The Anti-Conversion Bill: Political Buddhism, ‘Unethical Conversions’ and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka.
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Allegations that missionaries and aid workers are active in inducing conversions by means of aggressive external pressure have led to discussion of anti-conversion legislation in many countries, and the region of South Asia has emerged as the nexus of argumentative repository for such laws. In simplified terms, Christians claim that anti-conversion legislation violates the rights to proselytisation, and thus limits their religious freedom to manifest their religion, while Buddhist nationalists claim that aggressive and enticing missionary efforts violate the targets’ right to maintain their religion. The study of anti-conversion legislation involves a variety of issues including religious pluralism, politicised religion and the politics of religious freedom. The issue of (anti)conversion throws light on the dynamics between religious groups, how religious groups are regulated by the state apparatus and how to understand proselytisation within international human rights instruments.
This thesis is not about religious conversions as such, but about how acts of conversion are interpreted and circumscribed by various encounters with the ‘political’. ‘The political’ should here be understood in a Schmittian sense of a friend- enemy distinction, and not as politics in a narrow sense of party politics. My aim is to answer the following questions: How is conversion understood not only as a shift of religious allegiance, but also of political allegiance? What role do the issue of conversion have in electoral mobilization? How can we understand how the issue of proselytisation is negotiated within national and international legal instruments? The anti-conversion bill has spurred different and various encounters both within and between religious communities in Sri Lanka, and these encounters have taken place in different forums, both nationally and internationally.
One can argue that anti-conversion laws originate from a threefold objective. First, the dislike of religious gifts in particular and proselytisation in general has made anti-conversion laws a potent tool for religio-political mobilisation, especially for ‘religious nationalists’. Second, such laws can be an effective regulatory mechanism against religious minorities. Third, most anti-conversion laws make a tacit assumption of state patronage, privileging the majority’s religion. Hence, the issue of anti-conversion laws elucidate a potent dynamic between religious nationalists, minorities and the state, and can be seen as an adjudicator of how religious pluralism is negotiated within a given nation-state. Moreover, anti- conversion laws challenge our understanding of religious freedom, not as something you either have or do not have, but in which ways practices are protected under the fold of human rights instruments.
By taking a micro-historical approach to the policy process of the anti- conversion bill, my focus has been to reveal how agency, affiliations and networks coalesce into political repertoires. An important aspect here is how these political repertoires evolve and develop in a particular context, with an aim to either support or oppose a given legislation. Taking place amidst a long-ranging civil war, the legal proposal in Sri Lanka has been through political turmoil, challenged various legal definitions both nationally and internationally, led to discussions and monitoring of religious freedom. However, this is not a commission report designed to document ‘unethical’ conversions or to measure the levels of ‘religious freedom’ in Sri Lanka today, but rather an analysis of why and how these encounters over proselytisation and ‘unethical’ conversions have taken place in Sri Lanka.
Anti-conversion legislation criminalises proselytisation by ‘force, fraud and allurement’. While the terms ‘force’ and ‘fraud’ are already covered in the penal codes, the vital term here is that of allurement. Buddhist nationalists claim that evangelicals deliberately target vulnerable people for conversion, and that they engage in these processes either by direct bribery and allurement or more subtle forms of gaining the trust, usually of ‘poor villagers’. Moreover, while it is precisely the practice of what is termed enticing and alluring conduct that religious nationalists find provocative in terms of proselytisation, it is the same terms that pose difficulties for explicating a clear legal formula for anti-conversion legislation that would find international consent, under the aegis of human rights instruments. Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur of freedom of religion or belief, noted that it was especially the notions of “inducement or allurement” that are the source of contention of how anti-conversion legislature is seen as explicated in “broad and vague terms”.