Failure to speak up for persecuted minorities in China, Burma or India creates an open wound
, The Times
Consider the pent-up anger of Mesut Ozil. Criticism of Beijing by the Arsenal midfielder has sent the Chinese propaganda machine into overdrive. How dare he use Instagram to denounce the burning of copies of the Koran, the shutting of mosques and the mass “re-education” of Uighur Muslims! Footballers, especially those playing for a club with a big, lucrative Chinese following, should zip their lips.
The state-sponsored outrage against him this week was suffused with nationalist arrogance — toe our political line or lose our business. But Beijing’s campaign missed a crucial fact: Ozil’s other target was the Muslim majority states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that have been shamefully muted about Chinese abuses against their co-believers. He was spot on. This silent axis between Asian governments that are bullying Muslims and look-away leaders who let it all happen stokes a sense of deep grievance. The result will be a new cult of Muslim victimhood, the seeds of a new jihad.
You know something’s up when a Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, misses a chance to plead in favour of multifaith tolerance in her native Burma and devotes her energy to denying that a genocide was being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. Despite her testimony last week at the International Court of Justice, credible human rights activists are completely clear: some 700,000 Rohingyas were driven by military atrocities and ethnic cleansing from their homes in Burma’s Rakhine state in 2017. They are now crammed into camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, understandably scared to return. In some cases they are sharing quarters with Muslims driven out in 2012.
The Burmese army appears to have the backing of a civil population that sees Muslims as aliens and potential terrorists. Now they inhabit a limbo; their desperation could eventually end up radicalising some of them, thus making a nonsense out of their expulsion. Suu Kyi, as Burma’s de facto leader, has thus contributed to the destabilisation of her own country.
In India, meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi has pushed through a law that offers non-Muslims from neighbouring states a fast track to Indian citizenship. The offer doesn’t extend to Muslims. Modi has imposed a blockade on the 7.5 million mostly Muslim residents of the Kashmir valley. In the state of Assam 32 million residents were forced to prove their Indian citizenship — and two million impoverished, mainly Muslim residents were disqualified for not having the appropriate paperwork. If the Assam scheme is extended nationwide, tens of millions of Muslims could find themselves stateless.
As for the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang province, they seem to have become the subject of a ghoulish experiment in brainwashing and mass surveillance. Those families who are not locked up in camps are sometimes assigned a live-in minder to ensure that they don’t start thinking disloyal thoughts.
Where does this end? With a sense of estrangement between leaders and led across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the most holy shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina yet fails to speak out powerfully for the rights of persecuted Muslims in Asia. Conservative believers already worry that the Saudi leadership, in accelerating the modernisation of society, may be selling out to an overly westernised and secular vision of the future.
There is a feeling too that silence about Muslim persecution across the globe is rooted in a dirty secret: that Muslims in the Middle East are being killed or locked up by rulers who worship at the same mosques. The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has led a fierce campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
There have been similar moments when a sense of abandonment has translated into a radical jihadist response. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one, the US-led invasion of Iraq was another. To many Muslims, not just in the Middle East and central Asia, it seemed as if their co-religionists were being left to the mercy of great power politics. Perhaps one of the most potent rallying causes was the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Civilians bombed in the marketplace of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs, the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica, all evoked helpless fury. The United Nations and the international order were found wanting; hence the myth of western complicity fed into the rhetorical justification for a recruiting cycle for future jihadists.
Today Malaysia, which has a Sunni Muslim majority, is chairing a summit of Islamic states to develop common positions on the Uighur, on Kashmir, on the Rohingya, to prevent these crises festering. A country like Malaysia is dependent on a good trading relationship with China yet it cannot risk popular sympathy with repressed Uighurs turning into dry tinder for terror. China gets away with denying the sinister intent of its camps and censoring criticism. But Malaysia wants to stay an open, democratic culture maintaining a finely balanced ethnic and religious mix.
Somehow it has to convince the global Muslim community to stick together in condemning abuse, even if this irks Beijing and New Delhi. It is a huge and urgent task. This is the season when we traditionally worry about the fate of persecuted Christians. But it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to what is happening to Muslims. If cruel treatment of minorities is not challenged today we can expect a new round of violence and disorder tomorrow.