Sri Lanka in ‘no rush’ to implement burqa ban

Sri Lanka in ‘no rush’ to implement burqa ban
Pakistan’s envoy to Colombo said the island nation’s move to ban the burqa is a ‘divisive’ step impacting Muslims in Sri Lanka and across the globe. (AP)
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Updated 17 March 2021

Sri Lanka in ‘no rush’ to implement burqa ban

Sri Lanka in ‘no rush’ to implement burqa ban
  • Security minister seeks Cabinet approval, citing national security concerns

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government is in “no rush” to implement a proposed ban on the wearing of burqas and the closure of over 1,000 Islamic schools, Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said on Tuesday, adding that it was a serious decision that required “consensus and consultations.”

“It will be implemented with a consensus and consultations with Muslim organizations and leaders. We won’t rush through the proposal, since it is a serious issue,” Rambukwella said.

His remarks came a day after Pakistan’s envoy to Colombo Saad Khattak criticized the island nation’s move to ban the burqa — an outer garment worn by some Muslim women to cover the body and face — saying it was a “divisive” step impacting Muslims in Sri Lanka and across the globe.

Khattak tweeted on Monday that the ban would constitute an “injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe,” adding that it would exacerbate economic difficulties and fuel concerns over the state of “fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.”

Khattak’s statement follows Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara signing a paper over the weekend seeking the Cabinet’s approval to ban the burqa, calling it “a sign of religious extremism” with a “direct impact on national security.”

“The burqa has a direct impact on national security. It is a sign of religious extremism … Such actions will help maintain security … We will definitely ban it,” Weerasekara said during a press conference on Saturday.

A temporary ban on the burqa was imposed three years ago after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, which killed 269 people and injured more than 500 in separate locations of Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019.

The island nation also plans to ban more than 1,000 Islamic seminaries, or madrasas, out of the nearly 2,300 institutions across the island, with Weerasekara saying they were either “not registered with the authorities” or failed to follow the national education policy.

If implemented, the proposed ban could be the latest move impacting Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of its total population of 22 million, where Buddhists account for 70 percent of the census.

Taking umbrage over the government’s proposed ban, Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, said: “Muslim bashing by the government continues to hoodwink the economic burden cast on the 6.9 million who voted them to power.”

Ahamed also highlighted other issues faced by the Muslim community in recent months, among which was the forced cremation of Muslims who had died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

“They forcibly cremated over 250 Muslims who had died from the virus against their religious belief, and now they want to ban madrasas and burqas,” he told Arab News.

“It is the right of women to choose what to wear, especially now during the pandemic when face masks are mandatory. Will the same scrutiny be given to Buddhist seminaries, which serve the same purpose as madrasas to educate theologians?” he added.

Shreen Saroor, cofounder of the Colombo-based Women’s Action Network, agreed, telling Arab News: “The ban violates Muslim women’s freedom of religion and expression.”

She questioned the government’s timing for the ban of the face and body veil “when everyone is wearing face masks to protect themselves from virus.”

“In the last few months, there has been an increase of Islamophobic rhetoric, and this ban is part of that. The Muslim community has been discussing various reforms, but getting rid of what has been practiced for such a long time overnight shows how this state regards its minorities and the pluralistic nature of our constitution,” Saroor said.

Ahamed agreed, adding that if the government were “genuinely concerned about national security, they would ban backpacks as well since suicide bombers often carry bombs in their backpacks.”

Lawmakers, for their part, believe that Sri Lanka’s delay in implementing the ban is part of its “vote-buying tactics.”

“Postponement of the implementation of the ban is to woo more votes from Muslim countries for Sri Lanka at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on March 22,” Parliamentarian Mujibur Rahman told Arab News on Tuesday.

“The government is harassing Muslims. Such actions can have adverse repercussions on the Muslim community,” he added.

Others said the move could have a direct impact on tourism to the country.

M. Ameen, president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council and editor of popular Islamic weekly, Nawamani, told Arab News: “The burqa ban will harm the island’s tourism industry because Arab women are more likely to reject Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.

“Arab tourists are heavy spenders, and they like the island very much. This move can divert them to neighboring countries,” he added.

In the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, 71,636 tourists from the Gulf and the Middle East — with 50 percent from Saudi Arabia — had visited the island nation, A. M. Jaufer, president of the Chamber of Tourism and Industry in Sri Lanka, told Arab News on Tuesday.

More members of US Congress speak out against the war on Gaza

More members of US Congress speak out against the war on Gaza
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, DC. (AFP file photo)
Updated 13 min 22 sec ago

More members of US Congress speak out against the war on Gaza

More members of US Congress speak out against the war on Gaza
  • While careful not to assign blame for the conflict, 28 senators issued a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire
  • Ex-congressman said he is ‘proud’ of those who spoke up but most others are under the influence of pro-Israel lobby groups and afraid to do so

WASHINGTON: Twenty-eight US senators, led by newly elected Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia, issued a joint statement on Sunday night calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Israeli war against Gaza.

Treading the political boundaries very carefully, in their short statement they did not assign blame for the ongoing conflict. It was signed by an all-Democratic group of mostly liberal or progressive senators, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, who is the number two Democratic leader in the Senate, and former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are known for their outspoken support for Palestinian rights.

“To prevent any further loss of civilian life and to prevent further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we urge an immediate ceasefire,” the senators said.

In less than a week of war more than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes — mostly civilians, including 47 children — and more than 500 people have been wounded, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not sign the statement. Instead he echoed the stance of President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in reiterating unequivocal support for Israel by stating that it “has the right to defend itself.”

The statement by the 28 senators came days after 25 Democratic members of House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, before the war started, denouncing the demolition by Israel of homes in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, especially the Sheikh Jarrah area, and ongoing plans to evict Palestinians to make room for Jewish settlers.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who signed Ossoff’s letter, previously issued his own statement, at the start of the war, in which he said that while he endorses Israel’s “right to self defense,” he supports the rights of Palestinians to live in peace and security alongside Israelis.

“Both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to live in security, a right to self-determination and a right to have their human rights protected,” he said.

The response in the House was led by progressive congresswoman Marie Newman of Illinois, who was joined by representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, as well as traditional pro-Palestinian Democrats such as Bobby Rush of Illinois and Betty McCollum of Minnesota, a senior member of the party who chairs the Defense Appropriations Committee.

Tlaib made a passionate plea from the floor of the House, during which she described her experience as a Palestinian who still has family in the occupied territories.

“I am the only Palestinian American member of Congress now, and my mere existence has disrupted the status quo,” she said. “(It is) so personal for me.

“I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist, that we are human, that we are allowed to dream. We are mothers, daughters, granddaughters. We are justice seekers and are unapologetically about our fight against oppressions of all forms.”

However, these “well meaning” individuals still represent a tiny minority of elected officials, according to former Democratic congressman Jim Moran.

He told Arab News that he is “proud of these members of Congress for speaking out” but added that “the vast majority of members … are under the influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups and are afraid to speak out.”

Moran said many member of Congress are “scared” to voice an opinion about the injustices the Palestinian people are subjected to by US ally Israel. He said the right wing of the Republican Party often targets progressive party members, and those who support Palestinians, financially and through disinformation campaigns.

Khaled Saffuri, a Washington-based political analyst and expert on US politics, said the latest efforts by some senators and representatives might not signal a major shift in the culture of Congress, which has historically supported Israel “no matter what its actions may be.”

But he told the Arab News that “despite being outnumbered and outgunned, these members of Congress deserve our respect and our support.”


UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women
Updated 17 May 2021

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women
  • Scientists hope the assessment will provide more information on the immune response in pregnant women

LONDON: The first COVID-19 vaccine study for pregnant women has been launched in Britain.

It will assess the safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in healthy pregnant women. Some 235 participants will be recruited for the study, which will take place at 11 sites across Britain.

Scientists hope the assessment will provide more information on the immune response in pregnant women, and to confirm if maternal antibodies are transferred to infants.

The participants will initially receive two doses of the vaccine or a placebo with a gap of 21 days between each jab. The placebo will be a saltwater solution, as is standard practice for vaccine trials.

The participants will answer questionnaires about their health and provide blood samples, complete an e-diary and receive extra monitoring throughout the assessment.

Volunteers will need to attend their site four times before their baby is born, and twice after the birth.

Dr. Chrissie Jones, the study’s chief investigator, said: “While we have a large amount of real-world data which tells us that it’s safe for pregnant women to receive approved COVID-19 vaccines, the data gathered from a controlled research study like this is important because it will give us more information about the vaccine immune response in pregnant women.”

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 
Updated 17 May 2021

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 
  • Michael Fabricant described London demonstrators as ‘primitives’ 
  • Anti-racism charity urges Conservative Party to suspend him

LONDON: Tory MP Michael Fabricant has been accused of racism for describing pro-Palestinian protesters in central London as “primitives.”

In a now-deleted tweet, he said: “These primitives are trying to bring to London what they do in the Middle East.”

Hope not Hate CEO Nick Lowles called on the Conservative Party’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer to suspend Fabricant following the tweet.

“Calling British Muslims ‘primitives’ is clearly racist. Implying ‘they’ are from the Middle East simply compounds the offence,” Lowles said.

“The tense situation requires steady leadership from people who want to bring communities together, not hateful racism that stirs up division, as Mr. Fabricant’s comment did.”

Lowles asked Spencer: “Can you reassure me, and all people who want to stamp out racism within mainstream political parties, that you will act by suspending Michael Fabricant from the whip and that you will fully investigate this latest appalling outburst?”

Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, tweeted: “Anybody who realises that it is racist to hold British Jews responsible for Israeli policy should also be able recognise the racism here in Michael Fabricant’s tweet.”

Fabricant has been tweeting regularly throughout the recent resurgence in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Saturday, in reaction to a video of protesters being interviewed in London, and in reference to Britain’s secondary school qualifications, he tweeted: “Wonder if they have a GCSE between them.” 

Last year, the Conservative Party said it would not take further action against Fabricant for suggesting in a now-deleted tweet that criticism of the party for allegations of Islamophobia would harm “Anglo-Muslim relations.”

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant
Updated 17 May 2021

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant
  • Prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans
  • Public health officials and government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing

LONDON: Drinks were raised in toasts and reunited friends hugged each other as thousands of UK pubs and restaurants opened Monday for indoor service for the first time since early January.
Yet the prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans.
The latest step in the UK’s gradual easing of nationwide restrictions also includes reopening theaters, sports venues and museums, raising hopes that Britain’s economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic.
Andy Frantzeskos, a chef at the Nopi restaurant in London’s Soho district, said he felt “a bit of anxiousness ... but more excitement than anything.”
“It’s been a long time coming since lockdown, so we’re all happy to be back and want to cook some good food,” he said.
The government is also relaxing guidance on close personal contact, such as hugging, and permitting international travel, although only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations that don’t require 10 days of quarantine upon return. Thousands of Britons got up early to check in for the first flights to Portugal, which is on the safe list.
But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism amid memories of how another variant swept across the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown.
Public health officials and the government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing, even though the situation is different now because almost 70 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease, so you should think about the risks.”
Monday’s reopening allows people in England to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in rainy outdoor beer gardens. Rules were also being eased in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland due to follow next week.
The next phase in Britain’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, when remaining restrictions are set to be removed. Johnson has warned that a big surge in COVID-19 cases could scuttle those plans.
Confirmed new virus cases have risen over the past week, though they remain well below the peak reported in late December and early January. New infections averaged about 2,300 per day over the past seven days compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak. Deaths averaged just over 10 a day during the same period, down from a peak of 1,820 on Jan. 20.
Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest figure in Europe.
Government scientific advisers say the new variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the UK’s main strain, though it is unclear by how much. Health officials, backed by the army, are carrying out surge testing and surge vaccinations in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where cases of the variant are clustered.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, said almost 1 million people were returning to work on Monday, but that businesses were counting on the final step out of lockdown taking place as planned on June 21.
“We’ve already lost 12,000 businesses,” she said. “There’s been an almost 1-in-5 contraction in restaurants in city centers, 1-in-10 restaurants lost over the whole of the country. So these are businesses clinging on by their fingertips, and they have no fuel left in the tank. If those social distancing restrictions remain, they are simply not viable.”
Ian Snowball, owner of the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, northern England, said it was nice to be inside again, rather than facing the island nation’s unpredictable weather.
“I don’t have to have a hoodie or a coat on any more — it’s great,’’ he said. “And hopefully we don’t have to go back outside again, hopefully this is the end of it now.”
Other Britons couldn’t wait to leave altogether.
Keith and Janice Tomsett, a retired couple in their 70s, were on their way to the Portuguese island of Madeira. They booked their holiday in October “on the off-chance” it could go ahead. They had followed all the testing guidelines and were fully vaccinated.
“After 15 months of being locked up, this is unbelievably good,” Keith Tomsett said. “It was even worth getting up at 3 o’clock this morning.”

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report
Updated 17 May 2021

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report
  • Greenpeace: Turkey is Europe’s ‘largest plastic waste dump’
  • Waste being dumped instead of recycled

LONDON: About 40 percent of the UK’s plastic waste exports were sent to Turkey last year, Greenpeace has revealed.

Investigators from the environmental activist group found that instead of being recycled, some of the 210,000 tons of waste was dumped by roads, in fields and in waterways.

Greenpeace urged the British government to “take control” of the situation, and described Turkey as Europe’s “largest plastic waste dump.”

The group said it had found plastic waste from UK supermarkets at all of the 10 sites it visited across southern Turkey.