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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 13    Issue 9   01 - 30 November 2018

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

The Muslim population of Myanmar is ethnically and culturally diverse. About a third of the population comprises descendants of Arab and Persian traders and travellers who began arriving in the country from the 13th century. Another third consists of descendants of Muslims of Indian origin, whose ancestors arrived in the country during the colonial period. The other groups include Muslims of Malay and Chinese ancestry. The Bengali-speaking Rohingya Muslims are descendants of migrants from regions that are today part of Bangladesh in the 19th century.

The population of Muslims in Myanmar is estimated at 2.27 million, which accounts for about 4 per cent of the country’s population. A decade after independence, the army seized power in a military coup in 1962. Shortly after he assumed the reins of power, General Ne Win launched a policy of “Mynmarisation” based on the dominance and ascendancy of the ethnic Mynmar population, ultranationalism, Buddhism and the exclusion of non-Myanma ethnic minorities, such as Rohingya Muslims, Shan, Lahu, Karen and Kachin.

The Rohingya Muslims, who number about 800,000, are among the poorest in the country and are largely concentrated in the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Most of them are of Bengali heritage who arrived in the country in the 19th century when Burma was a British colony. For more than five decades, the relations between the minority Rohingyas and the Buddhist majority have been marked by mistrust and hostility. The military regime launched Operation King Dragon in 1978 and unleashed a campaign of terror against the Rohingyas. They were attacked and terrorized by the security forces and the majority Buddhists and their houses torched. Their lands were confiscated and dozens of mosques were desecrated and destroyed. The orgy of violence led to the exodus of nearly 2500,000 Rohingyas to the neighbouring Bangladesh.

Rohingya Muslims are prohibited from owning land or property and barred from leaving their villages or travelling without permission from the government. They are not permitted to construct or repair the existing mosques. They are not allowed to marry without official permission or to have more than two children. The 1982 Citizenship Law stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship and they were declared illegal foreigners. They are excluded from the 135 ethnic groups that are officially recognised by the state, which renders them stateless. Buddhist leaders call the Rohingya Muslims invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our lap.” In June 2012, following reports of the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya man, rampaging Buddhist mobs attacked the Rohingyas from all sides, systematically burning every building, and were supported by the police and the army. Entire villages were wiped out and a number of mosques were raised to the ground. The violence left more than 700 Rohingyas dead and nearly 100,000 displaced. Amnesty International denounced the Burmese security forces as well as the majority Buddhist population for violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims, which were systematically carried out and were state-sponsored. Faced with growing hatred, persecution and violent attacks, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and India. They are living – as unwanted guests -- in makeshift refugee camps under appalling conditions.

In 2017, a military crackdown in the western state of Rakhine drove more than 700,000 Rohingyas across the border into Bangladesh amid reports of mass rape, torture and murder. Entire Rohingya villages were burned down and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children were tortured and deported. According to Amnesty International, since 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingyas, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh. More than 40% of the displaced are children under 12 years of age.

Mr Marzuki Darusman, chair of the United Nations fact-finding mission in Myanmar, has recently said that the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is continuing unimpeded and that the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas who have remained in the country following the brutal crackdown by the military “continue to suffer the most severe restrictions and repression.”

The United Nations report on the 2017 military crackdown suggested that the Myanmar military carried out mass killings and was implicated in the rape of thousands of Rohingya women and girls and the torture and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children. The report suggested that Myanmar’s top military leaders, including the commander-in-chief, should be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The United Nations has described the 2017 military crackdown as ethnic cleansing.

A report called “Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience,” released by the Ontario International Development Agency, states that more than 400,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh had suffered bullet wounds and that up to 23,962 Rohingyas were killed in the violence. More than 34,000 people were thrown into fire and more than 114,000 were mercilessly beaten. As many as 17,718 Rohingya women and girls were raped. More than 115,000 Rohingya houses were burned down and 113,000 were damaged and vandalised.

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special investigator on human rights in Myanmar, told reporters that Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi was in denial about the crackdown and her government did not appear to be at all different from the military dictatorship of the past.

China’s Uighur Muslims Under Siege

Xinjiang, China’s Muslim-dominated province, is nowadays surrounded by an extensive, state-of-the-art surveillance system. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in every street. Iris scanners and Wifi sniffers are installed at railway stations, airports, parks and check points. Armed trucks regularly patrol the streets and fighter jets hover above the sky. Tourist hotels are surrounded by high concrete walls. On Fridays, when Muslims gather for prayers at Kashgar’s historic Id Kah Mosque, dozens of surveillance cameras overlook the square in front of the mosque. The authorities keep a close watch on foreign reporters and journalists. Every detail of an individual’s life and behaviour, including his or her DNA profile, health status, consumer behaviour and banking activity, are stored in computers and closely monitored by the authorities.

People with foreign contacts, particularly with Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt or Malaysia, frequent visits to a mosque and possession of forbidden material on mobile phone or computer make one suspect in the eyes of the authorities. Such people are often picked up from their homes at dead of night and sent to “re-education homes” (Qu xuexi). Re-education homes are a euphemism for banishment to a secret place in the desert where the “trainees” are forced to listen to lectures and sing praises of the Chinese Communist Party. The are pressurised to give up their Islamic beliefs and practices. A former inmate in one of the internment camps said Muslims were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. The whereabouts of the inmates are not known to the family or anyone else. Tens of thousands of people have disappeared into these re-education homes in recent months.

In August this year, the United Nations said China was holding at least one million Uighurs in “counter-extremism” centres while two million have been “forced into so-called re-education camps for political and cultural indoctrination” for indeterminate periods of time.

An analysis of Chinese government spending in Xinjiang by the Jamestown Foundation, a US think-tank, revealed that spending on security-related construction in Xinjiang rose by nearly $2.9 billion in 2017.

At a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 6 November this year, China’s inhuman treatment of Uighur Muslims came under close scrutiny. Western nations, including the US, France and Germany, called on China to close down the detention camps.

Humanitarian Catastrophe in Yemen

Yemen has been devastated by the conflict and civil war since 2015. After the Houthi rebel fighters seized control of much of the west of Yemen and forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee the country, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the conflict. According to the United Nations, at least 6,660 civilians have been killed and 10,560 injured in the violence.

The violence and partial blockade by the coalition forces has left 22 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. An outbreak of cholera has affected nearly 1.1 million people. More than 30% of children under five are suffering from acute malnutrition. The international charity Save the Children reported in 2017 that 130 children in Yemen – 50,000 in a year -- were dying every day from extreme hunger and disease.

According to the United Nations, 14 million people in the country are facing “pre-famine” conditions.

Rising Sexual Harassment in Egypt

In many Muslim countries, women are often subjected to domestic abuse and violence and sexual harassment in the streets. According to a report of Amnesty International, released on February1, 2015, 99% of Egyptian women say they have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment, either verbally or physically.

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement that has spread to many parts of the world, dozens of Egyptian women have openly spoken about sexual harassment in the office and at public places. Some women’s organisations have also raised their voice against the wide prevalence of sexual harassment and have encouraged women who are victims of sexual harassment to speak out. Unfortunately, the attitude of the police in preventing or punishing the guilty is far from satisfactory.

Austrian Woman Indicted for Insulting Prophet Muhammad

An Austrian woman held seminars in 2009 for Austria’s far right Freedom Party, in which she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Ayesha. A court in Vienna convicted her for deliberately hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims and fined her €480 plus costs. The conviction was upheld by two domestic appeals.

The woman, who has been named only as ES, appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against her conviction. The court dismissed the appeal and upheld her conviction. While defending herself, ES claimed that her comments were intended not to defame the Prophet of Islam but to generate a public debate and that she was entitled to her right to freedom of speech.

The ECHR observed that courts in Austria, where the woman was found guilty, had balanced the right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.” The court said that her remarks were “an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam and were consequently capable of stirring up prejudice and religious intolerance.” The court dismissed ES’s contention that her comments were intended to promote public debate.

Austria is home to an estimated 600,000 Muslims, who make up about 6.8% of the population. Most of them are of Turkish origin.

The Habsburg Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, was multiethnic in character. It included, in addition to Christians of various denominations, 2.5 million Jews and nearly 700,000 Muslims. Emperor Franz Joseph I, who ruled from 1848 to 1916, was an enlightened king.

Emperor Joseph introduced what came to be known as the Law on Islam in 1912, in the aftermath of the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The law was initially intended as an instrument for integrating Muslim Bosnian soldiers into the Habsburg army. Austria’s first mosque was built in Vienna in 1887 with government assistance to cater to the religious needs of Muslim soldiers in the Austrian army. The Law on Islam, unique in Europe, gives Muslims the same rights that are available to other officially recognized religions in the country, including Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism and Buddhism. It guarantees them wide-ranging rights, including the freedom of public worship and the right to establish mosques and Islamic endowments, facility for Islamic instruction in state-funded schools and administration of internal affairs. About 60,000 Muslim children attend Islamic instruction classes in Austria’s state-funded schools, taught by about 350 teachers. The Federal Ministry of Defence allows certain concessions to Muslim personnel in the armed forces, such as access to halal food, special space and time for prayer and observance of religious holidays. Muslim soldiers in the Austrian army are entitled to take paid vacations for Islamic festivals. In 1998 the Federal Court ruled that Muslims have the freedom to slaughter animals according to their religious rites and that this freedom is protected by the guarantee of freedom of religion given by the Austrian constitution. Muslim women are allowed to wear the veil at work, in educational institutions and at public ceremonies. The official recognition of the religious and cultural identity of Austrian Muslims and the availability of autonomous spaces have played an important role in the integration of Muslims in the country.

The 2015 migration crisis, which stirred up a widespread controversy in Germany, Austria and several other European countries, fuelled anti-immigration and racist sentiments. Mr Sebastian Kurz, leader of the far right OVP party, was elected Austria’s Chancellor in 2017. He formed a coalition government with the anti-Islam Freedom Party. Earlier this year, the government closed down seven mosques, which were suspected of having extremist links, and expelled 60 imams of Turkish origin.

The move was criticised by Austria’s Muslim organisations as well as Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Mr Kurz of encouraging “a war between the cross and the crescent.”

UN Human Rights Committee Slams France’s Burqa Ban

In recent years, the issue of the headscarf, particularly the full-face veil, has become highly controversial in many European countries. Some European nations have enforced a total or partial ban on face-covering veils in public institutions. France was the first European country to ban full-face veils in public places. The French parliament approved a law on 11 April 2011 prohibiting the wearing of face-covering veils in public places and stipulated a fine of €150 for those violating the law. The law also lays down that anyone found forcing a woman to wear the face-covering veil will be liable to pay a fine of €30,000. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on 2 July 2014 after a case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman, who argued that the ban on the burqa violated her freedom of religious expression, which is guaranteed in the French constitution. In 2016 mayors in the French Riviera imposed a ban on women’s full-body swimsuits or “burkinis.” The ban was later lifted in seaside resorts after France’s top administrative court overturned the law. Over six million Muslims live in France. While many French Muslim women wear the headscarf, only about 2,000 wear the full-face burqa.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recently criticised France’s ban on the wearing of full-face veils or burqa in public places. The committee’s criticism came in the context of a petition by two French Muslim women who were convicted in 2012 and fined for flouting the law. It said the 2010 French law violates the rights of Muslim women and recommended compensation for the two women. The committee said in a statement, “The French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners’ right to manifest their religious beliefs.” The committee added that it was not convinced by France’s claim that the ban was necessary for security and social reasons.

The committee observed that “the ban, rather than protecting fully veiled women, could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has no enforcement rights.

Irish Singer Sinead O’Connor Embraces Islam

Islam is spreading with amazing speed across several parts of Europe and the United States. Sufism has been and continues to be an important agent of conversion to Islam, especially in Europe. In France over 100,000 whites, mostly women, have converted to Islam. A new study by Faith Matters, an inter-faith think-tank, suggests that the number of Britons who have entered the fold of Islam is over 100,000, with 5,000 new conversions each year. A study carried out at Swansea University showed that three-quarters of those who converted to Islam in the UK in the past ten years are women. Of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam in 2010, more than half were white and nearly 75% of them were women. The number of people who have converted to Islam in recent years is estimated to be around 10,000 in Switzerland, 3,500 in Sweden and 2,800 in Denmark. Despite the wide prevalence of the stereotype that Islam is oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to Islam mainly because they felt it treated women with honour and dignity.

It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year. Many of them were drawn to the Islamic faith in the aftermath of 9/11. Most of the converts are women and a majority of them are Hispanics and African-Americans. Tens of thousands of Latinos in the US, mostly women, have embraced Islam in recent years. According to conservative estimates, the number of Latino converts in the US is between 100,000 and 200,000.

On 25 October, popular Irish singer Sinead O’Connor announced her embrace of Islam on Twitter. Following the conversion, she changed her name to Shuhaida. O’Connor, 51, gained tremendous popularity with her hit songs like Nothing Compares to You, Faith and Courage, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Hold Back the Night. Ironically, O’Connor was ordained as a priest in the late 1990s by Irish Orthodox and Apostolic Church (an independent Catholic church not affiliated to the Roman Catholic Church). After her conversion, Shuhaida said her embrace of Islam was a “natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey.” She added that “all scripture study leads to Islam, which makes all other scriptures redundant.”

Most of O’Connor’s songs are marked by spiritual flavour and yearning. She has drawn on various scriptures, including the Bible. Her 2007 album “Theology” was inspired by the Psalms of the Old Testament. Her song “If You Had a Vineyard” is interspersed with passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah.

In recent years, quite a few celebrities from the film and music industry in the US have been drawn to Islam. Hollywood star Lindsay Lohan recently said that she has been studying the Quran and that she finds great peace in the Islamic faith. She said that one of the most comforting features of Islam is how people come together for prayer and give thanks for the small blessings of everyday life. “I really admire that and I found great solace in it,” she said.

However, Lohan has not yet made up her mind to embrace the Islamic faith.

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