Recently I’ve begun to notice once more a particular sort of post cropping up on my Facebook timeline, most often posted, “liked”, or shared by one of my FB friends. Almost all of these posts are by Sri Lankan Muslims (most of my Muslim friends are Sri Lankan); almost, I say, because the rest are by non-Muslim social workers or activists who are generally anyway more interested in this particular topic than most. The event that seems to have sparked this flurry of posts is the ongoing escalation of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.
The posts are almost exclusively of a religious bent, lamenting the fate of Palestinian Muslims being brutally attacked (or ignored) by non-Muslims and calling on God to protect these people in particular, and Muslims all over the world in general. Earlier this year, and at various times last year, there was a storm of similar posts about Muslims in Syria. Of course, there were also posts about Aluthgama, but that is hardly something unusual since it was an event right here in Sri Lanka.
Now, I’m not going to get into the circumstances of what’s happening in Palestine and Syria; who is right or wrong, the three dead Israeli children, the fact that a significant minority of Palestinians are Christian, or that a lot of the killing being done in Syria is in fact by Muslims themselves. I have my own views on both conflicts (as do most of the people posting), but they are irrelevant to this post. One thing that is clear is that none of us really know much about what’s going on over there and aren’t really interested. So why are my Muslim friends posting about it?
A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Muslims in Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka to be out on the streets in protest, or picketing a western embassy, whenever the US invaded Iraq or Afghanistan or bombed Libya or something like that. This has completely stopped of late, which is understandable given the threat Muslims face right here in the country; Sri Lankan Muslims no longer feel safe enough to show solidarity with other Muslims. Clearly, however, that isn’t true on the internet, and Sri Lankan Muslims feel more at ease giving their opinions and protesting certain things without the actual physical danger they would face on the street from nutjobs like the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS).
Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims don’t like the fact that other Muslims are being harmed. But they are more incensed by the fact that these people being endangered are Muslim than that they are Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, or whatever. We don’t see the same level of outrage when Muslims like Saddam Hussein kill Kuwaiti Muslims, or when Hizbollah or Islamic Jihad kill Israeli children, or when the Saudis execute Sri Lankan Muslims. Clearly, Sri Lankan Muslims identify with other Muslims worldwide, but mostly when they are in conflict with, or under attack by, non-Muslims.
So I think it is safe to say that Sri Lankan Muslims are identifying with the Muslimness of those people rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. I find this a bit annoying because it reminds me of the knee-jerk reactions of Tamils in Toronto and London who allowed their Tamilness to overrule other considerations. Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora certainly felt more Tamil than Canadian or British, and that led to their protests about what was happening in Sri Lanka. So do Muslims feel the same? Do they identify with a global Islam that has a stronger identity than that of being Sri Lankan? Certainly, Sri Lankan Christians (I mention them simply because they are the only other Sri Lankan ethnicity with a global presence) don’t view conflicts around the world through a religious lens or, if they do, identify enough with those warring parties to take any action. There were no Christian protests about the Yugoslavian conflict, or various wars in Africa. You don’t see Christian protests outside Arab embassies when an Islamic terror group targets a western (Christian) country.
Now, I want to ask my Muslim friends whether you realize that what you are doing is setting yourselves apart in the eyes of other Sri Lankans; it is making us feel as if you are more interested in what is happening on the other side of the world than what is happening right here; that you are immersed insomething the rest of Sri Lanka is not. At a time when it is important for Sri Lankan Muslims to reinforce their Sri Lankanness, and avoid being labelled outsiders, is this what you should be doing? Or do you feel that your solidarity with Muslims worldwide is more important, more identifying, than your Sri Lankanness? I’m not making a judgement here or suggesting what you are doing is right or wrong; I am simply looking for answers. I hope to hear from you soon. Thanks for reading.
The One Plate Project is an initiative by Yamu and ad agency JWT to create a uniquely Sri Lankan practice online. During most religious and cultural celebrations such as the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, Ramazan, Thai Pongal, and Christmas, people of all ethnicities look forward to the celebrations, regardless of whether that particular festival is one relevant to one’s community or not. And there’s one simple irreligious reason for that — Sri Lankans love food. As a Christian Burgher, I look forward to Avurudhu and Ramazan almost as much as I do to Christmas because I know there’s going to be a load of great Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim food coming my way from the neighbours.
In multi-ethnic neighbourhoods — mostly in Sri Lanka’s bigger cities, it is considered a common — and neighbourly — practice to send your neighbours — especially those from other communities — a plate of food if you’re celebrating something. So at Ramazan, some biryani and wattalappam is pretty much guaranteed; sweets and milk rice will be loaded onto a plate for Avurudhu; and at Christmas, thick wedges of breudher are piled onto plates and dispatched to the neighbours. Everyone gets to enjoy everyone else’s party. What makes this doubly cool is the fact that no one wants to return an empty plate to its owner, so usually there’s a frantic scramble to find something tasty to fill that plate for its return journey.
This is precisely the experience the One Plate Project replicates in a virtual neighbourhood. Hosted on Anything.lk this Avurudhu, the project allows you the chance to buy a plate of food — ideally one belonging to your community — and have it delivered with a personal greeting to a random person from another community. In return, you yourself will receive a surprise plate of food from some other neighbourly stranger off the net. How it works is that one selects one of four plates, each belonging to one of the four major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, and Burgher — and pay for it. All plates are priced the same at Rs 500. That’s it. Your address will be saved on the site, and on delivery day you’ll receive something in return.
The project was launched by Yamu and JWT this New Year, and is planned to run throughout all the major festivals for a full year, culminating next year with the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. To simplify matters, the organisers have decided to stick to just sweets for now which are less perishable and therefore easier to deliver. They have also restricted the project to Colombo for now, but if all goes well we’re likely to see both the menu and the areas expand rapidly over the next year. For now, the Sinhalese plate consists of aasme, konde kevum, kokis, and thala karali; the Tamil plate has jelebi, rava laddu, sweet murukku, and boondi; the Muslim plate is actually a bowl of legendary watalappam; and the Burgher plate gives you the equally famous breudher.
Speaking to me, Indi Samarajeeva, one of the owners of Yamu, said that the “One Plate [Project] is an experiment to see if online food sharing can help bridge divides between communities. Sri Lankans traditionally share food at holidays with their neighbors. One Plate is an attempt to extend that behavior online.” At a time when Sri Lanka has been experiencing a new wave of ethnic tension, Indi went on to say, “We hope that people will take the chance to do something concrete to promote fraternity and goodwill among all the communities of Sri Lanka.”