Overcoming your own demons:Essential for reconciliation
BY SHAAHIDAH RIZA
Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui believes that true reconciliations can be achieved only when the affected communities face their demons, when the torturers face those who were tortured, especially in a post war context. Dr. Siddiqui is a leading academic expert in interfaith discourse and has a plethora of published work in the same field. He is also the Director of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE), as well as a Visiting Fellow in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester and a visiting Research Fellow at Centre for Health and Spirituality, Faculty of Health, Staffordshire University. In an interview with Ceylon Today, he noted that reconciliation must not be superficial and that it should take place initially from the grassroots.
Excerpts of this interview given below:
? What kind of role should interfaith relations play in an increasingly secular world?
A. When we talk about interfaith, people have a misperception about it. They believe that it is something that you have to give up or compromise. My understanding of interfaith cannot function without faith. That is the core of understanding. I can enter an interfaith relationship with my values, my meaning, my ideas, my thoughts, and my priorities. I can share that for the common good of the nation. That is the core of my understanding of interfaith relations.
If you are talking of interfaith relations in this country, I would say that you must understand the culture and the context of the place. Here you have a Sinhala-Buddhist context. So, interfaith relations, here, would be conducted, against the majority, but against Sinhala Buddhist history, and Tamil context. Muslims entering into these interfaith relations has to function against the backdrop of these two wider societies. So when I enter into inter faith relations with the Buddhists, I automatically enter in the history and the culture of the Buddhist people. So, it is not simply about faith. Faith is an aspect of a culture, history, memory, and past. So, in interfaith relations, you talk of your faith in a wider context, but against the backdrop and history of the dominant culture. We are automatically entering into a dominant language, society and a dominant period. Against that background we talk. But here is the problem, when faith communities meet and talk, there is always an invisible partner present, that is secularism.
Secularism is the dominant language of the world. It is secularism that dictates the language of interfaith. When we talk about interfaith relations, in personal terms with regard to religion, we talk about human dignity. But, when human rights come into it, it is the secular language. Then we have to modify our understanding according to that. For example, when a Muslim enters into an interfaith relationship with a Buddhist, the former must consider the dominant language and culture, and the latter must also understand the third partner's language, and try to influence that aspect. Interfaith relations cannot be conducted absolutely freely between the two faith groups. There will always be language of dominant culture, and the agenda set by the secular culture.
? In interactions between ethnic and religious communities, when the aspect of religion is removed, it will only be an inter-ethnic forum. What is the best way to maintain the presence of religion, yet prevent conflict?
A. If you look at the history of interfaith relations, ethnicity and religion is intertwined. For example if you are talking about a Filipino identity, a Filipino can only be catholic. That is the psyche. In Malaysia, a Malay is only Muslim, to the extent that if a Chinese wants to convert to Islam, this person will not be identified as a new Muslim, but only as a new Malay. If you are in Thailand or Burma, the Buddhism is related to ethnicity. Sri Lanka is also related with ethnicity, and religion. In this particular region, interfaith relations are different than European ones. Here, the ethnicity and the religion play dual role, you cannot just enter into an inter-religious dialogue; you automatically enter in to inter-ethnic discourse.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is necessary to have interfaith relations or inter ethnic relations. So if you enter into interethnic relations you will automatically talk about religion, but you will also address the real issues between the two ethnic communities.
That is the relationship I believe that is prevalent in this region. In the Sri Lanka context, if you take a Buddhist person, and remove his religion, he will be a Sinhalese person. But a Sinhalese person has a problem with Tamil, every time there is a clash between the two ethnic groups religion comes into it, whether you like it or not. Muslim scenarios are slightly different because they are mostly bilingual or trilingual. But yet, the perception of Muslims is something we have to look into.
We need to challenge ourselves first, and the other person has to understand the Muslims. Each other's identity, understanding and how the community functions must be looked into. If you enter into inter-religious dialogue, ethnicity comes into play, if you engage in inter-ethnic dialogue, religion comes into play, these two factors are closely intertwined, that is the reality of this region.
? Although Sri Lanka is a multi religious community, the people are indigenous, unlike the UK. Yet there is discord, which even led to a 3 decade war. In your experience in working with other communities, what do you think are the reasons for this?
A. I can give you an example from Europe. If you look into the Bosnian situation, they looked the same and spoke the same language. They lived together; they even shared their houses, and even schools. But when the conflict arrived at the doorstep, the same people who were your next door neighbour become your enemy. As was the case when a Serbian attacks a Muslim or vice versa, largely it was the latter. They didn't accuse the Muslims of not contributing towards their nation; they only spoke of what happened in 1389. This memory of hundred years or more was continuously fed throughout the generations, and it erupted.
I believe that, even if you look alike and spoke the same language, if you do not confront your demons, that you have inherited;
it will burst upon and spoil your relationship. This is one of the reasons interfaith dialogue is important. In my view, bilateral relations are more important than interfaith relations. Here we need to confront each other, confrontation in interfaith, and inter-ethnic relations comes only once you build trust. Once trust is established, you will be confident to explore each other. We hope that a time will come when the demons of the past will be separated from the image of a community. When we call people uncle, or aunty, in whatever local vernacular, it is apparently respectful. But discord can emerge anytime at a time of crisis. At that moment, people will not talk about cordial relations of yesterday, but will focus on what happened several years ago. That means the poisonous stream is continuously spread through our generation that is what we need to confront, to avoid future conflict.
? How can a community break away from this cycle?
A. we need to make relationships open and genuine; we need interfaith relationships as well as posture. We pretend that we are respecting each other, but we really have to confront our demons, one on one, group-wise, or collectively. It could be in a very ordinary setting, sharing a cup of tea or dinner, and explore how you feel about each other. People should be encouraged to open up. During my visit, I have been asking people to open up, the negative image they have of Muslims is very deeply ingrained. Then I asked them whether they have met any Muslims? This inherited perception exists. Unless you meet and explain, this will continue. That has to start amongst children, journalists, teachers, social workers and various other levels. The important role of the government is to provide facilitation to make this happen. It cannot be a sporadic gathering on special events; the government must provide the space for various people to meet and get to know one another. Relationships cannot be superficial; you should first build trust and then delve into deeper issues. You have to be honest and open, then you will realize how much you didn't know about the other person. My education in Sri Lanka is to meet people who are not Muslims; the Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. I ask them what they think of Muslims. What I hear horrifies me, because something disastrous may happen. At that time, it will be too late to resolve the issue.
? Sri Lanka went through three decades of war, between Tamil terrorists and the predominantly Sinhalese government forces, leaving widows, IDPs, and prisoners of war in its wake. Whilst Sri Lanka's experience has to be delved into a bit more deeply, from what you have witnessed thus far, what can a State do to reconcile communities that were affected by war?
A. I think reconciliation should take place in different stages. One stage is where the government facilitates reconciliation like South African style of reconciliation where the government would not interfere. Reconciliation is about bringing together people who were hurt and the people who hurt them. They have to come face to face. It is really liberating for both of them. In a post war situation something of that nature is important. Facilitations also have to have different dimensions. Women have suffered a lot. Can they sit with another community and say how they feel? Can the pain be translated to the people who hurt them? Is it possible that the women's pain could be shared and that burden to be lifted off them? I was walking down the streets of Bosnia.
Someone told me that there were women who were raped in that area by another group. Today these women can see their perpetrators on the street. The hurt and trauma comes out again. Until such situations are addressed you will be in a position where you cannot do any justice to them. So reconciliation has to happen in different levels. The State and the NGOs can help.
But you must face your demons. People who were torturers must face the people they tortured. The communities that went through such suffering must have a face to face reconciliation. You will see that people will get agitated, they will cry and then the burden will soon be lifted. Then there will be a need to reconcile by the affected parties, and move on. It has to be done from the top level to the very bottom. That also gives an opportunity to restart your relationship.
? Sometimes religious and racial discord takes place due to fear mongering in respective places of worship. This creates a herd mentality amongst the worshippers which may ultimately lead to violence. What steps can an individual and the State take to prevent this?
A. In all society there will be an insulated community. From what I have gathered in my visit to Sri Lanka, the perception amongst non Muslims is that the Muslims are insulated and do not want to interact with others. This causes hysteria. They see them as people who are here, but do not belong in here. They think they are here to exploit the majority community. This is what the Muslim community has to address amongst themselves. Secondly, if a religion teaches violence, then you have to think whether it is religious problem or an ethnic problem. In a society, all religious communities must give the guarantee that the dignity of a human being is non-negotiable. If a rumour is being spread about the other, it is the responsibility of the religious community to make sure whether it is true or false. Do not trust the rumour. In my lifetime I have seen several instances where rumours had killed people, and burnt houses. Few days later, after all the damage is done, it transpires that the rumour was not true. It is the religious peoples responsibility to not to trust anything without checking the source. Even in Islamic tradition, it is first necessary to identify the source of the news, even if it sounds very credible. That is the responsibility of any religious person.
? What kind of role should the State and the Media play to promote religious and ethnic harmony?
A. Media tends to be emotional against Muslims. On the other hand, there are very good journalists and very balanced media establishments. The problem is that the media is not independent, they are owned by somebody, and therefore they have varying policies. Media is not in isolation, they have an agenda. Some have a rightwing agenda, so even when you state a fact, they will oppose it. There is sensible media and the fanatical media. I have hope with regard to the sensible media. They will be fair and balanced, report the positive ventures of a community. What we are very bad at though, as inter-faith groups, whatever good we do, we do not publicise it. They need to know the positive ventures you do. They have to be constantly fed with positive stories so that people will be aware of what the good that is taking place in the society. With regard to promoting religious and ethnic harmony, there are many steps that could be taken. The local media can appoint an advisory board and advise them in issues of religion, ethnicity and culture. So the media will provide balanced and critical reports, but it will not be emotionally charged. Without compromising the freedom of expression, you can still be ethically and morally upright.
? You have been involved in the developmental aspect of MIHE for some time. What are the latest developments?
A. We are starting a new Masters programme: Islam and Sustainable Development. This will also cover the goals set by the UN.
We are trying to produce the next generation of NGOs who are religiously and spiritually inspired to work for the common good. This is a completely new aspect.
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