Pakistan's extremists whip up frenzy over Burma's Muslims

The exaggerated version of truth about violence in Myanmar propagated by religious groups in Pakistan to recruit and fund their own agendas.

Binsar Bakkara/AP
Rohingya Muslims who fled the ethnic violence in Myanmar pray after breaking their fast at a temporary shelter in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, Aug. 3. The international community has raised concerns about human rights abuses against Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Pakistanis are mounting protests online and in the streets of cities like Lahore and Peshawar over the ill-treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a situation that Islamist groups here are distorting to raise money and potentially win recruits.

The international community has raised concerns about human rights abuses against Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar. Clashes in June between Rohingyas and their Buddhist neighbors, the Rakhine, left 78 dead, according to the Myanmar government. A new Human Rights Watch report calls the number "grossly underestimated" and charges that security forces failed to protect Rohingyas, and in some cases opened fire on them.

But on the streets of Pakistan, the rhetoric runs much hotter with protesters claiming "thousands" of Rohingyas are being slaughtered in western Myanmar (also known as Burma). Online, meanwhile, a series of doctored and misidentified photographs are circulating widely in Pakistani social media and beyond that purport to show violence against Rohingyas. 

Investigations by social media watchdogs, and the respected Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune, have proven that most of these claims are exaggerated or entirely false. 

For example, one photo posted on a Facebook page originating from Pakistan show Buddhists dressed in their traditional red robes standing in the middle of two rows of dead bodies. The caption reads: "Bodies of Muslims killed by Buddhists." In reality, this picture is from an earthquake incident in China in 2010, where Tibetan monks came to help with the rescue efforts.

Islamist groups are exploiting the whipped up sentiments in Pakistan to raise money, ostensibly for the Rohingyas, at a time when political parties are also building up campaign coffers in anticipation of upcoming national elections. One militant Islamist group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, even threatened the Myanmar government, saying it will avenge the blood of Muslims being killed in Myanmar.

Shahzad Ahmad, the Pakistan country director for the global online activism group called Bytes for All, says stories of Muslim victimization around the world are exaggerated in Pakistan by Islamist groups on the Internet.

“They use such campaigns not only to fund themselves but also to gain more political ground and recruit people for their cause. Our research shows that there are many fake photographs being used to propagate [stories of] atrocities against Muslims on many of the Facebook pages which originate from Pakistan,” says Mr. Ahmad.

Hundreds of pages in support of the Rohingya have appeared on the Internet over the past few months, he says.

“While there is no denying there are human rights violations in Myanmar against Muslims, such exaggerated online campaigns may attract those who want to promote terror and collaborate with extremist groups which operate openly in Pakistan,” adds Ahmad.

Among the groups involved in stirring the activism are Jamat-ud-Dawa, Jamat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, three Islamist groups which hold significant street power in the country. 

Jamat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam are political parties with a strong presence in rural areas of Pakistan. They believe in a conservative Islamic ideology and propagate the same in their political vision. Jamat-ud-Dawa, which is alleged to be the political arm of the Islamist militia group Lashkar-e-Toiba, is a charity organization banned internationally and is under strict watch in Pakistan as it has been accused of being involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, an allegation it denies. 

 In a conversation with Ayub Munir, the head of foreign affairs at Jamat-e-Islami, one of the oldest Islamist parties in Pakistan, Mr. Munir repeatedly referred to the situation in Myanmar as a genocide of Muslims. “Our biggest concern is the mass killings of Muslims there. This genocide should immediately stop,” says Munir.

Like others, Jamat-e-Islami has announced they are collecting charity for the affected Rohingya community.

“We have opened a bank account, and we have received immense response,” Munir says.

But, as of yet, he does not know how they will be sending this help to Myanmar. “No one can access that area. So we have been unable to send anything. But we plan to talk to the United Nations to help us send food, medicine, and tents,” the Jamat-e-Islami representative adds.

According to him, Muslims have been pushed out of their homes and are living in the jungle, and therefore they need immediate shelter. “We have some workers on the Bangladesh side, and we have asked them to reach out to the Rohingya community,” he claims.

The recent TTP threat to carry out attacks in Myanmar is even more logistically unlikely. Analysts in Pakistan say the aim of the message is more to raise their global brand and attract recruits.

An intelligence official working on counter-terrorism, who is not authorized to speak to the media, says such issues are raised by extremists to gain popularity. “This gets them in the goods books of the Pakistani masses,” the official added. He further said that he has come across evidence where groups in Pakistan doing social welfare work in the country have been involved in funding international "jihad," as he liked to refer to it.

But the romance of "ummah," or the unity of the global Muslim community, has been historically pervasive among South Asian Muslims, says Raza Rumi, a noted columnist.

"There have been instances in our history when funds for Islamic causes have been raised even in the early 20th century when a movement to save the Turkic Caliphate was launched in undivided India," Rumi added.

Fund raising however has acquired a new dimension given the spread of political Islam in this region since the 1980s. Most Islamist organizations have been involved in cross-continental transfers to support various causes.

"On the issue of Burma there is a concerted campaign in place now which is collecting funds without a clear ideas as to how these funds reach the persecuted minority in Myanmar," said Rumi. In fact, one major area of concern is that Pakistan's weak enforcement of rules, which in theory allow the government to restrict banned or controversial groups from raising funds, allows such groups to operate and "raise funds with impunity," Rumi adds.

"This is a cause of concern for many rational Pakistanis who want more effective controls on extremist outfits." opines Rumi.

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