THE Rohingyas of Myanmar are back on the front pages, their desperate plight confirming that the ‘civilised’ world of the 21st century is still a living hell for what the legendary anti-imperialist Frantz Fanon’s called “the wretched of the earth”. The spectre of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh is history repeating itself for the umpteenth time — evicted from their homes time and again, these permanent refugees have no place in a global order centred around exclusionary nation-states.
We Pakistanis have been bred on the notion that Muslims constitute an extra-territorial community of sorts; hence our solidarity with the Rohingyas and lament of their neglect by the rest of the (infidel) world. Our sentiments vis-à-vis other disenfranchised ‘Muslim’ communities are similar — Kashmiris top the list, but Bosnians, Palestinians and Chechens are also beneficiaries of our ‘Muslim’ solidarity. Standing with the oppressed is an entirely laudable endeavour. But in picking some instances of suffering and remaining shamefully silent on others, we demonstrate only how much hypocrisy supposedly civilised ‘nations’ are capable of.
The Kurds have been on the receiving end of Turkish and Iraqi state violence, but I can’t think of many Pakistanis whose hearts cry out for them (let alone state functionaries issuing press statements and civil society activists organising protests). West African communities like the Yoruba and Igbo too have been victims of state-sponsored pogroms across the territorial boundaries of Nigeria, Togo and Benin. Most Pakistanis have probably never even heard these names.
Closer to home, the (predominantly Hindu) Tamils of Sri Lanka are amongst the most oppressed minority communities in the world. But Pakistani officialdom’s close ties to the Sri Lankan state means there has always been silence when the latter has undertaken pogroms against Tamil populations. In 2008-9, a series of military operations in the north of Sri Lanka undertaken in the name of crushing the Tamil separatist movement — during which many humanitarian experts alleged war crimes took place — was actively supported by the Pakistani establishment and met with no ‘resistance’ from our ‘civil society’. Bred on standard Pakistani nationalist narratives, we justify silence over all these examples of state terror by serving up the religion card: they aren’t Muslims, so why should we care?
It’s better to support the ‘wretched of the earth’.
Cue more damning examples. Our ‘higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest ocean’ friendship with China has mandated that we remain completely silent on the treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority that occupies the vast Xinjiang region bordering Pakistan to the north — and, which, even more significantly, China seeks to transform by building CPEC. The Uighur are Muslim, but there isn’t a hue and cry at the manner in which the Chinese state has suppressed their basic freedoms, and is now steadily facilitating the influx of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang to fundamentally transform the region’s social mores.
In theory, a primary reason for Pakistan’s silence vis-à-vis the Uighurs is that there is a right-wing separatist movement raging in Xinjiang, and all ‘civilised’ states in today’s world ostensibly share the same position with regards to ‘terrorism’. But a separatist movement with deep historical roots within the Rohingya people is also active in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and it is under the guise of defanging the ‘terrorists’ that the state has initiated its latest military incursion. The question, as ever, is why some forms of (armed) resistance to state persecution are considered ‘terrorism’ and others are not? As the example of the Uighur confirms, a certain community’s ‘Muslim’ credentials are not always enough for us to stand up for them.
Which brings me to the final — and most damning — point: what of state persecution within Pakistan? No one can deny the manner in which the state has usurped the freedoms of ethnic communities who have asserted their identity, claimed resources, and demanded a democratic power-sharing arrangement. Even today military ‘solutions’ are employed liberally within Pakistan to address what are clearly long-standing political conflicts. And the truth is that most of the Baloch, Sindhi, Pakhtun and other ethnic communities that demand their rights and are criminalised in exchange are very much Muslim.
So are the Afghans and at least 200 million of the Indians with whom we cultivate perennial enmity. So let us be clear that, rhetoric aside, we do not stand with Muslims everywhere — our expressions of solidarity are opportunistic and contradictory. It would be much better to stand with the ‘wretched of the earth’ everywhere, and stop victimising the most vulnerable ourselves — look no further than the way we treat Christians, Hindus and other ‘non-Muslims’.
Malala Yousafzai went on record to question why Aung San Suu Kyi was silent over the treatment of the Rohingyas. I say people in glass houses should not throw stones.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2017