Challenging the critical fault line
By Salma Yusuf
The recently released film which ridicules Islam and depicts the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) as a fraud, a madman and a sexual deviant, has resulted in an international outcry. Every moderate in any part of the world would condemn such anti-religious propaganda. At the same time, the violence that was expressed in response to the release of the film was equally reprehensible, and must be condemned with equal vigour.
What was heartening amid the ensuing chaos, mayhem and violence was to hear of mosques in the Arab world urging peaceful demonstrations sans violence and destruction. This is an example of a call for moderation, for banning the protests altogether would have been just as extreme as was the employment of violence for the demonstrations.
Protests over the anti-Islamic YouTube film, Innocence of Muslims, then spread from the Arab world to Europe. Amid the extreme measures proposed by governments, civil society and individuals, it was refreshing to hear the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in an interview on Deutschland funk German radio that the abuse of a religion that is likely to disturb public peace is forbidden in his country. He also argued that Germany should not be seen to be hiding behind extreme right wing groups in any decisions it makes regards the screening of the film in German cinemas. Similar stories of inspiration were reported last year when a group of American Evangelical Christians had worked tirelessly to prevent the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida with the compelling argument that it is in fact un-Christian to burn the Quran.
The silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud
These are clear examples of what can be achieved when moderates in each faith stand up to the extremists who are trying to hijack the universal values of our religions. Hence what is required today is that the moderates from all faiths, who are committed to work together, speak out against extremism and marginalize extremists who have too long dominated the stage, masquerading under the name of truth and justice. It is time the voice of moderation is made strong and influential.
The human rights
What has been disturbing, however, is that the debate on the freedom of expression has come to the fore once again, descending this time to abysmal levels. The argument that the freedom of expression is curbed by preventing acts that incite hate ought to be a settled matter by now. The freedom of expression can never extend to inciting hate towards any individual community, based on religion, race or ethnicity. Peace and goodwill should be the ultimate goal of any civilized society pursuing the noble ideals enshrined in the universal norms of human rights. It is in such situations that we realize that speaking of human rights in a vacuum, sans the corresponding human responsibilities that arise when we live in multi-cultural societies, becomes meaningless.
Human rights should always be considered a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Inciting hatred and abusing religions, whichever religion it may be, under the pretext of protecting the freedom of expression is to make a mockery of the entire regime of human rights promotion and protection. As the dignity of the individual is central to the ethos of human rights protection, how could any kind of abuse and disrespect of an individual be justified on account of human rights protection? It is time we realize that human rights come with responsibilities, grounded in our social roles, our common causes and our shared humanity.
The pervasiveness of extremism
Though today we speak of religious extremism, we must remember that extremism extends to every part of human existence, from the economic to the political, the religious to the social and the aesthetic to the ethical. The manifestations are apparent in global issues ranging from climate change, global human trafficking, and illicit flow of funds, over-leverage in international banking, and massive credit bailouts to international terrorism and the alleged weapons of mass destruction.
In current discussions on reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the political, the economic, and especially the ethnic considerations for achieving a durable peace have been at the forefront. However, an aspect which is critical in Sri Lanka’s efforts towards national reconciliation is the often overlooked and the somewhat nuanced, startling tension that exists between the religious communities. The lack of awareness and discourse on the subject is dangerous because it could mislead the public and indeed the policy makers into thinking that the issue does not exist, or if it indeed does exist, it does so only marginally. This could not be further from reality. Inter-religious tensions must be acknowledged as real, alive and growing in the country. Such an acknowledgement and awareness is necessary to ensure that the tensions are sufficiently addressed in an organised manner.
A platform for dissent
Perhaps the solution then lies not with knowledge alone, not in awareness solely, but in bringing forth openness in discourse where knowledge and awareness are brought to the fore to policy makers and market constituents, by public sector leaders, and civil society voices, educators and professionals. Even the dissenting voices among us must be heard, and reflected upon even if we may not agree altogether. There must always be a platform to disagree and dispute. A democratic and socially acceptable avenue for dissent will not only stand testimony to society’s accommodation and tolerance, but more importantly, will not leave room for frustration and anxiety in society to take extreme forms of expression.
A structured approach
If moderation has long had a home within the world’s religions, then the reverse is also true. Extremism has never been welcome inside any of them either. But one thing is clear; we cannot rid the world of extreme views by force. Violence begets violence, so we can best foster tolerance and understanding not by silencing the voice of hatred but by making the voice of reason louder. Persuasion, negotiation and cooperation must be our weapons in the face of enmity, malice and extremism.
Despite the presence of the voice of moderation amongst us, it must be acknowledged that such a voice is currently enfeebled. What is needed then is to create a structured approach to moderation that moves beyond theory and one-off initiatives to real policies that can be elevated to implementation.
A stabilisation strategy
We are at a significant moment in our country’s history. The way we choose to deal with the challenges ahead of us will have a crucial bearing on the future of our shared civilisations. The void or space that has been left with the cessation of physical violence must not be filled with ideologies of extremism in any form, but rather be used to host the notion of moderation which could become the ethos that will eventually take root in the country. Such will not only contribute to achieving real and genuine peace and reconciliation, but also provide a powerful stabilisation strategy for the country to prevent the resurgence or relapse into conflict.
Moderation is not neutrality mediocrity or inaction
Moderation must not be confused with neutrality and inaction. Being moderate is not about being weak, about appeasement or about institutionalising mediocrity. And it is certainly not about doing half heartedly those things that are worthy of our fullest measure of devotion. Far from it, moderation empowers us to go forward and to leave a mark for good -- attending to the needs, frustrations and anxieties of others at the same time as attending to our own.
The key message in moderation is that no enterprise to be successful can be value-free or value-neutral. A value-free or value-neutral enterprise in any sector becomes dangerously vulnerable to the trap of extremist ideology and method. Moderation, therefore, advocates the imputing of a value-based framework for all aspects of nation building and international relations.
The nation, first and always
Moderation needs to be our anchor and core, regardless of the side of the aisle we may stand on, because the greater good of the nation must always be at the front and centre. The greater good of our society collectively has to be without doubt the indisputable priority.
We must all rise, but what’s most important is that we rise together. The political leaders of the country, the business community, the professionals, the clergy, the academics, the civil society and the youth must proclaim that moderation will be the chosen path in every activity undertaken.
This will ensure that the voice and views of the extremism are sent back to their rightful place at the periphery of society, and moreover, will not allow the outrageous acts of a few detractors to threaten the very peace and integrity of our nation. Ultimately, it is moderation in ideology, and moderation in method, that will safeguard our national, regional and international security.
(The above contains exerpts from a speech titled, “Moderation as a pathway to reconciliation” delivered by the writer at the launch of “Faithing a native soil: Dilemmas and aspirations of post-colonial Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka” held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International relations and strategic studies on September 25, 2012)