Lanka struggles to bring itself together three months after the deadly Easter
Sunday attacks, the country’s Muslims continue to face constant scrutiny, with
the security apparatus and reactionary forces turning their violent gaze on
enhanced surveillance across the country since the bombings has disrupted the
educational and economic life of Muslims. Chauvinist groups have repeatedly
called for boycott of Muslim businesses and trade, even though Muslim
communities have unequivocally condemned the Easter blasts attributed to a
local hard-line Islamist group.
Muslim minority, constituting about 10% of the island’s population, has faced
several bouts of violence in the past. The LTTE evicted the Muslims en masse
from the north in 1990 and carried out massacres against them in the east. In
the years following the civil war, hate and violence have largely originated
from Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists, often led by influential saffron-robed
monks. Over the last decade, Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism has primarily
targeted Muslims, whereas previously Tamils earned their ire.
context, there is an urgent need to resist efforts to alienate the Muslim
community. Of greater concern is the systematic targeting of Muslim women
through attempts to regulate their attire and mobility, in the name of
security, as was seen in a circular of the Ministry of Public Administration.
Discrimination began to manifest in every corner of the island following the
blasts, as accounts by Muslim women at a recent forum on coexistence, in
Jaffna, showed. They spoke of harassment in markets, government offices and
hospitals, and their insights challenged reductive, patronising readings of
“the plight of Muslim women”.
pointed to a larger and deeper ideological attack unleashed on them. The
onslaught had originated from different sources: the global Islamophobic
narrative, Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian assertions, glaring economic rivalry
and control of women’s bodies.
dialogue in Jaffna, which included religious leaders and progressive activists
from across the country, helped identify the central challenge of confronting
the powerful ideological attack on Muslims and the need to bust the many
Islamophobic and misogynistic myths that would heighten discrimination.
appears to be a gradual softening of security measures, the myths built around
“dangerous” Muslims continue to circulate. Almost no conversation is had
without the mention of the ‘burqa’, a term that is unfamiliar even among
Muslims in Sri Lanka. Apart from claiming the attire to be a security threat,
the attire is dissected for its suitability in terms of colour, material and
shape, with men asking whether it was imposed or worn out of free will.
It is the
construction of the Muslim woman as the subject of a supposed ‘security
concern’ after the Easter attacks that is giving explicit, racialised speech a
new level of permissibility. Engaging only with the objects of attack, like the
burqa, or the halal certification trade, or Muslim personal law will not suffice
in confronting the centres of power deploying this ideological assault.
prevailing discourse about Muslims, who are widely perceived as prosperous and
upwardly mobile, is related to Sri Lankan politics drifting towards right-wing
xenophobia, exploiting the growing discontent among people due to the
government’s failure to revive the economy to benefit the majority and
establish democratic governance. The starkest manifestation of this is seen in
the resurgent campaigns of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist forces that enjoyed
tacit support by the previous Rajapaksa regime. They have again gained ground,
with an obvious agenda of constructing Muslims as the new enemy for the
‘Sinhala nation’. Again, they turn to Sinhala women implanting fears about threats
to their reproductive ability, and thereby to the Sinhala race.
fabricated stories of forced sterilisation, making contorted claims about a
declining Sinhala population and flagging unsubstantiated statistics on
religious conversions — all unfailingly use a gendered discourse, focusing on
Sinhala women’s bodies. Such an attempt at consolidating a pure Sinhala
Buddhist identity will repress not only Muslims and other minorities, but also
those seen as dissidents within the Sinhala majority community.
presidential elections expected this year, it is the contest for state power
and those political forces seeking to gain electorally by riding on the
anti-Muslim rhetoric that will likely intensify the attacks in the months to
come. In this interregnum of forming new alliances, regressive Tamil and Hindu
nationalist forces too will likely fuel protests against Muslims to gain
of Liberals, the Left
It is not
just the supporters of the Rajapaksa camp who are being swept by the troubling
anti-Muslim sentiments. The complicity of liberal and Left groups in abetting
the discourse makes an alternative politics a challenging task. Influenced by
the global discourse on Islamophobia and ‘Burqa’ bans in the West, these groups
support similar reactions at home.
Muslim women are made the pretext for any urgent calls for liberal reform of
Muslim religious practices, laws, attire, educational institutions and
curriculum in the post-Easter attacks scenario. There is little reflection on
the discursive constructions of saving the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ and how it
might lead to more repression.
underlying focus on women enables the ideological attack on Muslims to permeate
via misogynistic forces deep into society. Even the male Muslim leadership
prohibited women from attending Tarawih prayers in mosques this year, and
responded mutedly to face veil bans.
chauvinist forces are attempting to demonise the entire Muslim community, Left
and liberal actors are engaged in inculcating the Muslim citizen worthy of
acceptance by Sri Lankan society. Liberals adopt a language of tolerance, where
differences are permissible, only as long as they are acceptable to the
mainstream and adhere to majoritarian governance. Their preferred image of a
‘good’ Muslim is one that is synonymous with elite middle-class Muslims,
favouring a return to a romanticised past before the influence of
‘Arabisation’. The liberals claim Muslim religion and lifestyle were Sri Lankan
before working-class migrants returned from the Gulf. The classist liberal
discourse attempts to alienate some Muslims while embracing others as Sri
of different problematic narratives about Muslims is what makes the present
moment in Sri Lankan politics dangerous and slippery. Muslim women are
resisting these attacks by defying the restrictions placed on their mobility
and confronting the myths being spread about their community. However, Muslims
alone cannot take on the ideological onslaught. Only a collective struggle by
progressive sections of society confronting the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist,
global Islamophobic and misogynistic narratives building against Muslims can
prevent the country from heading in the direction of a disastrous, possibly
Kadirgamar is a researcher and a member of the Jaffna People’s Forum for
Source: The Hindu