In the summer of 2012, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, ethnic violence broke out in the state of Rakhine in Western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Over the course of almost five months, clashes were recurrent between the two groups. While the Rakhine Buddhists are recognized as citizens of Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims are considered as “Bengali” refugees by the government and so they’re “stateless” people. This discrepancy in the legal status of both groups was reflected in the governmental bias against the Muslim minority which rendered them unprotected in face of the targeting by the Buddhist majority. These events had their own global echo and the Muslim Middle East was no exception. On the contrary, the recent crisis of the Rohingya was received by indifference in the Middle East. This divergence is puzzling.
From the narrow streets of the poor neighborhoods of Cairo to the online social media outlets, pictures of slaughtered children, destroyed houses, matrices of charred bodies, and piles of naked corpses were being circulated during the episode in 2012. These were usually accompanied by statements like: “Where are you Muslims?”, “Stop the extermination of Muslims in Burma”, “Muslims are being burnt, where are you?”, “They were killed because they said Allah is our God, Sorry Burma Muslims, I didn’t know you till today.”
"...the recent crisis of the Rohingya was received by indifference in the Middle East"
The extremely sentimental portrayal of the bloodiness of the conflict was backed up with statistics on the Muslims in Myanmar. In one of the posters, it stated that ten million Muslims in the Arakan province are living in “real hell.” Many others highlighted that thousands of Rohingya Muslims were being killed in this process of ethnic cleansing. This campaign was extremely moving to many of those who might not even have heard of Myanmar. The feeling of solidarity with the unknown suffering Muslims who struggle to keep their religion in the face of the Buddhist government was enough to push many Middle Eastern Muslims to participate in demonstrations and raise funds for their brothers and sisters.
Despite the fact that the Rohingya Muslims were actually facing one of the most brutal systematic discriminations in the world, their supporters in the Middle East were fooled by many lies. Most of the images of the conflict were fabricated and the statistics were far from reality. In fact, the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan are about 800,000 and the ethnic clashes led to less than a couple hundred fatalities from both sides. Still, the story of the Rohingya’s suffering in the Buddhist Myanmar attracted wide attention in the Middle East. Surprisingly, this is not the case for their most recent crisis.
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Rohingya fleeing in 1978. Photo credit: Creative Commons License
Fleeing the persecution in Myanmar, around 8,000 Rohingya Muslims started a desperate journey to neighboring lands around four months ago. However, they were rejected by their three main destinations: Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and left to face their destiny in the middle of the sea. Unwelcomed in any of the three countries, the migrants struggled to survive on their supplies of food and water before things got tougher. According to The Independent, survivors reported that 100 people were brutally killed on one of the boats in a fight over food. At the official level, the three countries remained adamant in their stances against accepting the dying refugees. The Malaysian government refused the immigrants to avoid “social unrest” and the inflow of more migrants from Myanmar. Similarly, the Indonesian government fears opening the door for an “uncontrollable influx” of Rohingya migrants. Rejected by their rich Muslim neighbor and the largest populated Muslim country, the Rohingya Muslims were left to face the waves of their unfortunate destiny till the international pressure materialized into a temporary solution to rescue the “stateless” refugees.
Unlike the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar two years ago, this recent story was not part of the public attention in the Middle East. No posters in the streets, no touching posts shared on social media, and suddenly the Muslims of Myanmar became too far off to relate to. What has changed?
I suggest two main explanations for this variant level of attention paid in the Middle East to the suffering of the Rohingya; the timing and nature of the crisis. The ethnic clashes occurred in 2012 when political Islam was on the rise in the Middle East. Solidarity with other Muslims overseas is a fundamental part of the “theoretical” agenda of political Islam and, more importantly, it’s a good humanitarian selling point. Although this seems to be an appealing explanation, the attention paid to this conflict was similar in countries where political Islam was free to act, like Egypt, or oppressed, like Algeria. So, it seems that the rise of political Islam is not a major factor.
This brings us to the second explanation that the difference in attention is related to the nature of the problem. More specifically, it is about who is the “other” to blame for the consequences. In the events of 2012, the “other” was clear, easy to identify, and drastically different. The violence against the Rohingya could simply be interpreted by many devout Muslims as an act by the “enemies of Islam” to destroy the religion. This was evident in the slogans employed to raise public awareness of the issue. Thus, Muslims were the victims and the “others” were to blame. The situation changed in 2015. Although the government of Myanmar is still responsible for the migrants’ crisis, the Muslim governments of Malaysia and Indonesia are heavily involved in the escalation of the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya migrants. Simply put, the “blame-shifting” strategy is not going to work as other Muslims will have to be blamed. Hence, unlike the Rohingya crisis in 2012, the recent crisis lacks the messianic luster and the religious zeal. Even if we take into consideration the attention paid by the Qatari government to the crisis, we still fail to see resonance of the issue among the general public. Unfortunately, this might signal that humanitarian crises receive much more attention when they are committed by those who are perceived as the “other.” Such a lack of societal self-reflection tells us a lot about how activism works on the grassroots level.