By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
June 13, 2015
‘Muslims, rise to support your Rohingya Brethren’; ‘Where are the rights activists when Muslims are being persecuted?’; ‘The Rohingya Muslims are calling out to their Muslim brethren all over the world for help’. These are the kinds of slogans one is repeatedly hearing in Pakistan these days. On June 10, 2015, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed a resolution condemning ‘without reservation and in the strongest terms all the said crimes, acts and omissions prejudicially affecting the human rights of a peaceful community of Rohingya Muslims.’ While the Rohingya are certainly a persecuted minority, and surely they need to be helped and all pressures put on the Myanmar government to give them full and equal rights, one can’t help but wonder why all the slogans are religion-based. Should we not have cared about them if they were not Muslim? Does their being Muslim make them worthy of our care? Why can’t we support all people who are being persecuted around the world without reference to their religion?
Approaching this from another angle, imagine Pakistan’s emissaries going all around the Western world highlighting the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims and being told that those countries cannot possibly support the Pakistani stance since the majority of Kashmiris are Muslims and that the Western world is primarily Christian. What would we say to that? Would they be justified in their cherry-picking of causes on the basis of religion? Take the Palestinian cause: in 2012, for example, the largest amounts of humanitarian aid to Palestine came from the institutions of the EU, the United States and Canada. Imagine if these countries — primarily Christian — stop helping the Palestinians because they are majority Muslim? The aid Palestine receives from Muslim countries would hardly make a fraction of what is needed to keep the fragile state afloat.
In the specific context of Myanmar, we need to see the current wave of persecution against the Rohingyas in its historical context. Since the end of the First World War, anti-foreign sentiment had become very strong in Burma. With the population of Rangoon — the capital — becoming almost half Indian by the late 1930s, this sentiment became primarily anti-Indian. There were several riots against Indians in the 1930s and 1940s, and Burmese leaders began to discriminate and target non-Burmese citizens. This trend continued and intensified in the post-independence period, with the Burmese becoming wary of any group which they did not consider from their land. Therefore, the persecution of the Rohingyas needs to be seen in this context. The Burmese government does not primarily discriminate against them because they are Muslims — Muslims have lived in Burma for centuries — but instead considers them Bengali and so does not give them citizenship rights on this pretext. That they are Muslim is an additional cause, not the main one. Therefore, if the Rohingya were, say Christian or even Hindu perhaps, they would have been treated the same way by the Burmese authorities.
The modern era of human rights, which began in the post-Second World War era, had hoped to look at the world in its ‘human’ dimension, rather than in its divided nature on the basis of religion, ethnicity and sex. All people, they argued, were equal and had equal dignity and rights and therefore they had to be protected without any discrimination. We in Pakistan, sadly, still see the world in binary terms: Muslim and non-Muslim. While there is no harm in feeling for your co-religionists, the faith’s universal appeal was itself couched in ‘human’ terms, and so general ‘human’ rights and concerns were discussed very early on in the faith’s history. Humans are supposed to have been created in God’s image, shouldn’t we therefore respect all of them in the same way?