaping short term political gain.

Generally speaking, influential sections of local society, have found it to be in their interests to foster inter-religious discord and hatred and this has been a root cause of the anti-minority violence Sri Lanka has been time and again witnessing over the decades. Simply expressed, external factors could have very little to do with inter-religious disharmony, Islamic radicalization and communal violence in Sri Lanka. A good proportion of it is of purely local origin and orchestration.

Islamophobia in Sri Lanka was particularly notable between 2005 and 2015 and the governments of those times had a strong hand in its spread among volatile local sections. This ought to be obvious to the impartial, scientifically-oriented observer and to those who were familiar with the machinations of the governments in question.

To point to external factors as being primarily responsible for the radicalization of local impressionable Islamic sections would be tantamount to misleading the public and it is hoped that all those quarters that are taking it upon themselves to make pronouncements on these issues, including ‘international experts on terror’, would take cognizance of these facts.

Over the past decade or two, Muslim community- targeted mob violence broke out in Aluthgama in 2006 and 2014, Ginthota in 2017, in Kandy in 2018 and in the Northwest subsequent to the Easter attacks and powerful, Southern political actors had a hand in all such outbreaks. Impressionable sections could not be expected to be the same after such onslaughts and these are the roots of radicalization, or in the conversion of peace-loving people into militants. The relevant causative factors are right here to see, under the very noses of ‘experts’.

While Sri Lankan governments ought to deal with religious violence firmly and ensure their non-recurrence by rooting out the prime factors in these abominations, democratic governments the world over are conscience-bound to cooperate with the UN in its current efforts at containing religious hatred and bigotry. Those instances of the desecration of the Koran in the West ought to be condemned by the right-thinking and the roots of the evil detected, analyzed and adequately dealt with.

Right now, the Denmark and Swedish governments are forced to walk a very tight-rope between stamping out the evil of religious hatred, manifested in instances of the desecration of the Koran by some of their citizens, and in upholding the democratic right to Freedom of Expression. The latter right is inalienable within a democracy but so is the right of people to their religious beliefs and convictions.

This is, no doubt, a painful dilemma for democratic governments but it is relieving to note that the Danish government is profoundly sensitive to the issues in question and that it considers itself duty-bound to intervene in the crisis with a view to resolving it amicably.

Generally speaking, within a democracy, one of the above rights cannot be bartered for the other. Both rights need to be protected by governments if the scourge of religious hatred and bigotry is to be contained and social harmony upheld. Clearly, acts of stamping on and burning copies of the Koran, which is most sacred to Muslims, cannot be perceived as acts embodying the Freedom of Expression. On the contrary, such acts are a gross abuse of the right to Freedom of Expression. Every civilized society is conscience-bound to eliminate such abuses if the cause of humanity is to be served.

The Sri Lankan situation reveals that religious hatred is very often orchestrated by powerful societal forces. The perpetrators concerned do not act alone. They are hand-in-glove with political actors who have an abiding vested interest in the spread of religious disharmony. Such facts ought to remind Western democracies too of the need to be watchful and act against those forces of religious intolerance and disharmony before they become too formidable to rein-in.

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