In a recent announcement, Sri Lanka said it will soon ban burqas and face coverings in public as well as shut down over 1,000 Islamic schools. Affecting the country’s Muslim population, the move was cited as “on the grounds of national security” and comes two years after the Easter Sunday bombing in 2019. According to Minister for Public Security Sarath Weerasekara, a paper has been signed by him for the burqa ban and has been sent to cabinet ministers for approval, and will need the same from the Parliament. While the Sri Lankan government has never officially banned burqas, a temporary ban was ordered after the 2019 church bombings which killed more than 260 people.
Addressing reporters at a Buddhist temple Minister Weerasekara said, “The burqa has a direct impact on national security. It is a sign of religious extremism that came about recently. We will definitely ban it.” He also said the Islamic schools known as madrassas will be shut down as they are not registered and have been flouting national education policy. Hilmi Ahmed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told the BBC that, “no objections would be raised by anyone to remove the face cover for identity purposes if officials have problems identifying people in burqas.” Stressing on the fact that everyone has the right to wear face coverings, he said “this has to be seen from a rights point of view, and not just a religious point of view.”
The Sri Lankan government, especially the Rajapaksa rule, has a long list of accusations lined against them for targeting the minorities in their country. While it is taken into consideration that national security is important and identification of people by officials is also necessary, the ban for just the Muslim community is excessive. It’s been a decade and the people of Sri Lanka are still recovering from the civil war that grappled the country, and targeting a different minority is not the way to go. Moreover, it is very evident from the 2019 bombings that ISIS has been actively recruiting Muslims for their cause which necessitates the need to tread carefully. While they can take action against groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS, the government cannot attack the Muslim population as a whole. To ensure peace is maintained the government needs to learn from the mistakes that the US and other governments have made in the past when it comes to sidelining the Muslim community. By creating fear and promoting Islamophobia, the government is giving way to discrimination and the harbouring of ill-feelings against the community. The government needs to understand that the minorities such as the Tamil and Muslim communities cannot be suppressed and are a part of the country.
These moves came after the government made the cremations of all COVID-19 victims mandatory against the wishes of Muslims, who bury their dead. The ban on burials was later lifted after it drew heavy criticisms from the United States and other international rights groups. A new resolution has been called in the United Nations over the mounting human rights concerns, including the treatment of Muslims. Buddhists account for more than 70 per cent of the 22 million people, with ethnic minority Tamils, among whom the majority are Hindus making over 15 per cent, and Muslims nine per cent.
Moreover, recent regulations have been set under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), “which allows the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities.” This move undermines the individual freedom and civil liberties of the people and represents an autocratic leadership. The Rajapaksa government faces allegations of war crimes being committed during the civil war against the Tamils in the 1983-2009 conflict that killed at least 100,000 people, mostly civilians from the minority Tamil community.
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