(Commentary) – Pakistan’s late Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was a good friend of mine. More than that, he was a hero to me, as he was to so many people who care about human rights. I described him as Pakistan’s Martin Luther King.
I travelled with Shahbaz in Pakistan, and on one occasion we missed a bomb by five minutes in Islamabad. I saw the threats to his life, even as a grassroots human rights activist before he became a politician.
He and I met a seven year-old Christian girl, Sharee Komal, who had been raped by Islamist extremists simply because she came from a Christian family. Shahbaz was helping her, because no one else would.
I spoke to Shahbaz almost every week during the five years we worked together. On one occasion, when a community of Christians was facing the threat of a massacre, I called him. Typically, he was in the village that was threatened, with the terrified community. They expected an attack at any moment – and he told me my phone call made a difference: he could tell the people they were not forgotten.
Shahbaz rose from activist to Member of Parliament to Cabinet minister rapidly, but at heart he was always an activist. As Minister, he tried to reform or repeal the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz – whom I am proud to be able to call a friend – paid the ultimate price for this cause. His car was ambushed by Islamist extremists and sprayed with bullets. News reports claimed he was hit by more than thirty bullets.
Just fifteen months before his assassination, Shahbaz spoke to a conference in London organized by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Listen to his message here.
In particular, note these words of Shahbaz: “This is the key objective of my life – to live for those who are voiceless, who are suffering. We need to change the plight of those who are living in the darkness of persecution, victimization, and that is the commitment we made, to bring justice for those who are denied justice, equality, anywhere in the world ... We will not allow the forces of intolerance to capture our country... .”
Shahbaz then challenged his listeners: “We have a commitment to bring a change in the lives of people... . We will bring a change in the life of those who are living in darkness, we will bring a change in the life of those who don’t have a hope, and we will bring a smile on the faces of those who are living under severe harassment and victimization... . Let’s pledge together that we will stand for those who are victimized and terrorized... . Let’s pledge that we will work together to promote harmony, tolerance, and we will bridge the gaps among different faiths. We will strengthen this world with the message of peace and tolerance.”
Shahbaz was a deeply committed Christian. He was killed by extremist Muslims. But Shahbaz saw that the problem for his country, and the world, was not one particular religion or another, but rather the problem of extremism and intolerance.
I have stood among a church congregation in Indonesia and heard a mob of extremist Islamists shouting “Christians get out, hunt down anyone not wearing a jilbab, kill the Christians.” I was there, among the crowd. I have visited Ahmadi Muslims, a sect regarded as heretical by other Muslims, soon after a horrific violent attack. I have seen the burned out homes, and met people who have been beaten to a pulp, a machete held at their neck and their penis, dragged round a village like a corpse. I have visited an atheist in Indonesia jailed because he does not believe in God, and threatened with death by extremists. I have seen intolerant, extremist Islamism in action.
And all this makes me think: What is happening in Burma is no different. The only difference is that the intolerance, for the most part, is coming from Buddhists towards the minority Muslims.
Rohingyas have undoubtedly committed acts of violence, but the majority of the discrimination, persecution and hatred – not just recently, but over years – has been directed at them. They would count among the marginalized and victimized people Shahbaz talked about.
And there is a concern. I hear shockingly hateful remarks by Rakhine and other Burmese about the Rohingya. They call them “terrorists,”, “Bengalis,” “kala.” A Burmese Muslim friend who is not even a Rohingya told me she had a conversation in which the person she was talking to, seemingly calmly and without thinking, addressed her as “kala.” If I stood face to face with someone of an ethnic minority in Britain and, in a matter-of-fact tone, addressed them as “nigger” or “Paki” I would, rightly, be punched or at the very least ignored.
Racial hatred is wrong, full stop. There are moral, and humanitarian, and human rights reasons to speak up for all people who are persecuted, oppressed and marginalized. But in addition, it simply cannot be in Burma’s interests to continue on this crazed and destructive course, especially if it is serious about reform.
Anyone in any doubt should read Maajid Nawaz’s new book, Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to A Democratic Awakening, recently published. The context is totally different, but the lessons are relevant. Maajid grew up in a Pakistani immigrant family in Essex, Britain, and encountered far-right racism as a teenager. His accounts of racism are horrific. And the experience of racism, along with an increasing awareness of the plight of Muslims in Bosnia, led to his radicalization.
“The sad reality is,” he writes, “that self-defense usually ends up increasing the cycle of violence.” Maajid ended up as a senior figure in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist organization, before he was jailed in Egypt and began his journey back to pluralism, democracy and freedom.
He sums up the issue in a way that is deeply relevant for all in Burma who care about freedom: “It is deeply ironic that Islamist and anti-Islam extremist groups have a symbiotic relationship with each other, feeding off each other’s paranoia and propaganda: far-right extremism, Islamism, more far-right extremism, more Islamism and so on.”
He goes on to write: “Islamaphobes and Islamists have this much in common: both groups insist that Islam is a totalitarian political ideology at odds with liberal democracy, and hence both insist that the two will inevitably clash. One extreme calls for the Qu’ran to be banned, the other calls to ban everything but the Qu’ran. Together, they form the negative and positive of a bomb fuse.”
Instead, Maajid argues, we need to push the counter-narrative: “a respect for basic human rights, pluralism, individual freedoms, faith and democracy.”
And that is what we should push for Burma. We – whether we are Burmese or foreign friends of Burma – have not come all this way, after so many years, only to recourse to intolerance, racism and ethnic and religious hatred.
We – Burmese and foreign friends – have fought together for a Burma based on democracy and human rights. Human rights apply to all human beings, whether you agree with their creed or like their race or not. People who have been born in Burma should have a stake in the country’s future, regardless of race, religion or origin.
If some people are marginalized or treated inhumanely, the seeds are sown for a hateful ideology. Would it not be better to pull back from the brink, to engage in serious inter-faith and inter-racial dialogue and reconciliation, to address questions of citizenship in a sensible and temperate way, and to put a stop to this cycle of hatred and violence which will otherwise haunt Burma for decades to come?
I have lost friends like Shahbaz, and others, to intolerance and hatred in other countries. I don’t want to lose Burmese friends in the same way.
|– Benedict Rogers is the author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads published by Rider and the East Asia Team Leader of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.|