Memes and the Art of Majority Placation in Sri Lanka

The thing about Social Media is that it gives people a shot at engineering their identities without much effort. A simple ‘like’ or ‘share’ of a particular picture can easily give the impression of an aware and concerned citizen, and so the proliferation of such images in such a politically-charged climate is not surprising. This picture, posted on the Sri Lankan Memes Facebook Page, is a fascinating example of minority damage control. Given the anti-Muslim sentiment simmering around the country right now, this picture ostensibly has one aim; the appeasement and placation of the moderate Sinhalese majority.

Consider first the choice of platform – Sri Lankan Memes, the place where the Colombo elite (for the most part) choose to humorously highlight the passions, characteristics and quirks that make us ‘Sri Lankan’, while bashing the Indian Cricket Team (apparently another important part of our identity). Posting this picture here is an attempt to remind people that Muslims are Sri Lankan too. It capitalises on the vague national pride felt when one peruses pictures depicting the strictness of Sri Lankan mothers, and hopes that this sort of diluted patriotism will inspire feelings of fraternity and tolerance to other races and religions.

Of course, with its self-effacing colloquial captioning and harmless Muslim uncle, the image does its job in making paranoia about a Muslim takeover seem a ridiculous and bigoted position, which of course it is. But there are a few flaws in the way this image sets out to defend its community.

Firstly, it involves the celebration and promotion of stereotypes, which no matter how benign they may seem, are stereotypes nevertheless. In order to make the Muslim identity secular (admittedly a hard thing to achieve) it focuses on the communities cuisine – beef curry, wattalappan and most importantly, and interestingly in the largest font, Buriyani. It seems to down play the religious tradition that forms the Muslim identity. The uncle in the picture who exemplifies the idea of a ‘loveable fellow’ is not exactly sporting a Taliban beard. In an attempt to assure the moderate Sinhalese that the Muslim community does not pose a threat, this picture promotes a stereotype that can hardly hope to represent the varied interests and values of the diverse Muslim population of Sri Lanka. In reality, it just further distances the upper-middle class from the problems of lower income minorities and encourages tolerance on the basis of class as the common denominator. Now while there is nothing wrong in reminding people that not all Muslims are fanatical and fundamental in nature, there is a problem in simplifying and stereotyping any group, however harmonious your intent may be.

For one, it means that as soon as a group deviates from the stereotype, concern and paranoia among the majority is justified. The picture tries to promote the idea that there is no thambi conspiracy to take over Law College, Adam’s peak and the Eastern Province. But implicit here is the idea that the Sinhalese would be justified in their anger if indeed Muslims were seen to be all over Law College, or if they sought more freedom of governance in the East. This sort of logic doesn’t fight intolerance. It merely gives it conditions. And as soon as the Muslim uncle in the picture does cross the line that a few of his own community have drawn for him, his buriyani will be of little consequence.