Anti-Muslim Discrimination in Sri Lanka

Anti-Muslim Discrimination in Sri Lanka

The future points towards the development of a mature global culture. Different people worldwide will share a common set of beliefs and practices, despite differences such as nationality, religion, race, or ethnicity. Key contributors to the development of a global culture include the necessary existence of a global economy as well as exponential growth in technology through which solutions such as social media platforms create a virtual community that is sustained by the continuous sharing of cultures. As a result, the global community and monitoring bodies such as United Nations view a culture of inclusivity as both necessary as well as inevitable. Consequently, measures have been taken to ensure that different countries are committed to worldwide peace by ratifying international treaties that define various things that government should strive to accomplish and avoid. In support of an inclusive global culture, discrimination usually receives global attention, and the international community generally shuns upon it. In instances where discrimination arises, the government is expected to act to reduce the discrimination and mitigate its impacts. Unfortunately, there are situations whereby various governments have been guilty of supporting discrimination.

The case of Sri Lanka provides a good case study whereby the authorities have been guilty of supporting discrimination against Muslims. In the country, discrimination against Muslims can be traced as far back as 2013. However, the discrimination is still ongoing, and it is currently being supported by government policies that target Muslim minority groups. The origins of the ongoing discrimination episodes are rooted within Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Initially, the discrimination was witnessed through mob attacks targeted towards the Muslim populations. This progresses to actions of violence that were committed with impunity. Currently, the government has passed discriminatory policies in support of the persecution of the Muslim populations through requirements of forced cremation of the Covid-19 victims and the ban of madrasas and the face veils.

The discrimination which is being witnessed in Sri Lanka is being committed on religious grounds. The Islam religion has a specific set of beliefs and practices whereby the believers are required to abide by. Since the government formally recognizes the religion, acts that undermine the practices of the religion or the safety of the people who practice the religion can be considered to be discrimination. When the anti-Muslim sentiments and campaigns began in 2013, hostility was expressed through anti-halal campaigns. According to Islam beliefs, there are practices that are considered to be halal and those that are considered to be haram; permissible and forbidden, respectively. Specifically, there are foods that are permitted for consumption according to Islam. The demarcation of such foods was done through programs of the halal certification of food. However, the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups expressed hostility towards these programs while simultaneously lobbying for the end of the programs.

The attacks became more violent, and they started being directed towards Muslim businesses and Mosques. Instead of the attacks attracting the attention of authorities to prevent further attacks, they caused further spread of the discriminatory practices. The spread of violence within the country was a result of the lack of accountability for the perpetrators. Since those who were responsible for the attacks were not brought to justice, it signaled to others that they could commit the discriminatory practices with impunity. What was being created was a culture of discrimination based on the false sense of superiority by the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists. The lack of action by the authorities and government was further reinforcing the discriminatory practices.

In 2014, more regions of Sri Lanka continued to express discrimination against Muslims. For example, the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group perpetrated anti0Muslim riots in Aluthgama, a southern coastal town. The riots occurred in a rally organized by the nationalist group, characterized by violence that targeted the Muslims. Like previous occasions in different parts of the country, those responsible for organizing the rally were not investigated to identify the perpetrators of violence. As a result, the victims of the discrimination and violence were not able to receive any justice.

The following year, 2015, elections were held, which ushered in a new regime into the government. During the election campaigns, promises had been made to the minority religious and ethnic groups that were promised equality and justice. Based on these promises, it was expected that the new government would be committed to fighting discrimination by ensuring that those who were responsible for organizing or committing discriminatory practices were punished according to the legal structures of law enforcement. However, violence against Muslims continues to be witnessed. In 2017, Ginthota, another southern coastal town, experienced anti-Muslim mob violence. In 2018, the violence spread to the eastern and central provinces, as experienced in the towns of Ampara and Digana, respectively. By the time the witnesses and victims gave the account, the armed forces and the police did nothing to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice and failed to offer adequate protection to the victimized religious and ethnic minorities.

Since the authorities were not doing anything to help the innocent Muslim families, there were reports of retaliation. During the Easter Sunday of 2019, reports of suicide attacks claimed more than 250 individuals. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks through a local Islamist group. The effects of the retaliation only worsened the violence against the Muslim minority groups. Muslims in various towns in the North-Western Province was attacked during the holy month of Ramadan. Attacks were mainly made in Mosques so as to disrupt religious activities. Hate speech against Muslims was also spread through social media platforms. Because of the increased frequency of violence, a state of Emergency was declared, although its declaration and implementation procedures were rushed and unprocedural. Hundreds of Muslims were arrested in the wake of the attacks as the authorities acted per the Emergency regulations.

What is being observed in Sri Lanka is injustice on two fronts. The Buddhist nationalists who are for the discrimination and violence are not punished. This is despite the presence of abundant evidence of their hate speech, incitement, and violence. On the other hand, innocent Muslims are being arrested, detained, and prosecuted even when there is a lack of enough evidence to substantiate the allegations. Numerous human rights activists and journalists have been wrongfully detained for fighting against systemic discrimination. The main reason which has contributed to the wrongful persecution of Muslims in Sri Lanka has been the abuse of legislation and the introduction of policies that violate basic human rights. For example, when the cremation rule was passed, it was done so to antagonize Muslims since the religion explicitly prohibits cremation. Those who endorsed the policy had no factual grounds for the proposal since the burial of COVID-19 victims had not been proven to have any significant correlation with the spread of the disease.

The main laws which have been abused by the Sri Lankan authorities to encourage discrimination of the Muslim minorities include the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the emergency law of 2019, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The abuse of these laws began after the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks by Islamist groups affiliated with the Islamic State. The Emergency law discriminately allowed for authorities to arrest innocent Muslims based on prejudiced assumptions of linkages to terrorism. On the other hand, the PTA allowed for authorities to wrongfully detain suspects without court orders or procedural legal proceedings. The majority of those who had been wrongfully detained were later released on bail. Thirdly, the ICCPR has wrongly been used to violet the freedom of expression for individuals fighting for Muslim justice. Some human rights advocates fighting against Muslim discrimination in Sri Lanka have also been accused of contempt of court. As it can be seen, the existing legal structures which are supposed to ensure the equal protection of all citizens have been inappropriately used against the Muslim minority groups.

Various international declarations ensure freedom of religion. These international declarations include the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion, the 18th article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 18th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The case of religious discrimination in Sri Lanka violates various international standards. Specifically, the right to manifest one’s belief is guaranteed by the ICCPR article 18, sections 1 and 3. The Sri Lankan authorities have misinterpreted the third section in imposing undue limitations on the Muslim’s freedom to manifest their beliefs by stating health and security concerns for the general public. In doing so, the Sri Lankan government has continued to violate the Muslims’ freedom to manifest their religion which is further guaranteed by the first and third sections of article one of the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly.

Article 6 (a) of the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly provides citizens with the right to establish and maintain places of worship. According to article 9 (e) of the Human Rights Council resolution 6/37, governments are required to protect the right of individuals to assemble in connection to religious activities and beliefs, including when meeting in places of worship. The article states that adequate protection of the places of worship should be provided, especially when the places of worship are under known risks of destruction or desecration. From the case in Sri Lanka, it is clear that the government authorities were not concerned with protecting the Mosques as places of worship for the Muslims, thus constituting grounds for religious discrimination. According to the fourth paragraph of the Human Rights Committee general comment 22, places of worship are an extension of the concept of worship. Therefore, freedom of worship also means that the places of worship should be protected. Because the Sri Lankan authorities failed to diligently investigate and bring to justice those who were responsible for attacking mosques, the government failed to honor the citizens’ fundamental freedoms of worship.

International declarations and agreements acknowledge the role of religious symbols. Like places of worship, the display of religious symbols is also considered to be an extension of the concept of worship. Specifically, article 6 (c) acknowledges that the right to freedom of religion includes the freedom to use necessary materials and articles related to religious practices and beliefs. The Human Rights Committee includes distinctive head coverings as necessary items for religious practices. For the currently proposed policies which aim to ban face veils they will be violating these international anti-discrimination regulations. The policies also aim to ban madrasas, which teaches Islam education to children. This policy is also against international anti-discrimination regulations, which provide parents the right to provide their children with moral and religious education according to their convictions. Article 5 of the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly explicitly lists the right of every child to access religious education. This right is supported by other international guidelines and regulations, including ICCPR, CRC, Migrant Workers Convention, and the ICESCR.

When it comes to questions involving extremism, religious intolerance, and religious conflicts, international regulations guarantee the freedom of expression. The ICCPR, the Commission on Human Rights resolution 2005/40, and the Human Rights Committee general comment 22 all highlight the right to freedom of expression. Article 20 of the ICCPR lists the limitations of the freedom of expression, which include circumstances when religious, racial, and national hatred is endorsed, constituting violence, hostility, and discrimination. The article also prohibits expression which propagates propaganda for war. However, numerous individuals, including scholars and human rights activists, have been arrested and detained wrongfully by the Sri Lankan authorities for simply protesting against anti-Muslim discrimination. Shakthika Sathkumara, a poet, was arrested and detained for exercising his freedom of expression. Kusal Perera, a journalist, was also arrested because of a published article on terror. Since the Sri Lanka government has ratified these international declarations, they are bound to commit to adhering to the regulations and guidelines contained therein.

There are various things that the Sri Lankan government can do to rectify the ongoing human rights situation in the country. The government should begin with a commitment to equality and justice. All citizens should be treated equally before the law. This includes protection of the innocent as well as the respect of individual rights. The unjust prosecution of Muslims should cease. Discriminatory policies such as banning madrasas and face veils should be withdrawn since they discriminate against Muslims. Reparation measures should also include bringing perpetrators of violence and discriminatory actions such as hate speech to justice. Failure to punish the perpetrators of crimes will only help to insight others to commit anti-Muslim discriminatory actions with impunity. Reports of justice will likely have a similar impact as reports of injustice. Since lack of action by authorities encouraged Buddhist nationalist groups in different towns to instigate anti-Muslim violence, reports of prosecution of perpetrators will also deter further discriminatory practices.

In order for lasting results to be witnessed in Sri Lanka, efforts should move beyond the control of the human rights situation to mend the strained relationship between parties. Because of the influential position that religious leaders hold over the matter, talks to mend the strained relationship between the Muslim minorities and the Buddhist nationalist groups should mainly involve the religious leaders with government officials as arbitrators. Since discrimination is based on ill-conceived perceptions of supremacy, religious leaders can help to cultivate perceptions of mutual tolerance, collaboration, and respect for religious differences. Tolerance of different religious beliefs can be enhanced by the religious leaders enhancing the individual freedoms protected by the constitution through the correct interpretation of laws to avoid extremist ideations.

Bibliography: Academic Sources

ADDIN Mendeley Bibliography CSL_BIBLIOGRAPHY Aliff, Seeni Mohammed, ‘Post-War Conflict in Sri Lanka: Violence against Sri Lankan Muslims and Buddhist Hegemony,’ International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, 59 (2015), 109–25

———, ‘Reconciliation in Post-War Sri Lanka’, WWW Document]. Research Gate.[Online] Https://Www. Researchgate. Net/Publication/307905734_Reconciliation_in_Post-War_Sri_Lanka [Accessed 03/06/20], 2016

Chattoraj, Diotima, and Eva Gerharz, Difficult Return: Muslims’ Ambivalent Attachments to Jaffna in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka (Working Paper, 2019)

Devote, Neil, ‘Religious Intolerance in Post-Civil War Sri Lanka,’ Asian Affairs, 49.2 (2018), 278–300

Fazil, Mansoor Mohamed, ‘State-Minority Contestations in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka’, Journal of Educational and Social Research, 9.4 (2019), 157

Fowsar, Mohamed Anifa Mohamed, Mohamed Abdulla Mohamed Rameez, and Aboobacker Rameez, ‘Muslim Minority in Post-War Sri Lanka: A Case Study of Aluthgama and Digana Violences’, Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 9.6 (2020), 56

Gamage, Rajni, ‘Buddhist Nationalism, Authoritarian Populism, and The Muslim Other in Sri Lanka,’ Islamophobia Studies Journal, 6.2 (2021), 130–49

Gravers, Mikael, ‘Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities,’ Contemporary Buddhism, 16.1 (2015), 1–27

Gunatilleke, Gehan, ‘The Constitutional Practice of Ethno-Religious Violence in Sri Lanka,’ Asian Journal of Comparative Law, 13.2 (2018), 359–87

———, ‘The Structural Limits of Depoliticisation in Sri Lanka,’ The Round Table, 108.6 (2019), 613–24

Holt, John, Buddhist Extremists, and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Imtiyaz, Abdul Razak Mohamed, and Amjad Mohamed-Saleem, ‘Muslims in Post-War Sri Lanka: Understanding Sinhala-Buddhist Mobilization against Them,’ Asian Ethnicity, 16.2 (2015), 186–202

Jayasinghe, Pasan, ‘Hegemonic Populism: Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Populism in Contemporary Sri Lanka,’ in Populism in Asian Democracies (Brill, 2020), pp. 176–96

Jones, Robin Noel Badone, ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and Islamophobia in Contemporary Sri Lanka,’ 2015

Lastname, Firstname, ‘Resurgence of Ethno-Religious Sentiment against Muslims in Sri Lanka: Recent Anti-Muslim Violence in Ampara and Kandy’, Journal of Politics and Law, 11.4 (2018)

McCall, Chris, ‘Sri Lanka’s War Wounds Run Deep,’ The Lancet, 387.10032 (2016), 1986

Morrison, Chas, ‘Buddhist Extremism, Anti-Muslim Violence and Civil War Legacies in Sri Lanka,’ Asian Ethnicity, 21.1 (2020), 137–59

Samarathunga, WHMS, Li Cheng, and Prageeth Weerathunga, ‘Buddhist Gaze and Power in a Post-War Destination: Case Study of Jaffna, Sri Lanka,’ Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 19.5 (2021), 654–80

Cartoon, Athambawa, Mohammad Agus Yusoff, and Nordin Hussin, ‘Anti-Muslim Sentiments and Violence: A Major Threat to Ethnic Reconciliation and Ethnic Harmony in Post-War Sri Lanka’, Religions, 7.10 (2016), 125

Siriwardane, Rapti, War, Migration, and Modernity: The Micro-Politics of the Hijab in Northeastern Sri Lanka (ZEF Working Paper Series, 2014)

Stewart, James John, ‘Muslim–Buddhist Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka,’ South Asia Research, 34.3 (2014), 241–60

Waidyatilake, Barana, and Myra Sivaloganathan, ‘Can Buddhist Values Overcome Nationalism in Sri Lanka?’, Carnegie India, 2018

Yusoff, Mohammad Agus, Nordin Hussin, and Athambawa Sarjoon, ‘Muslim Demand for Territorial Autonomy in the Eastern Sri Lanka: An Analysis of Its Origin, Accommodation and the Present Stance,’ Asian Social Science, 10.15 (2014), 76

———, ‘Positioning Muslims in Ethnic Relations, Ethnic Conflict and Peace Process in Sri Lanka,’ Asian Social Science, 10.10 (2014), 199

Yusoff, Mohammad Agus, and Athambawa Sarjoon, ‘Anti-Halal and Anti-Animal Slaughtering Campaigns and Their Impact in Post-War Sri Lanka’, Religions, 8.4 (2017), 46

Yusoff, Mohammad Agus, Athambawa Sarjoon, Nordin Hussin, and Azhar Ahmad, ‘Analyzing the Contributions of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Its Founder–Leader to Muslim Politics and Community in Sri Lanka’, Social Sciences, 6.4 (2017), 120

Yusoff, Mohammad Agus, Athambawa Sarjoon, and Zawiyah Mohd Zain, ‘Resettlement of Northern Muslims: A Challenge for Sustainable Post-War Development and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’, Social Sciences, 7.7 (2018), 106

Yusoff, Mohammad Agus, Athambawa Sarjoon, and Zawiyah Mohd Zain, ‘Analyzing the Fragmented Sri Lankan Muslim Politics in Post-Ashraff Era,’ J. Pol. & L., 11 (2018), 17