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Daesh returnees aren't a threat for Sri Lankan govt — but face veil is

  • Bilge Nesibe Kotan
  • 30 Apr 2019

Sir Lankan Muslim women question the new face veil ban imposed by the government after the Easter Sunday terror attacks, while some of them call it a misstep that encourages anti-Muslim sentiment.

Concerns raised within the Muslim community that the prolonged face veil ban could fuel tensions in the religiously-diverse Sri Lanka. ( Getty Images )

Soon after the Sri Lankan government announced a face veil ban in response to the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the posters marked with red crosses on illustrations of women wearing burqas began circulating on buses and in public places across the country. 

The government ban targeted the religious garment that many Muslim women across the globe wear out of devotion to God. 

Much to everyone's surprise, the ban came as one of the very first ‘counter terrorism’ measures implemented after the government declared a 30-day emergency following the violent attacks that killed more than 350 people, most of them Christians, on April 21.

"I feel that the burqa ban being imposed as a security reason has no connection to the current situation -- the suicide bombers wore a shirt, pants, backpacks and hats," a Sri Lankan school teacher who requested to use a pseudonym Fathimah told TRT World. The 28-year-old also wears a Niqab, a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes open.

For Fathimah, it's unfair to be on the receiving end of the violent act someone else has done. Since Daesh took responsibility for the Easter Sunday attack, she has never considered the self-proclaimed caliphate among the believers and instead refers to the group as ‘so-called Muslims’. 

“Because of a dozen peoples’ grave mistakes, millions of Muslims living in this country will have to take the blow,” she says.

Among the two million Muslims living in Sri Lanka, only a small number of women cover their faces, largely as part of religious practice.

Fathimah believes the government gave in to the pressure mounted by far-right, anti-Muslim groups and announced the ban under the emergency law.

“Certain extremist groups wanted to use the situation to their advantage and create fear so that their agendas will be met. They are the ones who asked the government to impose a ban on the niqab,” she says.

Although Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, police are still looking for concrete leads and evidence that link the attackers to the dreaded terror group.

Days before the choice to wear a burqa was criminalised, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe defended the government's failures in keeping a tab on Daesh returnees, saying that they were aware of their presence, but could not arrest them as "joining a foreign terrorist organisation is not against the [country's] law".

In another interview with CNN, the prime minister said the suspected bombers were educated abroad before returning to Sri Lanka.

As the emergency law comes into effect, the Sri Lankan military is allowed to use a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain suspects without court trials. The government has long been criticised for shielding the armed forces with PTA since 1978 and encouraging state brutalities against minorities.

In the wake of the April 21 attacks, President Maithripala Sirisena called the garment including the face veil as "a security risk and a flag of fundamentalism” -- a statement that raised concerns among rights groups and activists as it could fuel communal tensions and religious discrimination in the country. 

“No indication that recent Sri Lanka bombers covered their faces but Pres Sirisena bans face covering. That needless restriction means that Muslim women whose practice leads them to cover up now won't be able to leave home,’ Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a tweet on Monday. 

To calm tensions and promote social harmony, the country’s Muslim leaders including the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the top body of Islamic scholars in Sri Lanka, spoke in favour of the ban, advising the women of the community to remove face veils in the short term. They however opposed any attempts to legislate the ban in the future.

“In many places, simply banning won't work -- this is something that needs to be engaged with the community and that should be done voluntarily. If you impose laws there might be many groups opposing it and it might end up radicalising more youth,” Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, told TRT World.

He says the response of Muslim leaders was positive and it would help in resolving the conflict. For Hilmy, the ban was implemented not because the Easter Sunday terrorists covered their faces, but to stop them from using Muslim veils and carrying out future attacks, which may lead to a collective punishment of all Muslims. 

“Some supermarkets have signs saying no face cover. Sometimes people who cover their heads with their shawls, even they're harassed because of their Muslim identity,” Ahmed said. 

The supporters of the ban, however, justify it on the grounds of the face veil not belonging to the Sri Lankan culture, while raising security concerns.

“These are foreign practices from the Middle East. Sri Lankan Muslims should understand that they must practice local and traditional Islam,” Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a Professor of Security Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told TRT World

“Terrorists are using face cover...No smart government will permit anyone to use religion to spread extremism or terrorism," he said.

The ban also comes against the backdrop of rising tensions between the country's two million Muslims and the majority Buddhist population. The Tamil minority, which includes Muslims, and Sinhalese Buddhist majority clashed in 2014, when an anti-Muslim riot swept the south of the island.

“The face cover has huge symbolic resonance and has been a trope that was used by the anti-Muslim movement in Sri Lanka. The government, without a doubt is placating these elements and also some within the Muslim community who have been critical of the more “conservative” among them,” Dr Farzana Haniffa, a visiting fellow in the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge told TRT World

“No plausible connection between the face cover and security has been made meriting such a ban… The manner in which the state is legislating to control women’s attire cannot but be critiqued. The Muslims of SL are already under siege,” she said.

As a niqab-wearing woman, Fathima fears that what started as a face veil ban might end up at limiting other practices of Muslims, even though she hopes the ban will be lifted after the end of the emergency. 

Until then, she has decided to stay at home for most of the time and step out only when she's in a dire need. She hasn't figured out how to continue working as a school teacher, though.  

“Nowadays you find many face covered girls going to university or holding high post and social posts-- 20 years back you wouldn’t have found a face covered girl going to university,” Fathima says.

“What the attack has done is taking the face-covered Muslims 20 years back and all the progress our forefathers have fought for.”

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