Why plight of Rohingya Muslims has suddenly captivated the Arab world

An Arab world riven with internal conflicts is showing the Rohingya a level of unity and support usually reserved for the Palestinians. One reason: media coverage of the crisis has not been filtered through a partisan or sectarian lens.

Dar Yasin/AP
Newly arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (Burma) wait to collect shelter-building material distributed by aid agencies in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sept. 13. As more arrive at camps and makeshift settlements, basic resources are running low.

The WhatsApp and Facebook messages in Arabic come by the minute: “I am a Muslim and I stand in solidarity with my Muslim Brothers in Burma,” “Burma is my cause,” “Pray for the Rohingya.”

Graphic images of dead children and burning villages are circulated with exhortations to “pressure the UN and the government.” The Arabic hashtag #rohingya_are_beingeliminated_silently is trending with tens of thousands of posts.

At Friday prayers across the Arab world, “Pray for Muslims in Palestine and Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen – and Burma!” has been a common prayer. This past Friday, the plight of the Rohingya was the main subject of sermons.

In short, the state-driven violence in Myanmar (Burma), which reportedly has killed more than 1,000 people and driven 370,000 Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, has caught the attention of the Arab world, promoting a rare outpouring of support, solidarity, and activism.

In Jordan alone, two protests recently took place in the span of five days, including at the UN headquarters in Amman and in the desert frontier town of Maan some 250 miles to the south. On Monday, dozens of Israeli Muslim Palestinians protested at the gates of the Myanmar Embassy in Tel Aviv.

It remains to be seen whether such activism can push autocratic regimes to involve themselves in a conflict in which they have no direct interests, but the breadth of support for the Rohingya on its own is remarkable. It is at an emotional volume mostly reserved for the plight of the Palestinians, whose displacement and drive for statehood has for decades been one of the few issues with the power to unite the Arab and Muslim world.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Afghan Muslim protesters in Kabul, Afghanistan, shout slogans on Sept. 8 during a protest against the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Still, in a region not lacking its own violent conflicts and humanitarian crises, how has the plight of the Rohingya Muslims jumped to the forefront?

One large factor is technical: the widespread coverage of the massacres by Arab and international media.

“The more we know of the atrocities that are being committed, the more sympathy we exhibit,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst and professor of political science.

“Every day we are flooded with reports, everyone is focused now on this crisis, and it is only natural that people sympathize with them – Muslim or otherwise,” he says.

The activism and outpouring of support for Myanmar’s Muslims has even dwarfed that shown for Yemen, Iraq, or the ongoing violence in Syria.

A cause for all Muslims

Analysts say Myanmar has taken priority over regional conflicts for Arabs for a reason.

Arab media and regimes have depicted the strife in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq through a sectarian or political lens, reducing the conflicts and related humanitarian crises to their Sunni vs. Shiite, Islamist vs. secular, or Saudi vs. Qatari components. This has left Arabs divided and at times misinformed about the violence raging at their doorsteps.

But the Rohingya have not been colored by the sectarian or political divides that afflict the region, making it a cause that transcends barriers and that all Arabs – and all Muslims – can rally behind.

“Because of sectarian divides and government-influenced media, publics have been brainwashed by these narratives about the region, which are not being applied to the Rohingya,” says Oraib Rantawi, of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies. 

With Arabs having suffered a series of conflicts and refugee crises over the past decades, the images of the Rohingya marching in the mud with their possessions on their backs is all too familiar.

This has been particularly true for Palestinians and Jordanians, who have been the most active in terms of protests and social media.

“Palestinians more than any other people know what it is like to be in camps and to have been pushed from their lands – the same can be said for Jordanians and others who witnessed it,” says Mr. Rantawi.

“They have serious historical memory about being uprooted and ethnic cleansing that is being triggered by watching this crisis.”

Governments 'underwhelming'

Yet while Arab publics have been moved to action by the Myanmar crisis, the response from Arab governments has been “underwhelming” at best, observers and pundits say.

It took days, in some cases more than a week, for Arab governments to denounce the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya. There have been no calls for an emergency session of the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest Muslim body. Diplomatic pressure has been limited.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has been the only Arab state to openly support the Rohingya. During previous crackdowns on the Rohingya, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to 250,000 Burmese Muslims. In 2012, the late King Abdullah extended free residency permits for the Burmese diaspora within Saudi Arabia, offering them access to free education, health care, and employment. But the kingdom has yet to indicate it will take in Rohingya fleeing the current violence.

Newspaper columnists – some of the most influential opinion-makers in Arab media and public debates – have sharply criticized Arab governments for failing to play a larger role in ending the bloodshed.

“As to what happens when massacres of Muslims take place, many look for a clear position from Saudi Arabia because of the weight of its religious influence,” noted the newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. “Except for a statement issued by its diplomatic mission to the United Nations, official Saudi silence has prevailed.”

In the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq, Rabia Kawari wrote: “The Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and countries that lead the Muslim world today such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia must play a leading role to save these poor people from a cruel annihilation.”

In Jordan’s Ad Dustour newspaper, Yasser Zaatreh asks: “How come we have only seen shy statements of condemnation.… Why is the [Arab] and international community silent on these crimes and imposing no sanctions on Myanmar?”

What has drawn the particular ire of Arab citizens is Qatar providing $30 million in support for the US relief response to hurricane Harvey in Texas, while to date it has provided $100,000 to the Rohingya.

More cards to play

Heeding the calls of their outraged publics, Arab states this week began sending urgent aid and assistance to Rohingya refugees. The UAE provided an emergency supply of 1,700 tents to provide shelter to fleeing families in neighboring Bangladesh as part of its response, while the Qatari Red Crescent Society has dispatched a team to set up mobile clinics and water tanks. Saudi Arabia has provided funds for emergency relief.

But Arab Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have more cards to play, critics say.

Saudi Arabia has invested millions in Myanmar’s oil infrastructure, and is set to use a recently-completed oil pipeline running through the country to continue to provide China, the Burmese government’s largest backer, with more than 10 percent of its oil supplies.

Qatar has also provided infrastructure support across Myanmar.

The Gulf’s standing with major powers such as China and the US – as well as with Myanmar’s neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh – could facilitate intense diplomacy to stop the violence and improve conditions for refugees, say analysts and activists.

Simply by being the world’s richest and most influential Muslim countries, citizens and activists say, Arab Gulf states must use their influence to halt the bloodshed.

“Arab countries should be in the forefront and … doing more lobbying at the UN and the world’s capitals,” says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati political analyst. “But hopefully we will see this grow into an international response.”

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