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Religious Bigotry, Hatred & and Human Rights

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 14, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) There was a disturbing news item on BBC World News recently that there were clashes in Colombo over a mosque to be built near an already existing Buddhist temple. Earlier the Economist, in its issue of 27 July - 2 August, carried a disturbing report of the total segregation of Buddhist Arakanese from Muslim Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, after violent clashes and killings, resulting in the Buddhists emptying the village of Sittwe of all Muslims who were living there. . The same report said: “Another country where Buddhism is becoming conflated with a growing ethnic and nationalistic identity is Sri Lanka”. The report cited a Buddhist leader saying about the minority Islamic population of 10% in the country: “This is a Sinhala Buddhist country. We have a Sinhala Buddhist culture. This is not Saudi Arabia. But you must accept the culture and behave in a manner that doesn’t harm it”.

Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive. While in legal terms, legislative parameters will define acts and qualitize their reprehensibility, in truth, speech and conduct that ingratiate them to a society have to be addressed politically. This is the dilemma that legislators will face in dealing with religious hatred.
The Muslim backlash is evident. In India and Indonesia, Muslims have marched in support of the Rohingyas. This conflagration of hatred between two of the most widespread religions in Asia can only fan the embers of religious bigotry elsewhere.

Religious strife is happening in other parts of the world. In Iraq, after a lull of five years, violence and killings have erupted resulting in the deaths of 3000 in just four months. The Sunnis are up in arms against the ruling Shias of the Nouri al- Maliki regime. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood thugs are reported to be killing Coptic Christians, the latest casualty being a 10 year old girl. The Alawite regime of Syria has had to face the Islamic uprising in the country in the 70s and 80s, which has extended to the current civil war.

At the bottom of all this unnecessary clash of ideals is religious fanaticism culminating in hatred. Endemic to hatred from a national perspective, is the preeminent role played by hate speech. It is therefore imperative that a peaceful society brings to bear an irrevocable resurgence calculated to apprehend this social phenomenon both in its individual and collective incarnations. Above all, the issue must as of necessity be addressed with an openness to unforeseen questions which may divide nationalities and races and estrange them from their foundational bases.

Hate speech may involve any word or utterance intended to injure, denigrate, degrade, humiliate or ridicule people on the basis of a distinguishing feature that is represented as inferior or unacceptable. The most insidious version of hate speech lies in hateful discourse which, if indulged in for sustained periods, will ensure its social acceptability. The inevitable corollary to this process is hate propaganda which often ingrains itself in a social system where the social degradation of the subject occupies the forefront of political discourse. Hate propaganda, spawned by hate speech, dehumanizes and depersonalizes the subject, degrading him to an imaginary persona and relegating him to the lowest depths usually assigned to a political enemy. The immediate reaction of a society to this phenomenon is the recognition of hate crimes which emerge from hate speech and propaganda as any other crime, thus obfuscating the hatred that inspired such crimes and trivializing their qualitatively different nature. The ultimate result is of course the social acceptability of hate crimes and their desirability. This odious conclusion to a parasitic process is almost ephemeral and pervades the intellectual consciousness of a society to its ultimate destruction. Extreme cases of hate speech often result in genocide, as in the Holocaust of the Second World War, and, more recently in Rwanda, Eastern Zaire, Tajikistan and certain parts of Eastern Europe.

The intellectual openness to questions that may arise from the debilitation of discrimination felt by a society of peoples has ineluctably to “meditate” on such extremities as religious incitement and hatred in order to avoid them. The juridical apprehension ingrained in a democratic system, admitting of “freedom of speech” has to be given cautious consideration so that safeguards are entrenched in a legislative structure in a social setting of peace that would prevent the use of hate speech and hate propaganda. The law must essentially distinguish between the classic dichotomy between speech and conduct, in order to arrogate a definitive place to speech that would tantamount to conduct based on the injury that the speech causes. Principles of causation must be identified in order to ensure that boundaries between speech and conduct are not obfuscated and purveyors of hate speech are not exonerated of their overall responsibilities to society. Social consciousness must transcend parochial considerations of legal dogma and embrace the compelling need to recognize and envision “clear and imminent danger” that hate speech may cause. A certain curative logic based on imputation must be ingrained in the legislative minds of a post-peace era. In a sense, this approach can analogically be likened to the preventive reasoning of risk management that is capable of conceptualizing possible harm to national harmony.

Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive. While in legal terms, legislative parameters will define acts and qualitize their reprehensibility, in truth, speech and conduct that ingratiate them to a society have to be addressed politically. This is the dilemma that legislators will face in dealing with religious hatred. Hate speech and hate propaganda primarily erode religious boundaries and convey an unequivocal message of contempt and degradation. The operative question then becomes ethical, as to whether societal mores would abnegate their vigil and tolerate some members of society inciting their fellow citizens to degrade, demean and cause indignity to other members of the very same society, with the ultimate aim of harming them? Conversely, is there any obligation on a society to actively protect all its members from indignity and physical harm caused by hatred? The answer to both these questions lies in the fundamental issue of restrictions on religious speech that incites, and the indignity that one would suffer in living in a society that might tolerate religious speech. Obviously, a society committed to protecting principles of social, political and religious equality cannot look by and passively endorse such atrocities, and much would depend on the efficacy of a State’s coercive mechanisms. These mechanisms must not only be punitive, but should also be sufficiently compelling to ensure that members of a society not only respect a particular law but also internalize the effects of their proscribed acts.

The inevitable conclusion is that a governance of peace and development would essentially involve the two aspects of communication and resolution of differences. Firstly, isolation of peoples should be reduced to the extent possible. Economic activity, business opportunities, religious freedom and educational opportunity must be common rated throughout a society. The corollary to such measures would be the strengthened sense of identity that people of one nation within a national territory would feel both nationally and internationally with peoples of other nations. Secondly, a council that could address issues on an objective and non partisan basis should be in place (this could even take the nature of several geographically spaced councils to address grievances of persons or groups of persons related to issues of governance and governmental policy. These Councils could have the ability to refer matters for consideration of the ultimate body in the nature of a national State Assembly or Parliament.

Due recognition and active protection of a minority’s rights pertaining to racial, cultural and religious issues is the first characteristic of a peace doctrine. This feature guarantees freedom from discrimination based on race, language, nationality and national origin or religion. Western democracies, particularly after World War II and the Nuremberg trials which ensured punishment for those responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons by the commission of atrocities during the war, have been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure human rights. This has led to a gradual evolution where focus on collective rights of national minorities has replaced earlier emphasis on individual rights.

The protection of human rights is the most significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world. The traditional nation State in which a district national group rules over a territorial unit is fast receding to history. Globalization and increased migration across borders is gradually putting an end to the concept of the nation State, although resistance to reality can be still seen in instances where majority or dominant cultures impose their identity and interests on groups with whom they share a territory. In such instances, minorities frequently intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity, in order to avoid marginalization. Polarization between the opposite forces of assimilation on the one hand and protection of minority identity on the other inevitably causes increased intolerance and eventual armed ethnic conflict. In such a scenario, the first duty of governance is to ensure that the rights of a minority society are protected.
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