Sections of the ruling elite and politicians blame the Easter attacks on the rise of Salafi movements and madrasas, which they believe openly teach Islamic extremism. They want the state to act against what Sinhalese Buddhist extremists describe as rising Islamic fundamentalism.
Muslims in Sri Lanka are a minority, constituting about 9.2 per cent of the population. The community is divided into three main ethno-social backgrounds: Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors and Malays. The other groups include the Memons and the Bohras. Though most Muslims (62 per cent) live outside the north and east of Sri Lanka where the Sinhalese majority predominantly live, 38 per cent of the Muslim population live in Tamil-dominated areas.
The government’s announcement to ban the burqa and close madrasas was not received positively by Sri Lankan Muslims. The announcement constituted an assault on Muslim identity. The burqa ban and closure of madrasas will badly impact the lives of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims. The majority of Sri Lankan Muslims have fallen behind in terms of education and economic achievement.
For many Muslim women in Sri Lanka, the practice of wearing a burqa helps them not only to abide by their faith but also to pursue education and work outside of the home and local village. Banning the burqa will remove the ability for some women to seek economic opportunities as they would not be able to adhere to their values while doing so.
The government is also looking to shut down some 1000 unregistered madrasas. Students enrolled in madrasas generally hail from economically marginalised families and struggle to obtain secondary education qualifications. Muslim students from low-income families who live in rented residences, particularly in urban areas, often miss out on government school admission because of strong competition. In Colombo alone, nearly 5000 children fail to obtain admission into government schools during enrolments. Muslim student access into public and private school to pursue middle and high school is significantly lower than their non-Muslim peers due to socio-economic and cultural reasons — a general trend that has existed across the island since independence.
Local madrasas mainly target economically weaker sections of Muslim society where a sizable number of children have few choices to receive an education. Many of these children have had to drop out of other schools partly because they were unable to pay academic fees. Some economically vulnerable Muslim parents may send their children to madrasas under the belief that their children may gain a non-secular education.
Sri Lanka’s ruling and opposition politicians need to look at the factors that are driving Muslim parents to send their children to madrasas. A lack of access to government schools is one of the major forces. The government needs to modernise its education system and expand access to all communities.
Since economically vulnerable Muslim children are the target of the madrasas, the Sri Lankan government needs to fund them and appoint Muslim scholars to organise curricula and educational activities. The state has a responsibility to properly regulate religious schools including madrasas. Funding from foreign countries should be carefully supervised by the state but not necessarily restricted. The syllabi of religious schools should be prepared by community-approved scholars who have a better understanding of religious and secular education in their communities.
Grievances in Muslim communities are susceptible to manipulation by different forces, such as by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group. The Easter bombings indicated that Islamist terrorist movements have their eyes on Sri Lanka and are looking to exploit local tensions and aspirations to fulfil their agenda. In 2016, the government announced that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims from ‘well-educated and elite’ families had joined Islamic State in Syria as evidence of Islamist radicalisation in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s ruling politicians have legitimate reasons to respond to security threats regardless of origin. Transnational Islamic movements such as Islamic State are active in recruiting from polarised regions and Sri Lanka might become a breeding ground for such recruitment.
But security threats can be met without making Muslims feel that the state is systematically targeting their culture. Sri Lanka should negotiate with Muslim elites and civil society leaders to identify meaningful solutions to fight Islamist extremism, rather than imposing a discriminatory ban and shutting down opportunities for education. (eastasiaforum)