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Teenage Muslim boys and the Rohingya

Even the American government, an ostensibly most secular enterprise, relies on God as a unifying and motivating force. “God, country, corps” a US Marines’ mantra, defines a normative hierarchy. It is good and moral to be subservient to God, to one’s country, and to one’s corps. Invoking God, in service of political ends, is not a new phenomenon. It is not exclusive to developing countries, or to Africa, or to Muslim majority countries. It is an age-old, tried and tested instrument to get people to do things.

In Myanmar, or Burma, there are people invoking God in service of an ethnic cleansing or genocide that has no parallel in the world today. Because the perpetrators of these chilling, unending cycles of violence against the Rohingya people are Buddhists, and because the victims of the killings are Muslims, it is going to be very hard to get any Hollywood films to be made about it. There will be no Hotel Rwanda for the Rohingya. But there will be videos.

A most potent video of the brutality being enacted upon the Rohingya surfaced a few days ago, and has brought a new wave of attention onto the issue. In a few days, it will be forgotten. By most of us. But not by teenage Muslim boys around the world for whom God is found in the bonds of solidarity that bind people that pray toward Makkah.

Teenage Muslim boys the world over have been through this cycle before. Today, my own teenage son is on the cusp of discovering the injustices that haunt Muslims in Myanmar. Two decades ago, his father had discovered the plight of Kashmiris. Two decades before that, his grandfather had discovered the horrors of what was being done to Palestinian men, women and children. In between, there has been no dearth of Ummah-stirring nightmares. In the nineties, British Muslim teenagers discovered Sarajevo. Far away from Europe, many only learnt of it through Pavarotti and Bono. Young British Muslim men, whose attention today is being drawn to the horrors of the Assad regime, grew up in the shadow of a generation of British Muslims for whom Bosnia was as close to home as Palestine was for kids in Amman, and Kashmir was for kids in Lahore. For my father, it was books and magazines that brought home the cruelty of Israel in Gaza and Ramallah. For me, it was PTV, Dawn and Nawai Waqt that made the siege of the Hazrat Bal shrine an age-defining event. For my son’s generation, it will be Whatsapp. That’s how his generation will watch videos of the sufferings of the Rohingya.

September 11 disrupted the intergenerational transfer of Muslim angst – kind of. Millions of young Muslims around the world suddenly had to choose between being seen as either for or against the 9/11 terrorists. This was easy on CNN and BBC. But it was hard at the dinner table in middle-class Muslim homes around the world. Palestinian groups were supposed to be kosher, because of the legitimacy of their struggle. Suddenly, they were not. Kashmiri groups were supposed to be ok, because of the legitimacy of their cause. If they weren’t totally delegitimised on 9/11, they sure were after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

These conversions or leaps of faith were easy to enact on the pages of English language op-eds. They were easy to adopt as one attended universities in the United States, or the British Isles, or in Europe. Or over lamentations of General Zia’s Islamisation over drinks in Gulberg, or DHA, to the sweet sounds of Farida Khanum. In other, less comfortable environs however, the transitions were not as compelling.

At the thousands of madressahs around the world, like the one housed at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, it wasn’t quite so cut and dried. There, one man’s terrorist was very much still another man’s freedom fighter. But statecraft, or the crafty business of holding and retaining power, is conducted mostly through the narrative of the English language papers, and on the backs of the Western-educated elites – in Pakistan, and across much of the Muslim world.

What this means for the Rohingya is mostly bad news. ‘Buddhist nationalists’ will wipe out the Rohingya, and not a single light on a Saudi F-15 panel, or a Turkish F-16 panel, or a Pakistani JF-17 panel, will light up with rage or vengeance. Burma will continue doing business with all three countries. This should not be surprising. Neither Ayodhya, nor Gujarat, nor the emergence of a new culture of beef lynchings in India has dulled the appetite of the Ummah to do business with ‘Hindu nationalist’ India. It turns out ‘civilisation’ is a rather obtuse and uni-directional concept. And this will be just fine for most Muslim adults. But those videos. They’ll still be streaming in.

For over a decade and a half, videos narrating the suffering of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan have helped fuel terrorism on both sides of the Durand Line. When convenient, intelligence agencies from any number of countries employ those videos to enable the perpetration of terrorist acts on the country they want to punish. Amrullah Saleh and the late Hamid Gul both belong to the same Ummah – but my, how they disagree about ‘civilisation’.

The Rohingya are pouring into Bangladesh. That country knows a thing or two about refugee crises. It gained independence on the back of large-scale cross-border movements of people not once but twice. First in 1947, then in 1971. Having incarcerated over 300,000 people with the wrong ethnicity in internment camps for over four decades, Bangladesh is now being expected to take in and care for potentially hundreds of thousands of more non-Bengali Muslims. That story will not go well for the non-Bengalis.

But this is curious coming as it does from a Pakistani. In the late 1960s, Pakistan abandoned self-interest in how it dealt with East Pakistan. In 1971, it abandoned decency. Thereafter, it abandoned its own citizens in Bangladesh, thereby creating a new category of Pakistani altogether: stranded Pakistanis.

In the late 1970s, a political party emerged in Pakistan. Its purpose was to stand up and give voice to Pakistanis whose parents had migrated to Pakistan from India. This party was built on two pillars. One was the elimination of the quota system that privileged rural inhabitants of Sindh at the expense of Karachiite and Hyderabadi sons and daughters of migrants from India. The second pillar was the safe repatriation of stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh to Pakistan. This party was named the MQM.

The MQM learnt how to abandon things too. First, it abandoned the pen, in favour of the knife and the gun. Then it abandoned the future, in favour of the present. Finally, it abandoned both pillars of its agenda, in favour of a few ministries in Islamabad. Today, the MQM lies tattered in several pieces. Its founder guilty of having conspired with the very India whose vivisection was the great achievement of the forefathers of the MQM’s constituents. But the inglorious irony does not end here.

On Eid day in Pakistan, Khawaja Izharul Hassan, a widely admired MQM worker, elected MPA, and leader of the opposition in the Sindh Assembly was attacked by gunmen seeking to kill him. One of the assailants is said to have been highly educated, and allegedly linked to a series of other terrorist attacks. If true, this will fit the profile of the new-age terrorist in Karachi – highly educated, highly motivated, highly skilled – from the Daniel Pearl assassination, to the Safoora Goth massacre, to the Sabeen Mahmood assassination, to the attempt on Khawja Izharul Hassan’s life.

These terrorists may not have much in common, especially given the diverse nature of their targets, and the likely divergent schools of thought they may have represented. But they all tend to have two things in common. One, they feel a deep connection to Muslims in other places, especially those that suffer oppression. Two, they watch a lot of videos of the type that narrate those sufferings.

God help the Rohingya, and God help the parents of young Muslim teenagers the world over.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Teenage Muslim boys and the Rohingya," The News. 2017-09-05.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political ends , Sindh assembly , Political party , Violence , Terrorists , Terrorism , Gen Zia , Hamid Gul , Afghanistan , Rohingya , MQM , DHA