Myanmar and the limits of pan-Islamism

Since Myanmar’s latest bout of violence against the Rohingya began in 2012, there has been a slow uptick of outrage in the Muslim world. But it was only recently, once international observers described what was happening there as an ethnic cleansing, that Muslim concern became more vocal than protests in Europe or the U.S. In the past, Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, at the receiving end of refugee flows from Myanmar numbering in the tens and even hundreds of thousands, have acted forcefully to prevent the Rohingya from entering their territories. But last year everything changed, with Bangladesh, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan at the forefront of international demands to stop the flight of refugees from Myanmar and alleviate their suffering. Behind this change lay a number of causes, from the humanitarian, political and economic emergency created by the influx of refugees among Myanmar’s neighbours, to growing Muslim protests around the world at the treatment of the Rohingya. The crisis also presented an opportunity for politicians to claim leadership in an otherwise fragmented Muslim world by demanding relief and justice for the Rohingya. Turkey’s President made strong statements about the crisis, putting it at the top of the agenda at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. His wife made a highly publicised trip to Bangladesh to be filmed and photographed in Rohingya camps, while donating and promising more Turkish aid. Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia also competed to deliver assistance in Rakhine state while engaging the Myanmar government in talks. The Bangladesh Prime Minister spoke about the plight of the refugees at the UN and demanded safe zones for the Rohingya in Myanmar. Yet both Turkey’s President and the Bangladesh Prime Minister use the same accusations of Islamic terrorism against their domestic opponents as are levelled against the Rohingya in Mynamar. And they do so for the same reason, in order to de-legitimise suspect minority groups and political opposition in their own countries. Like Myanmar, these states are all heirs to the ‘War on Terror’, deploying its language and practices to forge a new politics. What we are seeing is not disagreement between Muslim and non-Muslim states on the subject of the Rohingya, but instead fundamental agreement on a narrative of counter-terrorism that has been globalised beyond American control. The Rohingya cause represents the return of states to leadership roles within the Muslim world, and it has made Islamic unity possible for the first time since the sectarian bloodletting of the Syrian war, to say nothing of the divide between Saudi-led and pro-Iranian movements across West Asia. All over the world, bar Afghanistan and Somalia, states are triumphing over their religious critics to champion Islamic causes long held by the latter. By suppressing such groups in the name of counter-terrorism, however, these states have also adopted their narrative of Muslim victimisation.

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