The disease of nationalism and racism in light of the Rohingya crisis

Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh

The disease of nationalism and intra-Muslim racism is at the heart of the Ummah’s inaction over the Rohingya crisis, writes Reem Ahmed

The irony of a Nobel Peace Prize winner being complicit in genocide and actively denying a massacre unfolding in front of her has raised a few eyebrows. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions towards the Rohingya remain of little importance to organisations claiming to work in the battle for Human Rights.

But this article is not about the key players in the perpetration of this massacre, rather the focus of this piece is to elucidate the nationalism and racism entrenched in the Muslim community, address why the Rohingya have caught the media’s attention now, and conclude with the lack of consistency in assuaging turmoil in the Muslim world.

The myth of modern unity

As Malcolm X famously wrote in his Letter from Mecca, the issue of race has long dominated the minds of the culturally shallow: “What was meant to be used as a tool to broaden our horizons has been used to oppress and dominate over other cultures.”

As Muslims, we are taught through our Islamic source texts that nationalism (asabiyya) and racism are a disease with no standing in our communities. One needs to only look at the wealth of Prophetic statements and Quranic verses to appreciate this reality:

“He is not one of us who calls to tribalism. He is not one of us who fights for the sake of tribalism. He is not one of us who dies following the way of tribalism.” [Sunan Abu Dawud]

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Rohingya Muslims are being persecuted in Myanmar

But still, these concepts silently permeate our thinking and actions – we cannot say that as a Muslim community we are not racist and nationalistic – we are. The evidence?

Our selective outrage to the horrors this Ummah faces, and our obsession with seeing only the immediate problems we face as British Muslims.

A glance at international crises such as the Central African Republic (CAR) and occupied Kashmir portrays how the Muslim lives we value today are only those that we nationally or ethnically align with, and only those deemed as valuable by the West – to deny this would be an insult to the basic intelligence of an objective observer.

A glance at how we are quick to speak about Islamophobia, but painfully slow to talk about the oppression of Muslims abroad evidences the above. How can we claim to uphold these religious values whilst simultaneously wading knee deep in the jahil (ignorant) behaviour of tribal hierarchies and skin colour prejudice?


Nationalism is entrenched so deeply within the psyche of the sub-continent that one’s own people are at fear of desolation.

Pakistan stands as a country that was created as a refuge for Muslims, yet it refuses to open its boarders and send help to the people of occupied Kashmir, Afghanistan or Rakhine who are ethnically “South Asian” – highlighting that for many, loyalty is first and foremost to their nation.

Pakistan has one of the largest armies in the world.

However, when it came to repel an incursion from South-Yemen in 1969, or allying in the Persian-Gulf war, Pakistani troops were seen marching alongside their Saudi counterparts, and are now deemed as one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies. Saudi Arabia is a country which has starved the Muslim majority world and funnelled resources directly into Western hands. An excerpt from Jonathan Freedland’s article gives a valuable insight to the extent of this problem:

“The Saudi-led coalition has kept Sana’a airport closed, which means food and medicines cannot get in and the sick cannot get out for treatment. Pictures of gaunt children … and starving mothers recall the worst of Africa’s famines – but this disaster is entirely human-made.”

The Myanmar regime claims that the Rohingya are unlawfully there as they are of Bangladeshi origin, yet Bangladesh refuses to house them because their country is embroiled in economic suffering, and so allowing the Rohingya in will only exacerbate this. What does this show us except that secular nation states are so caught up in nationalism, that the death of millions serves as a mere blip in the vision for their “nation”.

The imbalance in the ranking of lives that Western states have deemed as important versus the lives that are rendered irrelevant because of the colour of their skin or the country to which they belong is indisputable.

Just yesterday, Qatar donated $30 million in competition with the UAE who donated $10 million to Hurricane Harvey flood victims, yet both remain silent and inactive on the Rohingya crisis. The discrepancy in treatment of minorities in the UAE also illustrates the notion of Arab supremacy, evidenced in the example of the Ethiopian maid in Kuwait.

The Muslim majority world was carved up tactfully from 1915 onwards, and unwittingly they have begun to identify with the idea of a secular nation state, and in turn have abandoned the Prophetic teachings of unity which transcends arbitrary borders and skin colour, and a bond based on Islam alone.

Why now?

So why has the international eye only recently turned its attention to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya?

It would be acceptable to assume that because Muslims are now seen as the perpetrators as opposed to just victims, the international media has shifted focus onto the Rohingya, undoubtedly hoping that it will form grounds of justification: ‘Although the Rohingya have suffered oppression for decades, the recent bout of violence is seen as a dangerous escalation because it was sparked by a new Rohingya militant group.’

Quite simply, the reason behind a lack of earlier outrage over Myanmar is because the instability of the region has no bearing on the security and interests of the West.

The Western economy does not stand at a loss, nor does it face any imminent security risk – and so the blood of the people spilled is not deemed worthy of mass media coverage, back-to-back headlines, and viral TV reports of outrage.

Consistency and Continuity

As a community that prides itself on the notion of “oneness” and “unity”, we have fallen dangerously short of the Islamic standard. What categorises the work of sincere Islamic organisations and movements is the consistency and continuity with which they address issues arising in the Muslim. This is what we as an Ummah lack; the inability to maintain consistency and address issues outside of a crisis situation.

Our attention should also be turned to the reality that nobody seemingly wants to address; the attacks which have left the Muslim majority world so unstable are not attacks on Arabs, Africans, Asians – they are ideological attacks on Islam, and in turn, physical attacks on the Muslim Ummah.

Still, it would be naive to assume that this is exclusive to the Muslim majority world alone; a mere glance at how the Western media have fuelled anti-Muslim hatred is enough to brew an understanding of this perilous socio-political reality.

As Muslims, we are complicit in the killing of our co-religionists due to our inattention and prejudice. The way we have resorted to dealing with the plight of this great Ummah surely represents the most fundamental form of discrimination one can imagine – deeming the lives of one group of people to be worth less than those of another – worth less coverage, less attention, less sympathy, less sorrow. We should be ashamed.

Reem Ahmed is a researcher and graduate from the University of London. She is currently studying for a Masters in Education Policy, and her areas of interests include Education, Social Mobility and Current Affairs.

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