After the Easter Sunday attacks, it is quite clear that the greatest threat to security is terrorism by Islamic religious fanatics. Our debt burden, unpredictability of the direction of technological changes, and climate changes too form a coterie of external threats for which we should be prepared – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
A secure tomorrow is first and foremost our ability to leave home without fear of bodily harm. Whether it is bodily harm, or other less obvious forms of insecurity, there is a limit to what we can do ourselves. There are external factors beyond our control. In such cases we entrust our elected representatives and State officials to act on our behalf.
Unfortunately, the political discourse is easily diverted towards the ‘ethnic other’ as the biggest threat to our security and well-being, evading real threats that confront us. With a 30-year ethnic war not too far from our memory, we need no reminder that scapegoating a segment our own citizens based on their ethnic or religious affiliation makes us all less secure.
What are the real threats facing us and how should we handle them?
After the Easter Sunday attacks, it is quite clear that the greatest threat to security is terrorism by Islamic religious fanatics. Our debt burden, unpredictability of the direction of technological changes, and climate changes too form a coterie of external threats for which we should be prepared.
Less obvious are demographic changes that threaten us. No, it is not the birth rate of Muslims as popularly believed. The real demographic threat is the ‘growing old before getting rich’ phenomenon, or the increasing percent of elderly in our population.
In this column I wish to outline four real threats and some ideas for combating those.
A smart security net to combat religious extremism
The threat posed by fanatic Islamic extremists needs no elaboration, but it is important to understand the diversity of the Muslim community and focus on the dangerous elements.
I found a useful classification of the Muslim community in the handbook issued by the ‘Jathika Maga’ movement. As explained in that handbook, we should distinguish between (a) Handful of fanatic Muslims who are bent on destroying the followers of other religions (b) Muslims who harbour extremist ideologies and practices but not fanatics, and (c) Moderate Muslims who live peacefully within a Sri Lankan identity.
If our security net is to be a smart one, these moderate Muslims should be considered as stakeholders aiding our intelligence agencies, police, security forces and officials. Moderate Muslims in fact played a crucial role in capturing the perpetrator of the Easter attack. Their support is needed in the future too.
Those moderate Muslims are also indispensable in engaging with Muslims who are not fanatics but still harbour extremist ideologies. A social movement to counter threats of extremism that includes all peace-loving Sri Lankans is necessary here. We too can contribute informally at an individual level by educating our families and our neighbours about the diversity of the Muslim society and the importance of peaceful co-habitation and cooperation with moderate Muslims.
A new generation to take us out of the economic precipice
A second factor that affects our security is the economic disaster looming ahead, largely due to the inability of our society to face globalisation effectively. Negative effects of globalisation are many, but engaging with global markets has enabled countries across the globe to raise the standard of living of their people. China and Vietnam as well as small countries such as Singapore are cases in point.
In contrast, our country is presently on the brink of an economic precipice largely owing to the lack of a strategy to participate in global markets. The result is not only a debt burden of two trillion rupees, but an unnecessary tax burden on the population, and unemployment among the educated youth and other problems of low economic growth. The weakest in society are the worst affected.
The importance of electing the right politicians to lead us goes without saying, but, taking a longer perspective, we need to empower our youth. I have too many youths in my life whom I am trying to support in a personal capacity because the parents are not able. I cannot but imagine the extent of waste of our youth nationwide. Therefore, it is essential that we go beyond personal efforts to a policy level to arm our next generation with the skills and attitudes to face challenges of globalisation successfully.
Competency in digital technologies need special mention here. Thanks to a competitive global market place for digital technologies, any poor country now can obtain the sophisticated technologies at affordable prices. For example, thanks to advances in mobile communication technologies we are now able not only to keep in touch with family and friends but to advance our businesses or professions as well.
The same technology is responsible also for propagating fake news, obscene videos and hate speeches, misleading not only children but adults. While educated families guide themselves and their children through the technological landscape to become closer to each other and to global knowledge sources, majority of families do not have that capacity.
If we are to empower our youth it is important to close this digital divide. We need to be more aware of digital technologies ourselves in order to guide our children to navigate the cyber space safely. We also need to give our children knowledge and skills that go beyond requirements for passing examinations. Our children should be equipped with transversal competencies, or competencies that cut across subject knowledge, such as critical and innovative thinking, Personality development, Inter-personal relationships, citizenship and digital literacy. Digital literacy is essentially the ability to seek information in digital world, sift the good from the bad, and use the information effectively. Giving these competencies require a new approach for education.
In parallel to a new approach to education, we also need a meritocratic culture in our private and public institution which gives pride of place to competency of individuals, breaking down elite-non elite or young-old barriers.
Focus on women as an underutilised human resource
An unfortunate consequence of the Easter attack is the spread of the notion that the Muslim minorities are engaged in an organised effort to reduce the birth rate of the majority by various means while increasing their own birth rates. This is not only an outrageous notion but a dangerous one. More importantly this kind of misinformation eclipses the real demographic challenges facing us.
The critical demographic danger that threatens our security is the ‘growing old before getting rich’ phenomenon. For example, as population statisticians point out, the population of age sixty and above in our country will rise to 29% in 2050, as against 12.5% in 2012. This phenomenon is already visible in our society.
We all know of daughters over 60 who care for their older parents with difficulty. Most of those daughters do not possess the economic or physical strength to look after another aged person. In developed countries, there are social services to support the elderly and the aged mother and daughter both would have some economic strength. Even though the welfare schemes available in our country have blessed us with longer live, we still lack the financial strengthen to enjoy that longevity.
Only 37% of our women in the age range of 15-59 participate in the labour market. Of those who work, many are engaged in informal occupations that do not guarantee provident fund or pension benefits. In addition, women live to 6 or more years than the men on average. Therefore, it is women in our society who will bear the brunt of the ‘growing old before saving for old age’ phenomenon.
The reasons for low participation of women in the labour market are complex. Some women may have become mothers before completing an education. Underage motherhood is not limited to the Muslim community as popularly believed. For example, recently social workers found 88 mothers who are below 15 years of age in Angulana, Moratuwa, a Sinhala majority area. The Census of 2012 shows that 87,000 girls in the 15-19 age group reported that they are married, living together, divorced or widowed, with 72% of them being Sinhalese and 12% being Muslims, roughly mirroring the occurrence of ethnicities in the population.
The reasons for underage marriages, or child births to underage girls, are really the due to the lack of education and/or poverty. In fact, as the level of education and economic status of women improve, women have fewer children, irrespective of race or religion. As the Al- Jazeera network reported recently, the drastic decline in the birth rate in Arabic countries is a result of a silent revolution initiated by women despite limitations imposed on them by their religion. For example, in United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iran, the 2019 birth rates are reported as 1.42, 1.88 and 2.15 respectively. This is remarkable considering that 40 years ago the birth rates in those countries were close to seven children per woman.
Even among those who marry after they complete some education and plan their families to have no more than one to three children, many choose to stay away from the labour market due to lack of child care, education, or skills, or lack of public transport facilities or safety issues in transport. Re-entry into the labour market too may be deterred due to same reasons.
Although the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has attracted undue attention, perhaps due to visible signs of seclusion of women in that community, the national imperative is to enable all girls to complete their school education and enter the labour force. In that regard we need to consolidate personal laws and regulations that divide the population by ethnicity, religion or region within one legal framework common to all, doing that with sensitivity to positive social objectives underlying such laws.
More importantly, we need to amend laws, regulations and practices that impede the participation of women in the workforce. For example, schools should not be places that burden working parents with more work but should be places which provide before and after school care and provide relief to working parents.
Urgency to mitigate and respond to extreme weather conditions
Environmental degradation impacts biodiversity, the climate and the health of humanity and their ability to secure food and water. These impacts should be addressed in one of two ways. First, we need to adapt and respond to the immediate threats facing us. Secondly, we should minimise and mitigate impending harms. Climate change is now upon us as an immediate threat.
Sri Lanka has been identified as one of the top three countries which suffered most floods and landslides caused by unusual rainfall and droughts experienced in recent times. Therefore, in the upcoming election season we need to be vigilant about the approaches presented by political parties to address these extreme weather conditions which are likely to continue.
In addition, we should make sure that our environmental policymakers do not resort to haphazard bans through the gazette as in the past, but, adopt and implement a comprehensive environmental management framework which is based on scientific economic, and social considerations.