Religious Extremism, Human Rights and Sri Lanka - Dr. Shanta Premawardhana

The following article appeared in the publication “Human Rights News” in Sri Lanka on August 14 2019. Remarks have been revised and expanded from original interview. Written by Shanika Madhavi. Photo by Sudesh De Silva


Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of the Omnia Contextual Leadership Institute in Chicago, USA, discussed matters of religious extremism spreading across the globe and its threat to human rights. Here are his comments.

Human rights are being developed at the international level. How have they affected individual development?

In 1948 many countries of the world came together and agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These principles were very important to all of us across the globe. If we want to measure how we address human rights, this declaration is the measurement. But human rights are violated in many countries and have been across time. Some governments do not particularly care about human rights because they think they can act with impunity. When they do, other countries should have a way of keeping them accountable. This declaration is the way.

Human rights are based on the primary affirmation that each individual person is of intrinsic worth, and that no one is more important or more valuable than another. But because society often assumes that some are more important, individual rights are often violated. Laws are meant to protect us from such violations, but some laws are also biased against those who are poor and marginalized such as women and those who have different sexual orientations. Religion also plays into this, giving legitimacy to social norms that discriminate.

There were occasions when some religious leaders in our country spoke of human rights as a Western project. Your opinion on it?

Anytime there is a “universal” agreement there are problems because the “contextual” may come into conflict with it. Can we have a universal agreement without violating local cultural and religious norms? So, there is always a tension between universal and contextual. We don't all think the same way. I recall the occasion there was an argument about women’s place in society. While many countries agreed that women should have equal status, there were objections from other traditionally religious countries, whose religions tend to give women a second-class status. When powerful groups or governments want to suppress the rights of some people, they pull out the argument that “universal” means “western.”

Torture and degrading treatment have sometimes been condoned by this society. What does it look like?

Torturing people is against universally accepted norms of human rights. We know that torturing people to get information is rarely, if ever, successful. Moreover, torture is usually an extra-judicial process. That is, people are tortured before their guilt or innocence is determined. We must ask, how I would feel if I were innocent, but someone tortures me to get information. I would feel thoroughly violated. That same principle must apply to other people. That is based on a religious principle that is common to most religions called the Golden Rule, which says, do unto others what you would have them do to you.

During the Second World War, a German pastor said, when they (Nazis) came for the Communists, he did not speak up because he was not a Communist. When they came for unions, he didn't say anything because wasn’t a union member. When they came for the homosexuals, he didn’t speak up, because he was not a homosexual. When they came for the Jews, he didn’t speak up because he wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for him. And there was no one left to speak up for him, because all those who would support him were now gone. We don't have to come to that situation. We can be good as a society if everyone's rights are upheld.

What is the role of religion?

Our human tendency is to violence. But religion teaches us to live ethically. It tells us that we must love our neighbor, which means that we must act non-violently. Sometimes there are internal and external influences on religion, and these ethical principles can be lost. Religious leaders must be particularly alert to uphold the ethical principles of religion.

Why is there religious extremism?

Every religion has a good side, but many have an extremist side. This may happen because of influences on politics or money. Religious leaders and scholars are not free from such biases when they interpret religious scripture or tradition. Slight changes in interpretation can take a religious tradition in a very different trajectory.

Ultra-conservative teachings appear to people as piety. While piety is not the problem, ultra-conservative teachings sometimes prepare the ground for violent extremism. This is, of course, very dangerous. Deranged individuals can take such teachings and use violence, such as bombings or shootings, usually against those in other religious traditions. Although ultra-conservatism seems like proper religious piety, it is often not authentic religion. In fact, religious leaders should be in the forefront in speaking out forcefully against teachings that lead to violent extremism.

What do you think about the extremism in Sri Lanka

All indications are that the events of April 21st were orchestrated by foreign influences, and that a local religious group was deceived into thinking that Jihadism is authentic Islam. As a result, several Christian communities were destroyed, as many were killed or injured.

Today, the interreligious tensions are high. Some Buddhists (including Buddhist monks) feel that they need to incite hatred and violence, particularly against the Muslim community. This is an unfortunate result.

The problem goes back to four and a half centuries of colonial rule – perhaps the longest in history -- during which time Buddhism was decimated. The conflation of identities as Sinhala-Buddhist arose as a response. Whenever there appears to be foreign influences, therefore, the old anxieties come to the fore-front. Unfortunately, some have decided to use violence to resolve this situation, even though, that completely contradicts the very Buddhism that they seek to preserve and protect. First, the reaction was against Tamils, then it was against Christians (as foreign mission agencies started sending missionaries again in the 1980s and 90s), and now it is against Muslims.

How should we respond to this extremism?

My organizations builds Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. These are teams of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy and lay people who come together to learn how to relate to each other across religions, and how to build power, so they can act together on issues that are urgent, relevant and winnable in their village or town. As these teams win small victories, they build more power, so they can build greater victories. When people in the town or village see that religious people can come together and do something right, they build a fresh appreciation of the possibility for peace. Our intention is to build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in all the villages of Sri Lanka over the next ten years.