A Moment of Opportunity in Sri Lanka for Accountable Leadership

Last month, I wrote about how New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern stepped up and showed the entire world what accountable leadership looks like in the face of a crisis. This month, in the face of another crisis, I have a much sadder story to tell.

As you may remember, Ardern not only vowed protection of Muslim refugees following the horrific mosque attacks in Christchurch, but she also made a point of visiting personally with the grieving Islamic community, wearing the traditional headscarf worn by observant Muslim women. She did this while the cameras were rolling and while she knew the world was watching — not to further her own political career, but to make absolutely sure that the world knew, and specifically that the world’s Muslims knew, that she stood in full solidarity with the victims of the massacre. This is accountable leadership.

In so doing, she followed through on two of the critical commitments accountable leaders make:  “It’s all of us” and “We stand together when all hell breaks loose.” It is worth noting that she did this immediately after the attacks.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the unspeakable bombings in Sri Lanka, which were explicitly claimed as retaliation for the Christchurch attacks, there has been no such global moment of leadership. And that is a tragedy.

Christians, like Muslims, are a minority population in Sri Lanka. They were just attacked in one of the worst terrorist incidents on record. The leaders of Sri Lanka, as well as the leaders of the Muslim communities within that country, have a moral duty to provide accountable leadership at this moment. They have a duty to clearly send the messages “It’s all of us” and “We stand together when all hell breaks loose.” They must also send the message to Sri Lanka’s Christians, to the world’s Christians, and to the global community, believing and otherwise, that they are absolutely committed to providing a safe space for Christian religious observance. So far, that has not happened.

This, then, is a moment that is crying out for accountable leadership — and if I may say so, a moment that is in particular need of accountable leadership from leaders in the Muslim community. I would draw attention to the reality that Ardern consciously chose a high-profile venue and a high-profile moment to grieve publicly with the victims of the terrorist assault in New Zealand, in their places of worship. The time for Muslim community leaders to do the same, and to make absolutely sure the world’s media outlets accurately relay the depth of their compassion for those who lost family members (which, based on the news coverage so far, I know they feel), and the strength of their commitment to standing together, is right now.

Some may say that arranging this kind of media event is “only symbolism.” At a time like this, symbols matter. And here is why: What we permit in our space, we condone. If, at this moment, we do not make a global statement that we are committed to the right values…if we do not let the world know that we are willing to take a stand for “it’s all of us,” for “we all deserve a safe space”…then we are no better than the animals who bombed those churches on Easter morning. And we are better than that.

There is a moment of opportunity in Sri Lanka now. It will not last long. I hope accountable leaders in the realms of government and religion take advantage of it.


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