Sri Lanka: A Tale of Two Countries

Over the past year, one can be forgiven if one thought that in fact that there were two countries called Sri Lanka or at least two visions for a country called Sri Lanka.  Both have seemingly emerged out of the shadows of the end of the bloody 26 year old conflict when Sri Lanka faced a cross roads in terms of moving forward cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity.

One version of that vision for the country has emerged of a nation struggling to rebuild, reconstruct and reconcile.  It is one where economic and infrastructure development whilst not being matched by good governance or the creation of a secure environment of equity and social justice, still provides some hope for what might come.

The second version of the vision for the country is one of extreme nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred; being pushed forward by a small minority speaking on behalf of the majority Sinhala Buddhist who are intent on propagating the spirit of separatism, oblivious to the disastrous consequences from the past and for the future. With the lens of the latter vision,  Sri Lanka is seen through a singular lens of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude which perpetuates deeply delusive and divisive assumptions of single exclusive identities by these sectarian activists, who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one specific ‘religious’ identity. Such exclusive identities stress difference rather than belonging and ‘opposition to’ rather than ‘support for’ a Sri Lanka that follows the first vision. The result is that these conflicts manifest themselves into rumour, hearsay and generalization which are the first steps towards the stereotyping of people (their faith, their culture and identity) and the denial of a diverse, lived reality, the opposite of respect, understanding and acceptance.

It thus describes a vision where hope begins to fade for the country to move forward.

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New MA Programs from Kings College London

The Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Kings College London introduces the MA Abrahamic Religions and the MA Religion in Contemporary Society.

The Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s is highly attractive to students who wish to know more about Religions in their textual, historical and contemporary contexts.

Students will be taught by world leading academics working on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Students will also benefit from our specialist area study centres of the Middle East, Russia, and Religion and Public Policy, hosting leading visitors such as academics, journalists, and policy makers. Students can choose from a broad range of modules and shape degrees to their interests.

In the new MA in Abrahamic Religions students develop skills in comparative research and understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The MA in Religion in Contemporary Society combines anthropology, sociology and politics, training students in understanding the role of contemporary religions in public life, globalization, and modern social transformations.

Both MAs prepare students for jobs in a wide range of professions from academic research, public service, and policy.

For more information on the MA  in Abrahamic Religion, please click here

For more information on the MA in Religion in Contemporary Society, please click here

Mali: Totalitarian vs. liberal Islamists

I’ll be honest, I am certainly not an expert on African politics. When it comes to Mali, I would even plead total ignorance, because, until a few weeks ago, I would probably have had a hard time even finding this West African nation on a map. Yet still, since the beginning of the French military operation earlier this month, I have become a curious Mali observer.

It is not that easy, though, to understand what is really happening in this poor and landlocked African country. In the Turkish press, most commentators readily speak of a “neo-colonial” plot by France, aiming at nothing but more plundering the natural resources of the continent. In the Western media, on the other hand, most narratives rather focus on the threat coming from the “Islamists” of Mali, who have dominated northern part of the country and established oppressive rule. The Islamist group called Ansar Dine (“Helpers of Religion”), for example, reportedly banned Malian and Western music, bars, video games and even football. This Taliban-like tyranny, in other words, seems to be the only thing people have in mind when they speak of “the Islamists of Mali.”

However, a recent piece in the New York Times by Hannah Armstrong, an Africa-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, shows that facts are more nuanced. Titled, “A Tale of Two Islamisms,” Armstrong explains that the Taliban-like totalitarianism of Ansar Dine and its ilk is only one face of Islam in Mali. The other one, which is no less pious, is led by the High Council of Islam (HCI), which, in the words of Armstrong, is an “Islamist civil society organization, which provides social services and education through a network of 165 NGOs.”

This HCI, Armstrong also notes, represents “a republican form of Islamism [that] is peacefully conquering the south of Mali.” It trains imams and promotes religious values. But it rejects both the violent tactics and the oppressive measures of the Islamists in the north. “I am a moderate Islamist and a republican,” Moussa Boubacar Bah, a Sufi jurist and one of the leaders of the HCI, tells Armstrong. “I will not destroy a bar,” he explains. “I will convince the people not to drink.”

Given that people have the right to remain unconvinced, this would be a sort of Islamism that I would call “liberal” – liberal in the sense that it respects people’s liberty to choose between Islam and non-Islam, between piety and vice. (It is no accident that the Sufis of HCI are inclined to think this way, for Sufis are interested mainly in individual piety, and thus often realize that it can only be based on free choice, whereas oppression leads only to hypocrisy.)

This division among the Islamists of Mali – totalitarian versus liberal – seems to be a serious one with important political consequences. Armstrong notes that while the HCI tries to be an “interlocutor with the extremists in the north,” it also supports the French intervention in the country “to stop a fresh offensive from the north.” The liberals’ attitude toward the West, in other words, is not black and white.

Moreover, the same division between the two forms of Islamism exists not only in Mali, but in fact the whole Muslim world. It would be only naïve to consider them as a single force, as some Westerners and Muslim secularists crudely do. It would rather be wise to help the liberals win over the totalitarians.

This originally appeared here

Moving from Interfaith Dialogue to Multifaith Action

Next week, the international community will be marking World Interfaith Harmony Week   designated by the United Nations to occur annually in the first full week of February where there will be a chance for the global community to promote harmony between all people and to establish a dialogue amongst the different faiths and religions in an attempt to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation.  This week comes on the back of a conference held at the UN in November 2008 organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Appropriately called ‘Culture of Peace’, it looked at the concept of creating a new environment by the promotion of Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. The Saudi sponsored conference examined the need to build tolerant societies and durable peace by restoring values of compassion and solidarity and encouraging the promotion of dialogue amongst the different forums available in all cultures. The conference noted that achieving a culture of peace required effort from ‘‘the forces that hold our societies together’’, which also included religious beliefs, among other worldviews and focusing on the shared values of these religions and not on the differences. The final declaration of the Saudi conference emphasized the ‘importance of promoting dialogue, understanding and tolerance as well as respect for all religions, cultures, beliefs’, whilst expressing concern over ‘serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths’.

Much can be said about the motives for the conference and the week  (and it is not without its critics) but I think that the spirit that the  two UN initiatives are  trying to achieve cannot be criticized because it provides a space for conversations to take place that transcends beyond the local to the global, realizing that this is not only just a faith perspective but has political implications. This culture of peace requires real work from all stakeholders.

However it needs to be real and fruitful conversations that involve talking to people and understanding how to address the misconceptions that exist about the ‘other’ within all of us that is the starting point for any initiative.  Too often, mention the word ‘Interfaith’ and people roll their eyes.  The common perception (in itself a misconception) is that ‘interfaith’ conjures up a bunch of mature / retired ladies and gentlemen sitting around having tea (no disrespect intended!!).  Pastor Bob Roberts in his latest book Bold as Love  sees “interfaith as loosey-goosey, let’s all just hug one another and ignore core truth” (2012, 19).  I could not agree with him more!!.  We have to move away from just polite conversation about each other’s faiths to really seeking to understand our differences yet finding commonality to move on.  Hence I subscribe to Bob Roberts’ term of ‘multifaith’ which says “we have fundamental differences, but the best of our faiths teach us we should get along.” (2012, 19).

to read more, please click here 

Today We Remember Lincoln as a Great Redeemer – And That Should Give Obama Hope

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a spectacular movie – “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson… alive with moral energy”, in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn’t help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.
The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of ‘Honest Abe.’ Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.
Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln.” His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln – emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America’s racist past – the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was a racist who… had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines… Until the day he died, Lincoln’s ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to ‘colonise’ them back to Africa or the tropics.” To read more, please click here

What does 2013 hold for The Arab Spring?

If 2011 was the year that shook the world and saw one Arab regime after another tumble and fall, then 2012 was the year when the Arab people grappled with the challenges, strains and opportunities of their newly attained freedoms.

Seldom in recent history has change happened so suddenly, dramatically and comprehensively, and never has it taken place with the eyes of the world following every detail. Not only were Arab countries changing and the Arab people successfully grasping freedoms, most of us take for granted and rarely give a second thought, our own perception of the Arabs and the Middle East was being re-booted, re-formatted and re-structured with every passing hour.

But as these things go and as most predicted, changing a reality is often much easier than operating and making a success of the new one. 2012 was the year when the wheel of democracy and civil society institutions turned for the first time in decades for some, and for others, was invented from anew. For millions, the first experience of standing in a line so to cast a free vote, for others standing up and expressing an opposing view freely and without fear of dire consequences. The downside of course, was that for a political arena somewhat inexperienced in the protocols of open and free debate, opposition, disagreement, alliance-building and constitution drafting within the practice of democracy, the challenges were also going to be fairly considerable as well.

To those that saw in the Arab Spring an advent of mostly negative outcomes, these difficulties provided evidence of their prophecies. To the majority however, they were necessary trials on the path to full and total shedding of the former hydes of tyranny, oppression, authoritarianism and dictatorship. There is an overwhelming realisation that the removal of the dictator does not mean the eradication of the dictatorship or the uprooting of the structures which cemented the former regimes. There is also an appreciation that society as a whole needs to go through its own transformation in order to adapt to the new realities and monitor the progression towards achieving the objectives of the revolutions, including the media, human rights organisations, monitoring bodies, unions and professional groups and other civil society elements.

Further, the entire region, including countries still not directly affected by the Arab Spring, as well as the world at large also watches events with a great deal of interest. Besides the dynamics of change themselves, matters related to economics, strategic interests, energy, social impacts, demographics and human mobility, security, and many more, are of great interest and concern to countless parties beyond the borders.
Therefore, the emergence of Islamic political parties as winners at virtually every round at the ballot box has understandably created heated reactions, within the countries concerned and beyond. Some are still discussing whether those parties will push their alleged agendas for the establishment of Islamic states and the enforcement of Sharia law, others are debating whether Al-Qaeda will regain a footing in the region as a result of these election results, and others still questioning whether international treaties, including those with Israel, will be observed or shredded and discarded.

Yet, what appears to be happening is that these Islamic political parties, or Islamists as the West prefers to call them, are hard at work trying to sort out impoverished economies, eliminating institutionalised corruption, re-building civil security elements, forming parliaments, and doing what any political party with a public mandate would be expected to do. They also appear to be adopting a narrative that is inclusive and of a nationalist rather than partisan, theological or exclusive in nature. Notable therefore, that many of their most staunch critics are mostly saying that those parties are not to be trusted when they speak such a positive language, rather than being critical of their policies or stands.

2013 promises an equal helping of bumps, challenges, tumbles and hurdles. However, the wheel is not turning back and despite the upheavals, the people of the region have breathed the air of freedom and have decided that they will not agree to be in shackles again. Once the Syrian revolution achieves its objectives, the next phase of the Arab Spring will be ready to commence. That particular phase will most likely see a different set of events taking place; a set that see governments opening up to their people, initiating public forums of dialogue, allowing for elections, the formation of political parties and entering into a discussion with recognised opposition groups and figures. Radical change but via a different set of methods and dynamics.

What remains to be seen is how the West, governments and societies, react to all of this. Part of the radical change that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt have seen, involves a change in the dynamics of dealing with the international context. And it goes both ways. No longer can we or should we expect a submissive partner, or a partner that doesn’t have national interests to further as well. No longer should we expect to address, engage with and listen to Arab governments and not Arab societies, in order to form a picture or a policy. No longer can we continue to disengage with Islamic political parties en mass on the basis that some of what they say is to our disliking.

The Arab Spring might have been the best thing to happen to tens, probably hundreds of millions of Arabs. However, it could also be the best thing to happen to the West, which is gradually changing to adapt to a new partner in what is arguably the most important region in the world.

From Tolerance to Compassion

On November 16th, it will be the International day of Tolerance, one of those UN designated days that are designed to gather global support around a cause, this one being the need to tolerate each other. However, as attacks over the last couple of months in Nigeria and Myanmar and now the recent incidents once again in the Middle East have shown, tolerance is in short supply and there is now shadows over the future of peaceful inter religious and cultural coexistence.

I think the concept of tolerance itself is problematic and deserves some reflection. Whilst the dictionary gives a slightly different definition of the word, in my opinion, tolerance is about accepting the status quo without necessarily doing much about it; it is about putting up with something, not because you want to. Ultimately it is a sign of ignorance, as you tolerate someone because you need to and because convention dictates it, but it doesn’t mean you know that person or want to know that person. Hence through tolerance, you perpetuate ignorance.

To read more, please click here

Rakhine crisis: Restricted humanitarian access and risk of radicalisation

The latest wave of violence between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has raised fears of growing radicalisation and regional instability.

The violence has left 36,000 displaced, bringing the total number of displaced since June to 110,000. Scores are reported missing at sea and satellite images released by Human Rights Watch revealed the almost-near destruction  of part of a densely-populated Rakhine town.

Humanitarian conditions, already dire after the outbreak of violence in June, now stand to deteriorate further.

Camps for the internally displaced are unable to accommodate the influx and many of those affected by the violence are not receiving assistance as humanitarian agencies face threats, restrictions on access and severe funding shortages.

The renewed violence raises fears that the crisis initially originating in Rakhine state is not only spreading to other parts of the country, but also threatening Buddhist-Muslim relations in the wider region.

To read more, please click here

The Feast: Finding Common Ground in Abraham’s Legacy

On the 26th of October 2012, it was the Feast (or Eid ul Adha) symbolizing the culmination of the pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca (the Hajj).  These few days of light and love are supposed to characterise meditation, blessings and prayers for peace.

It also serves as a symbol of unity in diversity as Malcolm X wrote “…we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood…. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.”

Whilst for Muslims worldwide, Eid ul Adha is the second most important holiday in their calendar, for a select few who have the privilege of actually performing the hajj, it is the most spiritual  of journeys, answering the invitation from God to visit Makkah, and completing one of the essential pillars of Islam.  It is a journey that asks for God’s forgiveness, as the human being is stripped to its core representing the destruction of the inner demons and an equalization with one’s peers.

To read more, please click here