Groundviews

The veil, ‘radicalisation’ and Lankan Muslims

TOPSHOTS Sri Lankan Muslim school girls stand on the edge of a sea port in Colombo on May 20, 2013, after travelling from their town of Kalmunai, over 370 kilometres (231 miles) east of the capital Colombo. Work on a USD 500-million new container terminal is nearing completion at Colombo which is a key transhipment hub for Indian cargo. AFP PHOTO/ LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHILAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

Featured image courtesy FT.com

The so-called ‘radicalisation’ of the Sri Lankan Muslim community has been the subject of a number of opinion pieces that have appeared in both print and social media platforms in recent times. They come at a time when ‘Islamophobia’ – an unfounded fear of Islam – has reached unparalleled heights, and at a juncture when the concept of ‘radicalisation’ has become a source of confusion.

There is no consensus on what the term ‘radicalisation’ means. Who defines Muslim radicalisation and who sets the standard? Is it X who prays five times a day? (X didn’t pray in the past and now wants to pray regularly which probably means X is getting radicalised.) Is it Y who goes to the mosque? (Again, something new as Y didn’t pray in the mosque before, therefore Y is now a bit of a radical). Is it Z who diligently observes fasting during the month of Ramadhan? (Z never used to fast earlier, so why does Z want to fast now? Is Z becoming radicalised?).

Radicalisation can therefore mean different things to different people. Although the term has increasingly come into vogue, there is little agreement on what radicalisation actually entails let alone an understanding of its triggers. The concerns expressed are that Sri Lankan Muslims are becoming ‘exclusivist’ and ‘self-alienating’ by following a strict interpretation of Islam, manifested in particular by the growing number of Muslim women who have adopted all-encompassing ‘alien, Arab attire’. And all this equates to: ‘radicalisation’.

This article focuses primarily on the veil worn by many Muslim women (which comes in many forms and shades), as it has come to be associated with this so-called process of radicalisation.

Most Muslim women choose to veil themselves because they view it as a religious obligation. It has no nexus whatsoever to the ‘radicalisation’ that is allegedly unfurling in the community. Veil-clad women do not represent nor do they promote a racist ideology. Moreover, attacking or vilifying the veil will not make it go away; on the contrary a tolerant, plural and inclusive Sri Lanka has to accommodate all Muslims in whatever dress-code they choose to adopt.

By conflating the veil (be it the hijab or niqab) with radical Islam, the writers of the articles referred to at the outset, perhaps inadvertently, are feeding into Islamophobia, and fanning the flames of social discord.

The freedom to practice one’s faith is a basic human right that must be safeguarded. No one should attempt to interfere with someone else’s right to practice his or her professed religion in the manner he or she sees fit, so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. Protecting civil liberties is of utmost importance.

That more and more Muslim women are opting to cover up – be it in the form of the hijab, the abaya or the niqab – this does not warrant alarmist discourses. What should alarm all Sri Lankans is the daily record of rapes, sexual harassment of women and the growing insecurity for women, particularly those in the North. According to Women for Rights (which cites police judicial statistics), every 90 minutes a woman is raped in Sri Lanka and an estimated 95% of women using public transportation are at risk of being sexually harassed.

In view of much bigger and more pressing social problems, the veil is something that should neither worry those outside the Muslim community nor those within community who do not consider it an Islamic requirement. The veil – or particular types of it – is simply a piece of fabric; it does not in any way pose a threat to peace, stability and multiculturalism.

And what does multiculturalism really mean? It means respect for diversity, especially respect for religious and racial differences, not cultural assimilation. This includes respecting someone else’s interpretation of his or her religious obligations.

Moreover, identity is not something that is fixed. It is fluid and changes over time. The position that the items of clothing in focus, the niqab in particular, are imports from the Middle-East and do not form part of the traditional Sri Lankan Muslim woman’s attire begs the question: what is traditional Sri Lankan Muslim attire anyway, and where did it originate from? Is it the saree? Is it the shalwar kameez? Are they not imports from India and Pakistan? And what about jeans and shorts? Should we, in similar vein, also be worried about women wearing Western attire on the premise that they are imports from the West and have nothing to do with traditional Sri Lankan attire? Taken to extreme lengths, does it then also mean that Sri Lankan Muslims should stop giving their children names of Arab origin?

The crucial point here is that a woman’s body is her business, and if she chooses to cover it up completely, it should not become a problem for anyone else. Attire is a personal judgement call; some women prefer to be seen in public with less clothing while others prefer a lot more. Ultimately, it is the woman who should make that decision.

With time, practices evolve. If women choose to shed the veil, then that too is their decision. But they must have the right to wear it if they want to. Let us not be so fixated on the Islamic dress-code and try to link it with radicalisation or extreme political violence without any concrete empirical evidence to establish such a link. Simply put, there is no need to grossly over-react to a threat that is not there.

A recent study by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo affirms that there is no real evidence to suggest that a jihadist movement exists in the East. The ICES study entitled ‘Fracturing Community: Intra-group relations among the Muslims of Sri Lanka’ authored by Mohamed Faslan and Nadine Vanniasinkam also points out, “the minority Muslim community is largely considered (by the majority communities) as a religiously homogeneous group when, in fact, they are splintered into various denominations which espouse different interpretations of Islam, values and practices. This ignorance of the plurality within the Muslim community and its internal politics could be a contributing factor to much of the prejudices held by individuals against the community.”

The paper further notes that “the ‘performance’ of difference among Muslim groups, visible in the form of jubbas, hijabs, niqabs, beards and the increasing number of mosques, has created an illusion of an increase in the Muslim population, adding to the fear and suspicion of the majority towards the motives of the Muslim community and its ‘repressive’ culture. These individual prejudices have in turn been manipulated by extremist nationalist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) to incite hatred towards and violence against the Muslim community.”

If anyone intolerantly incites hatred, makes inflammatory remarks and thereby promotes communal violence (in the manner the BBS did triggering the Aluthgama riots in June 2014), then that is certainly something to be concerned about. Such persons should be dealt with under the laws of the land.

The words of Palestinian-American peace activist Linda Sarsour seems to rings true for Sri Lankan Muslims today: “We’re working too hard to be accepted instead of working hard to be respected”.

Islamophobia has been on the rise for some time now; let us refrain from unwittingly contributing to its sustenance.