'Culture not part of religion' - Dr. Herath
Colombo University Senior Sociologist Dr. Subangi Herath reveals some
misconceptions related to fundamentalism to Sunday Observer staffer
Question: Do you see any difference between fundamentalism and
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
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
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
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
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