Sri Lankan State Targeting Muslim Communities

Muslim shops burn in Aluthgama during anti-Muslim riots in 2013

Amnesty International UK has condemned an ‘Alarming rise in state-sanctioned violence and discrimination against Muslims’ in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has suffered consistent discrimination, harassment and violence since 2013, culminating in the adoption of government policies explicitly targeting the minority group, Amnesty International said in a new report published on Monday.

The 80-page report, From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination and Violence in Sri Lanka, traces the development of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka since 2013 amid surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

The discrimination has evolved from a series of mob attacks into government policies explicitly discriminating against Muslims, including the forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools).

Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s Deputy Secretary General, said: ‘While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years.

‘Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency.

‘This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims.

‘From anti-terrorism laws and forced cremations to niqabs and madrasas, the Sri Lankan government has pursued a blatantly discriminatory policy agenda against Muslims.

‘The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable, and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community.’

Rising hostility

towards Muslims

Violence towards Muslims has risen in frequency and intensity since 2013.

There has been a series of flashpoints in which attackers and those responsible for hate speech have enjoyed impunity for their actions.

This escalating hostility began with the anti-halal campaign of 2013, when Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups successfully lobbied to end halal certification of food, which demarks food permissible for consumption by Muslims, in accordance with Islamic scripture and customs.

The campaign led to a number of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses.

The following year, anti-Muslim riots in the southern town of Aluthgama began after a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group held a rally in the town.

In the aftermath, perpetrators of violence enjoyed impunity and authorities failed to deliver justice to victims.

Despite a new government in 2015, which promised justice and accountability for ethnic and religious minorities, attacks against Muslims continued.

In 2017, anti-Muslim mob violence flared in the southern town of Ginthota, while similar violence was seen in 2018 in Digana and Ampara, towns in the central and eastern provinces respectively.

Not only did perpetrators escape accountability, victims and witnesses alleged the police and armed forces did not offer sufficient protection or act to prevent the violence.

Escalation since 2019 Easter Sunday attacks

Hostility towards Muslims markedly increased after more than 250 people were killed in coordinated suicide attacks committed by a local Islamist group – and claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group – on Easter Sunday 2019.

Following these attacks, Muslims in several towns came under attack during Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Muslim calendar.

Mosques across the country were also attacked, and a spate of ‘hate speech’ and anti-Muslim vitriol was posted on social media.

Emergency regulations rushed through by the authorities were also used to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the attacks.

Since taking office, the current government has continued to target and scapegoat the Muslim population to distract from political and economic issues.

This was evident in the mandatory cremation policy on the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims, which was implemented despite cremation being expressly forbidden in Islam, and a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate the claims that burying victims would further the spread of the disease.

Government policies targeting Muslims

The Sri Lankan authorities are now seeking to implement new discriminatory legislation, including a niqab ban and a ban on madrasas.

If adopted, these restrictions would violate the freedom from discrimination based on religion guaranteed and safeguarded by Sri Lanka’s Constitution, and international human rights law which Sri Lanka is bound by.

The authorities have used existing legislation to target Muslims, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permits suspects to be detained without charge for up to 90 days, and without being presented before a court.

The report documents several cases in which laws have been abused to target individuals, including Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer and activist who has been detained for more than 15 months, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher, who was arrested in May 2020 following unsubstantiated claims about his Tamil language poetry.

The report notes: Up to 2019, anti-Muslim violence, harassment and discrimination were largely carried out by non-state actors, with the tacit approval of political powers.

2019 marked a distinct shift in this pattern, with the government’s role evolving from tacit complicity to active implementation of state policies and laws that were overtly discriminatory against the Muslim community.

On 21 April 2019, in a series of incidents referred to as the ‘Easter Sunday bombings’, seven suicide bombers targeted three churches and three hotels across the country.

Two Catholic churches in Colombo and the western coastal town of Negombo, along with a Zion church in the eastern coastal town of Batticaloa, and the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo were targeted.

Two further suicide bombings occurred in the aftermath, in response to police operations.

The attacks, carried out by the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamist armed group, claimed the lives of more than 250 people and injured at least 500.

The NTJ and their preachings were reported to the government and police multiple times by local Muslims; however, these reports were ignored.

On 29 April 2019, then President Maithripala Sirisena implemented emergency regulations under the Public Security Ordinance banning face coverings.

The ban stated: ‘No person shall wear in any public place any garment, clothing or such other material concealing the full face which will in any manner cause any hindrance to the identification of a person.’

This act stigmatised Muslim women who wore the niqab (a face veil) or burqa (a veil that covers a woman’s body) as part of their religious expression.

It also violated their right to non-discrimination, freedom of expression, and religion, as guaranteed by domestic law and international human rights law.

This initial ban was lifted when the emergency regulations lapsed on 23 August 2019, but groups within the government resurrected the issue again on 27 April 2021 by proposing the criminalisation of the niqab.

These emergency regulations were also used by the state to detain large numbers of Muslims following the Easter Sunday bombings.

By June 2019, 2,289 suspects had been arrested in connection with the bombings, of whom as many as 1,820 were Muslims, with most of those arrested having a tangential connection to the bombings at most, and in some cases no connection at all.

By July 2019, 1,655 had been released on bail, 423 had been remanded, and 211 were still in detention.

The police arrested a large number of Muslims despite the HRCSL (Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka) issuing guidelines to the police to avoid illegal and arbitrary arrests resulting from ‘cultural misunderstandings or uncertainty and others due to suspicions expressed by members of the public’.