On Secularism, Sri Lanka, & Several Related Items

By Sujewa Ekanayake

(Note: this is the "long version" of the article "How Can A New Focus On Secularism Benefit Sri Lanka?".  That article will be published in the near future)

At Secular Sri Lanka website (secularsrilanka.com), related discussion groups (including comments threads at Groundviews.org articles and other sites), and at live meetings in Sri Lanka (at the Rationalist Day event recently http://newslagnostic.blogspot.com/2010/06/report-from-rationalist-day.html & elsewhere), and in the Sri Lankan Diaspora (in US & elsewhere) a relatively old subject - secularism - is receiving a second look.  Namely, can increased secularization - in the Sri Lankan context primarily the separation of the government and the religions in an actual sense (or, for example, separating the government and the temple - making Buddhism primarily the concern of the Buddhists and making the government the concern of all, and applying the same approach for all religions) be beneficial to Sri Lanka in advancing peace, national unity, development, creation of a common Sri Lankan identity, and increasing cooperation between Sri Lanka and the Diaspora? While this topic may alarm some Buddhists and some members of the other religions, let me clear the air by saying that those who are thinking about the idea of greater secularization in Sri Lanka are not against Buddhism (most are either culturally Buddhist or are, to some degree, practicing Buddhists, or are agnostics and atheists who have been heavily influenced by Sri Lankan/Therevada Buddhism), nor are they against any organized religion currently active in Sri Lanka or the concept of and practice of religions - they are merely people who love Sri Lanka and would like to see the island pull out of decades of poverty and underdevelopment, and also ethnic/religious unrest.  In fact, many who are in favor of greater secularization believe that Buddhism and other religions will benefit - they will be strengthened & may become more useful to people - if practical separation between the government and religions were to occur. Thankfully, now that the 26-plus years long civil war has been ended due to the sacrifice of many, we can take a look at ideas and approaches such as secularism that may speed up positive developments in Sri Lanka. There are many items to consider when thinking about Sri Lanka and secularism.  I will briefly outline several items below and point out possible positive outcomes related to greater secularization in Sri Lanka.

Item 1 - What is secularism?  Secularism is generally accepted to be, when it comes to government and managing a nation, the practice where the government approaches its work without special preferences to or limits set up by religious views. For example, a religion or a religious organization may ask its followers not to work on a given weekday due to the fact that the day is sacred to the religion, and the religious organization may ask the government to create a nation wide ban on work or a holiday in observance of this special religious day.  The government may decide that it is highly counter productive to have a large number of people not working on that day and may decide not to pass a law enforcing a mandatory day of rest in observance of the religious holy day and may just leave the choice of observing the day of rest up to practitioners of the concerned religion only - instead of forcing the entire population - believers and non-believers & believers of different religions alike - to observe a special day that comes from the world view of one religion. So, in a strictly secular arrangement where the government and the religions are separate, the government is primarily focused on the earthly problems and needs of the citizens - and the religions are a private concern for those citizens who choose to follow a religion - and the religions are primarily concerned about otherworldly matters (karma, reincarnation, nirvana, God, gods, etc.). There are many areas where the concerns of the government and the concerns of the religions overlap (such as public health related issues, law & order related issues, individual civil rights related issues, etc.), but generally, in a secular republic, the government does not endorse one religion above others and is not an extension of one or more religions, but a separate entity primarily concerned with the well being & wishes of the governed - the people - all people - of all religions and no religions.

Item 2 - Positive secularism supports freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and intellectual freedom and individual rights and liberties.  What is positive secularism?  Positive secularism, in my opinion, is the use of secularism related ideas and practices in the service of improving the quality of life for all individuals. For example, supporting freedom of religion would be a positive secular act. Also, supporting an individual's choice to not follow a religion is also a positive secular act. How does a community - a nation or a world wide group of related people - benefit from freedom of religion and freedom from religion? It allows individuals to think outside of ancient confines and invent new and useful ideas and practices so that they may adequately compete with, and cooperate with, the modern world.  Countries that support the highest amount of religious and intellectual freedom are also the most productive and innovative (innovation leads & supports production) and wealthy and most desirable (as far as immigration is concerned) countries in this world.

Item 3 - Let's take a look at how the advancement of peace & stability within a country is served by secularism. One of the main sources of conflict is the perceived or actual existence of an injustice. For example, in the Sri Lankan historical context, a significant number of Sinhalese who lived around 1948 believed that the Tamils were favored by the British - and this sense of an injustice having been committed lead to the creation of Sinhala-Only & other laws.  Those efforts to correct a perceived or actual injustice lead to the perception - by a significant number of Tamils - that the Sinhalese are attempting to marginalize the Tamils.  This perceived or actual injustice lead to first non-violent protests by Tamils, and then the armed struggle - which lead to the long, drawn out, & horrific civil war. But what if - in the near future - a Sri Lankan citizen or resident - or a large group of Sri Lankans - can see that though perhaps they are being treated unjustly by one segment of the population, that the government is just and impartial? In the context of Tamil and Sinhala relations, a Sri Lankan government that is in practice not an extension of Buddhism or of only Sinhala-Buddhist wishes can function better as a peace maker during any future conflicts between segments of the Tamil community and perhaps the Sinhala-Buddhist community.  Grater secularism, or the government separating itself from the temple in practice, or the government not elevating any one religion (and thus one community) above all others could help prevent religious/ethnic unrest in the future.

Item 4 - All the well meaning laws, concepts, approaches in the world are no match against corruption. How can secularism be an ally in the battle against corruption in Sri Lanka? Greater secularization - done sincerely & well - will create greater checks and balances against both government power and power expressed through organized religion. In a country where the government is a
de facto democratic theocracy (or, religion is deeply woven into government, and actions of the government primarily reflect the desires of a religion/one or more religious groups), significant corruption of one part of the whole can spread quickly to the other. However, if, under a more secular approach, the government and the religions are two separate entities, then the religions can point out, criticize, and motivate people to counter excesses in the government - campaign for reform more effectively essentially, and the government can do the same when one or more religious groups oversteps their natural area of concern and attempts to force the country down a religiously-motivated-only-but-generally-unwise-for-all path. In an effective, positive, generally corruption free secular state the ordinary person/citizen will have several sources of assistance & support when those are needed; the state/government, one or more organized religious groups, non-believers, and a combination of governmental, believer, non-believer and other groups/communities.  In a democratic theocracy type arrangement each segment of the whole (the individual, the community, the religious group, the non-believers, the state) has less allies, and thus less freedom, including less freedom to oppose corruption, & less freedom & ability to improve things.

Item 5 - The concepts of Classic Sri Lanka, Greater Sri Lanka, and how secularism enabled cooperation between two groups of people (Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Diaspora world wide) can relatively quickly end poverty and underdevelopment in Sri Lanka.  In the Greater Sri Lanka concept (which I briefly defined recently at greatersrilanka.blogspot.com) there is of course Sri Lanka the island and all those who live in it - this is Classic Sri Lanka, or Traditional Sri Lanka or just merely Sri Lanka. The civil war and economic under development in the past decades drove hundreds of thousands of people - in some estimates to be over a million people - out of the island and to all corners of the world - thus creating the Sri Lankan Diaspora.  So, if people who live in Sri Lanka and people who live in the Sri Lankan Diaspora (Sri Lankans or related people living outside of Sri Lanka) were to collaborate on positive projects - such as ending poverty, ending under development in Sri Lanka - using greater investments, loans, etc., from the Sri Lankan Diaspora (and using this new source of funds well, without corruption and justly - without favoritism - when it comes to benefiting all groups on the island) we would create a world wide and positively connected community of Sri Lankans and related people - this I call the Greater Sri Lanka concept. The amount of money available for investment and development in Sri Lanka to just those Sri Lankans and related people (children, grandchildren, other relatives) in the Western Diaspora (US, Canada, UK, rest of Europe, Australia, etc.) in just one year may equal close to 1/3 of Sri Lanka's GDP (or 5 billion dollars). That figure was arrived at using several very informal sets of estimates (500,000 people deciding to invest $1000 each in Sri Lanka per year) - so naturally far more rigorous work is needed to determine the level of resources that are actually available to the Sri Lankan Diaspora for any new development work in Sri Lanka, but, even a fraction of that amount of new investments or loans being made available to Sri Lanka will go a long way, in my opinion, towards relatively quickly (less than 10 - 20 years perhaps) ending poverty and underdevelopment in Sri Lanka. This type of a positive collaboration between those Sri Lankans who live on the island and those Sri Lankans and related people who live off the island would require a significant amount of mutual respect, trust, and the willingness to overcome/let go of perceived or actual injuries from the past. This is by no means a simple task - since we are talking about millions of people who were affected by several traumatic and long events (ethnic/religious conflicts since 1948, LTTE vs. GOSL war, JVP vs. GOSL uprisings, etc.) - however - the creation of a positive, world wide Sri Lankan community is possible with the help of secularism (positive secularism that includes, naturally, work against corruption, racism, discrimination). This fifth item alone requires far more explanation, thought, and inquiry, however, I think the above is a sufficient, relatively brief introduction.

Greater secularism in Sri Lanka - separating government and religion to a greater degree - allowing each entity to focus on doing what it does best without being limited by the goals of the other, and also functioning as a source of checks & balances against the other - may strengthen both the government, the religions, the individual belivers & also non-believers (they may feel less marginalized if they have to deal with a more or less secular government as opposed to a de facto Buddhist government for example), and could lead to the creation of a common Sri Lankan identity.  Anyone, whether they are born into a Tamil family or a Sinhala family or any other type of family, and if they are born in Sri Lanka, can identify with - if they choose to - the land itself and most importantly - the expression of justice and acceptance of all that may be visible in a just secular government (a government that is not partial to one religion but is rather equally on the side of all individuals, regardless of ethnic/religious group that they may belong to). A common Sri Lankan identity and positive collaborations within Greater Sri Lanka (those living in Sri Lanka and outside of Sri Lanka) are both realities that can be constructed with the aid of secularism. Growth in those directions may significantly minimize the possibility that Sri Lanka will return to the ways of our violent and economically underdeveloped recent past, but instead we will become what we should have become several decades ago - people who are a part of a global community that is related to a well developed, highly productive, highly cooperative (with positive projects), poverty/hunger/homelessness free, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, & beautiful island nation in the Indian Ocean. To join the discussion regarding secularism or positive secularism or the Greater Sri Lanka concept (http://greatersrilanka.blogspot.com/), visit secularsrilanka.com.