Anti-Christian persecution, for so long a great untold story, has started to gain the world’s attention. But the suffering of Christian communities, from Syria to Nigeria to China, is part of an even broader phenomenon. Religious conflict is on the rise across the globe, with ancient tensions being raised by new political methods. And in many countries — Sri Lanka, India, the Central African Republic and elsewhere — it’s Muslims who have the most reason to fear violence. In Burma, they may even have been victims of genocide.
That, at any rate, is what UN officials are trying to investigate after a wave of brutality which has forced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the coastal region of Rakhine State since last August. Burmese soldiers, police and armed civilians carried out a campaign of diabolical violence, in which hundreds of villages were burned to the ground and helpless civilians were machine-gunned and dumped in mass graves.
There were warning signs — in 2012, 200 Rohingyas were killed and more than 100,000 displaced — but Western observers missed them. Sanctions were lifted, foreign investment surged, Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed as her country’s saviour. As the human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers observes, the international community was ‘too quick to embrace positive signs. It was almost inconvenient to be confronted with what was happening to the Rohingyas and others’.
Religion is not the only factor: hostility to the Rohingyas draws on the dubious historical claim that they are recent immigrants who should return to Bangladesh. But it also relies on a deep-rooted and specifically Buddhist idea of the state, which sees the health of the nation and the strength of the religion as interdependent. That idea has been spread since the 1980s by influential movements led by Buddhist monks, many of them given to incendiary language about the Muslim enemy.
Sri Lanka has its own Buddhist troublemakers. One Buddhist group, the BBS, leads inflammatory campaigns, including one boycotting Muslim businesses. Such hostility sometimes boils over: earlier this month, the Sri Lankan government declared a national state of emergency after co-ordinated anti-Muslim riots broke out in the central city of Kandy. Sri Lanka’s troubles should not be exaggerated. It does not, for instance, compare to Thailand, where Malay Muslim separatists clash with security forces in an armed conflict which has cost 7,000 lives in the past 15 years. But there is the same dynamic: a Buddhist nationalist idea of the state from which Muslims are easily excluded.
The persecution of Muslims, though not as globally widespread as that of Christians, extends well beyond South Asia. In China’s Xinjiang province, the Uighur population is subject to official harassment, arbitrary detention and draconian laws on religious dress. In the Central African Republic, rebel militias are carrying out a horrifying war of revenge which has targeted Muslim communities.
India’s 170 million Muslims, meanwhile, live against a constant background of local violence, not exactly encouraged by the authorities, but not much discouraged either. From 2011 to 2016, official figures record more than 4,000 incidents of ‘communal violence’ — mostly Hindu on Muslim — leading to nearly 600 deaths.
And of course, a lot of violence against Muslims is by other Muslims. The Shia-Sunni divide has become perhaps the key one in the Middle East — the catalyst for conflict in Syria, insurgency in Bahrain and the region-defining rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Why is anti-Muslim violence on the rise? It is a combination of some very old theories about religion and the state, and some very new political techniques.
In Burma, for instance, there has always been a strain of thought that Buddhism and Burma rise and fall together. But democracy has enabled radical monks, preaching the most aggressive version of that belief, to gain a political foothold. One group, Ma Ba Tha, has offices in 250 of the country’s 330 townships.
The internet has helped such organisations. In 2015 Buddhist nationalists began to warn that Aung San Suu Kyi would betray the country’s identity. They spread images of her on social media wearing a hijab. Soon afterwards Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, conceded ground, refusing to run any Muslim candidates in the national elections.
There is a similar combination of forces at work in Sri Lanka. Again, Buddhist thinkers have long defined national identity in religious terms and against Muslims. Anagarika Dharmapala, the 20th-century pioneer of Buddhist nationalism, believed that Sri Lanka had been ‘a paradise’ when the ‘Aryan Sinhalese’ (Buddhists) had dominated it. Other religions were a threat.
The violent possibilities in this tradition have been brought out by Sri Lanka’s present-day extremists. It is easy to explain away all religious conflict as being really about wealth inequality, or race, or politics. But in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, disputes over the sacred bring out the most uncontrollable passions. Anti-Muslim riots have been sparked by a rumoured attack on a monk, a public debate about the regulation of halal meat and a dispute over whether a mosque is built on ‘stolen’ land.
In India, too, ancient tensions have been emphasised by new movements, in this case Hindu ones. The RSS, a volunteer network of millions, sees India as a ‘Hindu nation’ and runs programmes to convert Christians and Muslims. This tradition has its extremists — some of whom are close to power.
Officials from the ruling BJP party, an offshoot of the RSS, have rewritten school textbooks to bring them closer to the nationalist story. (For example, the fact that Gandhi’s killer was a Hindu fanatic goes unmentioned in some classrooms.) One of the party’s star campaigners is the firebrand Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, who once told an audience: ‘If they kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.’
Every few months someone is killed by a lynch mob on suspicion of possessing beef. Hindi has recently gained a new word, gautankwad, which literally translates as ‘cow terrorism’. A spokesman for Minority Rights Group International tells me that there are ‘degrees of state complicity’ in these incidents. And when the authorities tighten legislation against cow slaughter and on ‘forced conversions’, it can ‘provide a cloak of legitimacy to anti-minority violence and discrimination’. Yet, the plight of India’s Muslims — four million of them in the province of Kashmir, where the Indian army stands accused of countless human rights abuses — goes un-remarked by western leaders uncomfortably aware of India’s economic clout.
In every country, social media makes propaganda significantly easier. After the Kandy riots, the Sri Lankan government blocked Facebook and other networks; in Burma, UN officials have blamed Facebook for the speed with which violently anti–Muslim sentiment had spread. This is helped by state control of the media: Burmese public opinion holds that the Muslims are lying and the gullible international media has been taken in.
‘You hear that all the time there,’ says an academic specialist on the region, who recently visited the country and who asked not to be named. ‘The sheer propaganda through television and the very limited print media has even very well-intentioned people willing to say, “Well, we really don’t know what’s going on out there, there’s two sides to the story.” I find myself saying under my breath, “Tell me what the other side of the story is to rape and murder as a methodology.”’
In many countries, religious identity politics has replaced older forms of political allegiance. In the Middle East, nationalism has fallen away and the Sunni-Shia conflict has become the decisive one. Burma’s sectarian tensions increased in the 1980s after the ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’, launched in 1962, turned out to have led nowhere. And the idea that everyone is headed towards secular liberal democracy looks more and more like a fantasy. The 21st century is going to be dominated by arguments between believers — not least because the number of Muslims is likely to approach three billion by 2060, and may even overtake the number of Christians.
The West still needs to wake up to the extent of religious persecution around the world. If pity for excluded minorities isn’t enough of a motive, then sheer pragmatism should be. Isis social media accounts use photographs of the suffering Rohingyas to drum up support, and Islamist groups see a recruitment opportunity in the persecuted Muslims of India and South Asia. The world’s conscience should be pricked by one constant theme of the jihadists’ propaganda. It runs, roughly: Join us — everyone else has abandoned you.