The Easter bombings, on April 21, left 253 people dead and at least 500 injured. Speculation is rife that the savage attacks were in retaliation for the recent massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand or the ISIS’s loss of its stronghold in Syria. Conspiracy theories also abound. But one thing is clear; the attackers were driven by religious fanaticism.
Keeping religion out of the affairs of the State has become a major challenge and many feel the first step towards achieving this end is to secularise education. Religion and education are mutually exclusive. Religion is a private and personal choice whereas education is a public right. Foreign experts, the government, the Opposition and even pro-reconciliation activists have called for action against Madarassas or Islamic schools, which stand accused of being abused by extremists to disseminate hatred. Even former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, one of the leading figures in the reconciliation campaign, has urged the regulating of Madarassas. One may agree or disagree with these activists, but this is the ideal time to reconsider faith-based schools in Sri Lanka. In a truly secular setting there should be no Hindu Colleges, Muslim Schools or Buddhist Schools. A secular education system demands a nationwide ban on ethnic segregation in the school system.
The ground situation
Avanthi is a Catholic, married to a Buddhist, and not being very particular about what faith her unborn children may one day profess, she opted for a church wedding. She was certain that her daughter would get admission to her alma mater, a popular majority Catholic government school, when the girl turned six. But her child’s application for school admission was rejected because Avanthi’s marriage certificate wasn’t issued by the Church. She was forced to send her daughter to a private school.
This is not a hypothetical situation Avanthi. It is real. Many parents have the same experience when they try to admit their children to other schools where preferential treatment is given to the children who belong to the religions they promote. This makes one wonder whether access to education should depend on one’s religious background. School admission policies may be permitted only so long as they are objective and reasonable. Education is a fundamental right and admission policies that are in existence at present are in blatant contravention thereof.
Sri Lankan scenario
According to ‘Secular Sri Lanka’ campaign, even the Department of Education requires that all children in public schools be religiously indoctrinated from kindergarten through grade 10, a point the Campaign feels should be challenged in Supreme Court. The campaign points out that under the current educational policy parents have no choice but to be subjected to ‘enforced religious education’ in one of the mainstream religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. Religion is a compulsory subject for the GCE O-Level examination. The campaign quite rightly argues that freedom of religion should also mean freedom from religion and that tax money should not be spent on providing a landscape to entertain religious dogma.
Christian schools in Sri Lanka include Hillwood College; Trinity College, Kandy; S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia; St. John’s College, Jaffna; St. Joseph’s College, Colombo; St. Peter’s College, Colombo; Methodist College, Colombo and Wesley College, Colombo. Leading Hindu Colleges include Jaffna Hindu College; Matale Hindu College and R.K.M. Sri Koneswara Hindu College. Ananda College; Nalanda College, Colombo; Buddhist Ladies’ College; Dharmapala Vidyalaya; Dharmasoka College; Sri Sumangala College; Mahanama College and Musaeus College are among the leading Buddhist schools. Among the leading Muslim schools are Muslim Ladies College, Khaiviya Girls’ School and Zahira College. Although most of these schools are managed by the government the school administration gives priority to students of their respective faiths. Even tags such as ‘Buddhist College’, ‘Hindu College’ or ‘Muslim College’ are in direct contravention of Constitutional Rights.
If the foundation of a culture, a country’s education system promotes segregation based on religion how can reconciliation be expected? In a culture where religious tolerance is not inculcated at an early age, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka experiences religious turmoil of such magnitude that extremists would resort to taking up arms in a bid to obliterate every other religion in the country.
Downside of religion
Thomas Jefferson once warned that if the Church was not separated from the State, half the people would be hypocrites and the other half stupid. Jefferson’s words best describe the state of world affairs today, where failure to separate religion from state has manifested in conflicts that claim thousands of lives. History is replete with religious conflicts that have their origins in religious homogeneity. For example, Muslim extremists of West Asia threaten to wipe out any other faith off the face of the earth, the Hindutva movement of India threatens to wipe out Muslims, Myanmar Buddhists are in the process of driving Rohingya Muslims out of their country and the latest as we have just witnessed, the Easter Sunday church bombings which were the outcome of religious bigotry. Religious conflicts are ever increasing in both intensity and incidence.
We Sri Lankans have witnessed time and again that nationalist ideologies indirectly and perhaps even inadvertently encourage a superiority complex over minority races and religions and, in turn, encourage discrimination of the ethno-religious minorities. It is no secret that discrimination of Tamils led to the emergence of the LTTE to a considerable extent. This is now happening in many Asian countries where discrimination against Muslims perpetrated by Myanmar Buddhists, in India religious intolerance finds expression in the form of Hindutva ideology and sporadic violence against Muslims in Aluthgama and Digana and there are signs of Sri Lanka Jihadism having taken root. And an Asian confrontation with Jihadism, with its global reach and influence may have cataclysmic consequences.
Religious conflicts and school
Often there is no way of preventing religion and their incorporated conflicts from sneaking into the education system. For example, during the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq between 1977 and 1988, the Shariah became the basis of the State of Pakistan. School textbooks and libraries were overhauled to remove ‘un-Islamic’ material. Although in theory Bangladesh is secular, Hindu writers have been removed from Bengali School textbooks.
The West is not spared. Rajeev Bhargava in his paper, ‘States, religious diversity, and the crisis of secularism in open democracy’ opines that the widespread belief in a secular public sphere is a myth in the Western context. He points out that European states have continued to privilege Christianity in one form or another, publicly funding religious schools, maintaining real estates of churches and clerical salaries, facilitating the control by churches of cemeteries, and training the clergy among others. He points out that such so-called secular states made instruction of the favoured interpretation of the religion in educational institutions mandatory.
According to Pew Research Centre, conflicts over religion in US schools are hardly new. In the 19th century, Protestants and Catholics frequently fought over Bible reading and prayer in public schools. In 1844, fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia, many died in the violence and several Catholic churches were burned. In the early 20th century the choice of religious indoctrination in the West was far more advanced, with the prudence of teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution coming into question. Since then US courts have judged in favour of secularism. The US Constitution itself prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion.
Stripping schools of religion
The absence of religion, at school level, affords the students the opportunity to forge their own personality and exercise free will. In fact, religious indoctrination is widely considered a characteristic of backward nations. Religion and education are mutually exclusive. Religion is a private and personal choice and education a public right. Keeping religion out of the affairs of the State has become a major challenge and many feel the first step towards achieving this is to secularise education.
In a truly secular setting there should be no Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian/Catholic schools. A secular education system demands a nationwide ban on ethnic segregation in the school system. Students should not be marginalised based on their race, ethnicity or religion. A secular school system would inculcate sentiments of ethnic harmony and respect and appreciation for diversity.
It is essential to closely examine the successful multi-ethnic education systems of other nations to develop a secular home-grown model. But if we take religion out of schools students will not be denied ethics, morals, principles, virtues and good values that religions are said to inculcate. An ideal way to preserve a semblance of morality after taking religion out of equation is to incorporate secular ethics based on equality, good citizenship and rights laws into the education system.
In 2013, France introduced a ‘secularism charter’ to publicly-funded schools, a move the country’s Muslim community saw as an affront to their culture and traditions. The French government’s education minister, Vincent Peillon said it best: “Secularity is about the equality of everyone in the Republic. There are those who think it is all about banning things. In fact, it was what allows us to live together freely.”
Teaching religion to combat fanaticism
Bhargava explores the viability of becoming more religion-centred instead of being secular. One way of achieving this would be to offer comparative study of religions of the world. This is a softer secular approach as opposed to obliterating all religion out of the school set up. ‘Secular Sri Lanka: Campaign to Separate Religion and State’ opines that a form of comparative study of religions of the world inside schools cannot be harmful as long as fairness and inclusion of all religions is guaranteed and not enforced as mandatory requirement. However, the campaign also observes that such comparative teaching is out of reach under the current social and political environment in Sri Lanka.
But not the French, who have beaten the rest of the world to the punch again. Following the 2015 jihadist attacks France cautiously began developing religious education in schools. France has incorporated religious facts into school subjects such as history and geography.
Writing to the London Observer, in 2014, Tony Blair recommended the same; the best means to stop the world from being consumed by religious fanaticism and violence is for the people to be educated to understand each other. He implied that it was only people who did not truly understand their faith who ‘pervert’ it and use it for malignant purposes.
In ‘Religion should be taught secularly in our schools’ in The Conversation, Cathy Byrne argues that critical education about religion examines religions’ role in conflict and also in dialogue and peace-building. It is observed that this approach helps develop positive attitudes to social inclusion and intercultural awareness and thereby inculcates inter-religious literacy skills. Such an approach would go a long way towards ameliorating the ongoing religious conflicts.
Factual teaching of all religions would facilitate better understanding between people of different faiths and thereby inculcate a respect for diversity. It is a fact that children from racially and religiously diverse or secular backgrounds are more religious and racially tolerant.
This is the fifth instalment in a series of articles, on education related issues.