Sri Lanka’s war on terror: burqa ban, draconian Act, ‘deradicalisation’

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Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara said on Saturday that the government would soon ban the burqa. He said he had signed off on the proposal which now requires cabinet and parliamentary approval.

If the ban goes through, as it likely will — the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has a two-thirds majority in Parliament — Sri Lanka will be among a handful of non-Muslim countries, mostly in Europe, where the garment will be outlawed.

2 yrs after Easter bombings

In Sri Lanka, where Muslims comprise less than 10% of the 21 million population — they are mostly Tamil speaking and are mainly engaged in trade and commerce — the burqa ban comes ahead of the troubled second anniversary of the 2019 Easter bombings.

Earlier this year, a government rule that Muslims who died of Covid-19 could not be buried saw community leaders go to court. They lost, but the outrage it caused among Muslim countries led to a rethink. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan also took up the issue publicly ahead of his visit. Up against international criticism at the UN Human Rights Council on the Tamil issue, the government has since allowed the burials.

A Presidential commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the six suicide attacks at churches and hotels in Colombo and in two other places in the country killing 260 people, has submitted its report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But even as the Church urged the government to make the report public, the President appointed a committee of cabinet ministers to “study the report”.

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The committee has been asked to identify “the overall process including the measures that need to be taken by various agencies and authorities such as the Parliament, judiciary, Attorney General’s Department, security forces, State Intelligence services and implementing recommendations as stipulated by PCoI to avert recurrence of a national catastrophe of such magnitude”, according to Sri Lankan media reports.

Along with the burqa ban, Weerasekara announced the government would shut down 1,000 madrasas. The government has also armed itself with new regulations under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain for up to two years for the purpose of ”deradicalisation” of anyone suspected of harbouring extremist ideas, or for spreading religious, communal or ethnic hatred.

Burqa, hijab & national security

In the aftermath of the Easter bombings, the Sri Lankan government had temporarily banned the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women, although it had worded that in ambiguous terms as a ban on all face coverings.

The burqa ban has been officially linked to national security and Islamist extremism.

Weerasekara said the burqa “is something that directly affects our national security… this came to Sri Lanka only recently. It is a symbol of their religious extremism”.

The ban is likely to increase the feeling among Sri Lankan Muslims that they are being collectively punished for the actions of a few in the community. The terrorist group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had claimed responsibility for the attacks days after they took place.

Women’s groups had protested the temporary niqab ban at the time as a two-fold discrimination — against a religion, and against women. There is no community edict in Sri Lanka demanding that Muslim women must wear a burqa. In fact, not many Sri Lankan Muslim women wear it, although more wear it now than previously. But for those who do, as in many other places in the world, it is a matter of personal choice based on identity, or just modesty.

Buddhist-Muslim tensions

The Easter attacks and the “othering” of Muslims that followed have set on edge a minority community that was once seen as better integrated in the national and political mainstream than the Tamils. But even before the deadly attacks, the Muslim community intermittently faced targeting by extremist organisations claiming to represent the majority Buddhist such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhala and Mahason Balaya.

The BBS is the most powerful of these groups as President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa were seen associating with it. The campaigns by these groups have centred on the wearing of hijab, burqa and niqab by Muslim women, and the halal labelling on food packaging, and have led to much tension between the two communities especially in post-war Sri Lanka. Several riots targeting Muslims have taken place over the last decade.

Following Switzerland

Sri Lanka’s burqa ban announcement came close on the heels of the March 8 Swiss ban on the garment, which came after a national referendum. In a sharply worded statement, UN Human Rights Council criticised the Swiss ban as “discriminatory” and “deeply regrettable”.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a statement: “Vague justifications on how the wearing of face coverings would be a threat to safety, health or the rights of others cannot be considered a legitimate reason for such an invasive restriction of fundamental freedoms.”

It added that “in the wake of a political publicity campaign with strong xenophobic undertones, Switzerland is joining the small number of countries where actively discriminating against Muslim women is now sanctioned by law”, which is “deeply regrettable.”

Other countries that have banned the burqa include the Netherlands, Denmark and France.