“The Muslim world” is a geopolitical reality in a way in which few other transnational cultural phenomena are. Muslim countries, Muslim-majority secular countries, and Muslims in diasporas abroad share a strong collective identity, and a transcendent sense of common interest.
When Muslims express grievances about attacks on Muslims or “Muslim lands”, these grievances are rather stronger than Western humanitarian concern: they are genuinely perceived as threats against themselves and their collective identity.
At least, that’s the theory. Scratch beneath the rhetoric, and the raging civil war along sectarian lines ranging all over the Middle East and beyond belies the vacuity of many of the complaints Muslims lay at the door of the West or other “oppressors”.
The besieged mentality and the victim-hood complex that have become a feature of global Muslim culture in recent decades is a convenient cover for some rather uncomfortable facts: Muslims kill and oppress each other on orders of magnitude larger than anything the West ever achieves.
Nevertheless, aside from the fact that it serves to obscure such uncomfortable facts, the shared global identity Muslims have could have beneficial aspects as well. And the ways in which this should work is given contours by the work of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
This international forum is often a vocal defender of the human rights of oppressed Muslim populations in a way which could serve as a model to any international or transnational organisation. But here once again, we have a situation where the rhetoric is great, but what lies underneath it is an ugly mess.
“The Muslim world” is a geopolitical reality in a way in which few other transnational cultural phenomena areAzeem Ibrahim
The Rohingya crisis
The latest flashpoint of humanitarian abuses which has fired up the global Muslim consciousness is the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority currently victim of an ongoing systematic effort of ethnic cleansing organised by the armed forces of Myanmar, on behalf of nationalist Buddhist extremists in the country.
Naturally, the Muslim world is incensed, and Muslim leaders everywhere have rallied to the cause, levelling the kinds of criticism at the door of Myanmar’s government that really any decent person should, but from which Western leaders have generally shied away from – with only a handful of exceptions, like France’s President Macron.
The OIC has quickly sprung into action, and has issued a litany of statements and condemnations. And then we scratch the surface. Of all the 57 member states of the OIC, only one has taken any substantive step toward Myanmar as a consequence of their attacks on the Rohingya: the Maldives has suspended all trade relations with Myanmar, and has done so as early as September.
Indonesia is actively working to increase trade ties with the country, despite a very strong response to the crisis from civil society there. And Pakistan will continue to implement defence agreements worth hundreds of millions of dollars with the Myanmar Army to arm and train them.
The Pakistan example
The example of Pakistan is especially galling. Pakistan has been home to Rohingya refugees since the 1960s, and the community has grown to be the third largest in the world at present, after Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia – as many as half a million by some estimates.
And yet, for all those decades, Pakistan has treated the Rohingya little better than Myanmar themselves. For example, the Rohingya in Pakistan are denied citizenship, hardly any have any kind of official documentation, and with that, they are also denied access to many state services like healthcare and education.
To be sure, Pakistan is not actively seeking to destroy their Rohingya community like Myanmar is at present, but otherwise there is no sense in which Pakistan has been a safe haven for the Rohingya.
The UK Burma Campaign will be starting a campaign on the issue of the Rohingya and Pakistan on 2nd January. The initial efforts will focus narrowly on the shipment of aircraft and weapons Pakistan is due to make to the Myanmar Army in the coming year – armaments we can reasonably expect that will be used to complete the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state.
Pakistan needs to move beyond cynically exploiting the “Rohingya talking point” to advance its own agenda: if the notion of the Muslim World stands for anything, it should stand for genuine solidarity with the victims of humanitarian abuses – and not only when the West does it, or when it is politically and economically convenient.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.