The third part in a series by Dr. Sharif Abdullah.
One of the most durable terror symbols in the modern world is the “Burning Cross” of America ’s Ku Klux Klan. In their heyday, the symbol of the Burning Cross struck fear among millions of America ’s black citizens. It stood for the widespread practice of lynching, torture and intimidation — violence done openly and with impunity. Terrorism, pure and simple. Terrorism in the name of Jesus.
In the light of this cultural terrorism, it’s hard to remember that the Cross represents the doctrine of Jesus, a doctrine of love, nonviolence, inclusivity, and acceptance. Jesus said that there were only two laws: (1) Obey God, and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. (He actually went further and declared that we should LOVE OUR ENEMIES. I think Jesus and the Buddha would have really gotten along well with each other!)
Into this philosophy of love, nonviolence and inclusivity, the KKK added a superseding Commandment: “Hate and kill those who look, act or think DIFFERENT from you.” In the doctrine of Jesus (as re-written by the KKK), white skin was more important than any other consideration, including ANYTHING Jesus said to the contrary.
Fast forward 100 years. Take this doctrine of cultural arrogance to a different continent and a different culture. Have it based not on the color of skin (everybody in Sri Lanka is some shade of brown) but on language and cultural behaviors.
The Recipe for Cultural Arrogance:
- Start with an unhealthy inferiority complex. (In the case of BOTH Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka , I believe the inferiority comes from centuries of colonization.) ANYTIME you see a resort to violence (a man punching his wife, or one country punching another), inferiority lies somewhere in the mix.
- Add anger and a misplaced need for revenge (or, the need to “prove” oneself).
- Place your CULTURE above your RELIGION. (Better still: confuse and conflate the two.)
- If available: add a legitimate goal. The desire to live free from terrorism and the threat of violence is a legitimate goal. BUT, this goal can be attained NONVIOLENTLY. Indeed, it is the ONLY way it can be attained. Don’t believe me? Ask the Buddha.
Cultural arrogance lies at the intersection of bad nationalism and bad religion.
Now, nationalism or ethnic identity is not by itself a bad thing. I am very proud of my culture and my history and heritage as an African-American. And, I know many other Americans are proud of their ethnicities also. But, the key point is this: I don’t need to put anyone else down in order for me to feel good about myself. The need to be “better-than” another person (on the grounds of culture, religion, gender or anything else) is the hallmark of a serious INFERIORITY COMPLEX. Secure people are not arrogant. Arrogant people are not secure.
The mixture of a feeling of inadequacy, coupled with the external need to be “better-than” some other group, is the recipe for what I call “bad nationalism”. By “bad nationalism”, I mean a “national” identity that hyper-inflates the stature of one group within a nation, at the expense of all others.
Remember: the people that Adolph Hitler and his Nazis put into concentration camps and exterminated – the blacks, the Jews, the Gypsies, the homosexuals – were ALL GERMAN CITIZENS. Under the Fascists, true “nationalism” – the German nation – was not important. A false notion of “racial purity” – the Aryan ideal – took its place. Bad nationalism.
The Sri Lanka “nation” consists of THREE major ethnic groups, not ONE (Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim). The Sri Lanka “nation” consists of FOUR major religions, not ONE (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian). The Sri Lanka “nation” speaks THREE languages, not ONE (Sinhala, Tamil and English).
As any American can tell you, practicing inclusivity and political and cultural pluralism is not easy. In our relatively short history, America has gotten it wrong more often than right. But, since the Sixties, we have been firmly committed to the path of inclusivity. And our entire country has benefited from our adherence to the goal of “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One.”) Even those who fight against the concept of inclusivity are its beneficiaries.
Forging one nation in Sri Lanka will be messy. It always is. It will involve compromise and sacrifice. No one will get everything that they want. But, in the end, all Sri Lankans will be better for it. And Buddhism will thrive on the island, without the need for protectionist laws against religious conversion.