The project investigated the role of religious leaders and religious organizations in one area of Sri Lanka heavily affected by the 30-year civil war, the mixed Muslim-Tamil-Sinhala East of the island.
1. Religious institutions and religious leaders often play crucial roles as mediators and peace-makers at flashpoint moments, but this capacity varies greatly from religious community to religious community: it is most visible among Muslims and Christians, but much less so among Hindus. This variation raises interesting questions of causality: Is the relative efficacy of Muslim and Christian leaders a product of organizational aspects of the religions themselves, or can it be explained by their positioning on the margin of the bigger Sinhala-Tamil, Hindu- Buddhist conflict? With the apparent end of the civil war earlier this year, there is now a possibility to investigate one issue too sensitive to research earlier - the relation between the ostensibly secular Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and East Coast Tamil religious organizations, and this is also the topic of a planned new research project.
2. Religion provides important resources for communities struggling to cope with the impact of war and natural disaster. Attendance at mosques, churches and temples grew at moments of greatest adversity, new organizational structures like local mosque federations emerged in response to external threats, and new modes of religiosity (Pentecostal Christianity, ecstatic Hindu cults) offer a response to personal distress and suffering.
3. Religious institutions can be a source of conflict as well as a response to it. But ‘conflict’ itself is not a factor external to religion in Eastern Sri Lanka: there are intense internal struggles going on within some of the major religious traditions: between the mainstream churches and new Pentecostal churches, between older local forms of Muslim practice and new reform movements, for example. One especially interesting feature is the uneven spread of Islamic reform movements, with some small towns continuing with self-consciously ‘traditional’ Sufi practices, and neighbouring, otherwise similar, towns becoming home to vigorous reformist sects, strongly committed to the eradication of such ‘un-Islamic' practices. This particular pattern is the focus of the next research proposal we intend to prepare.