Writing in The Wire India, Harini Amarasuriya, highlights how Sri Lanka’s response to the coronavirus demonises minority communities and imposes a demand to submit to “the benevolent control of the majority community”.
Amarasuriya writes that since 2009, there has been rising Islamophobia in Sri Lanka which has resulted in pogroms against Muslims. These acts of ethnic and religious violence could not have “taken place without the complicity of the political party in power – at the very least, by turning a blind eye or delaying taking action”.
Sri Lankan officials have propagated anti-Muslim sentiment as part of a deliberate political strategy which the current administration is “gearing up to use again in light of upcoming parliamentary elections”.
The demonisation of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is perpetuated by claims that the community has an apparent disdain for law. Sri Lankan politicians often turn to cite Muslim’s personal law which differs from Sri Lankan General Law.
Amarasuriya notes that whilst there are calls for “one country, one law” the fact is that there are personal laws “specific to Tamils in the North of the country and Sinhalese from the district of Kandy” which are often ignored. As are the voices within Muslim communities on the island which are campaigning for these personal laws to be brought “more in line with international and national human rights standards from within the community”. Campaigns brought forward by Muslim women have had their “initiatives blocked at the highest levels of government” and disregarded.
Responding to the coronavirus
This image of careless disregard for Sri Lankan law has come under particular focus with respect to the coronavirus as the state imposed a rigid island-wide curfew which was enforced by Sri Lanka’s security forces.
Whilst there was an initial focus on blaming Sri Lankan migrants returning home; who were labelled as “rouge” or “undisciplined”; the attention soon turned to the Muslim community.
Amarasuriya criticises the role of Sri Lanka’s media which maintained fixation on the Muslim community with “daily reporting on COVID-19 infections, rates of infection among Muslim communities, or locations known to be majority Muslim areas”.
In a controversial report published by Sri Lanka’s Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), there was a proposal for the racial profiling of Muslims. This was soon deleted and all references to the racial profiling of Muslims, or references identifying Muslims as high-risk factors within communities, was removed. The prevailing view in Sri Lanka is that infection is rife among Muslims who did not respect laws of the land and flouted social distancing and curfew laws.
Amarasuriya notes that this tracking of Muslim communities by the Media was also accompanied by Sri Lanka’s heavily militarised security force.
Media reports on infection rates within the Muslim community were accompanied by “rumours of gatherings in mosques in violation of curfew regulations; overcrowded living conditions attributed to Muslim-ness rather than poverty, and disregard for social distancing rules due to ‘cultural’ reasons”.
All of this contributed to a widespread bigoted conception that Muslims wanted “special” treatment and that there was a need “to teach the Muslim community a lesson”.
Teaching the Muslim community a lesson
The most overt illustration of this was the imposition of a ban on burials which violated Islamic cultural practices despite the international outcry.
The ban on burials was justified on the grounds of it being necessary to prevent the spread of the virus but was not supported by the World Health Organisation which released a statement which read:
“The World Health Organization’s guidelines for the safe management of a dead body in the context of Covid-19 allows for either burials or cremations and this position was mirrored in the Sri Lanka Ministry of Health guidelines issued on 27 March 2020.
On 31 March, the Sri Lankan guidelines were revised to exclusively order cremations for people who die or are suspected to have died as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus. The government has not provided adequate or reasonable justification for departing from the WHO guidelines, which underlines concerns that the change was not necessary to protect public health.”
Al Jazeera has reported on a case where Muslims have been denied a right to burial despite not having the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the petition by Sri Lanka’s Muslim authorities, such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, against these restrictions were perceived as Muslims wanting “special” treatment.
Amarasuriya highlights that this desire to teach Muslims a lesson was made clear through a leaked conversation between a TV show moderator and his panellists (which included a government minister as well as representatives from the opposition parties). The leaked conversation shows a discussion of the issue of burials with participants maintaining that the point of the ban was “to teach the Muslim community that they must follow rules – that they cannot have their own way”.
A majoritarian mindset
Concluding her piece, Amarasuriya stated:
“Many Sinhalese who would consider themselves cosmopolitan, democratic and tolerant, would not see the implicit exclusions and violence, in enforcing a totalising identity in a society such as Sri Lanka”.
This, she notes, is reflective of “a majoritarian mindset that is comfortable with demonising minority communities – or any other community that is seen as a threat to the majority community – [This] has become normalised in Sri Lankan society and polity”.
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