Take a second to think about the word harmony. What pictures or comes to mind? What vibes do you feel? My guess is that many will picture peaceful scenes and perhaps hear sweet music. Many will feel positive vibes reverberating from the word, but not me. I don’t have anything against the word per se. From a musical perspective and in a number of settings I can see that the word has a very positive clang. Unfortunately, in my line of work as a Human Rights activist, I’ve all too often seen the dark side of harmony.
From India to Pakistan, Myanmar to Kazakhstan, from Egypt to Sri Lanka and in Norway and America I’ve heard numerous calls asking members of multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies to live together in harmony. This sounds so nice, so innocuous, so friendly. But, is it?
I suppose, if living in harmony was a matter of free choice, as in I choose to practice my religion and customs in ways that the majority culture, religion or ethnic group finds acceptable, then I can see how living in harmony can be a good thing. The emphasis being on my free choice as a member of the minority group. But, when members of the majority culture, religion or ethnic group require me, either explicitly or implicitly to act only in ways that are acceptable to them, then I am opposed to harmony. And that is how I often see the term used. It is a bludgeon employed by the majority to keep the minority in line. It is forced harmony. Implicit is the message, “If you don’t act in accordance with our cultural/religious norms then it really is you who are responsible for any reactions from the majority.” It’s the old argument that rape victims face; “If you dress like that you’re only asking for trouble.”
When Buddhists from the Ma Ba Tha movement in Myanmar promote their motto of “For the protection of race and religion,” Rohinya Muslims are violated. When violent extremists in Pakistan create laws forbidding the right of Ahmadiyyas to gather in their own houses worship, there is no real peace. When Orthodox Christians in Russia demand that everyone adhere to traditional values, then members of non-Orthodox religious communities suffer.
Harmony based on free will is wonderful. Harmony based solely on the will of the majority is violence.
What I recommend in place of forced harmony is building and cultivating a culture that respects Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all. As the current UN Special Rapporteur for FoRB, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt has so eloquently put it, “FoRB is a peace project. But it is a non-harmonious peace project.”FoRB is based on the recognition that many times peaceful co-existence is messy. It is muddy. It requires tolerance and willingness to accept that which we don’t like; that which challenges our accepted norms and our traditional values. It means that the majority has the right to peacefully challenge the minority’s viewpoint and practice, not force the minority to modify it. And the minority has the right to challenge the majority without suffering violence or discrimination.
Forced harmony does not lead to peaceful co-existence. It leads to violence and grudges, and calls for revenge when the tables are turned. Let’s all be less pre-occupied with harmony and more pre-occupied with creating institutions, mechanisms and attitudes that respect and protect diversity even when diversity means allowing attitudes and actions we fine morally challenging. I’d much rather live with non-harmonious peace than forced harmony pretending to be peace.