Beyond the Aragalaya – Groundviews


Photo courtesy of South Asian Himal

With the start of the Aragalaya earlier this year, discussions of harmony, unity and coexistence have taken center stage and become popular topics among people. The Aragalaya, and in particular GotaGoGama at Galle Face, provided an indispensable and never-before-seen setting for people from all walks of life to come together. It was undoubtedly a remarkable period and a defining moment in the history of Sri Lanka. The gathering of people from all walks of life, from various religious backgrounds and ethnic groups, served as a powerful symbol of the grassroots movement. This new space has proven effective in challenging and challenging several long-held beliefs about the status of intercommunity unity and harmony. Many people, including those working to promote inter-communal coexistence, saw the turn of events favorably and were reassured by the events of GotaGoGama that inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony was no longer a pipe dream. As scholars, we see this unprecedented turn of events as a crucial turning point in the tumultuous history of intercommunal tensions.

However, it was essential for us to assess to what extent such a turn of events or the presence of a common enemy could change the status of unity between the communities on the ground. More importantly, what are the challenges at the local level for the full realization of the unity that the Aragalaya has tried to establish?

Our research conducted earlier this year, which aimed to understand the state of religious freedom among the most vulnerable religious communities, revealed a number of challenges to exercising religious freedom in their daily lives. This article focuses on some of these main challenges to the exercise of religious freedom at the local level, which is an essential component of achieving unity.

We explored whether the Aragalaya and the space it has created has changed the day-to-day lived realities of communities whose religious freedom is under threat and whether it has improved their ability to exercise their religious freedom.

One of the main challenges revealed by the study is that there are more deeply rooted factors – reasons that are woven into communities at the local level. On the one hand, these factors are based on the long-standing political goals of politicians seeking electoral advantage, as well as the political motivations of voters. These reasons are sometimes integrated and linked to economic factors and market interests. While on the other hand, some of the reasons for inter-community tensions are based on differences in customs, interests, values, beliefs and the level of tolerance we are able to show towards other religious groups in our life. daily. Unfortunately, the Aragalaya, which is largely a national-level movement, may not have been able to manage such complexities at the local level on its own or address the dynamics of these issues affecting religious freedom and coexistence faced by various religious groups dispersed throughout the country. .

One of the most interesting findings of the study is that, although politically motivated events at the national level that target religious communities only occur occasionally, the impact of such events at the community level generally lasts longer. For example, anti-Muslim sentiment was found to persist in several communities despite the absence of incidents or visible tensions at the local or national level. But whenever there is a national trigger specifically targeting the Muslim community, an immediate response occurs and escalates locally, leading to hostile behavior directed against the group. A clear example of the effects of such triggers at the national level at the local level is the anti-Muslim propaganda that emerged during Covid-19 about the burial of Muslim corpses. This implies that adverse attitudes towards particular religious groups are difficult to eradicate from society and there is always a chance that they may resurface in response to certain triggers.

Negative attitudes and beliefs about religious groups that have become entrenched in society for political reasons may continue to persist because these beliefs might be accepted by ordinary people. In many ways, the persistence of negative attitudes and hostile behavior towards certain religious groups is determined not only by the political interests of politicians but also by the political interests of the people. The results of the study reveal that members of certain religious communities are aware of the complex relationship between political power and religion. These conscious groups worry about the possible consequences of losing their political power and the resulting impact. For example, the loss of political power by a specific religious group could have cascading effects on the loss of privileges associated with running for government jobs, access to public resources, infrastructure, and the ability to receive efficient services of public institutions, among others.

The results suggest that commercial interests and market competition play a role in determining whether religious groups are united or divided at the local level. Profit maximization and fierce competition in the marketplace are often at the root of certain generalized attitudes and behaviors, which sometimes target specific religious groups. In such a situation, exploiting every possible opportunity to undermine a potential competitor is inevitable. Such competition often has a cascading effect, endangering the religious freedom of these targeted groups.

The study also reveals that cultural differences in mannerisms, interests, values ​​and beliefs have an impact on the guarantee of religious freedom and coexistence. Differences in how religious groups interact with each other, how they choose food, how religious rituals are performed, how language is used, attitudes and opinions about gender roles, the number of children in a household, job choices, and lifestyle differences all contribute to how opinions about religious groups are formed between them. For example, the negative impression built around the consumption of beef by the Muslim community, the hate speech directed against the Hindu community for the colors they use or the way they wear their ornaments, the ostracism of religious groups for their religious practices, such as over-healing practices or the religious preaching of the non-Roman Catholic Christian community and the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies. These practices and differences, which are an integral part of people’s daily lives, thus play a considerable role in influencing opinions held on other religious groups. Such biases, which are rooted in incidents stemming from lived realities, cannot be addressed without long-term interventions.

Another important finding of the study is how religious groups living in different regions have different perspectives on other religious groups. Opinions and views on religious groups differ from place to place. While Muslim and Buddhist communities may have stronger economic ties in one region, economic factors may cause conflict between Muslim and Buddhist communities in another region. In addition, the religious group perceived as the “other” varies by region. For example, in some areas the Buddhist community may view the Muslim community as the “other”, while in other places the Buddhist community may view the Hindu or Christian communities as the “other”. In these areas, the “other” is also highly dependent on locally constructed narratives, which are shaped by commercial or political relationships, as well as shared historical and cultural associations. Thus, expecting a national-level approach to address such diverse realities that have persisted at the community level for years may not be adequate or realistic.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that there are also intra-community issues, which persist within communities and which are determined by caste divisions, denominations, regional and geopolitical reasons which affect the status of religious freedom and of coexistence.

We would like to emphasize that ensuring religious freedom and coexistence is a complex social, political, economic and cultural issue that goes beyond piety or religious principles and beliefs. The Aragalaya has created a meaningful space that has shown that it is possible to engage in conversations and dialogues about the many challenges and issues that arise when trying to achieve interreligious harmony and coexistence. At the same time, our research shows that there is a critical need and importance to expand these religious freedom conversations and dialogues beyond the national level while acknowledging and acknowledging the complexities that exist in the daily lives of communities. nuns in the field.

This article is written based on the findings of a study conducted for MinorMatters on the status of religious freedom in Sri Lanka by Shashik Silva and his research team consisting of Kaushini Dammalage, Ammaarah Nilafdeen and Ishan Weerapura. Data for this study was collected during the months of April and May 2022. Link to full report:


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