Veiled Threat: Burqa, Madrasa and the Problem of Radicalisation in Sri Lanka
After over a month-long debate and discussion, the Sri Lankan cabinet, on April 27, 2021, imposed a ban on wearing Burqas (full-face veils in public used by Muslim women) and closing down madrasas (Islamic Seminaries) across the country. The government defended the decision by stating that these restrictions would improve national security and prevent radicalisation in society. As expected, few Islamic countries and groupings termed the decision as anti-Islamic. For example, Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Saad Khattak, tweeted that the ban would “only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe.” On a separate note, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, tweeted that the “burqa bans are incompatible with international law guarantees of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief & of freedom of expression.” The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also condemned the decision. Interestingly, the US and EU member countries, who have been critical of Sri Lanka over human rights violation during anti-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) operations, have been silent on the new counter radicalism step by Sri Lankan government.
The Cabinet panel took the decision that studied the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on the Easter attacks submitted to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on April 5. The Presidential Commission report on the Easter Church attack clearly mentioned the involvement of radical Islamist groups and negligence on the part of the government officials for not taking action on the intelligence input. The Commission report was presented to President Rajapaksa on February 1, 2021. After assuming power, President Rajapaksa appointed the Cabinet panel to study in-depth the findings and recommendations contained in the President Commission report on the Easter Church attacks and to advise on the next course of action.
Interestingly, the cabinet panel report is yet to be made public. The presidential commission report found that former President Maithripala Sirisena and a host of other top defence officials, including former defence secretaries, former inspector general of police and intelligence chiefs were guilty of ignoring prior intelligence inputs. The report recommended criminal action against the officials.
The report allegedly mentioned that nine suicide bombers, belonging to the local Islamist extremist group the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ) linked to ISIS, carried out coordinated blasts on Easter Sunday in 2019. Sharing information about the report with the media, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera said, “Naufer Moulavi was the mastermind (of the Easter bombings). The cleric was assisted by another person identified as Hajjul Akbar.” Interestingly, the report did not mention anything about putting restrictions on Burqa. However, the investigators might have encountered difficulties faced by the security personnel while checking to identify Muslim women in the post-attack period. They might have suspected that the radical groups could misuse the burqa in future.
It would be worth mentioning that the wearing of burqa in Sri Lanka was temporarily banned from April 29, 2019, soon after the Easter Church and hotel bomb attacks. President Sirisena had issued an emergency law to impose restrictions on any face garment which "hinders identification" to ensure security. The attackers had bombed three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 274 people and injuring more than 570 others. Two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (formerly ISIS) have been suspected of the attacks. The police have so far arrested 702 people in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks. Of those, around 202 have been remanded, the terrorist investigation division is investigating 83, and around 80 are being held under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), passed in 1979. As per the PTA, police can detain anyone for months, extract confessions under torture and use the same as evidence. The law has been widely used to detain Tamil youth and political opponents, particularly during the 30-year civil conflict between the state and the LTTE.
Immediately after the imposition of the ban, on April 27, 2021, the government announced extending the detention of Member of Parliament Rishad Bathiudeen and his younger brother Riyaj Bathiudeen for 90 more days under the PTA. The police claimed that the arrest was “based on circumstantial and scientific evidence that they had connections with the suicide bombers who carried out the [Easter Sunday] attacks.” Earlier, the duos were arrested on April 24, 2020, under the PTA. They were released in October after the police failed to substantiate their association with the attacks. Most importantly, Bathiudeen leads the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), a partner of the main parliamentary opposition party, the Samgi Jana Balawegaya, and was a cabinet minister Sirisena government.
Most importantly, before imposing the ban of face veil, the government, on April 14, 2021, had imposed a ban on 11 Muslim organisations, including IS and Al Qaeda and nine local Muslim extremist groups. The gazette notification issued by the president declared that anyone linked to these organisations could be jailed for up to 20 years.
The minority community comprises around 30 per cent of the total 22 million population of Sri Lanka. That includes Hindus (Tamils) 12.6 per cent, Muslims 9.7 per cent and Christians 7.6 per cent. The Buddhists are 70 per cent of the population. Given their unchallenged ethnic domination, the Buddhists, also known as Sinhalese, influence Sri Lankan polity. The asymmetry in the ethnic composition with growing radicalism and Singhala chauvinism, mostly driven by domestic politics, has contributed to perennial insecurity amongst the minorities.
Several media and international groups have reported sporadic attacks on minorities: Tamils, Muslims and Christians in the country. A closer look at the attacks on the minorities by Sinhala extremist Buddhist organisations like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) shows that they have been targeting the minorities for cultural, ethnic and political purposes. The continuation of the attacks for a long period also reflects that certain political parties either have a tacit understanding with the radical groups or is completely subservient to them since they can swing the vote bank during the elections. Perhaps this has emboldened the extremists to continue their attacks on the minority groups.
Both government and private sources have confirmed regular attacks on the minorities in Sri Lanka, especially in the post-civil war period. First, the Colombo Police informed that nearly 20 mosques were attacked in 2013. Second, the Presidential Commission investigating alleged abductions or disappearances of residents in the Northern and Eastern Provinces during the period 1990-2009 pointed out that around 5,000 Muslims had gone missing during the war. Third, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Secretary handed over a special report to Navanethem (Navi) Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, during her visit to Sri Lanka in August last year. According to this special report, there were some 280 incidents of threat and violence against Muslims in 2013 and attacks on mosques and places of businesses. Christian groups also reported more than 103 incidents of attacks on churches and their communities in 2013.
Minority groups’ responses
Given the past experiences of attacks, injustices and political marginalisation by the state, banning Burqa has created panic amongst the Muslim communities. They feel that the low level of confidence among Buddhists-Muslims-Christians and growing suspicion on the Muslims by the Sinhalese and Christian minorities in the post-Easter church incident could trigger ethnic violence in future. The Muslims also view the last year's developments like the forceful cremation of Muslims who died due to COVID-19, the closer of Madrasas, and the prohibition on Burqa as a “racist agenda.” Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Al Jazeera that “they were trying to convince the Buddhists that they are going after Muslims.” Also, many Sri Lankan Muslims have expressed their concerns over social media on government policies targeting them.
Thus the government action to stop radicalising Sri Lanka and enhancing national security has received mixed reactions. Secular, liberal and human rights groups have criticised the decision as anti-Muslim and might encourage further radicalisation of Muslim youths in Sri Lanka. Some foreign media have criticised the decision as a ‘racist agenda’. The action could lead to racial turmoil on the Island. The policy could get the serious attention of international radical Islamic groups, which would extend support to the marginalised community. Some of them have, in fact, questioned if the decision is related to the Presidential Commission report on Easter Church attacks and checking radicalism, then why is it that the same government has not banned the BBS, which is identified as a Buddhist radical group in Sri Lanka.
However, the Sri Lankan government action’s on Burqa is not the first case in the world. Considering the growing radicalism and misuse of Burqa, several European countries, including Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, have banned Burqa. In these countries, Burqa is considered an insult to women’s rights and misuse of the same for anti-state purposes. In that context, Sri Lankan action could be the first in South Asia, which has been a hotbed of radicalism. The success and failure of the Sri Lankan model to prevent radicalism could reframe the counter-radicalism policy in other countries.
The article is part of South Asia Conflict Monitor, May 2021. Also, in the issue, Brief No.1: "Maoist Trends in India: A Combination of Mass and Mine Warfare"; Brief No.2: "Afghanistan Peace Process: An Assessment".