First Published for Groundviews and the Colombo Telegraph.
There was a protest that took place yesterday by a group of Sri Lankan Muslims in Britain outside the Sri Lankan High Commission in London mostly regarding the spate of anti Muslim activities that have been occurring in Sri Lanka. But in this instance what the group responsible for yesterday’s protest sought to achieve is unclear, what is pointedly obvious is the blatant incongruence between what they did and what they thought its influence would be. The very premise of having any such protest is not just questionable, but can create a cycle of many political unknowns. There are significant issues that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka currently faces, their plight is most depressing and worrying, as I have highlighted here. But knee jerk reactions to or exploitation of a genuine plight to gain isolated political mileage is not the prudent way to operate.
As any other Lankan Muslim Londoner, I am as familiar with the Sri Lankan Muslim Diaspora, the numerical minority and the politically weakest of the three Sri Lankan ethnic Diaspora groups in London. And it beggars belief as to what would have led to the said group deciding to protest outside the Sri Lankan High Commission in London. I argued here a few years back that there is a significant structural disconnect between some parts of the strategies of the British Tamil Diaspora and the genuine needs of the Sri Lankan Tamil people whose plight we must all sympathise with. If this trend isn’t stymied and nipped in the bud, there is a very fair chance that the Lankan Muslim Diaspora in Britain would suffer the same fate and alienation that sections of the Tamil Diaspora have suffered. This would not just result in loss of authority and negotiating power (which for the Muslims in London is currently hardly existent anyway) but would indeed cause damage to the Lankan Muslims in Sri Lanka, the very Muslims that they claim to represent.
Protest is certainly a beacon of democracy that needs to be put into good use, I am not doctrinally against the principle of protesting outside embassies, indeed I was amongst those who marched to the Israeli embassy in London off Kensington High Street on a cold spring morning in 2010 when the Marvi Marmara and the Gaza flotilla were attacked.
The role of the Diaspora is extremely important, the monetary and intellectual power they hold, not to mention the electoral influence they have upon their elected representatives in British electorates can be used to good effect. But the fundamental matter that has to be understood, which sections of the global Tamil Diaspora failed miserably in understanding, is that the whims, strategies and the dictates of the Diaspora must never supersede the needs and political intonations of the local peoples they claim to represent, in this instance the Sri Lankan Muslim community living in Sri Lanka, which to the overwhelming vast majority is still very much the parent community. If there was a coordinated effort by the Sri Lankan Muslims on the ground and the Lankan British Muslim Diaspora and the protest was a reconciled act by both parties, then that could have been lauded. But on this occasion, such is not the case and this was indeed repudiated very wisely by the National Shura Council, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka in this statement and thisvideo statement by NM Ameen.
In the case of the Tamils there were flagrant issues of racism and ethnic violence with the connivance of the then Sri Lankan Government that resulted in the deaths, humiliation and damages to property in the riots of 1983, not to mention the serious known and unknown figures of Tamil civilian casualties towards the end of the war in 2009. But Muslims in Sri Lanka have not faced such a situation and such a situation can be avoided only by political and social prudency. Of course it is without a shadow of doubt that the Bodu Bala Sena and Buddhist extremists in general running amok against Muslims and other minority groups, in their coordinated attacks, have powerful figures sympathetic to their actions, this is evident in how law enforcement authorities watch impotently as the monks behave in such brazen vulgarity, but unlike in 1983 where large swathes of Sinhalese got involved in the violence, the actions of the BBS are not widely appreciated by the Sinhalese community at large and it must be stated that the actions are indeed carried out by a group of rebel monks and not necessarily Sinhalese lay embittered by the Muslims they around them. It also needs to be mentioned that the reactions of the Sinhalese towards other minorities, particularly the Tamils was in the context of an ongoing ethnic conflict. Not that the former is excusable, but the actions of the BBS and others of similar ilk are executed when the country is not in a state of emergency, at least based on ground realities. Again, it must be stressed that this is not a condemnation of protest, nor am I a flag bearer for this government that has allowed lawlessness to reach such giddy heights, but it is the timing and astuteness of this exercise that has to be reflected upon.
Strategically it laughable to expect that this is going to make the Sri Lankan Government look towards the local Muslims with renewed respect and concern, indeed the danger is that the opposite of that could be true. What is also amusing is to look in bewilderment as to the extent of the power parts of the Sri Lankan British Muslim community perceives it wields. Furthermore, with due appreciation of the fact that Lankan Muslims settling in London took place in smaller numbers and very much after Tamils and Sinhalese established themselves there, the Lankan Muslim Diaspora in Britain is quite backward compared to the other two groups in many social standard indices. Not to in any way sound elitist, but a look at our educational standards, the percentage of us who are above the British average household income, and the percentage of us whose social movements aren’t influenced by the insularity of our own community in reference to the Sinhalese and Tamils are indices that should be taken seriously if an honest discussion and measure on political influence and power is to be gauged. It must be noted that, to borrow a computing phrase, this is a zoomed out view of the three communities, when you zoom in there are indeed Lankan British Muslim families and thereby pockets of social circles who can and should exert influence on the political centre in Colombo.
Politically, the problem with trying to fly so high too young is that you expose yourself to predators who can significantly curtail your growth and development. If the actions of the Diaspora results in further damage to the political standing of Muslims in Sri Lanka, not only should they shoulder the blame but as we Muslims say in private amongst ourselves, they are answerable to Allah if in case their motives weren’t purified.
It is not my place to question the integrity or sincerity of the intentions of those behind this exercise and I certainly will not, on the contrary I am sure they acted in the way they best saw fit. But as someone who relates to the British Lankan Muslim community as much as one who does to the Sri Lankan Muslim community in Sri Lanka, and with the conscious understanding that the social threats to Muslims in Sri Lankan far outweigh those of the former, the political maturity of this act has to be interrogated.
Rather, the Lankan British Muslim community should have built coalitions with their Sinhalese and Tamil counterparts, and acted towards a holistic national cause questioning the damages caused by lawlessness, the cancer that is corruption, nepotism, cronyism and political suppression of minorities in general. This may come across as political first principles, but for a Diaspora community only just establishing itself politically, these matters need to be borne in mind. Working with Sinhalese and Tamil Diaspora groups in London, I can say with a certain degree of authority that Muslim representation in the upper echelons of collective Lankan British Diaspora has room for improvement, of course this is from the interactions I have had and another may have a different tale. I am conscious that there are frictions in building coalitions and that this is easier said than done. But in the same way that the local Muslims will best further their political agenda when they work in tandem with the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, to bring to account probably what is the most corrupt and unpatriotic government in post Independence history, the Lankan British Muslims will best achieve even a scintilla of success only when they work together with the others. They risk being politically burned out far too early if they do not, and that will be to the detriment of the collective Muslim political cause as a whole, Lankan Muslim Diaspora groups have a lot of potential to power Muslims in Colombo and that potential has to be used with responsibility, or as elders in the Muslim community would say, consider it an amaanah.
The localised context has to be understood first before ramifications of protests are to be made in London. The connection between the parent community and the diaspora has to give birth to an understanding as to how this matter should have been approached. The actions of the Tamil Diaspora vis a vis local Tamils would prove to be a good case study, the mileage they gained, the sound calls they made and the errors they committed. Having already had a precedent of another Diaspora of an oppressed community and how they negotiated political upheavals makes it easier for the Muslim community in that they can avoid much of the trial and error that the Tamils inevitably had to engage in, and therefore mistakes once done by another community can be averted. There is a risk that actions of the Muslim Diaspora can adversely impact the local Muslims and that must absolutely be understood.
This is a significant error of judgement on the part of sections of the Lankan British Muslim community in London and I am both thankful and relieved by the political astuteness of the Sri Lankan Muslim civil society groups based in Sri Lanka who have swiftly distanced themselves from this sad manifestation of political myopia.
Image from here.