Myanmar, China and now India: Is Muslim dignity so cheap?

According to Amit Shah, the national President of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “Infiltrators [Muslim immigrants] are like termites in the soil of Bengal. The BJP Government will pick up the infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” Such terminology may not surprise those living in the West ruled by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, wherein there is a growing Islamophobia industry. Nevertheless, they are pushing Muslims into a defeatist, oppressive, victim mentality; a brotherhood of suffering. If an entire generation of Muslims grows up convinced that they are disempowered and under assault, an entire generation will be lost. Their elders need to restore Muslim dignity and self-esteem, despite the enormous challenges faced.

One of these is the plight of Muslims in India where the government of Narendra Modi has placed Muslim-majority Kashmir under siege in an effort to change its special status. Now, a rising tide of anti-Muslim hate is surging through “the world’s largest democracy” as Modi, who presided over an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, is dragging India towards his own brand of fascism which has no space for minorities.

Taken together, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) which have the “potential of transforming India into a majoritarian polity with gradations of citizenship rights”, fuelled by the hard right Hindu RSS nationalist ideology, is a watershed in India’s descent into illiberalism. Diversity, the foundation upon which India was built, is under attack as a result of such adverse developments under Modi’s government.

READ: India annexes Kashmir under the dark shadow of Netanyahu and Modi’s far-right embrace

We live at a time when nation states commit war crimes cheered on by majoritarian, and literally get away with murder. The word democracy glitters like fool’s gold on the tongues of world leaders. Human rights campaigners are apparently toothless in the face of the barbarism of nation states intent on repressing democracy. The genocide of Rohingya Muslims is now before the International Criminal Court. The case was filed by Gambia against Myanmar and we have witnessed the shame of Aung San Suu Kyi trying to whitewash the crimes of the military rulers who imprisoned and oppressed the once popular leader herself.

The plight of 13 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China, where practicing Islam is treated as a crime, has been an uncomfortable issue for Muslim nations to deal with, even via the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Chinese government is carrying out forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance, using the “war on terror” to justify such oppression. The basic premise is that any expression of Muslim identity is synonymous with extremism. Why else would 22 of the 26 countries that China considers as “sensitive” be Muslim-majority countries that are OIC members?

People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Uyghur Turks against human rights violations of China, at Orhangazi Park in Bursa, Turkey on December 20, 2019 [Ali Atmaca / Anadolu Agency]
People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Uyghur Turks against human rights violations of China, at Orhangazi Park in Bursa, Turkey on December 20, 2019 [Ali Atmaca / Anadolu Agency]

Instead of condemning China, though, the OIC actually commended its government — in a resolution focused on safeguarding the rights of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries — for “providing care to its Muslim citizens” and looked “forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China”. The resolution did not include a word of criticism against Beijing, meaning that the OIC basically condoned the mass surveillance, forced political indoctrination, arbitrary detention and collective punishment of 13 million Muslims.

The OIC did express concern about the recent developments affecting Muslims in India, stating that New Delhi should uphold its obligations under international law relating to discrimination against minorities. Ironically, the OIC statement was issued on the same day that Modi claimed at a rally that the opposition was envious of his popularity in Muslim nations, which he said would translate into approval among Indian Muslims. Amazingly, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have awarded Modi their highest civic honours, in an insult to Muslim integrity and dignity.

It is difficult to take the OIC seriously; its record of hypocrisy and ill-informed, sanctimonious statements inspire no confidence in Muslims around the world. It is fair to say that it is competing with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab League to be the most ineffective international organisation.

A growing number of Muslim-majority countries are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the self-appointed leadership of Saudi Arabia under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. This has led to a desire to see institutions and summits led by other states, which could, theoretically, provide alternative paths to solving the problems of the Islamic world. In this context, the recent Kuala Lumpur Summit hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed, was seen by observers as a game-changer, providing a ray of hope by discussing issues avoided by the OIC long dominated by Saudi Arabia. This is despite the fact that, contrary to expectations, the most pressing concerns of the Muslim world referred to above were largely avoided and the Summit succeeded only in confirming the difficulties that exist. Nevertheless, there was some optimism about the emergence of an alternative voice.

Some insights from Kuala Lumpur will be useful for the future, not least the fresh start with non-Arab and democratic countries taking more of a leadership role. Moreover, what was different in the Summit was the reference to governance, democracy, poverty, trade and development in Muslim-majority countries.

However, some problematic narratives emerged in Kuala Lumpur, raising the question of whether religion is the most powerful unifying force or more pragmatic concerns are, such as cooperation on trade and security in the future. There was also a tendency to speak about the Ummah as having a monolithic identity, rather than appreciating the diversity of the world’s1.8 billion Muslims. This is a rather inward-looking phenomenon.

Hence, although the OIC has almost been reduced to a non-player in international politics and despite its shortcomings, a reformed organisation still has the potential to champion Muslim rights and dignity as an advocate of human rights in the Muslim world, while promoting world peace and sustainable development. The overriding message from the Kuala Lumpur Summit, as stressed by Dr Mahathir, was not to form a parallel forum, but to use the influence of the “alternative voice” to lobby for a stronger, more credible OIC to face the emerging challenges.

In order to build credibility, Muslim leaders should talk about fundamental rights, governance issues and economic development, without being seen solely as champions of Muslim causes. The broader that the coalition against racism, bigotry and oppression can be, the more effective it will be. Human dignity, including that of Muslims, has to be seen as anything but cheap.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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