Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Islamophobia in Asia

The plight of the Rohingya, the forced deportation of the Uyghurs, the struggle for independence of the Moro, the destruction in Ayodhya in India — all are indications of Islamophobia in Asia, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“There’s something wrong with humanity’s way of thinking. Ultimately, we are lacking concern for others’ lives and others’ well-being.” — the Dalai Lama

Where to start? Asia is the largest and by far the most populous continent on earth. It has the largest Muslim population of any continent, though Africa has a larger percentage of Muslims in its overall population.

There is something anomalous about Asia’s Muslims, however. There is no systematic conceptual framework to conduct an in-depth study of the status of Muslims in the various Asian nations.

 “With Asia, more than with any other continent, one cannot generalise about the state of Muslims in countries as diverse as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, China or Bangladesh,” the president of the Egypt-India Friendship Association, Maged Osman, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“There are Muslim-majority nations where most Muslims are secularists, such as Indonesia. Indian Muslims, too, are mostly secularists. Even though many observe the religious rituals of the five pillars of Islam, there is a considerable minority of Indian Muslims who are secular.

Take Bollywood, the sobriquet for the Indian, predominantly Hindi-language film industry based in the country’s economic capital Mumbai. This is dominated by Muslim movie stars and directors.

“India is unique because practically every religion on earth is represented in it. The population of India is 1,200 million. It is a practically a continent in itself, and not just a country. Democracy is the key to understanding India.

“Even though a majority of the Indian population is Hindu, roughly 900 million, there are 200 million Muslims in India, the second-largest religious group. India is a secular democracy even though religion constitutes the very essence, the soul of India,” he added.

Magda Saleh, head of the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Cairo, concurred, drawing on her extensive work on the Islamic movements in the Philippines. “Asia has diverse Muslim communities, and most of them are peaceful and law-abiding. Islamophobia is only found in countries where terrorist groups are active,” Saleh said.

“It is not the Philippine Muslims that constitute the problem. Rather, it is the terrorists who cause trouble in the name of Islam and do the damage to Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines,” Saleh told the Weekly.

Asian Muslims, and this is a gross generalisation, understand tolerance of the other precisely because they are obliged to contend with other religious forces, among them polytheism, the very antithesis of Islam. The blending of Islam with indigenous cultures is also pronounced, particularly in Southeast Asia.

The continent, after all, is home to two other great religions — Buddhism, sometimes relegated to the status of a philosophy, and Hinduism. Both religions have a comparable number of adherents to Islam in Asia.

 There is also no leading figure to hand in contemporary Muslim Asia, barring the Prophet Mohamed. An emerging handful of pretenders to a contemporary role model abound, but none are exactly convincing.

The story of Islam in Asia began in the Arabian Peninsula, technically part of the Asian continent. Muslim merchants from Arabia dropped anchor in South Asia and Southeast Asia and before long in places as far afield as China.

Surreptitious and explicit forms of Islamophobia in Asia also have historical roots, but contemporary forms have metamorphosed into a decidedly more pronounced expression of fear of Muslims. The emergence of takfiri and Salafist militant Islamist movements has soured relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in contemporary Asia.

However, historically Muslim merchants never forcibly subjugated the Asians, and Islam spread peacefully across the vast continent. But peaceful coexistence was abruptly ended by bellicose zealots and marauding hordes of non-Arab converts to Islam, such as the Turks and Mongols (the Mughals of India) who forcibly subdued the indigenous non-Muslim peoples of South Asia.

The Arab armies that overran vast swathes of territory in the Fertile Crescent and Persia were also instrumental in spreading Islam in both Central Asia and South Asia.

The Battle of Talas in 751 CE, fought between the Abbasid caliphate, an admixture of Arab and Persian influences, and the Chinese Tang Dynasty was the turning point that initiated mass conversion to Islam in Central Asia. In turn, Central Asia became the springboard from which Muslim merchants and armies moved deeper into the rest of the continent.

There are, nevertheless, quirks and peculiarities in predominantly non-Muslim Asian nations. Muslims, for instance, are the oldest recorded monotheistic religious group in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. In 1380, the Arabian merchant Karim Ul-Makhdoum first introduced Islam to the Philippines. And in 1390, the ethnic Minangkabau prince Rajah Baguinda of West Sumatra, Indonesia, further consolidated Islam’s presence in the islands.

Spanish rule then inculcated a sense of Islamophobia during more than four centuries of colonial rule. In contemporary times, the Muslims, or Moros, are widely viewed as a separatist minority. However, there are many prominent Filipino Muslims in the spheres of business, government and the diplomatic corps.

In mediaeval times there were also differences in the position of Muslims in various Asian nations. In South Asia they were invariably rulers, governing the majority Hindus and other Indian religious minorities. In Indonesia, the pace and process of Muslim domination was far slower.

Today, history lessons feed competing religious idiosyncrasies in contemporary Asia, as well as the specificity of the Muslim mindset. Historically, Muslims were persecuted in numerous Asian countries. Much has changed since mediaeval times, yet relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in certain countries are still haunted by a bitter shared past.

As a rule, the Muslim mood remained subdued for many centuries. However, warranted or not, criticisms of past atrocities represent the most threatening potential flashpoints today, and the collective memory of Muslims in mainly non-Muslim nations could have unwelcome effects.

To cite but one historical example, Indian Muslims served as eunuchs in the Thai court in mediaeval and modern times. Today, in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) and several other overwhelmingly Buddhist Southeast Asian nations, Muslims are sometimes regarded as intruding “foreigners” who have migrated and settled in Buddhist lands. Yet most have been socially integrated into their host nations for centuries, even if there are still sometimes seen as threats to national unity.

In the blurry aftermath of the 12 October 2002 Bali bombings that claimed the lives of 200 people, Islamophobia rose among the predominantly Hindu Balinese, Bali being the only exclusively Hindu island in the Indonesian archipelago which consists of 18,500 islands.

Religious violence soon spread to other Indonesian islands where Muslims and Christians had co-existed for centuries. In 2004, religious clashes in the Moluccas Islands spilled over into neighbouring Sulawesi. It took several years to quell the tensions that still reverberate beneath the surface.

INDIAN EPIC: The hanging of Yakub Menon in India on 30 July this year epitomised the predicament of Muslim Indians in a predominantly Hindu, albeit secular, nation. Perceptions of Muslims in India as terrorists persist, and many Indian Muslims feel browbeaten.

Whether the violence against India’s Muslims is institutionally supported or is deeply rooted in the sub-continent’s history, where for centuries Hindus were subjugated by Muslim rulers later buttressed by a colonial British divide-and-rule policy, is unknown. India, after all, is a federal nation, and each Indian state has its own specificity.

Moreover, attacks by Muslims against Hindus are not uncommon in Muslim-majority areas of India. Yet, as far as many Indian Muslims are concerned, the rise of militant Islamist terrorism is viewed more as a menace than a salvation. But there is a critical caveat to such confessional violence.

Memon, convicted for his part in the 1993 bombings in Bombay (Mumbai), was hanged at a prison in Nagpur in the western state of Maharashtra in July. Few Muslims protested against his execution, and the protests were mostly confined to Pakistan.

The serial blasts for which he had been found responsible killed 257 people, and were allegedly to have been carried out to avenge the killing of Muslims in riots a few months earlier. Little wonder then that the barbarity of confessional violence in India between Hindus and Muslims feeds off each other in a toxic fashion.

India’s President Pranab Mukherjee rejected Yakub’s mercy petition in May 2014. What was most galling to some Muslim Indians was that India rarely carries out death sentences. Only three other people in India have been executed since 2004.

But militant Islamist terrorists in India are not an imaginary enemy of their Hindu compatriots. The blasts in 1993 targeted a dozen sites, including the Bombay Stock Exchange, the offices of national carrier Air India and a luxury hotel The Taj Mahal. The wave of militant Islamist terrorism then continued unabated.

In November 2008, concurrent terrorist attacks were carried out by ten members of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba group, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308 in India’s economic hub, with the tacit connivance of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group and other militant Islamist terrorist groups. Blood samples from the culprits indicated that the attackers had consumed cocaine and LSD.

Sectarian strife is endemic to India. Hindus have memories of Muslim Mughal oppression, for example. Even though Muslim rulers were often benign, periodic punitive or expansionist campaigns during the days of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) were a permanent fixture of Muslim rule.

The ancient animosity was embodied in more recent times in the case of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, demolished by Hindu hardliners in December 1992. The mosque was built on the site of a previous Hindu temple that had been demolished during the Mughal era. It was constructed on sacred land, as far as the Hindus were concerned, because it was believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama.

The partition of formerly British India into India and Pakistan in 1947 led to the creation of the Republic of India, a secular nation but with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, a Muslim nation created purposefully for South Asia’s Muslims. Pakistan later was divided along ethnic and linguistic lines into Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This history has a decidedly demographic dimension, as India’s Muslim population is the world’s third largest after Indonesia and Pakistan. The figure is disputed, as India claims that it has more Muslims than Pakistan, making India the nation with the second-largest Muslim population in the world.

In terms of percentages, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has the highest concentration of Muslims, accounting for 70 per cent of the population. The tiny Indian Ocean island archipelago of Lakshadweep has the highest percentage of Muslims in India.

Numerically, however, Hindu-majority states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Kerala in the south and Assam in the east have far more Muslims than either Kashmir or Lilliputian Lakshadweep.

CHINESE SAGA: Chinese history is replete with Muslim contributions to successive Chinese dynasties, from mediaeval to modern times. Military generals abound, and so do celebrated Chinese Muslim explorers such as Zheng He (1371-1433 or 1435) who first opened up Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa to Chinese trade.

The scholar Yusuf Ma Tesing (1794-1874) was an ethnic Hui and the first translator of the Qur’an into Chinese. Contemporary Chinese calligrapher Noor Deen Mi Guangjang was awarded the prestigious Egyptian Certificate of Calligraphy in 1997 and admitted as a member of the Association of Egyptian Calligraphy as an enduring example and embodiment of cultural exchanges between Chinese and Muslim nations.

He excels in the unique form of Arabic calligraphic script known as the Sini (Chinese) style, which is a testament to the Muslim cultural renaissance in China.

Official Chinese statistics, such as the 2000 census, indicate that the collective Chinese Muslim population is just over 20 million. The highest concentrations of Muslims in the People’s Republic of China are found in the northwest provinces of Xingjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, known as the “Qur’an Belt”.

The most populous Muslim ethnic groups are the Hui, at more than ten million, and the Uyghurs, at roughly nine million. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that Muslims have had continuous interaction with the majority ethnic Han Chinese for at least 1,400 years.

But beneath the bonhomie lies unease, and in particular concerning the separatist Uyghurs. The number of ethnic Han Chinese now far exceeds that of the Uyghurs in their homeland Xingjiang. Not surprisingly, the Uyghurs resent the newcomers, who they say have taken the plum jobs.

Islam was first introduced to China by Saad ibn Abu Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet Mohamed, dispatched to the Tang Dynasty court by the third caliph Uthman in 651 CE, less than 20 years after the passing of the Prophet himself. Historically, relations between Chinese Muslims and the majority ethnic Han Chinese have been cordial, with the notable exception of the Uyghurs of Xingjiang.

Nevertheless, across China, Muslim halal food, slaughtered and sold by Muslim butchers and served in Muslim restaurants and street stalls, is designated by the Chinese accolade of the “pure truth food.”


THE ROHINGYA: The calamitous fate of the Rohingya people has hit the headlines in recent years. They are often mistaken, deliberately or unintentionally, as Bangladeshi “illegal labourers,” and Myanmar (Burma) refuses to acknowledge them as Burmese citizens, claiming that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

However, there is a consensus among international scholars and historians that the Rohingya are indigenous to Rakhine State in Myanmar that borders Bangladesh. Historians have documented the presence of the Rohingya in Rakhine since time immemorial.

Today’s cataclysmic plight of the Rohingya people is partly due to the Burmese dread of a Malthusian nightmare. Burmese historians claim that the Rohingya migrated to Burma from Bengal, or what are today Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

The Buddhist Burmese fear that the Muslim Rohingya will punish them for this past and drastically change the cultural prevalence of Buddhists in Myanmar. The Kingdom of Mrauk U emerged in the 15th century in what is today Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan.

Historically, the Rohingya were subjugated by the Buddhist Burmese and treated as outcasts and virtual slaves. The relationship between Buddhist Burmese and Muslim Rohingya was based on fear and mistrust.

The Buddhist Burmese riled the Rohingya with their historically lowly status. In mediaeval times in Konbaung, today part of Myanmar, the Rohingya served the Konbaung Dynasty as eunuchs. Some Royhingya served as slaves, and others were recruited into the Konbaung army or forced to settle in Arakan.

Even someone of the calibre of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been circumspect about the Rohingya crisis. The Dalai Lama, the “Bodhisattva of Compassion” and spiritual head of the Gelug, the newest and especially prestigious school of Tibetan Buddhism, has urged his fellow Nobel Peace laureate to be more sympathetic to the Rohingya cause.

“I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but were very complicated. But in spite of that, I feel she can do something,” the Dalai Lama said of her attitude. Moreover, the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awarded Aung San Suu Kyi its Peace Prize for “striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means” failed to convince her to speak out openly about the Rohingyas’ plight, though she was supposed to be “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression.”

The Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted on the pretext that, in the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, “Buddhists have also been subjected to violence.” United States President Barack Obama urged Myanmar to end discrimination against the Rohingya minority in June 2015.

In March 2014, the Myanmar government banned the word “Rohingya”, and today the Rohingya are victims of the human traffickers who do brisk business in Southeast Asia. The Rohingya are not only persecuted in Myanmar, but sadly have also been treated abominably by the Thai authorities.

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, but the irony is that even fellow Muslims in southern Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have not been particularly supportive of the Rohingya.

Today, the Rohingya people are considered “stateless entities,” and the Myanmar government refuses to recognise them as an ethnic minority, partially because they are regarded as foreigners, even though they have been living in the country for centuries. The United Nations has designated the Rohingya as the “the world’s most persecuted minority.”

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven from their homes in Myanmar and the systemic violence and persecution in the country means that an estimated 100,000 have fled the country. Moreover, there are claims that an estimated 100 Rohingya have perished in Indonesia and another 200 in Malaysia.

In May, about 32 shallow graves were discovered on a remote and rugged mountain in Thailand’s Songkhla province near the Malaysian border. Songkhla is supposedly predominantly Muslim.

There is ample reason to believe that the maltreatment of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya is as much racial as it is religious. While the Muslims of Southeast Asia have not rallied to support their coreligionists, Bangladesh, in sharp contrast, a predominantly Muslim nation, is home to 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees who are sheltering in two camps in the southeastern Cox’s Bazaar Province.

“Can the shunning of the Rohingya by fellow Muslims in Southeast Asia be explained along racial grounds? The Rohingya are considered “black” by their lighter-skinned coreligionists. The plight of the Rohingya is reminiscent of the Vietnamese “boat people” of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Predominantly Buddhist Thailand has a population of 70 million, and only four million are Muslim, according to official statistics. The Muslims of Thailand are geographically concentrated in the southernmost provinces of the country: Yala, Patani and Narathiwat.

They are divided into indigenous ethnic Muslim Thais, ethnic Malay Thais and ethnic Muslim Chinese Thais. Many Muslim Thais trace their ancestry to Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, an Iranian expatriate trader who settled in Thailand during the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767).

Many contemporary Thai Muslims have been incorporated into the highest echelons of this predominantly Buddhist nation. For instance, the former commander-in-chief of the Thai armed forces was a Thai Muslim, Sonthi Boonyaratglin. There is very little recorded discrimination against Muslims in Thailand, except in the case of the Rohingya.

THE UYGHUR: Thailand has forced the deportation of more than 100 ethnic Uyghurs, another Muslim minority that is persecuted at home and abroad. Thailand also closed its embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul after mass protests against the deportations of the Uyghurs to China.

An estimated 80 per cent of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the northwestern Chinese autonomous province of Xinjiang. They are the proud descendants of the princes of the Uyghur Khanate of yesteryear. The aforesaid Muslim kingdom ruled much of what is today western China and Central Asia.

The Karakhanids in the region converted to Islam in the tenth century, the first Turkic dynasty to do so, and modern Uyghurs regard the Muslim Karakhanids as their venerated ancestors.

Thailand forcibly deported the Uyghurs to China, despite the willingness of Turkey to accept them. The Uyghurs are ethnically and linguistically related to the Turks. In short, race matters as much as religious affiliation in Southeast Asia. Ironically, the preponderance of racist attitudes, as in the case of the Uyghur and the Rohingya peoples, make it clear that they are cold shouldered by their fellow Muslims on racial, rather than religious, grounds.

Such racial discrimination makes Muslims such as the Rohingya and the Uyghurs more susceptible to discrimination by non-Muslims. Thailand purports to have given the Uyghurs the choice to depart voluntarily to a country of their choice.

The Uyghurs have long complained of official discrimination in China, but they now face an uncertain future in non-Turkic countries, such as China. The Bangkok bombings of 2012 also accentuated the crisis of Islamophobia in Thailand and Southeast Asia, for which Iranian terrorists were blamed.

The focus here has been on Islamophobia in China, India, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations. There may be other forms of Islamophobia in other Asian nations, and there is also ironically the phenomenon of Islamophobia among certain predominantly Muslim Asian nations, especially sectarian strife between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, but that is the subject of another article.

As the Dalai Lama muses, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” The actions, and choices, of Asia’s Muslims will ultimately determine their peace and prosperity and whether Islamophobia will permeate the predominantly non-Muslim continent they inhabit.

The black Muslim eunuch is the very embodiment of Islamophobia in Southeast Asia.

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