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The need for education on the true purpose of religion

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 23 September 2017 00:57

Poverty. Ignorance. Corruption. Inequality. Ethno-religious based ghettoisation. Many of these ills that lurk in multi-ethnic developing countries and fuel infernos in these nations were taken out for an airing recently. A lecture given in Colombo by a Professor of Political Science from Thailand, Prof. Kanok Wongtrangon on ‘Co-existence between Islam and Buddhism’ drew on the context of Thailand with some parallels from Sri Lanka. 

Pointing out that Thailand has a 90% Buddhist majority and a 10% Muslim minority, where, with a population of over 69 million, the management of ethnic tension is problematic, Wongtrangon called for changes in attitude and action to prevent polarisation of communities.  

Holding a PhD in Political Sciences from the John Hopkins University in the United States and at present an Adviser to the faculty of Islamic Studies in Pattani campus and the Prince of Songkla University in Thailand, Prof. Wongtrangon had also served as advisor to the Prime Minister of Thailand. 


of education

Among the points emphasised by him was the importance of non-segmentation of education along religious lines. “Buddhist children goes to Buddhist schools… Muslims go to Muslim schools… This has to change if we want progress in ethnic harmony and understanding. I beg you all to promote interaction. Understanding comes after interaction,” he appealed to his Muslim majority audience at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.

His comment would probably have had some in the audience reminiscing back about 30 years ago when Sri Lanka was not yet fully under the Saudi brand of Islam and where school children hardly cared about their classmates' religion, and religious identity was more in genuine action-based practice rather than in attire. 

Keeping in mind that it is the actions of all of us citizens of Sri Lanka that make up the whole, both positive and negative, that the lecture was organised by the Jamia Al Naleemia Islamia University College in Sri Lanka and Knowledge Box, a think tank in Colombo that seeks to promote multicultural and multi religious understanding, is to be appreciated.

To the credit of Prof. Wongtrangon, his lecture was not garbed in nicety topped rhetoric aimed at pleasing the organisers. 

The main message imparted to the Jamia Naleemia Islamia College which now has university status in Sri Lanka was to make its curricula broad and stimulating to the mind and thereby encourage a wide globally-oriented knowledge that goes beyond the narrow confines of religion. 

Tying belief-based concepts with dark realities 

Having studied Islam in order to draw parallels with science, philosophy and most importantly Buddhism, the religion practiced by the majority of the population in Thailand, Wongtrangon’s attempt in his lecture was to tie belief-based concepts with the actual and dark realities of the two countries, which mainly narrow down to poverty and inequality.  

Following are excerpts of his talk:

“The Constitutions of both Sri Lanka and Thailand provide freedom of belief and faith but in both the countries there is growing religious-based tension. One should not try to hide it because it is real. The answer is to address it by working together.”

“I studied Islam to be able to understand it. To me the term Insha Allah means that you have done your duty but now there is another part decided by Allah. Religious tension in the two countries has created much damage and it requires us to think what solutions we can come up with than merely saying Insha Allah.” 

“In both countries millions of Thais and Sri Lankans are poor. In Thailand millions across the country are poor. More or less they are ignorant and therefore politically manipulated.”

“We cannot divide Muslim and Buddhist areas. The density of the Muslim population in the eastern part of Sri Lanka is not as much as the southern part of Thailand. In Thailand the division is much more clear cut. Ten years ago I hardly travelled to the southern part of Thailand.  When I travelled there the first time my wife prayed very much to the Buddha to keep me safe and now my Muslim friends say it is up to Allah.” 

“Corruption leads to inequality. The gap between rich and poor, urban and rural and between educated and non-educated. Equality is promoted by both Islam and Buddhism but this is not the reality we see.”

Fostering inclusion 

in trade sectors

Although not detailed out in his lecture for lack of time, along with many other of his observations which could have benefitted from elaboration, one of the aspects touched upon was the viewing of Muslims in Thailand as ‘privileged business classes’ because of their success in trade. 

With Sri Lanka having just recovered from its last bout of insanity in the form of a series of anonymous torching of Muslim business establishments earlier this year, it would have indeed been interesting to find out how Thailand looks at fostering inclusion in the trade sectors. 

Such information would be helpful in a background where much of the economic jealousy of Muslim businesses that resulted in the destroying and bankrupting of these establishments, economically impacted mainly the Sinhalese who were serving as staff or who were suppliers to those stores. 

Appeal to universities

Back to Prof. Wongtrangon’s insights, it was interesting to hear his views where he attempted to give importance to both rationality as well as the spiritual, maintaining however that secular subjects alone ‘lead us to a dead end’.

Pointing out that the concept of sharing encouraged in the Koran falls -within modern-day community development theories, he went on to explain his experiences of advising the incorporation of professional subjects into the main Islamic-oriented ones taught in the Islamic universities he is associated with in Thailand. 

In education, the crux of his emphasis was that it should be a process of practice, using the example of how he had advised a school teacher to teach perseverance by getting the student to run in the playground. In a similar manner, explaining that Islam and Buddhism are religions of practice and meant to be practiced as religions of peace, where values of faith has to exist alongside reasoning, he noted that ‘the theory and the practice’ of both religions have to be in sync with the understanding of the ‘whole truth’ and for education institutes to look at imparting these values at a practical level.

Calling for universities to prove that they have enough knowledge as well as expertise, his appeal was for universities to produce students who will, alongside their academic knowledge, also have honed skills in values such as tolerance and forgiveness. 

One of the specific appeals by Prof. Wongtrangon was for revising and broadening of curricula in Islamic education, with direct reference to the Jamia Naleemia University. 

If we look at his observations on the impact of education on reconciliation and social harmony, a take home for Buddhists would be to examine how much of the Buddhism that is taught in the Daham Pasalas are actually pertaining to the Buddhist philosophy in understandable terms, as opposed to a brand of Buddhism tied with nationalism. 

Tackling the realities 

of intolerance

Meanwhile, amidst the realities of intolerance we witness today in the South Asian region, pertaining to religion, such as the intolerance of individual dietary choices and lynching because of it and the lynching for exercising freedom of speech and debate, and the multitude of similar atrocities, all in the name of religion, one could add to Prof. Wongtrangon’s call for science-based knowledge by citing the need for the fostering of the poetic, the contemplative and the aesthetic.  

For want of space to delineate the many angles of discussion that come up when pursuing the need to make religion a practical and a personal tool of conscience to promote kindness rather than barbarism, one could complement the words of Prof. Wongtrangon with those of an award winning scientist, national security advisor, and social activist from Pakistan; Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy who teaches physics at Forman Christian College University in Lahore and the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. 

Hoodbhoy, writing in the Dawn paper in Pakistan in April this year in the aftermath of the lynching of Mashal Khan, a Pakistani university student on allegations of blasphemy had the following to say: “A robust defence can be built by educating people into the spirit of critical inquiry, helping them become individuals rather than groupies, and encouraging them to introspect. A sense of humour, and maybe poetry, would also help.”

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