A study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, titled ‘Liking Violence’, points to the ‘…the radicalisation of youth, as young as 18 to an alarming degree’. The study looks at how some of the most engaged users – users producing and engaging with hate speech and related content, are between the ages of 18-24. Over the recent past the creation and dissemination of content virulent with anti-Christian and particularly anti-Muslim rhetoric has been occurring amongst the youth, particularly through means of online communication.
A camp hosted from the 19th -21st of June, by the Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL, brought together a group of young people, with the intention of helping address this issue. The participants at the camp were young people who had demonstrated an interest in the areas of Religious Freedom and Peace Building. The camp that was held at the Sanctuary House in Pamunugama saw youth between the ages of 19-26 of different religious backgrounds and living across all nine provinces, gather together for a time of learning, sharing and reflection.
During the programme the participants had the opportunity to hear from Jeevani Kariyawasam, prominent lawyer, activist and politician; Prof. Jayantha Seneviratne, renowned sociologist and a professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Kelaniya and Sampath Samarakoon, editor of the popular Citizen Journalism website – Vikalpa.
Kariyawasam, who conducted the opening session on a ‘Vision for Advocacy’ defined advocacy and it’s functions, through creative group activities with the youth.
Prof. Seneviratne’s session on ‘Peace Building and Reconciliation’ had the youth divided into smaller groups and working on activities that highlighted values, behaviour and practices that encouraged religious coexistence. Prof. Seneviratne also helped the group focus on the shared and core values of each religion, in an attempt to encourage greater sensitivity and mutual understanding among the campers.
NCEASL had the opportunity to speak to some of the youth following a very intense but motivating session. “It was so interesting that I didn’t realise how the time had flown,” said Hebsibah Ganesan, an undergraduate at the University of Moratuwa. “Even though I was close to so many people from different religious backgrounds, I didn’t really know the basis of their religions and what they followed. I guess that the atmosphere there wasn’t conducive to sharing,” she said talking about the ideal setting the camp provided, to hear from other young people about their religion and beliefs and share her own.
For Deltan Suntharesan reading for a degree in ‘Peace and Conflict Resolution’ at the University of Kelaniya influenced much of his thinking on issues concerning religious tolerance. The camp, however, opened him to different perspectives. “When it comes to Peace Building, what we are studying at the University is theoretical, but here we saw it in practice. We saw that everyone has such different and opposing views on various subjects. Being exposed to this was an experience” he shared.
Looking forward to the session on ‘Social Media and Advocacy’ that was to follow later that day, Aditha Ekmal from the same university as Deltan, discussed how “social media platforms have been used by various groups and individuals to propagate hate and religious extremism”. He felt that the session on ‘Social Media and Advocacy’ would be helpful in educating the participants not only on how to use social media responsibly but also on how to respond to and counter harmful content that is disseminated online.
Samarakoon, in his session on ‘Social media and advocacy’ helped the youth realise the potential that social media has in addressing contentious issues, such as those concerning religion and religious groups. Samarakoon also highlighted how social media and technology can be used for reconciliation and far-reaching social change. Following these sessions, the youth felt that they too could take advantage of technology to advance Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, while countering hate speech online.
The inspiring and exhilarating sessions were intermittently broken with a series of experiential learning activities, conducted by Paul Navamani manager of Sanctuary House and Experiential Learning Facilitator. While proving immensely enjoyable for the participants, the activities specifically designed along the theme of bridging differences and fostering team building and leadership skills, further inculcated the learning shared throughout the day.
Towards the end of the camp, the participants engaged in group discussions and brainstormed on how they would advocate for religious freedom in their communities. Each group was inclusive of participants from each religion and province.
Five months later we met with Laksan Sinnathamby, one of the participants at the camp. Laksan paid a visit to the NCEASL office to perform the song that he took the lead in composing for the ‘Talent Night’ that was held at the camp. While the campers prepared for an evening of artistic performances in keeping with the theme of religious freedom and tolerance, Laksan’s group that included Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims felt that they would be “able to convey more through the song”. While the song was meaningful, reflecting on tolerance and unity, the experience of composing and performing the song together with a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds was as significant to Laksan. “The process of composing the song together is something that we’ll always remember,” said Laksan recalling the experience. The camp appeared to have made a lasting impression on Laksan, who is still in contact with many of the campers who attended, including those who speak Sinhala as their first language. Laksan explained how they are learning to adapt to the challenge of communicating across the divides.
Laksan and his fellow campers are now tasked with the challenge of carrying forward what they learned in their communities. Their experience at the camp, what they learned and the continued support from the Religious Liberty Commission has left them confident that they will be able to turn the tide of hate among their peers.
For highlights from the camp visit out facebook album on the Youth Camp on Religious Freedom.
The #ReligiousLibertyCommission of the #NCEASL, hosted a 3 day #camp for #youth on #ReligiousFreedom and #PeaceBuilding…