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'Culture not part of religion' - Dr. Herath

Colombo University Senior Sociologist Dr. Subangi Herath reveals some misconceptions related to fundamentalism to Sunday Observer staffer Afreeha Jawad.

Question: Do you see any difference between fundamentalism and extremism?

Answer: Yes of course. Fundamentalism means to stick to the fundamentals of whatever religion we believe in. How nice if we could do so. However, extremism means to take the surface meaning of those fundamentals, ignore the time period during which it was imposed and fit it into modern times. This is where all the trouble starts.

Q: Could you cite such instances?

A: Look. This is how it goes. People feel that what they believe in is the best religious faith, philosophy whatever. This is not part of fundamentalism. That's extremism at its height filled with ethno centricity. For instance the Hijab was intended to be a defense mechanism against sand storms sweeping across the Arabian desert. In fact even the men wore something similar with the necessary headgear.

The women covered their faces as well, as safeguard against hostile, alien tribes. So the Hijab was introduced by the Prophet more to suit socio/ecological conditions which extremists project today as being part and parcel of Islam. It was never a control of female sexuality as some would have it today.

Another instance is the habit of flesh eating. Desert conditions compelled man into flesh eating. If Prophet put a lid on it, Islam would have ceased to be. However, he introduced humane ways of slaughter and this too only for food in the absence of any other. The large scale slaughter of animals was not what he intended. Yet, today it is taken by extremists as Islam's fundamental value.

Q: Are there any such social, economic, ecological, practices mistaken for religious fundamentals?

A: Why not! Like the Prophet who fought Holy wars to protect Islam which today extremists have taken on as Jihad and kill opponents in large numbers, the Baghvat Geetha was written to protect Hinduism from Moghul invasion which even shattered the Hindu fundamental value of non-violence.

What was resorted to as a realistic measure was not part of any faith which today is projected as being so by extremists. This then is not fundamentalism.

We also find the Buddha's instruction to keep women off the Sangha being misinterpreted as patriarchal. Far too many men had already left their homes and entered the order. By refusing women into the order at that time he averted a social collapse. But when time was ripe he sanctioned their entry, dismantling the populist view that women were incapable of Arahathood.

Q: How would you view cults and religion?

A: Cults never became institutionalised religion be they in the US or out. The vast numbers that surround all religious leaders indicate people's faith in them. A religion's shared values has a universal function for those that accept it.

It is because religion contributes to people's happiness it has survived so long - its fundamental idea being people's unification. What kept the world's major religions going were the concepts of caring, sharing, tolerance, gratitude, kindness and the like.

Q: How come conflict arose in the face of these concepts?

A: True enough these religious leaders touched the human spirit within their respective socio/political/cultural/ecological/historical contexts. But biological differences, brain capacity and individual needs make up human heterogeneity impeding consensus. Conflict followed as a result.

However, in the absence of laws and other institutional control forms, religion was helpful in building up consensus.

But what went wrong was the misrepresentation of religion in viewing socio/econ/ecological/historical measures as being truly representative of religion."

Apart from the 'not so welcome' realistic measures these leaders resorted to aligning themselves with a higher purpose. Dr. Herath also explained the contrasting environs they lived in. "You see, the Buddha lived in agrarian environs unlike the Prophet. So it was easy for him, I mean the Buddha to preach Ahimsa.

The Prophet on the other hand lived under extreme desert conditions and could not prevent people from eating flesh. Yet, he resorted to conditional sanctioning in slaughtering in order to uphold life's sanctity.

Also the Buddha lived in an era of high intellectual growth and the social environs were more suited to absorb all the emphasis he lay on the mind for salvation. However, the Prophet's arrival hundreds of years after the Buddha saw a degraded human mind resulting in part of his teachings opting for rigid impositions to suit socio/econ/political/ecological/cultural environs of his times.

So we in the modern era should contextualize their teachings and not use whatever seemingly negative measures they took as being part of their doctrines. If we do so we only leave room for extremism," she concluded.



Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service

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