Islamophobia is killing Myanmar’s Rohingya, but the Muslim world can help

Radical Buddhists? Violent monks? Ethnic cleansing? Concentration camps? And now, mass graves? What’s happening in Myanmar is terrible, but it should be impossible. At least, so far as Islamophobes would have it.

The genocidal campaign for the elimination of a people, the Rohingya, has been gathering steam in Myanmar since 2011, but counter to common stereotype, the victims are Muslims, and their attackers include Buddhist monks.

The extremist movement behind some of the worst violence, “969,” claims the Rohingya are outbreeding the majority, attempting to conquer and subjugate Myanmar’s Buddhists. If that language sounds familiar, it should.

It’s a rehash of Islamophobia’s favorite talking points: Creeping Shari’ah! Demographic time bombs! (Asian) Eurabia! While Bill Maher and friends insist Islamophobia is just made up—even as they are guilty of it—969’s words and deeds are not idle exercises in televised talking points, jokes at the expense of Muslims, merely designed to earn laughs.

Many of the most trite and common arguments deployed by anti-Muslim bigots are used in Myanmar to encourage, justify, and accelerate ethnic cleansing. The Intercept found that recently some Rohingya have been arrested for membership in a terrorist movement, the “Myanmar Muslim Army,” which doesn’t even exist. Last year, the New York Times revealed Muslim concentration camps, the intention of which should be obvious. The most trite and common arguments deployed by anti-Muslim bigots are used in Myanmar to encourage ethnic cleansing. 

As the violence escalates, Rohingya have begun to flee, paying thousands of dollars to flee on leaky boats. Of the country’s approximately 1 million Rohingya (numbers vary, in part because the government’s censuses permit no such identification), some 100,000 have already fled, and nearly 140,000 are displaced.

The unluckiest are sold to human traffickers, who extort their families back home for more money. They seem to be the source of mass graves found near the Thai border. Thousands more are stranded at sea. David Pilling called the Rohingya the “Jews of Asia”. The Economist said the Rohingya may be “the most persecuted people in the world.”

They are painful evidence Islamophobia is real, and can be lethal. But it’s also a means to understand just how sloppy, inaccurate and dangerous Islamophobia can be. Just try turning things around.

Is it Buddhophobia, or the ugly truth?

What would happen if people started using Myanmar as a jumping off point for discussing Buddhists and Buddhism, just as anti-Muslim bigots like Bill Maher use instances of extremism to indict an entire religion and civilization?

You could do the same to Buddhism, which we often consider a far more pacific religion, which suggests just how contrived and artificial many Islamophobic arguments really are.

 The plight of the Rohingya illustrates how Islamophobia works. After all, many Buddhist-majority countries have long refused democracy (Vietnam, Myanmar), been plagued by genocidal violence (Laos, Cambodia), or brutalized by discrimination against religious minorities (Sri Lanka against Hindus, Myanmar against Muslims and Christians). This pattern extends to countries influenced by Buddhism, which have been at war with the West (Japan, Vietnam, North Korea, China) and suffered harsh authoritarian rule, including China, Vietnam and North Korea, sometimes considered the world’s most tyrannical regime.

With generous amounts of selectivity, ahistoricity and blindness to what’s happening elsewhere in the world, not involving Buddhists, a bigot would conclude it’s all Buddhism’s fault, and suggest any evidence of pacific Buddhism is merely a lie, some kind of nefarious dissimulation by which to hide the nasty truth.

We could have a whole industry devoted to everything that was wrong with Buddhism. Based merely on where Buddhism flourishes, one might conclude that Buddhism appears to be a profoundly undemocratic and despotic religion.

This is of course the kind of reductionist rhetoric all extremists use. And it’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that Islamophobes use to describe Islam (as well as Islamic extremists use to describe other groups.) Good reason to avoid it.

The plight of the Rohingya illustrates how Islamophobia works. But it also illuminates how extremism—including Islamic extremism—functions, and what we can do about it.

Islamophobia is real. So is Islamic extremism.

As I see it, Islamic extremism is not the real cause of many of the Muslim world’s problems, so much as it is an effect of it.

People, especially youth, become disillusioned, especially when they see conflicts in which it appears Muslims are exclusively or primarily the victims, and that not only can they do nothing about it, but their leaders and institutions refuse to do anything about it, too.

Tired of seeing Muslims only as victims, some turn to violence. (Remember, extremists view the world selectively, and don’t see their own aggression as violence—they believe they’re acting in self-defense.)

The Rohingya seem to be the same old story all over again. A Muslim people are persecuted, marginalized, or attacked. The international community can’t or won’t help them, and neither does the Muslim community offer much assistance. Radicalism takes root, and sells itself as the only route to real change. Will the same thing happen here? Will Islamophobia lead to Islamic extremism?

 Perhaps the plight of the Rohingya will stir the Muslim world to more sophisticated cooperation. So far, there are reasons to believe this time might be different. On May 27 and 28, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) convened Foreign Ministers from across the Muslim world in Kuwait—some 57 countries were represented—and the Rohingya were at the top of the agenda. The OIC’s Secretary-General, Iyad Ameen Madani, has said “the plight of the Rohingyas” cannot be addressed without “international cooperation.” The meeting concluded with a vow to work with the Arakan Rohingya Union, which represents the world’s Rohingya.

Indonesia and Malaysia have changed their initial stance towards Rohingya refugees, offering temporary asylum for 7,000, while Turkey has donated $1 million in relief assistance. One OIC member state, Gambia, has announced that, should transportation for the Rohingya be provided, it is a “sacred duty” to resettle all Rohingya refugees in its territory. But because Gambia lacks the money and resources to transport them, it would require partners, which one hopes the OIC is able to provide. Hopefully the OIC can bring resources together, and provide options.

It may well be that the Rohingya will be driven out of Myanmar. But that does not mean they will have nowhere to go.

Perhaps the plight of the Rohingya will stir the Muslim world, as well as Muslim communities, to more sophisticated cooperation and action. Muslim countries and communities could leverage their resources to assist a population in need, showing young Muslims they can effect change by working with existing institutions, and not outside or against them. They could show that radicals are the ones harming Muslims, and that the mainstream can provide real assistance and rescue.

Out of this persecution, then, we might not only begin to see how dangerous Islamophobia is, how its language is fundamentally the same kind of language all extremists use—speaking in broad generalizations, lumping in very different kinds of people, and assuming the worst in order to justify the worst. But we might also have a chance for Muslims themselves to show their own institutions, organizations and nation-states can work together to provide peaceful assistance on a truly dramatic scale, which is not only good for Rohingya, or for Muslims, but for the world.

Follow Haroon on Twitter at @hsmoghul. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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