The Sri Lankan Muslim Diaspora Dilemma

Image via Transcurrents

This past week, incidents in Sri Lanka and abroad have illustrated the dilemmas facing the Sri Lankan Muslim community and its Diaspora constituents.  These incidents though isolated in occurrence have the hallmarks of being related to a wider malaise afflicting the community and the challenges they face

In London on the 5th of May, a bank holiday, a protest was held in front of the Sri Lankan High Commission and number 10 Downing Street by one of the many Sri Lankan Muslim Diaspora organisations.    However, don’t be fooled by the photos that are doing the rounds on social media or on some news sites.  It wasn’t the whole of the Sri Lankan Muslims in UK protesting as one article poorly intimated that it was.  It was one organisation out of 20 or so organisations that exist in the UK, coming from one specific part of the UK (and comprising of members largely from around the same geographical area in Sri Lanka) and around 650 out of a potential 25,000 + (exact figure is not known) Sri Lankan Muslims living in the UK.  Hence it was a minority out of a minority.  Why am I emphasising this?   Because poor journalism is creating much more problems than there exists.   It is also because it is necessary to show that there was not only no widespread support for this from within the UK and even actually from Sri Lanka.  In fact the majority of the Sri Lankan Muslim organisations and individuals in the UK did not support the protest.

I am one of those that was against the protest not because I dislike protesting.  Far from it, I was one of the active members and organisers of the Stop the War protests at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and I have supported protests against the invasion of Gaza and so on.  Yet for me, this particular protest was ill timed, ill conceived, inopportune and simply inappropriate.  Frankly how does standing outside Number 10 Downing Street shouting largely in Tamil achieve anything apart from causing an annoyance to inhabitants, especially when they don’t understand what is being shouted out?  What help does it offer to the people on the ground, when we give more reason to those already critical of Sri Lanka to be more critical?

The organisers of the demonstration have been described as having ‘Political Myopia’, which I agree with especially when you take the term myopia to mean narrow-mindedness.  I would also add the description of ‘self-centred insensitivity’ to the list.  This is because despite all the opposition and counselling against it, both within the UK and from Sri Lanka, the organisation (and its supporters)  in question went ahead with the protest.  Hence there was an insensitivity to not understand the ramifications of this on the ground in Sri Lanka especially given opposition or a failure to actually understand its effect. As one person asked me ‘How is protesting in the UK going to help us in Sri Lanka?’  And that is precisely the point.  When much more is needed from a political and diplomatic side to put pressure on those elements inside and out of the government and the wider society to stop these types of hate filled incidents, how can we build the trust?  How can we engage with all those concerned and provide a common platform to challenge these bigots and their ideology?

Therefore if these people really wanted to protest or do something to vent out their frustration, then something more positive e should have been done as a coalition of all communities (including Sinhala Buddhists) upset by the way societal coexistence is slowly eroding in Sri Lanka and for me, we should have done something outside Buddhist temples in London.  My reasoning is that whilst the Government’s complicity is there, in its lax approach to enforcing the rule of law and bringing to justice those perpetrating hate speech and crimes, a large part of the responsibility has to be also laid on the shoulders of sections of the Sinhala Buddhist community who are culpable in this either through their silence in not speaking out when crimes are committed in the name of preserving Buddhism; or in their tacit and overt support. In particular, we have to hold a mirror to those who are living in the Diaspora.  After all it is notable  by their ‘silence’ how many in the Diaspora especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community have publicly spoken out against what is happening in the country to the Muslim and other minorities.  Despite many attempts just asking even through personal contacts, it has been disappointing not to get a response or that people skirt around this discussion.  One also has to look at comments on sites like the Colombo Telegraph, which is banned to the average reader in Sri Lanka, to ascertain the deep hate and antipathy felt towards the Muslim community (and other minorities).  Whether this is justified or not is another article that needs to be written.  However the mere fact is that one only needs to engage with the average Sinhala in the UK for example and you will find that there is deep seated prejudice which needs to be addressed. Hence if anything, the protest should have been to tell Sinhalese Buddhists to not allow their religion to be hijacked by extremists.  It should have been an opportunity to engage with sympathetic elements in the UK amongst the other communities in order to build a bigger alliance.   Ultimately it would have helped those who perceive diaspora protests as being linked to one extreme element of a community to change the lens with which they viewed this protest. This is what was learnt from the Stop the War coalition that planned all the Anti War protests.  It was not that we stopped anything but we were able to build networks and alliances of people concerned about a common cause so that they could champion together and no one could be labelled for belonging to one group or another.

Yet this is the big problem.  The diaspora amongst all communities in the UK are not united and are still very disparate.  There is still a reluctance to engage in meaningful discussion and any dialogue takes place under emotive circumstances.  This shows the increasing dilemma of the diaspora generations removed and time bound from the country of heritage.  Unfortunately it fits into the criticism levelled against us as the Diaspora.  We are generally not aware of the dynamics of the country or the evolving nature on the ground.  We are also largely oblivious of the repercussions of our actions in the UK in Sri Lanka.  We as the Diaspora have this intellectual arrogance that just because we live out of Sri Lanka, we know better.  Thus we only listen to what we want to listen to.  Hence whilst we largely remain untouched from the results on the ground we replicate differences in the UK.    We project our inherited differences from Sri Lanka onto internal political struggles and intra-community disputes in the UK which doesn’t help any matter related to Sri Lanka.

On analysis, the protest ultimately was not done primarily with the interest of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka at heart, but for some cheap attempt to score political brownie points.  This sounds very strong, but the question that has to be asked is if there was so much opposition from community leaders, representatives and organisations both in the UK and Sri Lanka, why did the organisation proceed with the protest?  It is either due to an arrogance that this group knows better or that there was some other reason not the interests.  Being intimately involved in the goings on of the Sri Lankan Muslim organisations, I am well aware that this particular organisation and some of its supporters has always been one to work by itself if it felt it was not on the leadership role.    Right from the word go, it has chosen not to be part of the umbrella body for the Sri Lankan Muslim organisations in UK, COSMOS, which has quietly been working in front and behind the scenes with all sorts of stakeholders to put pressure on the government and more importantly to support the quiet actions of the leadership back home who have reacted calmly and wisely, and been praised for this.   It has chosen to work not only in opposition but sometimes in parallel to COSMOS, criticising it for its ‘ineffectiveness’.  Criticism for COSMOS is also unfounded.  It has been working to build support from the community in order to come up with a dignified and unified response to the crisis and somehow avoid falling into the same trap of emotive responses that has affected other diaspora organisations.  It has chosen to consult with Sri Lanka in order to ensure that what is done in the UK has no repercussions for people in Sri Lanka.  The quiet diplomacy has meant that COSMOS has reached out to the High Commission, other community and faith organisations and others in order to ensure that the true ground reality is shared.   The High Commission in particular has always reciprocated this engagement policy by COSMOS by not only opening its doors to hear the concerns, but in its limited capacity to try and do something about it despite it not being able to really influence things back in Sri Lanka.   True at certain times COSMOS has appeared slow and lethargic and I have been one to criticise some of its actions and statements.  However the incentive by COSMOS to build coalitions to take this from an ethnic to a national problem that is felt by all sides is one that has to be supported.  This is ultimately where the discussion has to move towards.  The concern of the decline of religious freedoms and the overt radicalisation and extremist rhetoric spouted by one group is detrimental to the whole country.  It thus needs collective responses.

We should not forget that this is the need of the hour.  The recent incidents in Aluthgama shows the challenges facing the community and the country as a whole.  With perpetrators of hate speech and violence allowed to roam freely and the law seemingly unable or unwilling to rein them in, it is only a matter of time before frustrations reach a tipping point.  Once this is reached, the space becomes open for extremists to abuse and exploit.  In order for this to happen, collective pressure (from all communities) needs to be maintained.  This is how the new police force to look into religious crimes came into being and needs to be supported.

These are testing times for the country and the communities.  Our response as individuals and communities where we don’t learn from the past will determine how the future will look like.  As Diaspora whose lives and future are now in the countries where we live, our self-centeredness and naïve sincerity cannot ransom the future of the country of our heritage.

  • Jaina

    Islamaphobia is on the rise worldwide with the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism. In Sri Lanka, this issue is very much a tango. On one hand, there are these politico-monks who preach against Muslims. Superficially, this may seem purely hate-filled by not all their concerns are illegitimate. There are cases of various abuses, especially by Muslim business people, that incite anti-Muslim hatred from people, even though the original grievance didn’t actually have anything to do with religion. Historically, Sinhala-Muslim clashes in Sri Lanka have been based on trade and economic conflicts.

    Plus, it’s not just the Sinhalese who have problems with the Muslims, pretty much all other non-Muslim communities have issues with Muslims. This has been fueled by rising Islamic extremism within Sri Lanka, where certain intolerant or fundamentalist ideologies from Middle Eastern countries get adopted by local Muslim youths. (For example, the case of a Muslim girl whipped in public for having a boyfriend, reminiscent of the abuses Lankan migrant workers face in the Middle East. And recently a Lankan was nabbed for connections with Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan). These should be of concern to the Lankan Muslim community.

    I believe that Sinhala-Muslim tensions have to be addressed from both sides. On the Sinhala side, there should be some introspection into nationalism and chauvinism being used to solve personal or community problems. On the Muslim side, there should be some self-introspection to address abuses, if any, committed by members of the community that might incite Islamaphobic responses from other communities and also to take serious consideration of the rising fundamentalism within certain Lankan Muslim segments .

  • Jayalath

    A great thought . A great artical . We should not let the cart to go before the horse . We all have grievances and they can affect to us as big or small in life which is not phenorminal .some of the problems can be sorted by protesting and it can be effective , but some of the problems can be sorted by battle which also effective , because non of the problems of us would ever resolved unless we consistently fight for it , this is the nature and the way of humans . However the history will witness that how a battle or protest can conquest successfully . Example is 30 years war in Sri Lanka which was waged 30 years to complete , but when it come to 2009 that many Sri Lankans were exhausted with fighting but never saw an end . Therefore Rajapaksa was forced to eradicate the terrorism by mass of people including the political parties ( particularly JVP) . As a result of back by mass of people that 30 years of terrorism was crushed into dust by short time . It was blessed and participated by singhala , Muslim and Tamils as well , unless it would have not been conquered . So, as this article point out it is very correct to take part all communities to the protest and also there is one more important thing which is the time . We are here today that International and national rogues are camping around us to reverse our victory which also need to be seriously consider at this moment . I’m not underestimating the hurts that caused by thuggery monks but there is nothing much has happened compare to what is happening to the Muslims people and countries today all over the world .

    • AnandLeo

      I think you all are right.

  • Alex f

    The author is a little naive. Imagine a Sri Lanka where there was no external pressure to reform? The protests are valuable as they communicate to the outside world that all is not well. The author bemoans the lack of a strong Sinhala liberal faction to counter the extremists but that liberal faction would be even weaker or non-existent without the foreign pressure and support. Protest is one of the few ways to influence the growth of liberalism in Sri Lanka – there is currently no relevant liberal centre to be engaged.