Behind and Beyond Burqa Ban

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Speaking in Parliament on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter serial blasts of 2019, Public Safety Minister, Rear-Adm Sarath Weerasekara (retd) has indicated the government’s decision to ban madarasas and burqua, both identified with the Islamic community the world over. He has claimed that this would help de-radicalise Islam in the country.

True of not, it is the kind of cure, Europe has been practising post-9/11, citing similar reasons. Hence, the protesting Muslims in the country are most unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing in the West. This is unlike in the case of the Government’s refusal to let the burial of the nation’s Covid dead until it became an add-on issue for the pending UNHRC resolution, due for vote later this month.

Questions are often raised if such decisions are motivated by reasons other than de-radicalising Islam in individual countries and communities. They are not wholly untrue, maybe, yes. Both are considered symbols of Islamic religious orthodoxy, not religious fundamentalism and radicalisation, in the first step towards extremism and terrorism. Or, that have become prescribed pointers in non-Islamic countries the world over.

Truth to be acknowledged, madrasas for the teaching of Islam, and burqua, a full-body cover for Muslim women in the presence of male members of the society that are not immediately family, are identities that Islam has followed almost since inception, centuries ago. But they were confined to the region in which the religion was born, but did not travel with Islam wherever it travelled during those early centuries.

Instead, they were interpolated externalisation that travelled to distant lands such as Sri Lanka in the past couple of decades. In the non-orthodox regions across the world where these symbols, especially the burqua, has since become a symbol of orthodox Islam, radicalisation was either a step ahead or has followed –- or, has accompanied the same.

Of the two, the burqua especially has become a visible symbol, on the streets, schools and other public places, unlike the madrasas, which have been there all along, mostly tucked inside local communities – unless of course newer ones have sprouted up, either to spread the message to more of the faithful, or to give a call for the same.

Non-traditional region

The burqua did not belong here until not very long ago. Supporters and sympathisers in non-traditional region, including South Asia, want to argue that it was a cause of the US-led West’s targeting of individuals and communities post-9/11, and the wars against Islamic nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Afghanistan had slipped into chaos long ago, ever since the West, in the company of Pakistan, and the likes of Osama bin-Laden, joined hands to force the exit of Soviet Union from the link- nation between South Asia and Central Asia.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic warriors enforced orthodoxy, fundamentalism, death, terrorism and destruction. Not so in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was as ‘modern’ in religious practices as modern religious practices could go, anywhere in any faith. It is this that made the Islamic world feel threatened, though the American reason had more to do with geo-politics and geo-strategy of the times and since, rather than Islam. But the US used religion to push Saddam and Iraq into a pre-determined corner.

Born-again Muslim

In Sri Lanka, Islam came after the Arab traders had been doing so for centuries earlier. When families back home converted to the new religion, founded in the name of Allah, those traders brought it to the Sri Lankan shores. It was so also in the case of southern Tamil Nadu. There was no war or blood-shed, as was the case in north India and what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc….

So, until Islamic revivalism reached the nation’s shores in recent decades, no Muslim woman here had worn, and possibly even seen a burqua, until tourism began bringing in rich Arabs with their families. The dress was an attraction up to a time, intrusions afterwards, and imposition, later on.

Today, the burqua has become a symbol of the religion, religious togetherness and identification. If some women have re-discovered religion as in the case of born-again Christians across the world, it should be just as much and nothing more. This is true of Buddhism, Hinduism and all other faiths. Caught in the web of globalised materialism, which is a part of market capitalism of the West, everyone seems wanting to take to religion in a big way or small, at some point in their lives.

This seems to be happening with Islam, too, in this country. But this has got a new meaning and method, no thanks to the emerging and evolving global situation. Today, burqua, in a non-traditional Islamic community/country, is not a symbol of a born-again Muslim woman, but that of a fundamentalist/radicalised person from the religion.

The same cannot be said of madrasas, which should have reached these shores along with the religion. They are religious schools, as there are religious schools in and for every faith. But there is evidence across the world that in non-traditional communities, especially, madrasas have been teaching more than religion. Their new syllabus at times includes weapons-training and psychological motivation, both in the name of religion. ‘Jihad’ in the name of the game – and of ‘ultimate fame’ for the faithful!

Does ban help?

True, the predecessor government, in yet another display of unthinking over-reaction to their failures, began with banning burqua. It was argued on the side that wanted culprits could cover themselves with a burqua and make good their escape. Does a ban on burqua, however, serve anything more than symbolism of a different kind?

True, Muslim women who may have taken to orthodox religion, would want to wear burqua, yes. At least some of them had done so while in the Gulf-Arab nations, where their husbands were/are employed – and may have brought the practice back home. For others in the neighbourhood, it could have become an identification-mark, but not necessarily for all those that had imported the symbolism in the first place.

As war-time Navy official, Minister Weerasekara should have known that ban on symbolisms and sending out security forces to hunt out for the same only aggravated the situation, forced the LTTE to the wall, from which they began fighting back and hitting back with a vengeance. And ending those symbolisms did not help in the end, with the LTTE. It will not help in the case of Islamic radicalisation. The latter class will survive and thrive despite such bans. It would only hurt the sentiments of the religious orthodoxy, pushing them to the wall….

It is not the case with madrasas. But banning the same alone would not help. What could instead be tried is for the Government to modernise and regulate madrasas, and make their functioning more transparent and accountable. In doing so, the Government should also appeal to the good senses of the ulema, which had alerted the previous Government, for instance, about the arrival and advent of the Zaharans of the world, to see if learning religion in Arabic, a foreign language in these parts, should be encouraged.

It’s after all a recent acquisition, identifying Sri Lankan Muslims with the strident streak of Wahhabism rather than moderate Islam. It is this, as also symbolisms of the kind that are to blame. Not religion proper…

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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