Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Affirming and integrating identities

Last week I wrote on reconciliation and how, if we are to come up with proper mechanisms to insure against ethnic discord, we must separate myth from fact and exercise reason. Reconciliation however isn’t a one-way process: it’s multilateral, engaged with and rooted in multiple identities. As such those who affirm it can and must affirm different identities. After all, the reality is that we don’t have mono-ethnic countries anymore, only multicultural societies. Those who contend otherwise are in the minority: a strong, virulent minority perhaps, but a minority nevertheless, as myopic and ignorant of realities as always.

So given that others have more or less come to terms with the need to balance the interests of different ethnicities, the next issue to resolve would be this: in a context where calls are being made to prevent the State from privileging one collective over another, what would be the better option, secularism or multiculturalism? This week’s column is about the debate between these two deceptively related concepts, the lessons that the West has learnt from that debate, and how we can take a leaf out of their book when scripting our own mechanisms to ensure racial amity.

The case for secularism

There are those who contend that the way forward for a country unshackling itself of the postcolonial and post-war moment is by equalising the different ethnicities contained in its society. The only way to equalise identities, of course, is by denying patronage to any one of them.

As various commentators have argued, this was the model opted for by the Ceylon National Congress, which unfortunately splintered into communalist ideologies later on under the pretext that it was (politically) impossible for some of its constituent forces to work together. The then dominant political parties, upon independence and despite this splintering, strived for an all-encompassing identity essential to any postcolonial society. The government’s neutral stance on religion, one can hence surmise, enabled it to concentrate on building the economy, which explains why (borrowing an oft-quoted phrase) we’ve never had it so good as we did in those budget surplus and socially equitable years following independence.

On the other hand, as I pointed out in last week’s column, this laudable objective was tainted by the inability of the Establishment to recognise the aspirations of the majority, aspirations denied so much that upon their affirmation by successive governments after 1956, they prevailed to an extent where the minority became a group to be targeted and victimised. Going by this, one could legitimately ask: would separating Church from State (the foundation of a secular society) make sense in a context where it’s been shown to be futile?

There’s a word tossed around frequently by those for secularism: hegemony. More often than not, it’s associated with the dominant ethnicity and/or ideology in a country: Zionism in Israel, pan-Arabism and Islamism in the Middle-East, and of course Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Broadly speaking, there are two objections to a State favouring one collective: one, that it deprives rights for the others, and two, that far from developing the dominant collective, it in fact hinders its growth. Europe’s attempts at keeping Church and State together, the deterioration and splintering of the former into various sects, and the latter’s embracement of secularism with the onset of the 18th and 19th centuries, are cited as evidence of this.

At one level this argument makes sense. The West, for all intents and purposes, appears secular. This however hasn’t prevented fracture in ethnic relations on a scale unseen in Sri Lanka. After all, if secularism was the be-all and end-all for any country which has embraced multiple identities, if affirming an undefined and all-pervasive identity was the solution, and if separating the Church (or, in this case, Temple) and State was part of that solution, then why has the West, which indulged and continues to indulge in all these, crumbled when it comes to race relations? To answer that is to answer whether the Western experiment was meant to work in the first place.

The errors of the West

The philosophers of post-Renaissance Europe made two errors when they promoted secularism. One, they separated the Church and State without really separating them. The thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries based their conception of secularism on a jurisprudence rooted in the theism of the preceding eras. Two, they attempted to rationalise religion in terms of individual and property rights, while their descendants played around with what they originally wrote, to a point which rendered the original division between religion and government at best redundant.

Take the United States. One can trace the writings of John Locke in the American Constitution, in particular its reference to natural law and the right to property. One can also trace Locke in the Declaration of Independence, which preceded the Constitution and which contains the following words: “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those unalienable rights were Locke’s rights, rooted in private property and the autonomy of the individual, concepts which go back to Thomas Aquinas and pre-Renaissance Europe. It is this which spilt over to the 20th century and its embracement of secularism.

The irony here, if one can spot it out, is that secularism (couched in terms of individual and property rights) in the West was born of, and not despite, religion.

The schizophrenia which resulted from all this, not surprisingly, played havoc with the attempts (futile as they were) by governments to keep the Church away from the State, even as the latter celebrates the former in terms of iconography, symbolism, and constitutional provisions. I believe this schizophrenia is most evident in Article 2 of the Norwegian Constitution: while Section One laudably declares that “All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion”, Section Two qualifies that right: “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State.” Given the content of Section One and the point that the existence of a State religion nullifies any rights guaranteed to other communities, why insert Section Two at all?

These are, without a doubt, controversial questions. They should be asked. And answered. They should also be used to draw comparisons with Sri Lanka, because of the following: while Western democracies have qualified the right to exercise a religion by privileging the faith of the majority, here it’s the other way around: Article Nine of our Constitution explicitly recognises the State’s obligation to Buddhism, but Articles 10 and 14 explicitly recognise the freedom to follow any faith. The former is qualified and made conditional by the latter. Arguably the better deal, one might say.

True, Article Nine is entrenched (immune from amendment) while Article 14 is not. That, however, doesn’t take away the fact that in Sri Lanka, the supremacy of the majority (as affirmed by the State) is qualified by the rights of the minority, and not (as in Norway and the West in general) the other way around.

The case against secularism

It’s not hard to see why the West embraced what it did in the name of secularism. In an article written to the New York Review of Books (“How the French Face Terror”), Mark Lilla argues that prior to the immigration of Asians and Muslims to the continent, Europe rationalised the divide between the Church and State in terms of individual rights. That is, a person arrested for indulging in his religion to the detriment of another wasn’t penalised for following that religion, but for having infringed on the civil rights of the other.

The problem with this approach was it was applicable to social groups that could be treated as individuals. It was virtually impossible with immigrants who were conceived as communities first and individuals second. As Lilla observes with respect to the politics of the late St├ęphane Charbonnier (editor of the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, who was killed by extremists peeved at its less than flattering depiction of their religion), “One cannot help fellow Muslim citizens – or anyone, for that matter – if one does not accept them as they see themselves.”

And so we have the West’s dilemma: that of integrating minorities to the broader citizenry of the country without factoring in their communal requirements. Such an approach is impossible if not futile if the final objective is to equalise them with other communities: as Aristotle put it, equality is about comparing like with like, not with unlike. Europe and pretty much the rest of the Western world attempt to equalise a community that has indulged in a form (however illusory) of secularism with one that has not, a mistake from which we can learn a lesson or two when it comes to framing our own mechanisms for reconciliation and multiethnic dialogue.

Simply put, such mechanisms cannot and will not work if we are fixated on construing an identity that transcends ethnicity, and if it does work in the short term, it will falter soon enough if we don’t factor in the specific beliefs, demands, and worldview of various ethnicities. Assimilation (in the sense of integrating one group to another) is not the solution. Not by a long shot.

No, it’s not that levelling communities in the name of promoting a common identity is misconceived. It’s that the manner and form of attaining that common identity is meaningless if we don’t adjust for the autonomy of those same communities. Pierre Manent, in what can arguably be said to sum up this dilemma quite well, observes in his book Situation de la France that the principles of classical Republicanism, on which France operates today, should be adjusted to take into account the gap between secular laws and communal beliefs.

He observes moreover that the French Republic was premised on the distinction made by Montesquieu, the 18th century political philosopher, between a society’s explicit formal legal order (“les lois”) and the communal values and systems which bind it together (“les moeurs”). Referring to the latter, Mannent notes that a minority can’t be made to conform to a secular identity if this is to be achieved by equating their attitude to civil rights with that of the majority. Echoing Aristotle, that would be akin to comparing like with unlike for the sake of (an artificial) equality.

And so we can conclude: the case against secularism is based on the mistakes made by the West: mistakes which continue to be made, as with the recent ban on the burkini in France (a measure that was thankfully suspended by the courts of that country on the grounds that it was discriminatory). Given that the arguments against secularism are strong on that count, we should opt for the alternative: multiculturalism.

The battle in Sri Lanka and concluding remarks

I’m for asserting identity. I’m also for multiculturalism. The two, fortunately for me, aren’t mutually exclusive. They can and they do coexist. As such, movements fixated on materialising one common identity for the entire country can’t work without accounting for the specificities of ethnicity. I believe Malinda Seneviratne put it best: “Make no mistake, I am not against anyone wanting to be Sri Lankan and feeling that his/her overall national identity (Sri Lankan) overrides other identities (Sinhala, Tamil, Moor or Burgher, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Catholic etc); but I sense that if we are not Sinhala or Tamil in the first instance, our being Sri Lankan becomes less meaningful.” That last point should be taken to heart by all those who deny identity assertion as a means of promoting an all-pervasive national consciousness.

Let me rephrase that. The West, as shown above, seems to have confused assimilation for reconciliation. It has secularised its explicit formal legal system (borrowing from Montesquieu) and then QUALIFIED and CONTRADICTED that by privileging one faith over all others (the best example, to my mind, being Article Two of the Norwegian Constitution). Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has ample opportunity to seize the moment and move on, because the supremacy afforded to one faith (via Article Nine of our Constitution) has been qualified by provisions guaranteeing the right to practise others.

The question, therefore, seems easy to spot out, easier to answer. It isn’t about making a choice between secularism and multiculturalism. That choice has been or rather should be made, favouring the latter. On the contrary, it’s about the kind of multiculturalism that we should opt for. Now’s not the time to answer this question in its entirety (I leave that for a later column), but suffice it to say this: in a country as small as ours, affording rights to one community shouldn’t be at the cost of ignoring the hopes, aspirations, fears, and legitimate demands of the other. Even if that other community happens to be the numerical majority.

Written for; Ceylon Today, August 30 2016