Sri Lankan Muslims cope with anti-Islam sentiments after terror attack

From a veil ban to the boycotting of Muslim shops, the Islamic community is under pressure
Sri Lankan Muslims cope with anti-Islam sentiments after terror attack

Sri Lankan Muslims offer prayers on the first day of Eid al-Fitr at the Grand Mosque in capital Colombo on June 5. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
June 26, 2019
Shamina Bakeer for many years wore a face veil out of modesty, but also because it made her feel more free to travel.

Since the terrorist bombing attacks on Easter Sunday that claimed 253 lives, women in Sri Lankan capital Colombo have been subjected to a ban on the public wearing of face coverings.

This decision was taken by the government as a security measure to stop perpetrators of violence hiding behind such apparel in the wake of the April attacks that mostly targeted Christians.

Thirty-year-old Shamina, a mother of two, welcomed previously being able to move around without being identified either as an old or young woman.

Shamina is a strong believer in strict Islamic requirements in relation to the way women dress. Since the ban came into force, she has not gone out from her home, not even to her local mosque. She has also been forced to suspend teaching at an institute for Muslim women.

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Shamina and other women hope the situation will change, but for now she accepts that the ban was imposed for security reasons and not as a form of religious discrimination.

Outside Colombo, when visiting relatives, there are even greater pressures to conform to Islamic modesty and in a small community she was instantly recognizable.

Members of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka are faced with the negative attitudes of many non-Muslims as well as divisions in the Islamic community itself, said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, an academic who heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

He noted that there is a general bias that Muslims want to take over the country. However, greater tolerance is needed because such scaremongering is not backed by historical facts, he said.

For example, many in the broader Muslim community consider supporters of militant groups to be extremists. "Certain elements want to set themselves apart," Saravanamuttu told ucanews.com.

However, he noted that Muslims who recently demolished a mosque belonging to the now-banned National Thowheed Jamath organization should not be condoned.

The social activist pointed out that wearing the burqa is not a requirement sanctioned by the Quran and that it leads to "suspicion and distrust".

Muslims are being subject to a wide-ranging backlash to the terrorist bombings, including on the business front. "I don't know how long it will take to get rid of this prejudice, but it will happen eventually,” Saravanamuttu said.

In this context he believes the government should more strongly push for reconciliation, including by taking a tough stand against hard-line Buddhist monk Gnanasara Thero, who has been accused of inciting communal hatred.

Muslim activist Deshabandu Jezima Ismail, who was educated in a Catholic convent, believes that provocateurs were behind recent communal Buddhist attacks on Muslims.

She too agreed that Muslims should look for ways to connect with members of other faiths. However, she is concerned that women having to stop wearing face-covering veils would feel a loss of "confidence and poise".

Ismail pointed out that the boycotting of Muslim businesses could wane once the Islamic community is able to step by step win back the confidence of others.

Traditionally, Muslims have been afforded freedom of religious practice and can conduct festivals and other cultural events in Sri Lanka.

"All people lived together very well," Ismail said.

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