By Jennifer Rodrigo
As much as twenty-nine-year-old Sarah Kabir, author of ‘Voices of Peace’ would love to believe what our country’s tourist brochures have to say about what a multiethnic, multicultural, and friendly people we are, the truth, she says, is that for a long time now, there have been arbitrary divisions we have created amongst ourselves along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and caste. Kabir who is a researcher and consultant in the areas of reconciliation and peace building, thinks that “we don’t have to continue this way.” And she is right. We don’t.
Kabir’s book was launched last September and its unique style of storytelling weaving together the narratives of ten former LTTE cadres and ten ex-Sri Lanka military personnel who actively fought at the front lines, soon made its impression. Highlighting the need to listen, the book gives its readers the opportunity to meet with both sides of the conflict.
A firm believer in the saying ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’, she devoted, first her academic, and now, her professional life, towards working to build peace and understanding between communities in Sri Lanka; “bridging the divides we have created amongst ourselves,” is how she frames it.
Sri Lanka has always been home to her, and inferiority or superiority over anyone is not a feeling she identifies with. She was brought up in an environment that taught her how to integrate with people from all walks of life. The religion she was taught and chooses to adhere to is Islam. “I have sung hymns, I have learnt gatha and visited beautiful kovils. One can believe in any god, religion or no god or religion for that matter, and be Sri Lankan.” That’s the belief she carries from her childhood, and that is what she chooses to share with others today.
The importance of what is written
“What man has that’s different to other living beings is the ability to write; to record,” observes Kabir adding that from technological innovations to stories of love, or stories of violence, events and experiences are recorded so we can learn from them. “For reconciliation and for peace we must learn from our history.”
“During the rampage of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda or the The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), we didn’t look at them to be the true representative of the religion they professed, instead we go to the mainstream followers of the faith and the consensus of their religious leaders. If we look for this, we can find it. The writings spread across eras and across the globe.”
Terrorists, she says, reject the teachings. “Take the IS; they appear as if they have read the Quran but their reading of it hasn’t left their throat. They reject the ordinary Muslim and the teachings of Islam. At their hands, the most numbers killed globally have been Muslim. They have been the antithesis of Islam. But instead of turning to the mainstream 1.8 billion Muslims who believe Islam is a religion of peace or the consensus of Islamic scholars, we look at the terrorists who use the same five letter word, Islam, to refer to their violent ideology.”
Islamophobia, Kabir feels, has become a “thing” because of irresponsible writings. “Take the media that compounds this as they refer to the violent ideology of terrorists as Islam, siding with the terrorists’ view and ignoring the way the mainstream followers understand their faith.”
Violent movements, she explains, use whatever ideology they can to further their agenda. It doesn’t matter whether an ideology is religious or non-religious but any ideology becomes a cause for violence when it is imposed by force or when it is used to dehumanize others; “which is the denial of the humanity of others.”
At a time like this, Kabir says, as Sri Lankans, we must be careful with the words we choose to use. Hate-mongering or fear-mongering are behaviour we must take care to avoid. “Let’s learn from our own past, the colonial and post-colonial era, the successes and failures we made on our own soil.” Kabir cautions everyone to understand the gravity of what we share on social media, and to realise that the words we put on facebook and the messages we share on WhatsApp are written words that can be as equally powerful as our actions. “The more love we spread, the more we can heal and rebuild our country.”
Let’s say ‘we tried’
“We saw theory become reality from the 50s to the 80s. We weren’t there when our grandparents made mistakes but it is our actions now that can define how our country rebuilds,” Kabir affirms. ‘We tried,’ she says, is what we should be telling our children when they ask us of these times. “How we as citizens respond and react now can have a great impact on how we write our future, our country’s future and our children’s future.”
She is sad that some racist elements are trying to milk the country’s present time of crisis; feeling justified in their thoughts as they slowly creep out of the rocks they were under. While pain and fear are the general emotions pervading all of our minds at the moment, she shed light on the importance of standing strong and not letting extremism divide us. “I have seen outwardly attacks on Muslims; and then I see the moderate rational-minded individual being used by those who push such narratives. It is disheartening but we must try to stay strong and not give in to this.” Kabir believes that the moderate, rational Sri Lankan forms the majority and we as a country must reject divisive narratives, especially at a time like this. “As Sri Lankans, in a highly politicised country, there is a tendency to not realise the impact one of us, ordinary citizens, can have.”
She went on to talk of how instability is the environment terrorism thrives in; the more fractured we get, the easier it is for terrorists to penetrate, and to brainwash recruits. “The hallmark recipe for terrorist groups who claim to be part of a ‘community’ is to a carry out such a cowardly attack and wait for the societal backlash against that very community they claim to be a part of, which leads more recruits in to their hands. So, I ask all Sri Lankans, to be tolerant of all communities.”
Echoing what most responsible citizens of Sri Lanka shared on social media following the Easter Sunday attacks of 21 April, of how terrorism has no religion, Kabir asks that people don’t paint every Muslim around them as a terrorist. “Do not carelessly forward that racist joke. Now’s a time to show restraint even if we can’t show love.”
Keeping our country and its future in mind, we must, she says, reject the rhetoric of divided rule. “Sri Lanka is for all of us. I hear some say Sri Lanka is only for a certain race or religion. Does me being Muslim make me any less Sri Lankan?” She was born here, her grandparents were born here, and there is no other country she wants to go to, and no other country she belongs to.
“The Quran talks about defending one’s religion, the Mahawansaya (chapter 7) talks about protecting Buddhism, as do scriptures from all other religions. But this does not mean we enforce it on others; that we inflict pain on others or disrespect the ‘other’. I choose to believe that protecting one’s religion means protecting the values all religions instill: to love all creation, to be tolerant, to be patient, to practise love and not hate, and to respect all living beings.”
Kabir concludes that the responsibility to build Sri Lanka up, economically and socially, is as much a responsibility of its citizens as it is of its leaders. “Each ordinary citizen can have an extraordinary impact.”