Sri Lanka’s announcement of banning the burqa and shutting 1000s of madrasas comes at the heels of the 2nd anniversary of the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.
The express reason for this move, as stated by the Minister Of Public Security is to curb religious extremism and safeguard national security. He has made several controversial statements by claiming that- “the burqa is a recent phenomenon…… a foreign dress and a symbol of religious extremism”. The incumbent government of Sri Lanka came to power on the promise of weeding out terrorism and the recent move is a part of that program.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act gives the government wide-sweeping powers to arrest, detain and question anybody on the pretext of preventing terrorist activities. This forms a part of a 2-year de-radicalization program, giving security forces the power to detain terror suspects so that they can be de-radicalized. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s president, promulgated these regulations that allow 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”.
This move can be seen as a part of muscle posturing to give out a hard message- ‘that terrorism will be weeded out of Sri Lanka and it would once again be free and peaceful’. Findings of the 2019 Presidential Commission set up for Easter Sunday attacks had called for the banning of both Islamic extremisms as well as ultranationalist Buddhist groups, which were feeding off one another. These findings form the base of this de-radicalization policy. Sri Lanka has now become the 19th nation throughout the world to put a complete ban on the burqa. Banning burqa to prevent religious extremism can be counterproductive as it can give rise to a possible identity crisis which in turn could fuel resentment.
This would be dangerous to social harmony and societal peace. Moreover imposing certain dress codes especially on those belonging to a minority community can threaten social integration.
Dress codes are always a matter of choice and therefore should not be imposed.
One can say that women have chosen to increasingly wear the burqa in public places to assert their choice and identity whenever they feel that either of them is being threatened by those in the majority or in power. This follows a pattern of linking terrorism to extremist religious beliefs. Such an attitude evolved post 911 attacks in the US and the release of the subsequent White Paper called “The New Terrorist Thesis” which links terrorist activities to extremist religious beliefs. It is a dangerous precedent that is being increasingly adopted throughout the western world. UK’s Prevent Policy is an example in this case.
Religious extremism can’t be weeded out by simply banning a piece of clothing or closing down madrasas. To assume that terrorism is the direct product of adopting extremist and violent religious identity is reductionist and, too simplistic an explanation. What needs to be done instead is to have a look at the experiences, environment, and socio-economic milieus that one has lived in.
These factors are very important in determining whether or not someone would engage in terrorist activities. A comprehensive social and economic package must be formulated and implemented so that there is equitable socio-economic development across all communities. This will lead to equitable distribution of resources and equality of opportunity fostering social harmony and national identity.