On March 13, Sri Lankan Public Safety Minister Sharath Weresekar announced that the government would ban the burqa and close more than a thousand Islamic schools in the country. The minister was quoted as saying that the “burqa” was a “symptom of religious extremism” and had a “direct impact on national security”.
The news was reported internationally and resulted in multiple statements by human rights organizations and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Faith, Ahmed Shahid, and the Pakistani ambassador to Sri Lanka. Three days later, the government withdrew from Birsek’s statement. Cabinet spokeswoman Kehelia Rambukwela announced that the decision was “time consuming” and a consultative process.
The announcement of the burqa ban caused a stir among Muslims, who saw it as another attack on their community. In the past few months, the government has taken a number of controversial steps under the banner of fighting extremism, intimidating the growing Muslim population and disregarding legal principles.
Since independence from the British in 1947, Sri Lanka has seen turbulent relations between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, about 70 percent, and the Hindu and Christian Tamil minorities, about 12 percent. During the war between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), other minorities, such as Muslims, who were about nine percent less likely to be targeted by the ultimately nationalist Sinhala group.
After the end of the civil war in 2009, an anti-Muslim movement began with the monk Galabod Ate Gyansar, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The BBS is a group of activists led by Buddhist monks who gathered around what they described as the threat posed by “social separatism” by “extremist Muslims”. Their definition of extremism, however, seems to revolve around the daily practice of most Muslims.
The massive public rallies of the BBS and their intense social media campaigns have normalized the hate speech and the daily low-intensity harassment of Muslims across the country. The incitement by the BBS and the development of anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-war years led to violent attacks against small Muslim communities in 2014, 2017 and 2018. The BBS allied itself with the same group in Myanmar.
Following these incidents, local authorities have not taken serious action against the BBS and other similar groups and in some cases have blamed Muslims for the violence.
In 2012, anti-Muslim hatred escalated after eight suicide bombers pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in churches, hotels and other places across the country on East Sunday. There is evidence of failure to acquire the intelligence available by the security establishment and negligence on the part of the political leadership. However, later media coverage of the event and discussions on government policy primarily targeted the country’s Muslim population.
Experts have rarely mentioned the role of the anti-Muslim movement in extremistizing local Muslims. In May, there were violent retaliatory attacks against the Muslim community in the northwest.
The government’s response to the attack was to adopt the BBS’s anti-Muslim language and arrest suspected followers of the group responsible for the bombing.
Since then, the government has indiscriminately targeted a number of prominent Muslims without any evidence of their wrongdoing. In April 2020, police arrested a lawyer named Hijaz Hezbollah on suspicion of aiding the attackers. Then in May 2020, the young Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazim was arrested on the same pretext. Recently, former Jamaat-e-Islami leader Hajzul Akbar was re-arrested without charge and detained for a second time.
Following the Easter Sunday attack, a parliamentary departmental oversight committee on national security was formed to jointly propose counter-terrorism measures. It recommends 14 cases, most of which violate the religious rights of the Muslim minority.
The ban on burqas and the abolition of Islamic schools began with these recommendations, as have a number of other recent steps. In early March, the government announced that all Islamic books imported into the country would require the approval of the Ministry of Defense. Several days later, it gazetted a set of provisions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act entitled “Disregarding Violent Extremist Religious Ideals.” These rules give people the power to “arrest” people on suspicion and “rehabilitate” them for one year in a rehabilitation center without any additional procedure.
Apart from the above, the government has also sought other ways to intimidate the country’s Muslims. When the Kovid-19 epidemic spread to Sri Lanka in the spring of 2020, they imposed a mandatory cremation policy for Kovid-19 dead and did not allow Muslims to bury their bodies according to their religion.
The option of burying Muslims on religious grounds was written and discussed as “tribal” and “backward” and as a reprehensible behavior in the midst of a public health emergency. Despite World Health Organization guidelines emphasizing condemnation and office protection at home and abroad, the government has maintained its position for almost a year. Burial was recently allowed under international pressure.
Demonstrating Muslims as a political tactic
Sri Lanka’s political elites have consistently demonized minorities and incited ethnic-religious monasticism to win elections. After the end of the war in 2009, when the government glorified the victory over the Tamil Tigers, hostility against all other minorities, especially Muslims, was renewed.
The Rajapaksa family, which has dominated the political scene in Sri Lanka since 2005, was involved in farming until their electoral defeat in the 2015 elections. During their post-2015 political campaign, Rajapaksa’s new party, the Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), took a Sinhalese hegemonic position, uniting activist monks and opponents of the anti-Muslim movement.
Statements about Muslim business pride as a challenge to the ascent of Sinhalese entrepreneurs were widely used by Muslims to form conspiratorial or terrorist threats to retain the dignity of the Sinhalese majority.
In October 2018, Rajapaksa took a significant push. Former President and then MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with President Maithripala Sirisena, staged a coup to take control of the government. They were defeated when the Supreme Court dropped their claim of legitimacy and as a result the Rajapaksa brand suffered some damage.
The bombing of 2019 reinforces Rajapaksa’s family politics and helps to overcome the unhappiness of the moment they were fighting. The Rajapaksa immediately subsequently tried to bomb their political advantage. They accused the ruling government of neglecting reunification with minorities and neglecting security. When, several months later, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was nominated as the SLPP’s presidential candidate, he announced on his platform:
Using anti-minority and pro-protection rhetoric, Rajapaksa won the presidential election by a high percentage of Sinhala Buddhist votes and appointed his brother, Mahinda, as the former president. At every opportunity since then, the president has reiterated his commitment to the majority and outlined his steps to fight Islamic extremism, and the government has moved forward with anti-Muslim policies.
In this context, the recent spate of anti-Muslim anti-government activities, including the burqa ban, will not only reduce the damage caused by the relocation of the Kavid-19 mausoleum, but also prevent the ongoing failure of the Rajapaksa administration. The cabinet is facing outrage over a massive tax scandal, growing opposition to the approval of the forest ban and growing public concern over the economic downturn. Perhaps anti-Muslim activities will increase if their popularity continues to decline.
But the government’s anti-Muslim policies could backfire. In March, it faced a defeat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which passed a resolution empowering the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect and preserve information on war crimes committed during the civil war. The proposal came after some Muslim-majority countries abstained from voting, losing the support of their governments. Its COVID-19 response to the resolution included references to the government’s treatment of Muslims and the continued marginalization of minorities.
The inability of the present government to mobilize the current constituency around anything other than ethnic-religious animosity is the legacy of Sri Lanka’s post-independence politics that seems likely to continue in the long run. The UNHRC resolution was a welcome development. However, the outlook for the country’s minorities is still bleak. Ten years after a devastating war, Sri Lankan politics shows little evidence of learning from its past.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the author and his editorial position on Al Jazeera.