Muslims of Sri Lanka suffer harassment and discrimination

By Anbarasan Ethirajan
BBC News Colombo

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Maram Khalifa was in prison 20 months ago with her husband, who is a well-known civil rights lawyer from Sri Lanka.

Maram Khalifa spends her days looking after her child and trying to get her husband home.

Hejazz Hizabullah was a respected Sri Lankan lawyer for civil rights. He is currently in prison on anti-terrorism allegations. He is accused of hate speech, causing communal discord and other charges by his accusers.

According to them, Mr Hizbullah made a speech to teenage Muslim boys inciting their hatred of the Christian community.

Hizbullah is an immigrant from the Muslim minority community. He spent over a year in prison prior to the allegations being levelled in April 2021. The trial of Mr Hizbullah is scheduled to start later in the month. The charges are strongly rejected by his wife.

She told BBC that her husband was “outspoken and very active in protecting Muslim rights, minority rights in general” According to her, the accusations against her husband are “a clear message to everyone who is interested in speaking out against racism or discrimination.”

In connection to the horrific 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings by Islamists, Mr Hizbullah first was arrested. High-end churches and hotels were the targets of suicide bombings that claimed more than 260 lives.

Initial allegations against him were that he had links to one of the bombers. The prosecution later dismissed those charges against him after he told them that he only had to appear in civil cases concerning property disputes for the father-of-the attacker, who is a prominent spice trader.

Amnesty International called last year Mr Hizbullah (a vocal critic) a “prisoner in conscience”.

According to activists, the harassment against the minorities in Sri Lanka has continued since the time Mr Hizbullah was arrested. Sri Lanka is a country where Muslims make up less than 10% of its 22 million inhabitants, mainly Sinhalese Buddhists.

The government was able to ally with Muslims during almost three decades of war against Tamil Tiger rebels. They were fighting for an independent homeland for other Tamil communities.

Muslim leaders however claim that the attitudes of some Sinhaleses towards the Tamil Tigers changed following the May 2009 defeat.

Rights groups claim that anti-Muslim violence against homes and businesses was a regular occurrence even before the attacks on Easter Sunday.

It was a turning point in history when the Easter Sunday bombings occurred. The attacks on Easter Sunday were a turning point. Sinhalese mobs vandalized mosques and Muslim properties, and hate speech took root online. Sinhalese hardliners called for the boycott of Muslim shops, and demonized Muslims.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (current president) was the defence secretary who led war efforts against Tamil rebels. He came to power with strong support from Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. He ran on the platform of national security.

The Rajapaksas strengthened their hold on power after Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother, won parliamentary elections one year later.

Hilmy Ahamed of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka told BBC that “for the government it’s a power card they keep using in order to keep the voter base”

Initial refusal by the government to permit burial of Covid victims who belonged to minority Christian and Muslim Christian religious communities during the pandemic was a sign that the government did not want them. Many bodies were forced to be cremated, even though experts said that they could have been buried using proper safety precautions.

Islam prohibits the cremation of human bodies. Officials at the time suggested that burials might contaminate groundwater.

The government finally allocated an area in Eastern Sri Lanka last year for Covid victims, after much protest from minorities and rights organizations.

In response to national security concerns, last year’s government proposal included a ban on burqas as well as all forms of facial coverings. Minister said that it was “a sign of religious extremism” and had been proposed by the government.

A plan was announced to close more than 1000 Islamic religious schools. The government claimed that they were violating national education policy.

Bhavani Fonseka (a human rights lawyer) stated that Muslims are now the enemy in the period after war.

We have witnessed several instances where the Muslim community was attacked. “I would suggest that the community is under siege,” she stated.

However, the government refutes allegations that it treated Muslims unfairly.

Mohan Samaranayake is the Director General for the Sri Lankan Government’s Information Department. He stated that “there is no institutionalized, systematic policy discrimination against any group.” But, I do admit that some problems may exist for all groups, even the Sinhalese.

He said that the decision to close madrassas was taken following investigations into Easter Sunday’s bombings. It had been found out that some educational institutions were used by Muslim youth to radicalize them.

Recent efforts by the government to establish a universal law code that applies to all areas have also caused controversy. Critics believe that President Rajapaksa’s “Task Force for One Country, One Law” was created to assist minorities in bringing about legal reforms.

This taskforce was given the responsibility to examine special Sinhalese laws regarding inheritance and marriage, as well as those for minority Sinhalese. They will also be asked to make suggestions for uniform rules. Galagoda Anththe Gnanasara was appointed to the head of the taskforce. He is also controversial Buddhist monk who has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim sentiments and sectarian hatred.

According to Mr Gnanasara, legal reforms are long overdue. He said that he only raised key issues for the country.

He said that more than 500 Christian organizations have been active in the country to create religious problems. There are Islamic groups that encourage Wahabism, Salafism, and are misleading the youth in this country.

Due to its shrinking foreign currency reserves, Sri Lanka already faces an economic crisis. Import restrictions in Sri Lanka have risen the prices for some basic commodities up to 30% over the last year. This has made the government dispopular among Sinhalese Buddhists.

There is an underlying feeling among Muslim leaders that the financial crisis has diverted attention from the community. They say that further troubles can only be avoided if Buddhist nationalism is curbed.


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