The systematic persecution of Palestinians has long occupied a place in the consciousness of the ummah, the global community of Muslims. Muslims worldwide have watched for decades as Palestinians have been repeatedly displaced, subjected to disproportionate collective punishment, and denied statehood.
While the Israeli occupation continues to stir up feelings of anger and powerlessness, another ethnic group — the Rohingya — is now emerging as the symbol of global injustice for Muslims. As Rashmee Roshan Lall notes in The Arab Weekly, the Rohingya are acquiring a status so far only given to the Palestinians. And the ummah is not sitting idly by.
The images of devastated villages and terrified Rohingya streaming into Bangladesh with nothing but the clothes on their backs resonates powerfully with the traumatic collective memory of the Palestinian Nakba, the “catastrophe,” when in 1948 Israeli forces expelled over 750,000 people from the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine. Muslims around the globe see the Palestinians and the Rohingya as having gone through similar experiences, being subject to flagrant abuses and pushed to the fringes of their respective societies. They are stateless, permanent refugees with few allies willing to officially stand up for their human rights.
Both groups became disenfranchised in the aftermath of colonial rule and imperial collapse, and both the Myanmar and Israeli governments have attempted to relocate them from their territory, portraying them as foreigners with no claim to the land. In both Israel and Myanmar, there have been attempts to rewrite the history of the two persecuted groups, claiming that neither constitute a “real” ethnic group and are thus interlopers and invaders.
Muslims also see a shared use of religious justifications for persecution. The Myanmar government empowers Buddhist nationalist factions promoting genocide against the defenseless Rohingya, while the Israeli government empowers Jewish nationalist factions promoting the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.
Ultranationalist Buddhists, such as Ashin Wirathu of the radical nationalist 969 movement, believe “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities [in Myanmar], we are suffering under the burden [the Rohingya] bring us.” That’s echoed by the use of language describing Palestinians as “snakes” by figures such as far-right Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who has also declared that “[Palestinians] are all our enemies, and their blood should be on our hands.” Such reckless and shameful comments remind us that Islamophobia knows no bounds.
The Rohingya crisis has inspired an outburst of online activism. Twitter users are deploying hashtags like #WeAreAllRohingyaNow to raise awareness of the ongoing human rights violations and draw attention to businesses with ties to the Myanmar government. Meanwhile, Arab media has been flooding the airwaves with reports of the atrocities. Oraib Rantawi, of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, says the Rohingya are now taking priority over sectarian conflicts, whether Shiite vs. Sunni or Islamism vs. Secularism. As the Christian Science Monitor notes, the Rohingya have not been colored by the sectarian or political divides that afflict Muslims, making it a cause that transcends sectarian barriers.
Sectarian divides and deep-rooted animosities in the ummah are real enough, but the protests of a number of Muslim communities show that the Rohingya issue transcends the challenge of sectarianism. In solidarity with the Rohingya, tens of thousands of Muslims marched through the Russian region of Chechnya’s capital city, Grozny. In Jordan, two protests took place in the span of five days, including at the United Nations’ Amman headquarters. Dozens of Israeli Muslim Palestinians protested at the gates of the Myanmar Embassy in Tel Aviv, and hundreds of Muslim women demonstrated outside Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Hundreds of Shiite Muslims also staged a protest rally after Friday prayers in Tehran.
While Muslims worldwide have been moved by the ethnic cleansing and forced exodus of the Rohingya, the responses from Muslim leaders and heads of state have been inadequate, at best. Neither the Arab League nor the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest Muslim political body, has called for an emergency session.
There has been limited action and rather more talk: some Arab states have started sending aid and assistance to Rohingya refugees, while the Qatar Red Crescent Society has dispatched a team to set up mobile clinics and water tanks.
Seeking more action to defend the Rohingya, Iranian Second Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahari called on Muslim-majority countries to raise a Muslim-led expeditionary force to go rescue the fleeing Rohingya. Iran’s chief rival — Saudi Arabia — tweeted its condemnation. “Acting upon [our] responsibility as leader of the Islamic Ummah, Saudi Arabia has called for a resolution to condemn the atrocities and human rights violations.”
But even these responses speak to division, as well as unity, among Islamic nations. Iran calls for aggressive direct action while Saudi Arabia calls for words of condemnation. Humanitarian action in Myanmar has become highly politicized as Islamic powers battle for supremacy over the ummah.
Turkish officials say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has discussed the violence with Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the Myanmar government, and said the issue was causing deep concern globally and especially in the “Muslim world.” Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for an end to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and sent his foreign minister to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.
While the Saudi government did in fact reach out to the U.N. Security Council, critics have pointed to the kingdom’s deep financial and political ties in Myanmar as reasons why Saudi Arabia is not acting with more force to stop the plight of the Rohingya. The Christian Science Monitor noted that “Saudi Arabia has invested millions in Myanmar’s oil infrastructure, and it set to use a recently-completed oil pipeline running through the country to continue to provide China, the Myanmar government’s largest backer, with more than 10 percent of its oil supplies.”
To be fair to the Saudi kingdom, it has stepped up to assist the Rohingya. In recent years, the Saudis have opened their doors to 250,000 Muslims from Myanmar, offering them free residency permits, access to free education, health care, and employment — but often then treating them with the same hostility that other migrants find in Saudi Arabia.
One reason why the Rohingya issue has become so powerfully emotive is that the ummah sees a systematic bias in the way the media covers the plight of persecuted Muslim populations. Some Muslims around the globe believe the “terrorism” label is only applied to cases where the perpetrator is Muslim.
Indeed, research from Erin Kearns and her colleagues at Georgia State University show that when the perpetrators of violence are Muslim, the media covers the attack about four and a half times more than if the perpetrator was not Muslim. Put another way, as Kearns notes, “a perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who’s Muslim.”
The portrayal of Palestinians as a collectively terrorist population is common; in the case of the Rohingya, there has been a concerted effort by the Myanmar government to portray the victims as persecutors and “Bengali terrorists.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, has echoed this language.
Muslims around the world also see Muslim-majority countries and “the West” as being too silent, if not complicit, in the face of ethnic cleansing. But it is worth noting that similar developments for other groups have barely made a ping on the radar. The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim ethnic group based largely in Xinjiang province in western China, are a socially and politically oppressed people. The “Muslim world” has looked the other way as Chinese security forces foment anti-Uighur violence. Some say that Muslim leaders are wary of damaging lucrative trade ties with Beijing or attracting attention to their own attitudes towards political dissent.
The Rohingya and Palestinians’ situations have become crises breaching sectarian divides. The persecution of both populations facilitates a rare outpouring of support and solidarity unseen in bitter sectarian conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Here, the labels of Shiite and Sunni melt away as Muslims worldwide stand united in their desire for peace and humanity — in part, because they’re far away from the worst fault lines that divide the Islamic world.
We should also remember that this is not just a matter of religious fellow feeling for some Muslims, but also common humanity inspired by faith. The Islamic teachings of mercy, compassion, and justice call on followers of Islam to condemn the loss of innocent life, a point captured by the following verse of the Quran (5:32): “… Whoever kills a person unless for injustice in the land — it is as if he had slain the whole of mankind. And whoever saves a person — it is as if he had saved humanity.” Millions and millions of Muslims worldwide defend human life regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.
But for Muslims around the world, the plight of the Rohingya also bears a special resonance. They fear that another Nakba looms — and they, if not their leaders, are striving to prevent it, even if it may already be too late.
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