RECENT clashes in western Myanmar between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya have polarised Pakistan’s public sphere.
The debate about how Pakistanis should react to the violence has pitted liberals against conservatives in a way that says far more about Pakistani society and the appalling state of national discourse than it does about the plight of the Rohingya.
On the right end of the religio-political spectrum, there are those who are expressing outrage at the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim community, calling for Pakistanis to widely condemn the atrocities and pressurising the state to join hands with the ummah and intervene on behalf of the Rohingya.
On the left, there are those who object to this histrionic empathy with the Rohingya and point out that multiple atrocities committed within Pakistan’s borders — especially widespread violence and discrimination against religious minorities — rarely provoke the same outcry. For example, when the Karachi Bar Association raised its voice against the killing of dozens of Rohingya, many people responded with a flurry of blogs and tweets asking why the city’s prolonged ethno-political violence didn’t inspire similar mobilisation.
The body of writing about this polarised debate has tried to answer the question of whether Pakistanis are justified in their outcry against violence in Myanmar, and therefore completely misses the point. Whether or not we should care about the Rohingya is not the question we should be asking. News of a tragedy of this nature will inevitably provoke some kind of shock, horror or outrage. The extent of the reaction is determined by many factors that people have little control over, primarily the international media’s treatment of an issue.
The stateless Rohingya have been denied basic rights by the Myanmar state, which does not recognise them as citizens, for decades. Their plight is now making headlines because recent violence comes at the heels of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s summer tour of Europe. After wowing western audiences, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has disappointed the international community with her silence on this human rights crisis.
The issue is also politically relevant in an American election year. Many had criticised US President Barack Obama for not pressing Myanmar on human rights issues during the recent rapprochement between the two states. The current wave of violence reflects poorly on his foreign policy credentials. As such, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar lends itself well to simplified, emotional media coverage as compared to the complex and slow-moving conflicts in Syria and Mali, which also include Muslim victims but have provoked less of a local response.
In other words, the right-wing outcry against the Rohingya is not problematic per se, but the way in which it has been deployed in a local socio-political context might be. The question Pakistani liberals should be asking is not whether the Rohingya deserve more or less sympathy than Pakistan’s persecuted minorities, but what this sympathy says about our local politics, ideology and discourse.
First and foremost, the quick appropriation of an ‘us versus them’ narrative of Muslim victimisation betrays the political opportunism of Pakistan’s right-wing parties and the easy use of religion as a way to claim moral high ground — and more votes. It is not surprising that the issue has been seized most vehemently by Pakistan’s religious political parties and the increasingly conservative Imran Khan, who has termed the Rohingya killings genocide and called for the government to take diplomatic action against Myanmar.
Certain religious parties have gone as far as to doctor and misappropriate photographs of mass casualty incidents in China and Thailand and pass them off as ‘evidence’ of the injustices meted out to the Rohingya. This photoshopped history serves a particular purpose in a Pakistani context — to enhance the narrative of Muslim victimisation and give right-wing actors a political fillip — and bears little relation with the facts. As Dr Ayesha Siddiqa has written, no one is willing to remember that tensions between the Rohingya and the Burmese state are not founded on religious differences but on questions of statehood and territory, and were therefore only relevant to Pakistan until 1971 owing to domestic fears of Rohingya incursions into East Pakistan.
More troubling than the clever politicking of religious political parties is the fact that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued a statement about the Rohingya many days after the issue had been debated in the social and mainstream media and taken up by politicians. The fact that everyone beat the TTP to the defence of the Rohingya shows the extent to which a particular narrative of Muslim victimisation at the hands of non-Muslims has been mainstreamed. Outrage at the persecution of obscure Muslim communities in far-off lands used to be the stuff of extremist pamphleteering and radical sermonising; it now forms part of everyday discourse in Pakistan.
It is also worth noting that it is now the conservative elements of Pakistani society, rather than the militant groups themselves, that perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations narrative. Rather than lament Muslim persecution, the TTP’s statement last week served to further its own agenda of attacking the Pakistani state: despite vowing to avenge the Rohingya, the TTP threatened to attack Pakistani officials if the government does not shut down Myanmar’s Islamabad embassy.
In this polarised and politically expedient context, how can national conversations about the persecution of Muslim communities abroad be had more productively? Across the world, violence against religious groups is often spurred by other local factors: postcolonial histories, ethnicity, patronage politics, weak governance, lack of resources, etc. Rather than seize reductivist ‘us versus them’ positions, Pakistanis would do well to learn about the particulars of each situation. The ability to understand the complex dynamics that drive religious violence elsewhere may yet give us better insight into the numerous conflicts we face at home.