Monday, March 5, 2012

Religion and Politics in Sri Lanka

 Mark Juergensmeyer discusses a new cold war, a clash of what he calls two ideologies of order, between religious and secular nationalism.  Western secularization and modernization are seen as a direct threat to a more traditional ideology of order, that of religion. In many cases, secularization and modernization are seen merely as the continuation of western colonialism.  The role religion and ideology play in politics cannot be overlooked or underestimated.  In societies divided along religious and ethnoreligious lines, this drama is necessary to explore.  I will present an overview and examination of the role of religion and ideology in the divided society of Sri Lanka.  Religion and ideology in politics more generally must be explored in addition to various issues associated with deeply divided societies.  To understand this drama, different factors and frameworks are necessary for a thorough examination.  First I will explore religion and fundamentalism more broadly.  The case of Sri Lanka will then be presented and examined in light of various approaches to comparative politics.  The lenses of political culture, the role of elites and institutions will be utilized.
Fundamentalism is inherently reactive to secularization and modernization influences.  It is foremost concerned with the erosion and displacement of religion in society.  Religions proper role has been diminished and replaced.  To understand religious nationalism, we must first understand religious fundamentalism.  In Fundamentalisms Comprehended, Marty and Appleby (1995) present a brief overview of the ideological foundations of fundamentalism.  It is dualistic in nature.  The world outside is contaminated and the world inside is pure.  These boundaries are strict.  There are the sinful and the saved, the righteous and the wicked.  These groups offer perfect purity to its members, and in doing so they are absolutists in nature, meaning they believe in inerrancy.  They have the path to liberation or nirvana and offer sanctum from the contaminated, sinful world outside their community.  They are highly concerned with education systems of the secularized world and thus seek to censor information, protecting civil society from corruption.  Behavior deemed sinful is clearly outlined and must be strictly regulated.  The intervention of the secular state in the religious sphere is the primary concern. 
There is a difference various religions have in how they conceptualize time.  There are two kinds of time, historic and messianic.  Historic is open-ended, amenable to gradual reconstruction and transformation.  In messianic time, however, the need is approaching fast and enemies are about to be conquered at any moment.  What role are they to play then if the end is approaching?  Fundamentalists will answer to messianic time through four different patterns of interaction with the world: conquering, transforming, renouncing or creating.  Each of these corresponds also with how to abolish their enemies.  Only two are relevant to our examination of Sri Lanka, the conqueror and the transformer. 
The conquerors seek to eliminate enemies altogether.  They desire to assume control of the structures of society that give life to their enemy.  They are then in a position to define and dominate outsiders, eliminating them, placing them in cultural, political or geographic exile, or converting them forcibly to their cause.  They seek to suppress all alternative visions and movements.  The transformer differs slightly.  They seek to interpret and influence the structures, institutions, laws and practices of a society, so that opposing fundamentalism may become more difficult, and so that conditions become more favorable for the conversion or marginalization of the enemy.  They seek to reform society to its image, but will adopt accommodating strategies with relaxed boundaries and shades of grey.
Sri Lanka – History and Background
Appleby and Marty (1995) outline three characteristics found in the majority of ethnic confrontations.
1.   There are sharp external boundaries and defined territories.  Claims are based on a historical continuity in identification with blood and culture.
2.   Notions of superiority and supremacy bolster the sharp external boundaries. There is thus a sacred basis for nationalist exclusivism.
3.   Utilization of dramatic and confrontational tactics.
Sri Lanka is characterized by the conqueror fundamentalist trend and clearly embodies these three characteristics.  Their unique historical context complicates matters by their background of deep ethnic tensions.  The Sinhala-Buddhist majority is reacting not only to the threats of modernization and secularization, particularly from their colonial past, but also against the threat of the Hindu Tamils emigrating from southern India.  They are seeking to repossess the northern parts of Sri Lanka from the Hindu Tamils.  And the Tamils seek to establish their own separate state on the island.
          Sri Lanka experienced more than four centuries of Dutch, Portuguese and British influence.  Colonial rule had near complete control of their education systems, threatening the survival of Buddhist culture and traditions.  One Buddhist bhikkhu said, “Those politicians who use English language and British customs and force the British political system on us continue colonialism in Sri Lanka as surely as if the British never left” (Juergensmeyer, 1993, 100).  In the late 19th century, Buddhism began to experience a revival.  Buddhist schools began to be encouraged.  Angarika Dharmapala in 1891 started a revivalist journal seeking to create a moralistic and nationalistic Buddhism.  He died in 1933.  Four years later S.W.R.D. Bandaraike founded Sinhala Maha Sabha, a Buddhist revivalist political party.  A Buddhist Commission of Inquiry was formed and they issued a report entitled the ‘Betrayal of Buddhism’, which sought to examine the ways British colonial rule suppressed and discriminated against Buddhism.  This report had a huge influence on the 1956 elections which brought about a movement to make Sinhalese the official state language.  Resistance from the Tamils culminated in the bloody language riots of 1957.  Coupled with urbanization, industrial growth and rising economic inequality, class antagonism began to rise.  All these factors led to extreme political polarization.  Violence and intimidation became an acceptable aspect of political life as the government became more intrusive and authoritarian.  The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) fought for a separate Tamil state in the north which led to an explosion of violence in the 70s.
          Dharmapala’s leadership demanded that Theravada Buddhism rid itself of foreign influence, purging any synthesis of Buddhism with other faiths or practices (Hindu gods etc), and returning to the simplicities, the ‘fundamentals’ of Buddhism.  Their attention was geared towards reviving Buddhist culture and traditions suppressed by British colonialism and the Hindu and Islamic threats resulting from the Tamils in the north.  In other words, they were concerned with anti-imperialism and ethnonational preemptiveness.  The Tamils were perceived as evil.  Sharp ideological boundaries were drawn and enforced.  The emergence of aggressive Hindu nationalism has only fed their paranoia and reinforced their need to oppose them.  They were an imminent threat to the very survival of their culture, traditions and beliefs and thus must be fought by any means.  The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Peoples Liberation Front, became the most active Sinhala Buddhist movement.  They regarded the secular government as an “obstacle to social progress” (1993, 104).  They were savage in their tactics, killing hundreds, some say thousands of rural villagers in an attempt to control rural areas and undermine the legitimacy of the government.  Most of their targets however, were government officials in what amounted to a Sinhalese holy war.  In 1988, they boycotted elections and vowed to continue their violent resistance until a Sinhalese Buddhist state was created.  In January 1989, eight candidates for parliament seats were dragged out of their homes and murdered.  They demanded the immediate departure of all Indians from Sri Lanka, civilian and military.  This militancy was handled brutally through government repression and authoritarianism. 
The government’s poor organization and lack of capacity to handle these issues effectively led to reactive social and political movements.  Their political parties have little substance and followings, resulting in fragmentation of religious and political authorities.  This theme will be touched on later in respect to elites.  The outcome, in summary, is that Sri Lanka is deadlocked into a pattern of violence feeding violence based around religious and ethnic differences.
          The Sinhala Buddhists must sustain and fortify its niche in society in order to defend itself from alien, penetrating forces of both the Tamils and secularization.  They must strike violently out at the enemy as they encounter ideological and cultural resistances in a growing pluralist, secularized society.  They clearly can be defined as exhibiting the world conqueror fundamentalist model.  The question is however, what variables exacerbate these divides, and what approaches can be taken to mitigate these patterns in the political culture, their institutions and the role of elites?
Political Culture and Ideology
          Both religious and secular nationalism, according to Clifford Geertz, are cultural systems, and thus are both ideologies.  As such, a brief exploration of ideology is required to understand how they function in society.  Ideology is a key feature to explore simply because it provides meaning to both individuals and to society as a whole.  Geertz says, “the function of ideology is to make an autonomous politics possible by providing the authoritative concepts that render it meaningful” (1997, 218).  People are guided emotionally and intellectually by unexamined biases.  When these biases are religious in nature and provide them with a sense of purpose and meaning they are advanced with great passion and little compromise.  Ideologies are thus crucial as sources of sociopolitical meanings and attitudes. 
When society is unable to have a coherent political orientation, ideologies provide images of the political process.  Geertz asserts that there are currently two approaches to the study of the social determinants of ideology: the interest theory and the strain theory.  The interest theory is characterized by a background of universal struggle for power, influence and advantage.  The strain theory is characterized by a background of an effort to correct sociopsychological disequilibrium.  These two theories are not mutually exclusive and can both be present in an ideological framework (1997, 201).  Structural problems and maladies are felt on the individual level as personal insecurity.  “For it is in the experience of the social actor that the imperfections of society and contradictions of character meet and exacerbate one another” (1997, 204).  Thus, other institutional variables and inefficiencies of the state can create grievances that catalyze ideological reactions.  “Ideology is a patterned reaction to the patterned strains of a social role.  It provides a symbolic outlet from emotional disturbances generated by social disequilibrium” (1997, 204). 
Ideological movements can thus be explained as catharsis.  Emotional tension can be drained off by being displaced onto symbolic enemies, which in turn provides a legitimate justification for hostility.  They can also be explained through individuals and groups legitimizing their actions in terms of adherence to higher values or higher purposes.  The role of civil society here is of the upmost importance.  “It makes a great deal of difference if a society [has] independent trade unions, civic associations, communications media, and political parties, capable of draining off anxiety and resentment in response to social and economic crises, and converting them into secular politics and public policy” (Appleby 1995, 434).  The reduction of civil society by interventionist states thus becomes a stressor, forcing individuals and groups to react ideologically. 
Meaning-making cannot be ignored in divided societies.  Ideology plays a crucial role in the environment in which healing must take place and new institutions must be forged.  Whatever replaces these ideologies must provide similar sociopsychological purposes.  The clash of ideologies, Geertz explains, may bring a given problem to attention, but it may also give it a powerful, passionate charge so that it may no longer be possible to deal with it rationally.  A political environment must then serve the purpose of managing these clashes effectively while simultaneously providing a sense of order and meaning.
Juergensmeyer offers a solution to this problem in his essay The New Religious State.  Religious nationalists, he says, are striving for a political order based on religious values.  They operate on the assumption that religion can replace liberal democracy by providing the “ideological glue” that holds a state together.  Religion, and secularism, according to Juergensemeyer are two competing “ideologies of order.”  Both have the ability to command communal loyalty and legitimize authority.  Both conceive the world around them as coherent and manageable, suggest levels of meaning beneath the mundane world, provide identity and provide authority that give social and political order a reason for being.  And both define how individuals should act and relate people to the larger social network.  
The West has had a long historical dialogue between secularism and religion.  Accommodating religion in the developing world is proving much more difficult.  Juergensmeyer says, “given religious histories that were part of national heritages, religious institutions that were sometimes the nations’ most effective systems of communication, and religious leaders who were often more devoted, efficient, and intelligent than government officials, religion could not be ignored” (1995, 384).  The government of Sri Lanka needs Sinhalese support but also cannot afford to alienate the Tamils and other minority groups.  This dynamic, leads to what is called, a double frustration; leaders are considered traitors by both religious and secular communities by making compromises.  Both feel that behind the compromises lie an inherent bias and loyalty.  Juergensmeyer believes, however, that it is possible to form an alliance and balance between these two ideologies.  The clashes between them can create new possibilities for accommodation and synthesis, forming the new religious state. 
There are many institutional variables to take into account such as the electoral process and rules of political competition.  According to Alfred Stepan, having free and contested elections is a necessary condition for the successful transition to democracy.  To be considered free and contested, certain institutional guarantees must be met: the freedom to join and form organizations, the freedom of expression, the right to vote, eligibility for public office, right of political leaders to compete for support and votes, access to alternative sources of information, free and fair elections, and institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference (2001, 216).  In addition, the constitution must have some measure of protection for minority rights.  All groups must have the right and capability to advance their interests.  Sri Lanka obviously does not meet all these requirements.  How then can we create certain institutional rules of the game that can lead to these results?
In the West, Stepan says we carry an assumption: for democracy to flourish we need a strict separation of church and state. This is a false assumption.  Before states can be considered a democracy they must first be crafted for what he calls the “twin tolerations,” meaning that minimal boundaries of freedom must be crafted for political institutions by religious authorities and vice versa.  The dynamic between religion and politics, according to Stepan, lies not in church-state separation but in the construction and reconstruction of the twin tolerations, a kind of dialectic forming a new synthesis again and again.  For this to occur, he believes religions must possess multivocal elements.  Multivocal elements are elements within religious doctrine that can be used to help craft new practices and tolerance of democratic structures and struggles.  Without these multivocal elements, society will not be able to manage the necessary dialectic between secularism and religion and will thus be deadlocked, unable to successfully transition to democracy.  This will be a difficult task to achieve.  Fundamentalism, as we know, is alienative in that it distrusts, attacks and works to undermine established secular political institutions.  Whoever is not with me, is against me; compromise is abhorred.  How then, can this be achieved?
          The design of the political system creates the rules of the game.  Organizing political institutions is one way to begin to forge this new alliance.  Arend Lijphart in his essay Constitutional Design for Divided Societies offers some possible solutions.  He says, different groups can only be accommodated through power sharing, which requires the “participation of representatives of all significant communal groups in political decision making” (2004, 97).  He outlines a “one size” power-sharing model that fits well for most divided societies regardless of unique contexts.  I will quickly present a few of these recommendations.  He advocates proportional representation systems, so that all groups are treated equally.  The overriding principle here is never to exclude any significant group.  He prefers parliamentary systems as opposed to presidential because presidential systems tend to be majoritarian in nature and result in ‘winner-take-all’ outcomes.  Power sharing must be built into the executive, including having multiple languages and ethnicities.  He also advises for federalism and decentralized power.  This is an excellent way to provide autonomy and to avoid dominance by larger states on the federal level.  These mechanisms can provide institutional rules of the game that can shift towards cooperation and tolerance between differing ethnic and religious divides. 
The Role of Elites
          John Higley and Michael Burton assert that stable democracies depend greatly on the “consensual unity” of elites.  The internal relations of national elites are a strong determinant for democratic transitions and breakdowns.  Regime changes must be considered temporary unless accompanied by elite transformations, from disunity to consensual unity.  Elites are considered disunified when its members “(1) share few or no understandings about the properties or political conduct and (2) engage in only limited and sporadic interactions across factional or sectoral boundaries.  The basic situation of persons composing this elite type is one of deep insecurity” (1989, 19).  The fear is that the other person, or other faction will gain the upper hand.  Members will then take extreme measures to defend their position, killing or imprisoning their enemies.  Stable regimes do not simply appear as the result of writing constitutions or holding elections.  The necessary step, they say, is the consensual unification of previously disunified elites.  If Sri Lanka had sufficient leadership in political parties and support from citizens, this theory would lead us to believe, that the conversation between disunified elites can begin to take place and reach what Higley and Burton call “elite settlement.”  Once this occurs, the political rules of the game can begin to be formed through other institutional means. 
Summary and Conclusion
Juergensmeyer believes that religious nationalisms all over the globe are creating a new synthesis of secular politics and religion. 
They are creating…a merger between the cultural identity and legitimacy of old religiously sanctioned monarchies and the democratic spirit and organizational unity of modern industrial society.  This combination can be incendiary, for it blends the absolutism of religion with the potency of modern politics.  Yet it may also be necessary, for without the legitimacy conferred by religion, the democratic process does not seem to work in some parts of the world.  In these places, it may be necessary for the essential elements of democracy to be conveyed in the vessels of new religious states (2003, 201-202).
Whether this is able to occur in Sri Lanka is another story and depends on a number of different factors.  The political culture itself needs to undergo a shift in order to provide meaning for its citizens in the secular and democratic process.  Institutional factors must also be addressed.  The electoral and representative systems must be tailored to foster a political environment of cooperation and mutual benefit.  The “twin tolerations” must evolve in order to begin the dialectic between secular and religious nationalisms.  The role of elites will also play a role in creating the necessary political climate for changes to be made.  In conclusion, the fundamentalisms in Sri Lanka are very complicated, and no single solution is apparent.  The new cold war continues to be waged. 


Martin E. Marty, R. Scott Appleby Eds. 1995. Fundamentalisms Comprehended. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1993. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. The New Religious State in Comparative Politics, Vol. 27, No. 4. (Jul., 1995), pp. 379-391.

Geertz, Clifford. 1997. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Higley, John; Burton, Michael G. The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns. In American Sociological Review, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Feb., 1989), pp. 17-32.

Lijphart, Arend. Constitutional Design for Divided Societies. In Journal of Democracy, Vol. 15, No.2. (April 2004). Pp96-107.

March, James G., Olsen, Johan P. The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life. 1984. pp.734-747.

Diamond, Larry, ed. 2005. The World’s Religious Systems and Democracy: Crafting the “Twin Tolerations”. pp. 213-253.

Stepan, Alfred. 2001. Arguing Comparative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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