Stigmatising Muslims will not heal Sri Lanka's wounds

The nation's president has announced a ban on face coverings as part of a security crackdown in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks

A Sri Lankan Muslim woman returns from market with her son, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 29, 2019. The government has banned all kinds of face coverings that may conceal people's identities. The emergency law, which took effect Monday, prevents Muslim women from veiling their faces as the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka says the government should crack down on Islamic extremists with more vigor "as if on war footing" in the aftermath of the Easter bombings. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
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In response to the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka's government is launching a crackdown. President Maithripala Sirisena has passed an emergency ruling banning people from covering their faces. This new law has ostensibly been introduced for security reasons and does not specifically mention Islam. However, it will disproportionately affect Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa. As such, it is deeply irresponsible. Such legislation indelibly associates Muslims with violent extremism and stigmatises a community that accounts for less than 10 per cent of the nation's population.

The effects could be disastrous. Activists have reported that Ahmadi Muslims in Negombo have deserted their homes after intimidation following the bombing of a church there. That they had found safe haven in the coastal city after fleeing persecution in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran is all the more heartbreaking. Instead of singling out a minority group and policing what people wear, now is a time for Sri Lankans to unite against extremism. This applies especially to the government, security and intelligence agencies.

Sri Lankan officials have been criticised for failing to prevent the Easter Sunday atrocities, having overlooked warnings by Indian intelligence agencies. Nine explosions across the country left 253 people dead, 500 wounded, and a whole nation traumatised. Sri Lanka's tourism industry, which generated Dh16 billion last year, is now in tatters. Accordingly, Hemasiri Fernando, the country's top defence ministry official stepped down, as did the inspector general of police, Pujith Jayasundara. But the blunders did not stop there. Last Thursday, police released the names and photographs of six suspects linked to the bombings. However, they later admitted that they mistakenly matched an American Muslim activist's picture with the name of one of the wanted people.

It is understandable that the authorities are eager to make up for their mistakes, but scapegoating Sri Lanka’s Muslim community will not make anyone safer. Heightened security, better crisis management and continued support for the families of the victims are crucial. Discrimination and division must be avoided at all costs.