Sri Lanka is currently considering a ban on the wearing of the burqa, the one-piece Islamic veil that covers women’s faces and bodies. Proponents of the “burqa ban” claim that it is a symbol of religious extremism. This proposal comes just two weeks after citizens of Switzerland voted to prohibit Muslim women from wearing Islamic face coverings in public.
The proposed ban also comes almost exactly two years after Sri Lanka became the site of one of the world’s worst terrorist attacks: the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. The series of coordinated suicide attacks targeted crowded churches, bustling luxury hotels, and a housing complex, resulting in the deaths of some 250 people. It is precisely this kind of extremism that the Sri Lankan government wants to nip in the bud by introducing a ban on burqas.
This is a terrible idea for two reasons. First, it is a direct assault on the religious freedom of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. The government is contemplating a measure that would essentially deny the country’s Muslims their basic rights to live in accordance with their understanding of ultimate truth, to bear witness to faith-based commitments, and to bring their religiously informed views into the public square. That should prick the conscience of anyone who cares about justice, dignity, and human rights.
Supporters of the ban might concede that the ban on burqas is a denial of religious freedom but that the national security of the country nonetheless requires it. In other words, by banning the wearing of the burqa, Colombo can counteract the threat of Islamic radicalism.
The problem with this view is that it gets the causes of extremism exactly backwards. The 2019 Easter Sunday attacks should be understood as the natural consequence of the increasing repression of Muslim communities, especially the widespread Islamophobia that has been present in the country since the end of its civil war in 2009. Buddhist mob attacks against Muslims in 2014 and 2018, and the lack of accountability for these attacks, has resulted in large swaths of the country’s Muslim population feeling neglected and discriminated against by the government. The growing discrimination against Muslims by the state and demonization of Muslims by Buddhist nationalists in society over the last few years are contributing to their radicalization. A ban on burqas will only exacerbate this reality.
In a study on the relationship between burqa bans and terrorism in Europe, my co-author and I found that prohibitions on the wearing of the burqa and other Islamic garb is strongly and positively correlated with Islamist terrorism, even when controlling for other factors that might be related. Jarringly, we find that countries with veil restrictions experience almost 15 times more cases of Islamist terrorist attacks and 17 times more terrorism-related fatalities than countries not having these bans. Our numerous statistical tests also find that these attacks follow rather than precede restrictions on the veil. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, veil restrictions encourage terrorism.
The reason why burqa bans encourage terrorism is straightforward. Prohibitions on the veil represent an attack by the state on Islamic culture and values, and they naturally breed resentment among stigmatized and marginalized Muslim groups. A number of terrorists over the past decade have cited burqa bans specifically as a key reason for them turning to the gun. There is a powerful symbiotic relationship between religious repression from above and religious extremism from below.
Sri Lanka will not be an exception to this rule. If it adopts the burqa ban and refuses to address systemic issues of bias and discrimination against Muslims, it will continue to fertilize a breeding ground for terrorism – the very thing that the burqa ban is supposed to prevent. When Sri Lanka’s minister of public security, Sarath Weerasekara, one of the main proponents of the burqa ban, said that the measure would have a direct impact on national security, he was right.