As the second-largest Muslim nation, Pakistan is 96 percent Muslim, with the remaining population comprised of Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis. However, convictions of this small percentage of religious minorities under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws frequently make international headlines. These laws allow the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or his companions. More concerning is that even before courts can convict someone, Islamist vigilantes murder many of those accused of blasphemy, and the head of the leading political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, encourages these murders. Recent laws have further protected Islamic teachings with strict censorship rules. However, if Pakistan will take such great lengths to “protect” Islam and its Muslim citizens, it should also seek to protect fellow Muslims abroad who are the victims of ethnic cleansing, oppression, or persecution. Here, I name the Rohingya, the Uighurs, and Palestinian Muslims.
Though relatively unknown in the West before 2017, the Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh. Their tumultuous history reaches back to British colonization. Some have lived in Myanmar (specifically in Rakhine State) for centuries and converted to Islam via Islamic traders. Encouraged by the British, others came from Bangladesh into Myanmar as migrant laborers. After World War II, the British did not fulfill their promise to create the Rohingya’s own state, and Myanmar stripped them of citizenship in 1982. Thus, termed as “illegal immigrants,” the military-controlled government has held thousands in camps in inhumane conditions for years.
Myanmar has not allowed journalists, either national or foreign, in Rakhine State since the conflict between the Rohingya and Myanmar’s security forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, escalated in 2017. As a result, determining the severity of the situation is near impossible. However, most agree that Rohingya militants (the Arakan Rhakine Salvation Army or ARSA) attacked 30 police posts and killed 12 security force members on August 25, 2017. Amnesty International has compiled significant evidence that Rohingya militants massacred at least a hundred Hindus in Rakhine State that same day. These events prompted a brutal crackdown by the Tatmadaw that resulted in 288 burned Rohingya villages, approximately 6,700 Rohingya dead, and hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh.
The Tatmadaw can in no way justify its actions, which most agree constitute ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. However, left alone, the Rohingya will take matters into their own hands, and ARSA has committed localized, small-scale acts of violence. (Conflicting information muddles who is controlling ARSA, whether that be locals without training or a Pakistani- and Saudi-trained leader.) In the past few months, ARSA has again increased its attacks after a quiet period, and these have only incited stronger anti-Muslim and terrorist propaganda against them.
In the case of the Rohingya, Pakistan has recently strengthened and renewed diplomatic ties with Bangladesh, which no longer accepts Rohingya refugees. In addition, many Rohingya have undergone a risky boat passage to Malaysia, only to be turned away by waiting security forces. These people have no citizenship, no rights, and no home. Instead, they sit in dirty refugee camps, which only fuels their anger and unrest, and factions there have recently fought over who controls the cross-border drug trafficking network. Pakistan should leverage its ties with Bangladesh to improve the condition of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, work with Malaysia to initiate feasible refugee programs, and also accept some refugees.
Concentrated in the Xinjiang region of China, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Uighurs are another oppressed Muslim ethnic minority. Many reports have surfaced recently regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s inhumane treatment of the Uighurs. These include forced organ harvesting; forced sterilization, abortions, and birth control; and “re-education” camps. Again, these measures have only increased Uighurs’ resentment and violence and furthered the vicious cycle of oppression. However, Pakistan has less political clout regarding them as China wields significant control over Pakistan’s economy. Dr. Alfonse Javed of RAM Foundation Pakistan reports that even talking about the Uighurs is forbidden. Despite Pakistan’s limited influence, it should leverage its position to assist the oppressed Uighurs as it builds ties with China.
While Pakistan is technically in South Asia, it is invariably enmeshed in Middle Eastern politics, due to the fact that it is home to a large Muslim population, second only to Indonesia’s. Pakistan also maintains strong ties with world players Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Thus, Pakistan has a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, I will limit my analysis of Pakistan-Palestine relations due to the abundant nuances of Middle Eastern politics. However, I would like to point out that the United Arab Emirates’ normalization of relations with Israel this year led to the suspension of Israel annexing sections of the West Bank. If Pakistan had held the cards, given its refusal to normalize relations without a two-state solution, Israel would have proceeded with the annexation.
Last month a bill was introduced in Pakistan to protect religious minorities. However, the committee scrapped the bill in favor of yet another law protecting the rights of Muslims. Instead of fixating on protecting itself from the three percent of its population whom extremists already abducted, falsely charged, and killed, Pakistan should take steps to aid and abet the injustices of its fellow Muslims on its own continent.