PM stops bid to ban Muslim veil

Believe it or not! The National Security Council (NSC) recently considered a proposal by a top Defence Ministry official to impose a ban on Muslim women in Sri Lanka wearing the burqa or niqab. The burqa is the full body dress, usually black, with a mesh cover over the eyes. This is worn by some more traditionally minded Muslim women. The niqab is similar with only an opening over the eye area.

The MoD official’s proposal, a well informed source said, was based on the recommendations by a controversial top sleuth running one of the country’s intelligence agencies of a service arm. The person has been serving in that top position under the previous Government, too.

The top sleuth had made the recommendation in the belief that radicalisation in the Muslim community has gone beyond control — a point he has been articulating at different security meetings. The MoD official’s proposal to the NSC came thereafter.

Though there is an element of truth — that Islamic radicalisation has its presence in Sri Lanka, just as much as elsewhere in the world – it is far from going out of control. Many believe that a vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims have assimilated well with local mores and lived in harmony with others. Well placed intelligence sources said, however, that the radicalisation process was confined mostly to the Colombo District and parts of the Eastern Province. According to these sources the move for an immediate ban is “not only alarmist but also a measure that would discredit the Government in the eyes of the Muslims and enrage Muslim countries in West Asia.”

It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who frowned on the proposal and pointed out that it would be highly damaging to the Government. He was of the view that Muslims supported the United National Front (UNF) alliance both at the presidential and parliamentary elections last year. The proposal was thereafter dropped.

The MoD official’s proposal at the NSC came soon after the Army, Navy and the Air Force commanders made presentations on the current security situation. There are no records at different security forces headquarters or with the police that women wearing burqa or niqab have been involved or been identified engaging in terrorism related acts in Sri Lanka. The only exception had been a man wearing a burqa attempting to rob a bank. He was found out and the man’s true identity was never made public.

Among the countries that have banned women wearing full body covering is Switzerland where a fine of 10,000 euros is imposed on violators. France, the first country to ban Niqab in 2004 with school students in state run schools later in 2011 extended it with a public ban countrywide.

The Netherlands has imposed a partial ban where women cannot have their faces covered in schools, hospitals and on public transport. It does not outlaw the veil in public but has laid down essential areas where persons have to be seen due to security reasons. In Chad, in parts of Diffa, where the radicalised Boko Haram is in control, the full cover garb is banned for fear of attacks. Germany is at present considering a limited ban.

Even in the United States and Britain, which are facing serious threats from the ISIS, there has so far been no ban on women wearing the burqa or the niqab.

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