Image courtesy Quartz India
The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has been engaged with the government in a debate to allow persons who died after contracting the coronavirus (COVID-19) to be buried rather than cremated. The former falls in line with the religious practices of the Muslim community, whereas cremation is vehemently prohibited by all schools of Islamic thought as the Islamic faith proscribes the highest level of care and dignity to be afforded to the deceased. The Ministry of Health guidelines on disposing bodies of the victims of COVID-19, however, only allow the bodies to be cremated, and this was reiterated by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in a special televised statement on 7 April 2020.
Leaders of the Muslim community, including prominent lawyers and politicians, as well as members of civil society publicly requested that the government revise the current guidelines in order to respect the wishes of the Muslim community, bearing in mind the sensitive nature of the current situation; families who have lost their loved ones to COVID-19 would suffer further trauma if the deceased were cremated without their consent. It was repeatedly stated that the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines have declared burials to be a safe mode of disposing the bodies of persons who died of COVID-19, which numerous countries around the world have adhered to. In the United Kingdom for instance, the national guidelines initially only allowed cremation of COVID-19 victims, but these were revised to respect the beliefs of the Muslim and Jewish communities after multiple faith groups and MPs requested the emergency legislation to be amended to allow for individual religious beliefs to be practiced. Up until today, at least three victims of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka were Muslims who were cremated by state authorities, against the wishes of their family, despite the attempted legal interventions and communication with higher state authorities to allow for burials to take place.
The timing of these events is uncanny. Around this time last year, following the tragic bombings that took place on Easter Sunday in April 2019, the rights of the Muslim community to freely practice their faith were constricted under the state of emergency which followed the Easter attacks. For security reasons, guidelines were issued under the Public Security Ordinance that prohibited persons from covering their face in public, thus preventing Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a garb used to cover their whole face or most of their face excluding the eyes, in public. The ban sparked a public debate on the rights of Muslim women to freedom of expression, and whether such a ban was a proportional response to an event that was caused by a serious alleged security lapse on the part of the State. It was pointed out that the perpetrators of the attack were men, clad in regular t-shirts and trousers, carrying large backpacks without covering their face and no women or even niqab clad women were involved in these events. It was also stated that despite the alleged threat to security posed by women wearing a niqab, countries around the world which had experienced terrorist attacks on their lands, did not respond by banning women from wearing the niqab. The irony is not lost on Muslim women; they were being asked not to cover their face in public last year as it constituted a threat to national security, and this year the majority of the population donning face masks, which are effectively similar to the niqab, does not cause a problem to the state intelligence services.
At the time however, the prohibition was supported by the All Ceylon Jammiyyatul Ulama (ACJU), which is an all-male panel of Muslim scholars that represents the views of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as well as prominent leaders and politicians of the community, who were all too comfortable with the State policing what a woman may wear in public, despite the many appeals on this matter by female representatives and advocates for Muslim women, as is often the case when the autonomy of women is under threat.
The ban was followed by a series of incidents where Muslim women were harassed in public, denied entry into public and private institutions even when they wore the hijab i.e. covered their head while their faces were visible, asked to remove their hijab in public and disclose what it contained (hair) and subject to racial slurs and verbal abuse. Many Muslim women, particularly those who used to wear the niqab in public, confessed that they did not leave their house when the state of emergency was in place, whereas many others reported feeling fear and anxiety whenever they went out in public.
The events of this year and last year both were utilized as an opportunity to create communal disharmony, when the Muslim community was criticized for questioning the ban and demanding their religious beliefs to be respected. The niqab ban was lauded by certain members of the Sri Lankan public, who praised the swift action taken by the government of Sri Lanka to minimize the practice of what they alleged are extremist ideologies that were a threat to society, despite the complete lack of empirical evidence and correlation between the rise in terrorist attacks and presence of veiled women in public. Progressive segments of society were quick to point out that the niqab was ‘oppressive’ in the first place, while finding nothing oppressive about a government that determines what clothing women should wear. Muslim women were constantly reminded that such a ban was only in place due to extraordinary circumstances and told to be “grateful” that they were allowed to practice their beliefs in this country, unhindered, for so many years.
Similarly, this time around, Muslims who speak out against the burial ban are subject to similar comments where they are reminded that they have been allowed to follow their practices for so many years, and so should not complain during a public emergency. A common retort during both events, is that if Muslims cannot accept the curbing of their rights, they should ‘go to Saudi Arabia’ – a comment similar to the racial slur ‘go back to your country’ that persons of colour are often subject to in Western countries, where they are told to leave the country of their birth, nationality and legal residence, and instead go to a country where they may have no family or cultural ties, when they criticize the State – a democratic right that is apparently only to be enjoyed by majority ethnic and religious groups. At present, following the communal bias in the local news reported by media outlets, reports have already been received on the ground level that Muslims are being alienated by non-Muslims in certain rural areas, and persons are being asked to stay away from Muslim owned businesses where the relatives of the proprietors have contracted COVID-19, even when they have not been exposed to the patient or quarantined by the state authorities. Members of the community have expressed their concern over the racial stigma surrounding COVID-19 as well as the refusal of burials, which may in turn discourage Muslims from reporting their symptoms and seeking treatment.
It is curious that, in the time of a crisis, the rights of minority ethnic groups are so easily restricted for the ‘greater good’ of society, despite there being no logical or evidence-based reasoning to justify the restriction. It is also observable that, during a crisis, the behavior and response of minority ethnic groups comes under greater scrutiny by state entities, mainstream media as well as members of the public – why is she wearing a dress which contains that print? Why is an organisation distributing free meals at national hospitals? How has a doctor amassed wealth? Why can’t they be grateful for the rights they have enjoyed all this time? Such questions would seem peculiar if directed at Sinhala-Buddhists citizens, but warrant an intervention by state entities when directed at Muslims in Sri Lanka. The scrutiny appears as a thinly-veiled warning whereby, if minority groups speak out against unfair and disproportionate restrictions on their religious expression or do not toe the line, their ties to this country, their very identities as citizens of Sri Lanka which entitle them to constitutional protection, are questioned – thus indicating the fragility of the access of ethnic minorities to constitutional protections. As long as members of ethnic minorities are ‘good’, i.e. submissive and do not challenge the injustices or indignities to which they may be subjected, they can be allowed to be a part of Sri Lankan society.
This country is not a stranger to ethnic tensions and communal violence. The common challenge we collectively face today may be COVID-19, but a greater challenge, i.e. state-enabled racism, has periodically raised its ugly head for a long time now and will continue to do so long after the public health emergency has been overcome. Leaders of the Muslim community have already endeavored to raise awareness on COVID-19 and to minimize potential aggravation within the community against enforced cremations. However, the scars of the past serve as a reminder that the oppression of the rights of minorities causes communal discord, and as a country on the brink of a constitutional and financial crisis, Sri Lanka is ill-equipped to grapple with potential ethno-religious conflict, which hence should be prevented at all costs. The primary responsibility lies with the state to ensure that the rights of all citizens in Sri Lanka to practice their religious beliefs and freedom of expression are guaranteed, as the constitutional right to equality before the law is not diminished during extraordinary circumstances, where there exists no justifiable cause or scientific reasoning to derogate from these principles.
 Colombo Telegraph, Follow WHO Guidance – Respect Burial Rights: Civil Society Urge President – 5 April 2020 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/follow-who-guidance-respect-burial-rights-civil-society-urge-president/
 Al Jazeera, Anguish as Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate COVID-19 victims – 3 April 2020 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/anguish-sri-lanka-forces-muslims-cremate-covid-19-victims-200403053706048.html
 Al Jazeera, Unacceptable’: Sri Lankans share their views on face veil ban – 30 April 2019
 Groundviews, The Niqab Ban and the Politics of Distraction – Shaahima Raashid, 30 April 2019 – https://groundviews.org/2019/04/30/the-niqab-ban-and-the-politics-of-distraction/
 International Crisis Group, After Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Reducing Risks of Future Violence – 27 September 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/302-after-sri-lankas-easter-bombings-reducing-risks-future-violence