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A country obsessed with racial and religious conflicts

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Sri Lanka, as a nation has been wasting time debating sensitive racial and religious issues for the past several years, without gaining anything. Only thing the country has been witnessing as a result is communities distancing themselves from each other, while portraying a false unity among them. 
The situation seems to have come to a head with people of various communities being emotionally charged over these issues subsequent to the attacks on three Christian churches and three major tourist hotels by the Islamic terrorists on April 21, 2019, which was also the Easter Sunday.

The terrorist attacks which caught the nation off-guard demanded united action by all communities and political parties to handle the immediate situation and to prevent future recurrence of such barbaric acts, but what really occurred thereafter was something totally unacceptable.

The whole issue was politicized with political parties and their supporters vying to get mileage from the carnage. Media outlets used the situation to rouse communalism, according to their respective political affiliations. Communal forces were seen in full swing in sowing hatred among the masses.
Everybody has since been attempting to identify or tie up all his/her adversaries – political or otherwise - with the perpetrators of the disaster. The immediate upshot was that while the real victim community was waiting to be meted out justice by the authorities for the losses they suffered in terms of lives and limbs, two other communities started to fight over various issues.

The then Trade Minister Rishard Bathiudeen and two provincial governors, Azath Salley and M. L. M. A. Hisbullah were accused of being behind the carnage. However, they are still at large with even the former having received the clean sheet from the top most official of the police. Even the Parliamentary Select Committee and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the terrorist attacks had exonerated them. (Sally was arrested on Tuesday for openly challenging the country’s law, despite him being later said to be questioned in connection with the terrorist attacks).

The debate then turned towards Madrasas - the Muslim religious schools, and Quazi courts, the courts that have been established by the Judicial Service Commission under the Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka. Then a Sinhala newspaper reported that 4000 Sinhalese women had been sterilized by a Muslim doctor called Shafi Shihabdeen, diverting the attention of the country from the terrorist attack. However, with the two main candidates of the Presidential election vying for the minority votes, all these and the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks were forgotten by October 2019.

Four months after the ascension of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President, the COVID-19 entered the country creating another dispute over the disposal of dead bodies of pandemic victims. It was the subject matter for the media and the politicians for a year, with politicians rekindling it whenever its tempo was subsiding. Twice President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa instructed the officials to find a dry land for burial of cadavers of COVID- 19 victims which provoked protests interestingly by pro-government elements. 
Yet, nobody protested when the government had to give up its hardline on the issue, against the backdrop of the UNHRC sessions where some tough measures were proposed against selected authorities in the country over alleged human rights violations. Nevertheless, as if government wanted the debate to be dragged on the authorities first decided to bury the bodies in Iranaithivu, an island 20 km off the mainland in the Kilinochchi District, before they were sent to Ottamavadi.

In the meantime, another controversy was about to be opened with the Prime Minister submitting in September last year, a proposal to ban cattle slaughter to the Cabinet. However, it only provoked few demonstrations and “voice cuts” in favour of the government and the Cabinet decision vanished into thin air. It was later revealed that the decision had been taken while the South Asia’s largest meat processing factory was being built in Katunayake Investment Promotion Zone. The factory was opened on December 12.

As if the tension between the Sinhalese and the Muslims did not suffice, government ministers wanted to abolish the provincial council system that was introduced under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Subsequent to the issue cropping up during the ongoing UNHRC session, now the government is to hold the provincial council elections soon, despite there being legal issues to be sorted out before calling nominations for the elections. 
Then came the report compiled by the Presidential Commission that probed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. It too contributed to the heightening of communal tension rather than to a healthy debate on how to mete out justice to the victims of the carnage and how to prevent recurrence of such terrorist attacks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 12 issued an extraordinary gazette (2218/68) under the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for “De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology.” The gazette, despite it having not literally aimed at arrest of extremism among Muslims in this country is nothing but a move to control the activities of Muslims that might be harmful to the society. Also it seems to have stemmed from the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the terrorist attacks on the Easter Sunday in 2019.

Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara on last Friday said that he had signed a Cabinet paper to ban unregistered Madrasas, the Islamic religious schools and Burqa a face veil worn by some Muslim women. However, again the government said it will decide on Burqa after consulting relevant stakeholders. The backtracking seems to be a result of two tweets by the Pakistani High Commissioner Saad Khattak and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ahmad Shaheed, expressing their displeasure over the proposed ban.

Despite the possibility of the gazette on “De-radicalization” and the Burqa ban too falling into the category of maintaining the communal heat, a healthy and constructive debate on the purpose of them is essential. Whatever the modalities of implementation proposed by the gazette are, one cannot contest the purpose of it which prescribes rehabilitation of those indoctrinated with violent extremist ideologies.

There is no assurance that all those brainwashed by the extremists who killed 269 people on the Easter Sunday two years ago, have been put behind bars or at least identified. Former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who was also a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee that probed the Easter Sunday carnage, citing CID officials say that hundreds of those who had been indoctrinated by Zahran Hashim’s National Thawheed Jama’ath (NTJ) must be at large. Whatever the number may be, it is acceptable that a killer ideology would not vanish overnight just because the apparent major players have been killed or arrested.

It was revealed during the investigations that the terrorists had first targeted the Kandy Esala Perahera and the police after the attacks on churches and hotels had announced that they were planning to attack what are known as “Hubbu Mosques,” the mosques with the graves of Islamic saints. Therefore no community could be assured of their safety unless the killer ideology is arrested. 
However, the gazette gives the responsibility of identifying the radicals to the police. And there wouldn’t be trial by the courts of law either. With regard to the radicalization among Muslims, are the police competent enough to ideologically differentiate the radicals and the ordinary Muslims to weed out the former, without being influenced by the various media hypes and politicians?

In fact, face veil is a controversial issue among Muslims as well. The point expressed by the Pakistan and the UN was that the ban would marginalize a community. But, on the other hand, the people concerned have to accept the fact that the face veils such as Burqa and Niqab are counterproductive in terms of integration of various communities.
However, the country must dedicate its time and energy mainly for a fruitful debate on economic and social development, rather than wasting time on communal issues that are detrimental to the social progress and useful only to power-hungry politicians.


Burqa ban: Security, human rights and male chauvinism

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A few years ago, on a Turkish beach exclusively for women, a bikini-clad woman offered her prayers. The video clip of the woman going through the postures of the Muslim prayer went viral and created a major debate among the Muslims.  Some censured her for not adhering to the dress code for prayers, but others said what mattered was her piety and not the dress.

Following the release of the Easter Sunday terror attack commission report, Sri Lanka is mulling whether to ban burqa – the Muslim dress that covers a female body from head to toe – and niqab, which only shows the eyes of the wearer, but the issue needs to be looked at from human rights, security and spiritual angles to come to a right decision.
If at the one end of the spectrum is public nudity, burqa will be at the other end. As civilized people, we denounce public nudity as indecent. But neither do we depict burqa as the highest form of modesty. Both extremes need to be shunned.

We are born naked but soon we are clothed by our parents or caregivers to protect ourselves from the elements and also as an adornment. As we grow up, we wear clothes also to cover our private parts. Scriptures tell us that Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity after they disobeyed God and discovered their shame. 
But there are tribes who wear no clothes. They are not ashamed of their nakedness. But such indigenous people live in isolation and remain deprived of the benefits of the civilization-building process.

The general understanding is that as human beings, we wear clothes to protect ourselves from the elements, as an adornment and to cover parts of our bodies which are sexually attractive to the opposite sex, depending on one’s threshold of modesty.  The consensus is that we should be clothed in public. As to how much to cover is a matter that is diversely defined, depending on culture, social norms and individuality.  In South Asia, saree is regarded as a form of modest clothing for women as it covers much of their torsos and the legs, but in the Middle East, saree is seen as not-so-modest as it exposes the midriff. 
Just as the choice of clothes is our right, one may argue that the freedom to be nude or the freedom to be scantily clad -- depending on one’s interpretation of modesty -- is also a human right.

However, even in liberal societies, where shortness is promoted by men as women empowerment after the miniskirt revolution of the 1960s, the freedom to be nude is curtailed. In those countries, although courts have recognised nudity as freedom of expression, they also recognise that nudity should be regulated through legislation as it causes public disorder. The consensus is that nudity should be disallowed unless it is the norm. 
Whether burqa, niqab or hijab – the scarf that covers the head and the chest -- is worn due to choice or coercion, human rights jurists have defended a person’s right to wear them. This was confirmed in the 2018 ruling of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The Committee ruled that France had violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqab.

It found that the French niqab ban disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs, and that France had not adequately explained why it was necessary to prohibit this clothing. The Committee said it was not convinced by France’s claim that the ban was necessary and proportionate from a security standpoint or for attaining the goal of “living together” in society.

The Committee acknowledged that States could require that individuals show their faces in specific circumstances for identification purposes, but considered that a general niqab ban was too sweeping for this purpose. 
The Committee also concluded that the ban, rather than protecting fully veiled women, could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them.
Recently, in Switzerland, people voted in a referendum in favour of a niqab ban, though the Government said it was not for the ban but would prefer a mechanism whereby the wearers would be required to reveal their facial identity on request for security purposes.

The ban on burqa and niqab in many countries is justified on the basis of public security, with these clothing types being seen as symbols of extremism and oppression or enslavement of women rather than expression of spirituality.  On security grounds, even several Muslim countries have banned burqa and niqab.  They include Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In Muslim Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, even hijab is banned. In secular Turkey, hijab had been banned in public institutions until Islamic-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan lifted the restriction in 2013.
While burqa and niqab have become serious human rights and security topics, there is a perennial debate among Muslims on whether Islam really pushes for burqa and niqab.  Islam accords prime importance to modesty and bashfulness -- known as Haya in Arabic – and it is part of faith.

Although from a security perspective, the full covering of the female body is being seen as a threat, the spiritually inclined in all major religions may say the more we make ourselves sexually less attractive to others with our clothing and behaviour the more righteous will be our conduct. Look at the nuns and the Bhikkunis. 
Interpreting the Quran and the prophet’s tradition, some scholars, especially those of the hardline Salafi and Wahhabi order, say rather unconvincingly that niqab or burqa is wajib or a must. They believe the entire body of a woman, including her shape, is her private part and therefore should be covered, lest she becomes an object of lust to be ogled by men.

But those who say niqab or burqa is not compulsory also put forward Quranic verses and prophet’s sayings. They insist a woman needs to cover her head and the bosom, but her face and hands could be exposed. Some progressive scholars point out that the problem is not with women but with men, for the Quranic command to ‘lower thy gaze’ or be chaste in thoughts and action is addressed first to men and then to women. Did not Jesus Christ ask men not to look at a woman lustfully, for if they do they have already committed adultery with her in their hearts?

There is much male chauvinism in the pro-niqab/burqa camp, with male scholars trying to impose their hardline interpretations on the females whose views are rarely sought or respected.  
Amidst views and counterviews between the human rights and security schools of thought, the golden means, perhaps, is to impose a temporary restriction based on the security threat which needs to be assessed from time to time with a view to lifting the ban. 
Ironically, at a time when we struggle to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the facemasks we wear to protect ourselves from the virus have made us -- women and men -- niqabis or niqab wearers. Hence the move to ban niqab may appear ridiculous.


South African Muslim bodies seek intervention over burqa ban in Sri Lanka Foreign Minister of South Africa urged to intervene

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South African Muslim organisations have called on the country’s foreign minister to intervene in the proposed Sri Lankan ban on the burqa and closure of hundreds of Islamic schools.

This followed the announcement by Sri Lanka''s minister for public security, Sarath Weerasekera, during the weekend that his country would ban the traditional full-face covering worn by some Muslim women because it posed a threat to national security.

This was quickly followed by a statement from the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, which said a decision would only be taken on the proposal after consultations and further discussion.

The United Ulama Council of South Africa (UUCSA) has now asked South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor to intervene in the matter.

UUCSA had earlier also called for such intervention when Sri Lanka decided that Muslims should also be cremated rather than buried, in defiance of Muslim requirements, which prohibit cremation. The cremation ruling was rescinded later.

“The UUCSA will once again appeal to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation to engage with its counterparts to stop state-sanctioned Islamophobia,” Yusuf Patel, the secretary-general of UUCSA, told the weekly Post.

“Muslims in Sri Lanka have become targets of virulent hate speech in mainstream and social media. The ban on the burqa and the closure of schools are meant to appease Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, who thrive on entrenching sectarian and religious divides through hate propaganda,” Patel said.

Adding its voice to the call for action against Sri Lanka, the South African Muslim Network (Samnet) said it was hypocritical of the Sri Lankan government to target Islamic schools.

“There are other religious groups who also have institutions that teach their religious teachings, but there has been no attempt to target those,” Samnet chairperson Dr Faisal Suliman told the weekly.

“Such moves like this, on the Muslim community, will likely give rise to radicalism, fundamentalism and underground movements, which will in fact be a greater source of insecurity than working with religious schools, interacting with them and looking at the syllabi taught. By doing this, they will be ensuring that there are standards and uniformity of the teachings.”

Suliman said Samnet would express its concerns to both the local foreign ministry as well as the Sri Lankan embassy in South Africa. (PTI)


Banning Burqas and Madrasas illegal: Fmr MP

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Former MP M.M .Zuhair said yesterday it would be unlawful to ban Burqas and Madrasas.

Issuing a statement, he said some observations and recommendations of the Commission on Easter Sunday attacks are invasive of the absolute protection given to every person under Article 10 of the Sri Lanka Constitution.

He said the Commission’s report though good in parts, can be seen as an attempted assault on Islam for the heinous crimes of a dozen suicide bombers.

The right to the freedom stated in Article 10 is ‘assured to all religions’ under Article 9. No one, not even Presidential Commissions can invite or promote the State or any limb of the Executive or Judiciary to violate the freedom guaranteed under Article 10.This protection is guaranteed notwithstanding any national security concerns, as the law stands today.

In this constitutionally protected background, the statement made on Saturday by a government Minister that he has signed and gazetted his order banning the right of women to wear Burqa styled dress and that Madrasas will also be banned soon, stands condemned as a violation of Article 10 read with Article 9 of the Constitution.

In addition to the violation of the Constitution, the first of the two constitutes an unlawful attack on the honour and reputation of women as declared in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty to which Sri Lanka is a party.


Pakistan says likely ban on Niqab in SL to serve as injury on Muslims

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The Ambassador of Pakistan to Sri Lanka, Saad Khattak today said the likely ban on Niqab in Sri Lanka will only serve as an injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe.

In a tweet, the Ambassador said that at today’s economically difficult time due to COVID-19 pandemic and other image related challenges faced by the country at the international fora, such divisive steps in the name of security, besides accentuating economic difficulties, will only serve as fillip to further strengthen wider apprehensions about fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.

Minister of Public Security Rear Admiral (Retd.) Dr. Sarath Weerasekera said today that in addition to banning the burqa, the cabinet proposal would also include banning the niqab which covers the face of the wearer except the eyes. The burqa includes a full face cover, with a mesh on the eyes.


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