Vol. 28 No. 5 (August 2018) pp. 68-69

BUDDHISM, POLITICS AND THE LIMITS OF LAW: THE PYRRHIC CONSTITUTIONALISM OF SRI LANKA, by Benjamin Schonthal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 304pp. Hardback $116.00. Paper $35.99. ISBN: 9781316606414.

Reviewed by Tamir Moustafa, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Email: tmoustafa@sfu.ca.

Recent years have seen explosive growth in research examining the intersection of comparative constitutional law and religion. Interestingly, much of this new work is produced by scholars with no formal training in law; perhaps half or more comes from scholars of religion, anthropology, history, and politics, all of whom are increasingly drawn to the study of legal institutions to better understand and document the profound “radiating effects” of law (Galanter 1983) on religion, politics and society.

Benjamin Schonthal’s BUDDHISM, POLITICS AND THE LIMITS OF LAW: THE PYRRHIC CONSTITUTIONALISM OF SRI LANKA represents the best of this work. It underlines the critical importance of a law and society approach for anyone wishing to gain insight into the promise and perils of constitutionalizing religion and religious freedom. The book builds upon Schonthal’s dissertation, which won the Law and Society Association’s Dissertation Award in 2013. Although his formal training is in religion, Schonthal’s book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the ways that state management of religion and religious freedom increasingly shape a range of important social, political, and religious dynamics.

The book advances a bold argument: Rather than consistently mitigating disputes over religion, constitutional protections on religion and religious freedom instead frequently exacerbate social and political tensions. The argument builds on an impressive foundation of over 14 months of fieldwork in Sri Lanka and extensive engagement with primary source material across four languages (English, Sinhala, Tamil, and Pali). The in-depth treatment of a single country case study allows Schonthal to develop and substantiate his argument in a manner that would not be possible in a large-N or multi-country study.

The introductory chapter sets the stage for a probing assessment of the assumption that constitutional protections on religious freedom invariably work to ameliorate religious conflict. The empirical chapters then assess this common supposition against the experience of Sri Lanka since independence. Part One of the book (Chapters 2-4) provides a detailed historical account of the development of Sri Lanka’s constitutional framework vis-à-vis religion. Schonthal draws on drafting documents, oral histories, submissions from citizens and civil society groups, government memoranda, and transcripts of debates to detail the points of disagreement over constitutional text. Schonthal zeros in on the efforts of Ceylonese and Sri Lankan politicians to reconcile a “promotional paradigm” (one that is concerned with promoting rights and protections for Buddhism specifically) with a “protectionist paradigm” (one that is concerned with protecting the fundamental rights for all citizens). The “Buddhism Chapter” of the Constitution of Sri Lanka thus affirms that the state “shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana” (p. 10). This clause is then immediately balanced with explicit reference to a variety of liberal rights, including the right to religious freedom. Schonthal shows how these parallel commitments were the result of efforts to bridge disagreements, a familiar dynamic in constitution-drafting processes (Lerner 2011; Bâli and Lerner 2017).

Part Two of the book (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) examines how a variety of actors engaged these constitutional provisions to articulate, advance, and negotiate different claims and [*69] understandings of religion. As in so many other countries, the religion of the state provision begged the question of which notion of religion is “correct.” It opened a field of contestation, not only across different religious communities but also within them, as actors mobilized to define an “essence” of religion. Chapter 5 examines a dozen court cases in which litigants invoked the Buddhism Chapter. Drawing on court records as well as interviews with judges, lawyers, and litigants, Schonthal examines the struggles that emerged as a direct result of constitutionalizing religion and religious freedom.

What makes Schonthal’s study important and compelling is that he goes beyond the legal arguments that are made in the court of law to examine how different conceptions of law and religion are received in society at large, specifically among Sri Lanka’s complex religious and ethnic mosaic. Schonthal traces the way that law deepened and sustained tensions, as claims around religion were given a privileged platform that encouraged an adversarial stance and diminished efforts to find common ground outside of a legal context. “In turning to constitutional law to manage religious life, Sri Lankans have hardened religious divisions, perpetuated disputes, and in some cases, amplified the perceived religious dimensions of social conflict” (p. 11). This last observation concerning “perceived religions dimensions of social conflict” is particularly instructive.

Schonthal develops the term “pyrrhic constitutionalism” to draw attention to the widening gap between the lofty aspirations that constitutionalism promises to deliver and the polarizing dynamics that are so frequently set in motion: “Functioning constitutionalism has unwittingly aggravated the very grievances and tensions it was designed to mediate” (p. 12).

BUDDHISM, POLITICS AND THE LIMITS OF LAW is an important book for anyone interested in the intersection of religion and constitutional law. The text is clear, concise, and accessible, and the insights are many. The reader benefits from Schonthal’s deep contextual knowledge of the Sri Lankan case, yet his insights are also instructive for dozens of other country-contexts where religion and religious freedoms have been constitutionalized. Indeed, in reading Schonthal’s work, I was struck by the profound parallels between Sri Lanka and the dynamics that I document in my own work on contemporary Malaysia (Moustafa 2014, 2018). I recommend this book for anyone interested in the intersection of law, religion, politics and society.


Bâli, Aslı Ü., and Hanna Lerner, eds. 2017. CONSTITUTIONS WRITING, RELIGION AND DEMOCRACY. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Galanter, Marc. 1983. “The Radiating Effects of Courts” in EMPIRICAL THEORIES ABOUT COURTS, Keith Boyum and Lynn Mather, eds.

Lerner, Hanna. 2011. MAKING CONSTITUTIONS IN DEEPLY DIVIDED SOCIETIES. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moustafa, Tamir. 2013. “Liberal Rights versus Islamic Law? The Construction of a Binary in Malaysian Politics.” LAW & SOCIETY REVIEW, Vol. 47: 771-802.

Moustafa, Tamir. 2018. CONSTITUTING RELIGION: ISLAM, LIBERAL RIGHTS, AND THE MALAYSIAN STATE. New York: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2018 by author, Tamir Moustafa.