Muslims living in Sri Lanka will face new restrictions as the government announced that it will ban wearing of body covering burqa and shut more than 1,000 Islamic schools.
The government also announced a measure to deal with “religious extremism” by promulgating a controversial anti-terror law under which it will get sweeping powers to detain “suspects” for up to two years for “de-radicalisation”.
Minister for Public Security Sarath Weerasekera told a news conference on Saturday he had signed a paper on Friday for cabinet approval to ban the burqa, worn by some Muslim women, on “national security” grounds.
He called burqa “a sign of religious extremism that came about recently. We are definitely going to ban it.”
Weerasekera also announced plans to ban more than 1,000 Islamic schools saying that they were flouting national education policy.
The government’s moves on burqas and schools follow an order last year mandating the cremation of COVID-19 victims, against the Muslim tradition who bury their dead. The ban was lifted after criticism from the United States and international rights groups.
Shreen Saroor, a Sri Lankan peace and women’s rights activist, said the moves come “at a time when the Muslim community has been constantly targeted”.
“It’s part of the Islamophobic reaction in Sri Lanka,” Saroor added.
She called the measures a “punishment” for the Muslim community and added that they were not consulted before finalising the legislation.
Citing the fact that the wearing of the mask has been made compulsory in the country during the coronavirus pandemic, Saroor said the burqa “looks [like] a very political revenge move”.
The wearing of the burqa in the majority-Buddhist nation was temporarily banned in 2019 after the Easter Sunday bombing of churches and hotels by armed fighters that killed more than 250 people.
The move drew a mixed response, with activists saying it “violated Muslim women’s right to practise their religion freely”.
Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected president in 2019, after promising a crackdown on “extremism” promulgated regulations allowing the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities”.
The rules, effective on Friday, have been set up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which local and international rights groups have repeatedly asked Colombo to repeal.
“Anybody can be arrested for saying anything,” said Saroor, calling Act “very problematic”.
Muslims make up about 9 percent of the 22 million people in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese Buddhists account for some 75 percent of the population.