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The role of religion in conflict, peacebuilding and governance

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 13 February 2019 00:00

Today, sadly, although nearly everyone in Sri Lanka claims to have a religious affiliation, religion and governance have corrupted each other – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Religious organisations and beliefs are potential drivers of, or barriers to, social change - the transformation of social and political structures in pursuit of, for instance, democratisation, participation, human rights, social inclusion and gender equality. Social movements play an important role in achieving the deep-rooted changes needed for social development – University of Birmingham research project on religions, governance and development

The backdrop to this article is the Religion for Good Governance initiative launched by a group of socially conscious humanitarians and the meditation session led by the Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero, Swami Gunatitanada Sarawvati, Sheikh Siyad Ibrahim and Bishop Duleep de Chickera to collectively promote peacebuilding and good governance through adherence to the real teachings of the religions represented by these eminent individuals. 

The second of a series of programs, this session conducted last Saturday, was aimed at focusing one’s mind through meditation, for removing barriers that human beings themselves have made to divide themselves, and calling for responsible, fair and just governance. The session was also an inner reflection for all responsible citizens, to collectively and spiritually evaluate where and how we have failed in achieving this goal of peaceful co-existence.

Those who were fortunate to attend the session were spiritually uplifted at the end the session. The message from all religious teachers was powerful, yet simple. It was a message for reflecting on one self before passing judgement on others. It was a message to separate the myth and mist from fact and to live the real teachings of the great religious teachers and to place qualities of humanity above what divides human beings

The relevance and timeliness of this initiative in Sri Lanka and the research work done by Dr. Rama Mani, Senior Research Associate who was associated with the University of Oxford Research Project on The Paradoxical Role of Religion and Spirituality in Conflict, Peacebuilding and Governance has great synonymity, and prompted the writer to pen this article.

Introduction (this is a direct citation from the above research project conducted by Dr. Mani):

“The projection in the mid-1980s that with modernity the world would undergo an inevitable secularisation has been proven largely wrong. As we have witnessed since 1989, religion has again become an increasingly important factor in shaping the lives and influencing the decisions of innumerable people across all continents. This includes the USA and much of Europe, which were believed till recently to be secular. Religion claims the hearts and minds of 90% of our population (Gallup Poll of 2000), with 75% of them belonging to the four major religions – outof the bewildering plethora over 10,000 religions or religious denominations that claim to exist with smaller bodies of faithful. All four major religions and many of the others, particularly those harking back to the earlier periods of human history – the cosmotheandric or so called ‘animist’ religions – preach notions of compassion, love for fellow beings, peace and harmony as normal and desirable goals, and exhort both the individual believer and religious leaders or teachers to pursue these tirelessly. 

“Yet, religions continue to be more often associated by design or default, by intent or accident, with violence and conflict, and it is becoming increasingly important to understand why this is so and how it can be changed.

“The fields of International Relations and Political Science largely overlooked the role of religion for the last several decades. Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ and the terrorist attacks of 9.11 marginally increased attention to religion in politics. Since then, it has become less credible to ignore religion’s impact as political events have unfolded on national and global stages. Yet, despite a spattering of popular books examining religion and violence, and particularly examining the role of Islam – tapping into the 9.11 phenomena, there has not yet been sufficient attention afforded to the underlying reasons for religion’s violent potential across major religions, and to the levers to transform this violent nexus. It is well accepted that it is fallacious to only associate Islam with violence, as all major religions and several minor religions or sects have been associated with violence, oppression and conflict, and yet this dangerous presumption prevails unspoken and unchallenged. There is today an urgent need for IR and Political Science to reopen the doors to serious investigation of the role of religion and even seek the contribution of spiritual wisdom in dealing with imminent challenges and conundrums of governance.

“Today, it is of pressing importance to understand the underlying causes for the nexus between religion and violence, and to seek to transform it to a positive relationship between religion and peace. It is also essential to establish a healthy relationship between religious wisdom or spirituality and the foundations of governance. As existing institutions and processes of global governance are being challenged for both their legitimacy and their effectiveness, and are losing credibility due to their inability to predict, prevent or mitigate violence, there is an urgent need to examine how the time-tested wisdom of spirituality might contribute to enhanced peaceful governance of human societies.

“So far, despite some academic studies, neither policy makers responsible for decision making on governance and peace, nor the public has a deep understanding of the complex and contentious relationship between religion, violence and governance, and how it might be changed. The views of both public and policy makers are largely shaped by media reports, hearsay and generalisations, and this is hardly a sound basis for policy making. There is an urgent need to move towards a deeper understanding and begin the work of transformation.

“The upheavals in the Arab world demonstrate in good part the great changes are afoot in the world, whose dimensions, contours and consequences cannot be predicted. Relationships and assumptions, such as the role of religion in politics, once regarded as irrevocable are shattering. This is a ripe moment to conduct this research and undertake the seminar and conference proposed in this project, in order to contribute to the critical debate on the future role and contribution of religion and spirituality to peace and governance.”


Religion and governance in Sri Lanka

Religion and governance have been inseparably linked in Sri Lanka for centuries. Religion influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, the basis and justification, the mandate and limits of just and peaceful governance. 

It is well recorded how Sovereigns of Sri Lanka turned to religion, mainly Buddhism, for its legitimacy and authority. And since one key objective of religions claimed to establish peace on earth and between men, there was a natural and legitimate role for religions in establishing the foundations of sound governance and just peace. 

The doctrines of the major religions except Buddhism, believed in the good going to heaven and being one with God, while the doctrine of Buddha was different in the sense that it was about unsatisfactoriness associated with the cycle of life and how one could liberate oneself from it. The Buddha outlined how this could be done, but he was very clear that it had to be a journey that each individual had to undertake and realise for himself or herself. He was not a divine individual but another human being who had found a way for liberation from a cycle of life.

However, the Buddha also realised that most would find it difficult to comprehend his doctrine and he too preached about sound governance and just peace. Above all, he preached about humanitarianism which is about the value of human life. His point was that humanitarianism is a way of life, it is about compassion and understanding that what divides human beings comes after birth and not at the point of birth.

Today, sadly, although nearly everyone in Sri Lanka claims to have a religious affiliation, religion and governance have corrupted each other. The expectation for religions to unite and solve disputes has been overpowered by the capacity of religious institutions of various faiths and denominations to divide and oppress. The teachings of Buddha, Christ, Prophet Mohammed by and large have been taken over and corrupted to the advantages of the institutions associated with these teachings

Why is this so? Is this inevitable? And can it be changed? Can the latent potential of spirituality to act as a factor for peacebuilding be unleashed? Can the spiritual wisdom drawn from the world’s diverse religions contribute to deepening the foundations of sound and peaceful governance, rather than uprooting them? What has been done by the research project in examining critically the controversial and paradoxical role that religion has played in both fuelling conflict and feeding peacebuilding, and uncovering the largely untapped potential of spirituality to contribute to peaceful governance, is as valid for the research project as it is for Sri Lanka.

As an overriding comment, one can say that in Sri Lanka, religions, by default, and by their silence when violence and discord was rampant, have been complicit in fuelling more violence. Unlike in some countries, religions have been and continue to be more often associated not by design, but by default, with violence and conflict. In particular, the leaders of the religion of some 70% of Sri Lankans, Buddhism, have been conspicuous by their silence every time communal violence has erupted in Sri Lanka. 

The notion that Buddhism has to be protected by the Sinhala Buddhists has contributed to developing schisms within the country as Buddha did not have any boundaries or restrictions and considered his philosophy universal and a way of life. Proponents of the theory that Buddhism has to be so protected, may be surprised to know that in Australia, Buddhism was the fastest growing religion in the country in 2018. 

Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, the only Monk pupil of the scholar Venerable Walpola Rahula, is an exception to this generalisation, and has stood out as a Buddhist Monk who has spoken and worked for peace. He often refers to the fact that Sri Lanka has had violent communal clashes virtually every seven years since independence. Not a record to be proud of.

This article makes an attempt to relate the status quo as seen by many in Sri Lanka today to the three areas of investigation in the research project mentioned earlier. It needs to be said at the outset that this article is not a scholarly article and not based on research work done in the country. It is based on the observations, reports and topical interviews that are available in the internet. The writer would also wish to state that when referring to “religions role” below, what is actually meant is the role of religious institutions as the writer sees a very clear distinction between the two.


  • Religion’s role in contributing to peacebuilding and peaceful governance;
  • Underlying reasons why religions cause division and violent conflict; and
  • The potential of religion and spirituality to build peace and establish the foundations of just governance could be tapped.


These three components of Dr. Mani’s research project are briefly described below.


1. Religion and peacebuilding

The research project of Dr. Mani started with the positive side of the ledger.

It first examined religion’s peacebuilding record and performance. It uncovered the important role that religious leaders have often played in crystallising peace processes. It also highlighted ongoing but as yet unsuccessful initiatives which have nevertheless helped incrementally to build trust between opposing sides. It traced the growth of the interfaith movement, the impact of its charismatic leaders, and the influence of this movement on peace and governance. It noted that there was a general rise in the expressed desire and manifested attempts of religious groups of diverse denominations to contribute to peace, whether at local, national or global level, even if ‘success’ is hard to evaluate in each case.

Turning to Sri Lanka, the questions posed to readers are as follows:


  • To what extent have religions been involved in peace building?
  • What role have religious leaders played in advancing peace amongst communities?
  • Do we have an interfaith movement, and what role have they played in influencing peace and governance?
  • To what extent have religious groups of diverse denominations contributed to peace building?


2. Religion and conflict

The research project then moved to the more negative reality. Despite their ostensibly peaceful aims and potential, the world’s leading religions had ceased to serve as remedies for violent conflict, but had become a malady fuelling conflict. 

Religion had become the instrument, a convenient crutch or cudgel, for belligerents of all faiths. The project examined the different kinds of violence fostered or tolerated by religions and the underlying reasons for the pernicious nexus between religion and conflict. Religions of all hues and shades, and especially the major religions which hold sway over the vast majority of the world’s faithful, have variously condoned, incited, financed, sanctioned, or exhorted violent conflict. Nor is religiously incited violence restricted only to violent armed conflict. 

Beyond overt violent conflict lie all the other forms of violence within society associated with religions. There is violence within religions, between religions and between the religious and secular; between believers and heretics. There is the structural violence, the ‘negative peace’ of injustice, exclusion and discrimination that religions birth and breeds or fails to condemn and eliminate: the distinctions between ‘believer’ and ‘non-believer’, between high-caste and untouchable, between ‘saved’ and ‘heathen’ souls, between ‘pure’ and ‘infidel’. 

Turning to Sri Lanka, Dr. Mani would have found that rather than there being conflict amongst religions, there has been a high level of co-existence amongst religions at most times, no doubt with periodic exceptions to this rule. Co-existence however has not produced collaborative efforts to promote peace and more just governance. One could say that we do have structural violence referred to by Dr. Mani or the ‘negative peace’ of injustice, exclusion and discrimination due to society stratification and caste, and the Sinhalisation of Buddhism, that religions have failed to condemn. 

The fact that the Malwatta chapter of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist institution does not give higher ordination to Buddhist Monks unless they belong to the Govigama caste is both un-Buddhistic and unjust. It is a literal slap in the face of Buddha himself who preached against all forms of discrimination. The structural division by chapters within the Buddhist institution itself is anathema to the Buddha’s teachings. 

The caste-based discriminatory practices within the Hindu religions are known although the degree of prevalence will be known only to Hindus themselves. To the best of the writer’s knowledge, while Islam too does not recognise a caste system, some form of social stratification exists amongst Muslims particularly in South Asia. Similar stratification exists amongst Christians in India. Christian denomination divisions such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicans, Protestants are well known, although whether these divisions are in conformity with the teachings of Christ is something for Christians to ponder.

What is relevant to this article is whether the major religions, along with their divisions, whether faith based or institution based, have played a role in advancing peace in Sri Lankaand influencing just governance, or whether, by their silence and lack of pro activity have indirectly contributed to violence and discord. 


3. Transforming religion and tapping spirituality to establish peaceful governance

Dr. Mani says that despite his findings of component 2 above, the main thrust of this research is not to denigrate religions but rather to demonstrate that they have a tremendous largely untapped potential to serve as a bridge for peacebuilding and just governance, and to indicate how this transformation could be effected. 

Turning to Sri Lanka, one cannot agree more with Dr. Mani’s assertion. The objective of his research and the assessment of the Sri Lankan situation is not to denigrate the religions or the religious institutions. Sri Lanka is steeped in culture and history associated with the major religions of the world. The challenge is to harness the enormous influence these religions have with the people of Sri Lanka and to bring them closer to the fundamental teachings of all the religions and through this, to promote humanitarianism, peace and just governance.

The question we should ask ourselves is about the extent to which we practice the teachings of Buddha, Christ and Prophet Mohamed, the philosophies of Hinduism or whether our practices are now what is promoted and supported by the institutions that have sprung up in the name of these religions. One should also ask whether there is a need to defend a particular religion and by appearing to defend, whether we are in fact defending the institutions rather than the religion. 

A question does arise whether in fact there is a need to defend a religion as religions are basically a way of living. A person will lose his or her religion if that person fails to live in line with the teachings of the particular religion and in this context, external forces cannot destroy a religion. The next question is about the extent to which these institutions have contributed to peace building and good governance or whether by their inactivity and/or silence, they have in fact contributed to lack of harmony and unjust and corrupt governance.

In conclusion, it is timely for the Religion for Good Governance initiative to become more widespread and other similar minded individuals to emulate this initiative and promote peace building and good governance based on the real teachings of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam and not the contrived versions of these great religions.

This message needs to be shared at grass root level as that is where a majority of Sri Lankans live. No doubt initiatives at this level or for that matter at any level, could be and would be hi jacked by self-serving politicians and their supporters within religious institutions. This is a price we have to pay for allowing the politicisation of religious institutions. The only way is for the people to rise above politics and de politicise religions and take the country back to peace and harmony, and good governance through the fundamental teachings and tenets of the major religions.

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