Muslim residents evacuating their houses amid ongoing violence in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine
Rohingya Muslims flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh on a boat to escape religious violence (photo: AP)
Last Thursday, a US State Department Human Rights report shed further light on the ordeal of the Muslim minorities of Myanmar and the People’s Republic of China — two of the most victimised Muslim minorities in the world.
In Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, authorities in the northwestern Rakhine state had made no meaningful efforts during the year “to help Rohingya and other Muslim minority persons displaced by violence to return to their homes,” the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 said.
The government of the formerly military-led country had also failed to establish a “fair and non-discriminatory process for granting full citizenship rights to the often-persecuted Rohingya, more than 16,000 of whom fled Myanmar by boat in November to seek refuge in other countries,” the report stated.
“The atrocities to which the Muslims of Myanmar are subjected are perhaps the most shocking of the many sad accounts of anti-Muslim discrimination and even persecution worldwide,” commented Hisham Hellyer, a researcher and author on issues related to Muslim minorities.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly hours before the State Department report was issued, Hellyer shared a more lamentable picture of the Muslims of Myanmar — “and for that matter of Thailand, although they are not as much spoken of” — than the account offered by the State Department’s report.
“We are talking about an entire people who are not seen as fitting in to the nation state where they are living. They are simply not considered to be ‘original’ residents, given that the vast majority of Muslim Rohingya are members of what were a few centuries ago migrating groups,” Hellyer said.
For Hellyer, the persecution that the Rohingya are facing in Myanmar today is not just about the burning of their houses, the denial of their right to worship, or their socio-economic persecution. “The authorities want to literarily throw them into the sea. There is no metaphor here. They actually do so, or they force the Rohingya to try to escape the country on unsafe boats with no clear destination,” he explained.
During recent weeks, some newspapers have carried pictures of persecuted Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar aboard boats with no refuge in the immediate neighbourhood, including in countries that are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Southeast Asia, like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Government officials from these and other countries have made it clear that the most they can do is to provide the escaping individuals with emergency humanitarian assistance, insisting that they cannot take them in as refugees.
“Between Myanmar and Thailand we are talking about a few million Muslims that the authorities in both countries wish to see expelled. Clearly, it would be a serious demographic concern for countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to have these people come, given the realisation of the authorities in these countries that it would be politically costly to try to add to the Muslim communities,” Hellyer explained.
Over the past five years, as the plight of the “Burmese Muslims” took a sharp turn for the worse the OIC has adopted several resolutions that call for efforts to be made to end the plight of this devastated minority.
“But these resolutions have remained resolutions, and whatever was done for these minorities by the members of the OIC is nothing to be very proud of,” Hellyer said. He added that there was also little that had been done in terms of serious political or economic pressure by the leading members of the OIC to end the plight of this minority.
A proposal that Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest and poorest countries, put forward to the international community proposed to accommodate these unwanted Muslims there if the international community provided a decent financial package that could help the government cope with the demands of the new arrivals.
However, the initiative has not received serious world attention. Meanwhile, the Burmese Muslims continue to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to several UN bodies.
“They are amongst the most persecuted minorities worldwide, but they are not getting the kind of attention that is even half-proportionate to their ordeal. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that they are from poorer countries where violations of human rights are not at all uncommon, and the second is that they are not Europeans, because even though European Muslims face no small share of discrimination, it is nothing like what the Rohynigas are facing,” Hellyer stated.
Across Southeast Asia, there are other Muslim minorities in the Philippines where there have also been accounts of discrimination that include freedom of worship and basic socio-economic rights. “But this discrimination does not come near to what the Burmese Muslims have to face,” Hellyer said.
Persecution in China: Even in China, where Muslim minorities are forced to forgo fasting in Ramadan, Hellyer said, the discrimination is not as brutal as in the case of the Burmese Muslims. “China, however, is certainly one obvious case where Muslim minorities are subject to very harsh persecution in Asia,” he said.
“The Uyghurs are the Turkic-speaking Muslims of China who have been there since the 8th century. The first wave of Muslim arrivals in China was within 50 years of the passing of the Prophet; however, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in China today,” Hellyer said.
Beijing is not only forcing these Muslims to drop the fast during the holy month of Ramadan – “this is very disturbing for them because they are among the most observing Muslims in the world” — but it is also putting restrictions on the rights of Muslims in China to pray in mosques or observe other religious choices related to women’s dress codes, Hellyer said.
“Of course, one cannot claim that it is just the Muslims in China who suffer from human rights violations — it would be silly to do so.
But the share of violations that is accorded to Muslims in China is perhaps considerably higher than that to any other group,” he argued.
This is the case, Hellyer argued, despite the fact that the Muslims of China, unlike the Muslims of Myanmar, are not thought of as being non-Chinese. In China, Muslim restaurant owners are ordered to serve food and drink during Ramadan, and during the rest of the year they are ordered to sell alcohol and not to observe Muslim butcher regulations.
The objective, Hellyer explained, is to make sure they don’t develop “a culture of their own” or social norms of their own. “They are not disassociated from the rest of the society. On the contrary, they are quite well-integrated and they have been very creative about developing this by building mosques in the Chinese and not the Arab architecture style, for example,” Hellyer said.
He added that “they call themselves the followers of the ‘religion of the pure’ — to explain what Islam is in a way that is compatible with Chinese culture.”
Unfortunately, Hellyer argued, neither the efforts of the Muslims of China nor appeals by the most important Muslim countries who have major economic and military cooperation agreements with China have lowered the level of persecution to which the Muslims of China are subjected.
Elsewhere in non-Muslim Asian countries Muslims are facing persecution that makes their lives as Muslims hard to observe. “But of course the closer the country is to democracy the better are the chances of the Muslims to lead lives in line with the rules of their religion if they so wish,” he said.
Minorities elsewhere: A good example of a country where a relatively large Muslim minority is spared excessive persecution, Hellyer said, is India. He was not certain about qualifying the Muslims of India as a minority in the orthodox sense of the world – given that Islam is the second-largest religion in the sub-continent with some 14 per cent of the population of close to 200 million being Muslim.
“There are of course problems related to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and there have been attacks on and violence against Muslim communities that include a recent attempt to pull down a mosque, but when all is said and done Muslims in India are represented in government and in business, and this is essentially a result of democracy,” Hellyer said.
What goes for Asia also goes for Africa, Hellyer suggested. He argued that in a country like South Africa, for example, Muslims are not much more than around two per cent of the population but their rights are much more observed than those of their counterparts in the Central African Republic (CAR) where Muslims are close to 15 per cent of the population.
“During recent years there have been cases of Muslims who have been killed in the Central African Republic simply for being Muslims,” he stated.
Obviously, Hellyer added, there is a state of civil war in the CAR, but there has also been a choice made by the state to look the other way while Muslims are being killed in their thousands.
A report issued earlier this year by a UN special commission of inquiry in CAR said there was no clear evidence of any deliberate genocide against Muslims, but argued that there were signs that could not be overlooked of ethnic cleansing carried out against Muslims.
“Of course, we have to put things in context here, because, for example, the people of Darfour [in Sudan], who have been subjected to massive killing, are Muslims who have been killed by other Muslims. This relates precisely to my point about the correlation between democracy and good governance, on the one hand, and the quality of discrimination, on the other,” Hellyer said.
He added that in this respect Europe could not collectively have turned a blind eye to the genocide of the Muslims of Bosnia in the 1990s, even though this was a genocide committed by the Serbs with the help and consent of some key world players. Unfortunately, Hellyer added, what goes for Europe does not go for Africa.
He argued that there was another element to take into consideration when examining the plight of Muslim minorities around the world. “It is important to realise that since 9/11 the world has been completely taken over by the ‘War on Terror’, which in some reductionist versions has boiled down to a war on Muslim groups or even Islam.”
This, he added, was how the Russians had managed to get away with some of the harsh acts of discrimination committed against the Muslims of Chechenya, for example, something that was widely criticised before the 9/11 attacks.
Today, it is not just Al-Qaeda that is claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks, but there are new and perhaps more disturbing groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra that are also carrying out attacks.
These developments have been used in several western countries, from North America to Australia to different degrees, to justify the discrimination to which Muslim minorities have been subject.
“But it is important to realise that we are talking about ‘job penalties’ which deny Muslims, those who are born Muslims or those who have converted to Islam, from accessing high-level jobs, or the fear of ‘Islamisation’, or even the most recent fear of ‘creeping Sharia law’ which came out of the Tea Party Movement in the US,” Hellyer said.
He added that this anti-Muslim sentiment was often reflected in a more subtle way in a legislative context to make sure that the force of law is used to support discrimination. He argued that the nature of this discrimination is “certainly different even within the context of democratic countries,” however. For example, the “very layered” Muslim-Europe relationship is reflected in the type of bigotry to which Muslims of Europe are subjected, “and this is very different from the issues of Muslims in the US, Canada or Australia.”
Some of the better-off Muslim minorities worldwide are in South America, where their identification as migrants from the Levant, along with other migrants who are Christians and Jews, has spared them from direct Muslim labeling.
“They are perhaps amongst the most integrated Muslim minorities in the world. But even here there have been cases of discrimination based upon an Islamic identity, as has been the case in Mexico, mostly among converts and even among second-generation citizens who have converted to Islam.”
Hellyer is convinced that the rise of the human rights movement has been of great help to Muslim minorities around the world. “But again it is also very relative: in countries where the issue of rights is compromised to start with, the chances of Muslim minorities benefiting from a growing rights movement are not very high,” he concluded.
The Rohingya people of Myanmar (Burma)
According to the Rohingyas themselves and some international scholars, they are indigenous to the Rakhine state of the country, while Burmese historians claim that they migrated to Burma from Bengal. They number around 1.5 to 2 million people, and according to official statistics they are about four per cent of the population. However, Muslim leaders estimate that between 14 and 20 per cent of the population of Myanmar may be Muslim.
The first wave of aggressively anti-Muslim violence occurred in the early 1930s in the country. During the last few years, Muslims in Myanmar have been subjected to an extensive persecution campaign that seeks to uproot them from the country, and over 20,000 members of the Muslim minority have been effectively stranded at sea.
The Muslims of China
About two per cent of the Chinese population follows Islam, essentially the Sunni creed. The presence of Islam in China has been established for some 15 centuries, but during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mosques along with other religious buildings were often attacked in China, with some being pulled down. Copies of the Quran were also destroyed by Red Guards.
Muslims are denied access to religious education for their children in any mainstream context in China. However, there are some Islamic colleges in the country, and Muslims from China often travel overseas to pursue Islamic studies in countries like Egypt and Malaysia. It is estimated that the level of discrimination to which the Muslims of China are subject varies with their ethnic group – with the Uyghurs facing the worst forms of discrimination.
Muslims in Africa
Roughly half the population of Africa is Muslim, essentially gathered in the North African Arab countries. Other Muslims in Africa cluster at the southern borders of the North African Arab countries and in the east and west of the continent. Most African Muslims are Sunni, with clusters of Sunni Sufis. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of Muslims following Salafi trends within the Sunni communities in Africa.
The high level of “cultural customisation” of the Muslim communities across the continent brings about different types of Islam. The size of Muslim communities in Sub-Saharan African states varies from a small four per cent in a country like South Africa to around 15 per cent in a country like the Central African Republic to some 50 per cent in a country like Nigeria.
Muslims of South America
Most of the “original” Muslims of South America come from either Lebanon or Syria. They are mostly based in Argentina and Brazil, while the majority of Muslim converts are in Mexico. In total, there are some five million Muslims in South America, and generally speaking they are not particularly observant.
There are Islamic centres in most of the South America countries, including in a country like Bolivia where the size of the Muslim population is not more than a few thousand people.