Following the footsteps of European countries like France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Bulgaria, Sri Lanka has proposed a ban on the burqa, a garment worn by Muslim women to cover the face and body. In addition, the government has also proposed the closing of over a thousand madrassas (Islamic schools) across the country. The Minister of Public Security, Sarath Weerasekera, argues that the wearing of burqas is a sign of increasing religious extremism in Muslim circles. According to Weerasekera, the new policy is in efforts to curb extremism and strengthen national security. However, these bans undeniably violate human rights and religious freedom. Only a small minority of Muslim women choose to wear the burqa, and banning the garment will only increase their marginalization.
The 2019 Easter Sunday bombings killed over 270 people in churches and hotels. The groups responsible for the bombing were home-grown and had links to the terrorist organisation ISIS. Since then, hate crimes against Muslims have risen in the country and the government has pledged to crack down on extremism. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, the government imposed a temporary burqa ban in 2019 that saw emboldened individual discrimination against not just women who wear the burqa, but also the hijab. The latest ban is only the latest instalment in the series of Islamophobic actions against the minority Muslim population (9.7%) in Sri Lanka.
Forced Cremations and Systemic Discrimination
The proposal comes after the Sri Lankan government forcibly cremated around 350 Muslims who died of COVID-19 in the past year. For a Muslim, proper Islamic burial rituals are one of the most important aspects of the faith. Thus, the government’s move to enact the restriction on burials is extremely insensitive to the Muslim community. After months of criticism from human rights organizations, the government lifted the ban on religious burials in February 2021. The World Health Organization has long clarified that the burial of victims posed no threat to public health. However, right-wing groups in the country pushed the narrative that releasing the bodies of COVID-19 victims to their families would allow Muslims to “weaponize” the virus and spread it to non-Muslims.
In 2018, similar propaganda spread, primarily through social media, blaming Muslims for secretly planting contraceptives in food eaten by the Buddhist Sinhalese population. Such claims were supported by prominent members of the Sinhalese community, such as one of Sri Lanka’s senior Buddhist monks, Gnanarathana Thero. In 2019, Thero also called his supporters to stone Muslims to death.
Sinhala Buddhist businesspeople have also propagated these Islamophobic narratives in order to boycott and target Muslim shops to eliminate Muslim competitors. Furthermore, visibly Muslim people (women who cover and men who keep beards) in Sri Lanka reportedly experience verbal as well as physical harassment in employment and business. A lot of these divisions across sectarian lines can be dated back to British colonialism. For example, casual use of the racialized slur ‘thambiya’ is still very common across Sri Lanka. Thambiya means ‘younger brother’ in Tamil. The use of the word to refer to Muslims reinforced the construction of racial hierarchies during British colonialism.
Turning a Blind Eye
Instead of protecting Sri Lanka’s Muslim population from mob attacks and controlling the spread of misinformation, Sri Lankan authorities are afraid to persecute perpetrators as the government would risk alienating influential Buddhist leaders and the general Sinhalese population. In many instances, law enforcement is complicit in the attacks that take place against Muslims.
Under the guise of national security counterterrorism efforts, Sri Lankan Muslims have also suffered an increase in arbitrary arrests over menial charges such as possessing the Quran or other Arabic texts. Most of these arrests are under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a law that has allowed law enforcement to abuse their powers in a justified manner. Furthermore, it has become easy for Buddhist nationalists to blame the Muslim population for the economic struggles that the country is currently facing, including the control of the living cost in the poorer rural areas and small towns. Groups that instigate violence against Muslims often rally those of low socioeconomic status in Sri Lankan society.
The blame placed on the Muslim community and waves of riots in the past decade have deepened the country’s sectarian divides. The current government has also exacerbated these tensions in the past few years. Under the anti-Muslim rhetoric of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, minority Muslims and Hindu Tamils were openly victimized and attacked. In 2014, clashes between Muslims and Sinhalese in Aluthgama in southern Sri Lanka left 3 Muslims dead and over 78 people injured. The violence demonstrated on that day showed the extent to which divisions were being exacerbated. Further, the Easter Sunday attacks were used as a political tool to gain support from the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization Bodu Bala Sena, and push the current government’s Islamophobic agenda.
The proposal to ban the burqa and shut down madrassas still needs the approval of the cabinet and members of parliament. Although government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella recently stated that the decision to ban a religious garment is a serious and difficult one, the government’s proposal is indicative of the dangerous direction that Sri Lanka is moving in. Country-wide systemic discrimination against Sri Lanka’s Muslim population will only further alienate the minority population and sow seeds of hate in Sri Lankan society.
In the long term, the government and law enforcement need to take active steps to hold perpetrators accountable for violence and verbal discrimination against Muslims. There also needs to be greater awareness of the minority populations and the dispelling of Islamic extremist propaganda.