British foreign policy offends Muslims not only because of Tony Blair's pro-American stance on Iraq and the Middle East, but also because of Britain's thorough indifference to crises faced by smaller Muslim populations outside of Europe. In the past month, as the world focused on Lebanon, with a cursory glance at Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts erupting elsewhere went unnoticed.
One of the worst of these was in Sri Lanka. As Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels clashed after nearly four years of relative peace, some of the worst affected were the country's Muslim population.
Sri Lanka has nearly two million Muslims, amounting to 8% of the population. The fighting that broke out earlier this month was in Muttur, a Muslim-populous town, in eastern Sri Lanka. Like in Lebanon, as air force planes bombed Tamil Tiger attackers, Muttur turned into a ghost town - some 50,000 fled the area. The battle for Muttur left several dead though an official count was never made, and reports of Tamil Tigers executing fleeing Muslim villagers only remain as reports. Muslims are being sheltered in make shift camps and despite the magnanimous effort of aid agencies, local NGOs and activists conditions remain despicable. Overcrowded camps, hungry children and poor sanitation are daily realities for these Muslims with future prospect of returning to bombed out homes.
The tragedy of this story lies in its lack of novelty. The Muslims have been the forgotten minority in the Sri Lankan conflict, harshly affected although they are not protagonists. In the early 90s, the Tamil Tigers committed ethnic cleansing in the areas they controlled, evicting nearly 100,000 Muslims in a two-day period. To this day most Muslims continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons. Through the two decades of conflict Muslims have been victims of continuous abductions, extortions and attacks conducted by the Tigers. One of the most notorious was the 1990 massacre of more than 300 people, including children, hemmed in while worshiping in a mosque in eastern Sri Lanka.
The Muslim population has had its share of burden from the Sri Lankan forces as well. Muslim villages have been used to shield military posts and government forces have used Muslims as pawns by setting up small security units from within the community, making them more vulnerable to attack.
Through all the years of fighting, Britain's response to the conflict - or lack of it - was hardly appreciated by many Sri Lankans. Britain is seen as partially, or some would argue, mainly, responsible for starting the conflict because of the "divide and rule" policy implemented in its colonies. After independence, the ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka became entrenched, and as the majority Sinhalese community led by nationalist sentiments became discriminatory and the Tamils took to militancy, the British conveniently turned a blind eye.
In the late 90s, as Tamil Tigers turned terrorists and were gaining a reputation as global leaders in suicide bombings, Britain saw them as freedom fighters and permitted fund raising and propaganda to take place here. It was not until 2001 that the British decided to ban the Tamil Tigers from operating, but the ban is not always strictly implemented. While fundamentalists who propagate terrorism in the UK are immediately tried and deported, Tamils Tigers who promote their cause seem to be allowed to do so freely.
But the Sri Lankan Muslims' experience with the British has been quite different. Trapped between two majority communities, the British as colonial rulers were supportive of the Muslims and encouraged their economic progress. Though few Muslims even realise it, their distinct sense of identity in Sri Lanka became a reality only because the British sanctioned it. In the late 19th century, Muslim identity was thrown into chaos as the Tamil leadership claimed Muslims were Tamil converts to Islam in a bid to gain more representation in the legislature. The Muslims, devoid of any visionary leadership at the time, struggled to counter the Tamils and eventually used Islam and an imagined Arab ancestry to distinguish themselves. The British accepted it.
Now, a century later, Sri Lankan Muslims are under attack because of their distinct identity and no one seems to care. Though the Muslims have been so severely affected in the conflict and consider the contentious north and east as their homeland they were excluded from the peace process. The international community hailed the talks and ignored their exclusionary nature. This exclusion not only makes Sri Lanka's long term peace prospects unrealistic but it creates another disgruntled community that can turn to violence - and in this case, religious fundamentalism - if it loses confidence in a negotiated process. It is disappointing that countries like Britain overlook the grievances of smaller minorities.
It certainly would be too simplistic to imagine that if the British government championed the causes of these communities they could win the hearts and minds of the UK's own Muslim minority population. But it would at least show that they aren't at war with the whole of the Muslim world. by, Farah Mihlar (Ends)
Farah Mihlar works as media officer at Minority Rights Group Int. She is a Sri Lankan Muslim journalist and academic. She has reported on the country's ethnic conflict for over a decade and is currently doing a PhD on Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim minority contexts.