Monday, 23 December 2013

Sectarian Danger

Sin Chew Jit Poh
18 December 2013


The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought a much needed peace to Northern Ireland. It was in essence the end of hostilities between the forces that wanted independence from the British and those that wanted to stay within the United Kingdom.

But today after fifteen years, there still exist some violence, albeit on a much smaller scale. There are those who are unwilling to accept the Agreement and are intent on pushing their agenda through non-peaceful means. In the short time I was in Belfast two weeks ago, there were reports of an attempted car bomb and a shooting.

Part of the problem of Northern Ireland is that the conflict, although political was couched in religious terms; namely protestant versus Catholics. It thus takes on a certain emotional resonance that would otherwise probably be missing.

This doubtlessly feeds the flames of those still intent on waging war, even when the vast majority of the people in that region simply want to live their lives in peace and move on.

It is a country that very clearly illustrates the dangers of sectarianism and it is often used as a prime example of how religious differences can exacerbate a dangerous situation.

What then is the solution? I of course am in no position to posit any sort of ideas with regard to Northern Ireland, but I do feel it necessary to point out that too simplistic an analysis of the situation is misguided.

There will be those who will use Northern Ireland or Syria or Iraq, as an argument for the need for religious unity, or more accurately religious homogeneity. This is to me the wrong way of looking at things.

It is very rare that religion is the cause of conflict. Normally the true roots of conflict can be found in economic terms: the battle between those who have and those who do not. Or between those who are fearful of losing what they have against those who are challenging the status quo.

Religion becomes a useful rallying cry to disguise such base desires with a veneer of morality. It becomes easier to use religion in this way especially if there has been unequal treatment between peoples of differing faiths in the first place.  And if that unequal treatment was also joined with the demonising of the “other’, then what we have are seeds of hatred sown deep.

My argument is that to avoid religious conflict, what is needed is not religious homogeneity. That in fact is a brutal forcing of one spiritual ideology on everyone when surely spirituality by its very nature will be as diverse as the number of peoples who seek it.

Instead what has to be done is to ensure that all people of all faiths (and this includes those who share the same basic faith with you) are equally treated with dignity and respect. That the freedom of religion, limited only by the by the boundaries of general morality and the rights of others, is respected and protected.

It also means that crude acts of demonising and exclusion be replaced by understanding and inclusiveness; where one celebrates the similarities that are shared rather than the minor differences that are had.  For surely, it is far harder to use religion as a tool to encourage conflict when one’s right to practice one’s faith is safe and when one is living in a society that promotes mutual respect, not hatred. 

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