I have been meaning to put down my thoughts on the subject of religious and communal unrest here on the blog for quite some time now, but because of the complexities and the underlying sensitivities that surround this topic I thought I must take my time, to ponder and reflect over the delivery of this post. After quite a lot of reflection, many second thoughts, and several edits to the original draft, I approach this issue with a keen awareness of the limits of what I can say and how much I can actually influence. But attempt I certainly will…
I am an economist and a globalist at heart, this you might have noticed by two of my previous posts (click here and here to access them). The reason for this is twofold; firstly, I strongly believe that most of the world’s wars and conflicts stem from economic issues. Secondly, globalisation affects us all whether we like it or not, from technology to the products we purchase, and to the people we collaborate and compete with. As a human race, never have we come closer to one another; and although this may be one of the greatest achievements of mankind, this has also led to suspicion, jealousy, and anxiety amongst some of us.
I love Facebook, it’s propelling and fuelling globalisation at the rate of knots. People are connecting, collaborating and creating wonderful things for the betterment of man; be it social change, commerce, communications and publishing. However, these very tools that help bring us closer as a human race can also be used to destroy, to cause rifts and clove us apart into people full of enmity for one another.
A consequence of technology fuelling globalisation is that it puts different communities and cultures in direct contact with one another, connecting people to people much faster than people and cultures can often prepare themselves, causing many to feel uncomfortable, threatened and frustrated by this close contact.
We witness this cognitive dissonance via websites and Facebook pages that promote an intolerant ideology by a few. In fact, the colourful language used to describe members of other communities and other human beings on those publishing platforms is absolutely disgraceful and shameful. Every time I browse through these material, I try my utmost not to get hurt; but sadly, when racism and religious hatred is aimed toward you, it becomes that much harder to ignore.
This new phenomenon of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka – however small in size it may be – really baffles me. I’ve only been away from home for almost 3 years now, but I’ve never witnessed or experienced religious hatred and bigotry of this sort and form.
The Sri Lanka that I know of – and muse over all the time – is beautiful, tolerant, hospitable and compassionate. Having experienced three decades of war, losing several thousand lives, and losing three decades worth of development time, we finally have a unique opportunity to rebuild and start all over again. But socioeconomic development and growth is not an automatic process, it’s a voluntary process. Just as individuals need a concerted and conscious effort to achieve personal development, so does a country. Those who think that a country can achieve development without being connected to the rest of the world are simply deluded. Thomas Friedman says it best in his book, ‘The world is flat’:
“Analysts have always tended to measure a society by classical economic and social statistics: its deficit-to-GDP ratio, or its unemployment rate, or the rate of literacy among its adult women. Such statistics are important and revealing. But there is another statistic, much harder to measure, that I think is even more important and revealing: “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?
“By dreams I mean the positive, life-affirming variety. The business organisation consultant Michael Hammer once remarked, “One thing that tells me a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past. Same with countries. You don’t want to forget your identity. I am glad you were great in the fourteenth century, but that was then and this is now. When memories exceed dreams, the end is near. The hallmark of a truly successful organisation is the willingness to abandon what made it successful and start fresh.”
“In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward. They see dignity, affirmation, and self-worth not by mining the present but my chewing on the past.
Reading these lines gives one the impression that Friedman wrote them with Sri Lanka in mind. If we are to perform an honest exercise of introspection about ourselves as a nation, can we truly confess that we’re a country full of dreams? Or are we a country with more memories than dreams? Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having truckloads of memories, but when we as a society don’t have dreams, or the ability to dream, we have a serious problem. We then begin to feel helpless, frustrated and humiliated. Those that are left out, begin venting their frustrations and angst toward others.
However, the problem with venting your frustrations toward others based on race and religion is that you begin to sow the seeds of hate which lead people to commit disgraceful acts with far reaching consequences. If we continue to disrespect, and provoke members of other communities – whatever community you belong to – it wouldn’t be too long until we witness another skirmish or another eruption in violence that could push our communities apart, fracturing the very core that binds our society. Every society has their share of lunatics, racists and bigots (including my own), but what’s dangerous is when we let these bigots take up leadership and drag us all toward a path that leads to ruin. Sadly our society isn’t colour, religion, race, caste, or even school blind. We love to generalise and judge people based on race, religion and other such factors including the school we attended.
The greatest dangers we as Sri Lankans face are an excessive fear and suspicion of one another that drive us to wall ourselves off. I don’t need to remind you of how dramatically the world has changed, and of how intense the world’s competition has become. Countries that were much poorer than ours in 1948 have today not only reached 1st world status, but are also actively contributing to the world’s pool of knowledge and innovation. Therefore, let’s not fool ourselves; we Sri Lankans have to work harder, run faster, and become smarter to make sure that more of us are able to connect, compete, collaborate and innovate in the globalised platform and derive all the benefits it has to offer. Instead, if we as a nation spend all of our people’s creative energies on hating others, we run the risk of not only missing the point, but also hindering our country from unleashing its full development potential.
My dream is to see our country’s poorest children believe that they have every bit of a chance of becoming an astronaut, a physician, a poetess, an architect, a designer, a software engineer, a surgeon, a detective, an author, a successful entrepreneur etc. and are able to convert these dreams into action. While our lives have been powerfully shaped by three decades of war, hatred and mistrust, our children are lucky in that they will never have to grow up with these societal prejudices. I can’t tell you what you should tell your children. But I can tell you what I will say to mine. “The human race is one, and we’re all connected to each other whether you like it or not. Never measure a person’s worth based on the religion they believe in, the race they belong to, the language they speak, the colour of their skin, the school they attend, the profession they undertake or the villages and cities they’re from. You should never let fear, hatred, and suspicion dictate how you live your lives, and of how and what you dream. In Sri Lanka, you have the opportunity to flourish, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation; your country needs you to be the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up every morning and not only imagines that things can be better, but also act on that imagination every day. These dreams should be the real foundation for our security and the source of our nation’s strength.”
“To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.” – Sir Winston Churchill.
Image credit: Shalini Seneviratne