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Comments by Dr.Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka

I am a lay Buddhist. I represent the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka which is by far the most widespread grassroots people’s organization which is engaged in integrated/holistic community development, peace building and reconciliation covering the entire country. The development philosophy of the Savodaya movement is based on Buddhist teachings and Gandhian principles but it works across all ethnic and religious communities in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a country which is emerging out of a violent internal strife which has lasted for nearly 3 decades. Many lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed and future of several younger generations disrupted during this sad period of our country. The armed conflict in Sri Lanka came to end with the comprehensive military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) by the government security forces.

We have experienced violent extremism in Sri Lanka in different forms during the last 3-4 decades. More prominent ones that can be identified are the two Southern insurrections led by the Sinhalese Marxist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) in early 1970s and late 1980s, and ofcourse the ethnic strife that I referred to earlier. However, in the case of both violent uprisings, I would say, religion played an insignificant role whereas ethnicity and political ideology were the dominant factors.

In the recent years however, we have witnessed religious tensions been built up due to the actions of a faction of Buddhist monks who have taken up a confrontational stand against issues related to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. This has resulted in some serious riots recently wherein a number of lives were lost and significant damage to livelihoods and personal property.

It is not my intension to go into an in depth analysis of the causes, effects and the possible solutions to these varied forms of violent extremism but rather briefly reflect on how ordinary people and civil society view the current situation and share with you how we try to respond to this emerging trend of extremism in our country.

In this comment, I also draw from the experiences and analysis shared by the follow participants of our seminar at USIP this week.

Underlying determinants of violent extremism

Ethnic and religious identity forms an integral part of our societies. Whilst I would call them more “internal” drivers connected to our deeper consciousness shaped by, amongst other things, nation’s history as narrated in text books in schools and homes when were children, in the present day how the dominant mass media portray ethnic and religious identity.

This pause great challenges to multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural societies in an increasingly globalizing world.

I am even ashamed that Sri Lanka is even cited as a country where religious intolerance is increasing. Despite the violent ethnic strife we have had in the recent past, religion has not been determinant or a trigger for organized violence in my country. By and large Sri Lanka has been a model of religious harmony for centuries. If you visit Sri Lanka even today what you witness is more of religious coexistence and harmony rather than animosity.

Last 2 years we have seen tensions building up between a group of Buddhist monks who have formed themselves into a formal organization called BBS and Muslims.

What we witness today is the use of religious (and ethnic) identities to mobilize one’s own community against another as a political tool or to gain power. This has been emphasized by other participants from their country’s experiences as well. Religion has been “taken over” or “captured”. In other words religion is “framed” often in the guise of “nationalism” or “patriotism”.

How to address the challenge of extremism and radicalization?

At the outset I would like to say that, extremism and radicalization cannot be solely or primarily addressed through a security doctrine only. In our view there are 3 dimensions that need to be addressed.

  1. Firstly the psycho-social dimension – what we call “consciousness”. In my opinion “mind” is the primary driver. Our identities are formed by what we believe, our collective psychology, what have accumulated over the years as culture and values etc. It is at this level that religious thinking and practice have the greatest influence.
  2. Secondly - economics – in a situation where young people do not see a future for themselves or for their families and community, there is fertile ground for external forces to expolit. If people’s basic needs are not satisfied and if there is unequal distribution of wealth, income and resources. This results in creating a sense of “hopelessness” and when combined with the above mentioned psycho-social factors lead to great vulnerability for young people to be attracted to violent extremist ideologies and organizations.
  3. Thirdly – governance. We all know that politics is an important driver. When people feel disempowered meaning they cannot take part in decision making processes that affect their lives, leads to deeper frustrations and enhance their vulnerability. In today’s globalized world, local violence is not just driven by local factors. Global policies and interpretations of ethno-religious identities may even provide legitimacy to some acts of extreme violence we see in our part of the work today.

We believe therefore that any action to prevent and combat violent extremism should be an integrated, holistic and multi-level approach to address psycho-social, economic and political determinants.

Now coming back to our own experience in Sri Lanka, we have been consistently and in a systematic way have attempted to address this issue for several decades, at times accelerating our efforts and also coming up with new innovative rapid actions when violence erupts without warning.

At the level of consciousness, our work primarily involves facilitating greater understanding of ones’ own religion in an inclusive manner. Education plays an important role – both formal and non-formal. We are more involved in non-formal education. We have researched and published books for children and youth to learn and understand the basic teachings of the main four religious practiced in our country. They are simple story books. These have been published in both Sinhala and Tamil languages and distributed throughout the country.

We also recognize the important role played by the religious leaders. Inter-faith dialogues preceded by intra-faith dialogues are critically important to address the current trend of violent religious extremism. During the last 3 years we have organized many activities involving religious leaders which also included training and capacity building programs to equip them to meet the present day challenges of our society. Inter-religious committees and councils consisting of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy were formed and during recent riots orchestrated largely against the Muslims living in a Southern district in Sri Lanka, these committees played an active role in stopping the spread of such violence to adjoining districts where there were large numbers of Muslims. We have been often criticized by extremist groups for promoting inter-religious activities but we continue to implement them.

One important driver influencing the “consciousness” is ofcourse the media. Both main stream electronic and print media and social media. We have witnessed how the extremist groups use social media effectively to for their misinformation campaign.

Whist we implement such activities to affect in our consciousness , we simultaneously implement activities to open up opportunities for people particularly young people to engage in economic activities – the second sphere - economic empowerment. Religious leaders can, not only facilitate providing opportunities for youth to gain knowledge and skills to enable then to gain productive employment, but also advocate for an equitable economic order based on fundamental religious teachings. One of the key economic drivers of violent extremism is the unequal distribution of wealth and resources within and between nations. Glaring disparities seen in countries affected by protracted conflict amply demonstrate how economic inequities have contributed in a significant way towards pushing young people into violence. We would like to see wealth and resources of our country’s being “shared” as preached in all religions.

Lastly, in the sphere of “governance”, we need to empower to local communities by expanding democratic space. Getting youth to organize themselves in groups to engage with local governments, free and fair electoral processes etc. would also be pivotal in keeping them away from violent extremism. In Sri Lanka we have created community level and district committees (known as Deshodaya or national reawakening councils) which provide an inclusive platform for non-political community leaders including religious leaders

Whilst grassroots action and activism are important, to affect a lasting change, the larger issues related to democracy and good governance also need to be addressed. For example maintaining “rule of law” is critically important in containing violent religious extremism. Specific legislations for “anti-hate speech” is important and this is one area that the civil society groups including our Movement Sarvodaya is also advocating at national level.

Conclusion

In order to address violent extremism effectively the approach has to be a holistic, multipronged and at multiple levels. Religions and religious actors can promote “primary prevention” of violent extremism through working on psycho-social, economic and political determinants. They can also play a critical role in early detection of emerging trends of violent extremism as well contributing significantly towards rehabilitation of those who had been perpetrators and victims of violent extremism.

Comments deliverd at: Symposium held at USIP in Washington, DC on 26 September 2014
"Is There a Role for Religious Actors in Countering Radicalization and Violent Extremism? Voices from the Trenches"