Ignoring Islamophobia in Sri Lanka is harming an already vulnerable community

Ignoring Islamophobia in Sri Lanka is harming an already vulnerable community
Comment: It's crucial that the Sri Lankan government sets an example in taking a stand against anti-Muslim hate in the country, writes Tasnim Nazeer.
5 min read
26 Jul, 2019
Sri Lankan army guard Colombo's Grand Mosque on the first day of Eid al-Fitr [AFP]

I returned this week from my first visit to Sri Lanka since the horrific Easter bombings which were claimed by Islamic State (IS) and carried out by the National Thowheed Jamath, a relatively little known extremist group who have gone against the very faith they claim to be part of.

As a British Muslim woman born to Sri Lankan parents, visiting Sri Lanka has been a regular event in our lives and one I would always would look forward to.

This time, though, things were different. The Easter attacks which claimed the lives of 253 people and left 500 injured had left us all shaken, and determined to stand together in the fight against terrorism. But on this visit, for the first time ever, I experienced anti-Muslim prejudice there as a visibly Muslim woman.

Family members had urged me not to come to Sri Lanka due to the anti-Muslim backlash that has been on the rise since the Easter attacks, with some Muslim women even scared to leave their homes. 

Clearly, for stability and peace to be regained, Muslims in Sri Lanka need to be able to interact with all the communities, and not be hidden away out of sight. The actions of these extremists are the antithesis of the teachings of Islam, a religion which promotes peace and unity.

Muslims should not feel that they have to hide their identity, or feel collectively being blamed for something we did not do, and are strongly against.

For the first time ever, I experienced anti-Muslim prejudice there as a visibly Muslim woman

Sadly, though, there are many Muslims in the country who feel fearful walking down the road dressed according to their faith, and some women I spoke to have been confined to their homes because they wear the face veil, and do not want to go out without it. 

On arrival at the airport, a Sri Lankan woman started shouting at me, telling me to remove my headscarf. It was against the law to wear one, she said, despite the fact that there is no such law forbidding the hijab, only the face veil.

Shocked, I explained politely that I was not breaking any laws, and that I would not remove my hijab just because she didn't like it.

She then made a ridiculous claim that black hijabs are not allowed, only colourful ones. My family later told me of a statement from the Islamic body encouraging Muslim women to wear other colours instead of black, due to negative perceptions of the Islamic dress which is often black.

Realising I had a British accent, she asked me whether I was "foreign", to which I nodded and she calmed down. A Sri Lankan national would likely have had a harder time, an easy target for being a visibly Muslim woman.

In the queue to collect our luggage the child of a young Sri Lankan family reached out for the hand of my two-year-old son, but was quickly ushered away by his father who glared at me. 

Though I'd been warned that tensions were still prevalent, I was saddened by these experiences, and released just how much work still needs to be done to tackle Islamophobia, and build better interfaith relations.

As the visit wore on, my hope for peace and rehabilitation was restored, obviously not everyone blames Muslims collectively when a terrorist attack happens. 

I spoke to Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who all exhibited the warmth and friendliness that Sri Lanka is known for and still has, despite the growing presence of Islamophobia. 

Muslim business owners I spoke to said that business was down, and some shops had stayed closed since the Easter bombings. But slowly, people from other faiths are starting to come back after initially having been told not to shop at Muslim owned businesses.

Islamophobia towards Sri Lankan Muslims and visitors is real and needs to be addressed by the Sri Lankan government.

In the wake of the anti-Muslim backlash that occurred after the attacks, the only government action has been to impose curfews to deter further violence. But Muslim families have been left feeling vulnerable in their homes, as mobs defied the curfew with little efforts to hold those accountable to justice.

Earlier this month, the Sri Lankan government and police were accused by Human Rights Watch of repeatedly failing to prosecute perpetrators of the Islamophobic attacks on Muslims in the country. 

The government has a duty to protect all citizens

The government's decision to ban the face veil after the attacks only added more fuel to the fire by making Muslim women feel victimised and isolated.

It is now crucial that the Sri Lankan government sets an example in taking a stand against anti-Muslim hate in the country, and arresting those accountable for hate crimes against Muslims.

It has a duty to protect all citizens and should not be spurring tensions against the country's Muslim community.

For a start. the authorities must act swiftly to counter mob violence, threats and discrimination against Muslims. 

Human Rights Watch concluded that after the Easter bombings Sri Lankan government officials had a duty to "protect Muslim citizens but instead many of them have been seen to associate themselves with nationalist elements" and had supported the resignation of Muslim MPs after the opposition accused them of supporting Islamist militants.

If they fail to protect Muslims promptly, they will be at risk of further isolating the Muslim community and spurring divisions among a society that deserves, like any other, to coexist in peace.

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP the global network of media Rising Stars in Media Award 2018.

Follow her on twitter: @tasnimnazeer1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.