Asian Islamophobia: Heading Toward an Endgame

India, though heavily Islamophobic, is not alone in Asia in terms of the governmental persecution of Muslims.


Mosque in Delhi
Mosque in Delhi. Credit: Pexels


On Dec. 12, 2019, the government of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Act benefitted refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who sought refuge in India before 2015. What makes the CAA nefarious is that it leaves out many other refugee groups, such as Muslim refugees from these countries and Tamils from Sri Lanka.


Coupled with the CAA, India has seen a proposal by the Hindu nationalist-led government to enact a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would further target Muslims for detention and deportation. The NRC would require anyone suspected of not being a citizen to prove their citizenship, as well as the citizenship of their parents and grandparents. With the CAA exclusion of Muslims, the NRC would put this group at the greatest risk of detention and deportation.


Both the CAA and NRC come hot on the heels of a government decree, on Aug. 5, that revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that guaranteed special rights to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. These rights included Kashmir’s own state constitution and the autonomy to make its own laws except on matters of defense, communications and foreign affairs. Before revoking Article 370, India arrested several Kashmiri political leaders, shut down the area’s internet, and imposed a curfew.


India’s actions toward its own Muslim citizens have been getting worse over the decade. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now holds the majority of seats in the national parliament, is closely linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, which espouses Islamophobia heavily. The history of Islamophobia in India can be traced back to its partition from the majority-Muslim Pakistan 1947, and has grown stronger over time.


"The condition of Muslims is very bad in comparison to other major faiths in India," Council of Europe Rapporteur General Ingrid Remberg wrote in a 2005 study called "Islamophobia and Its Consequences on Young People." Noting a history of communal riots in India against Muslims, the report concluded that "the isolation and lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims created a fear that if Muslims are stronger financially and socially they will take over and try to oppress other communities."


India, though heavily Islamophobic, is not alone in Asia in terms of the governmental persecution of Muslims.


While the media covers Islamophobia in the West, including Trump’s Muslim ban, little attention is given to Islamophobic policies in places such as India, Myanmar or China.


"The correct term is genocide," activist Jamila Hanan said in an interview with The Mantle with regard to the situation regarding Rohingya people in Myanmar. "Now that the evidence is overwhelming, this term is widely used and accepted as correct by most individuals and organisations with knowledge about this issue. The military would like us to believe it is a conflict in order to camouflage their genocidal intent, but their intention over decades has been to eliminate the Rohingya from the land."


Hanan has been raising awareness about the Rohingya genocide since 2012 and supports Rohingya-led initiatives such as Testimony Tailors, which is a sewing cooperative by Rohingya women refugees that helps fund awareness about the genocide and provides clothes to refugees.


The Rohingya community lives in Myanmar but has been targeted heavily by the military and government to the point of becoming part of one of the world’s biggest refugee emergencies.


"(The Rohingya) are a slightly darker skin colour, speak a different language and are of a different religion than the majority of Burmese people," Hanan explained. "These differences – in particular religion – have been used by the military to drive up hatred and fear between people."


Although attention has been given to the Rohingya over the past few years, Yasmin Ullah, president of the Rohingya Human Rights Network, underlines that they have been targeted since the 1980s.


"One of the by-products (of the 1960s coup by the military) was the 1982 citizenship law which stripped most of the Rohingya of citizenship," explained Ullah in an interview with The Mantle. "We were forced to accept pink cards, which put our citizenship into question." 


Ullah described how the pink cards gave way to red, and most recently, white cards. In the 2010s, the military escalated operations into an ethnic cleansing.


Ullah added that "lands are confiscated, gang rape is used. These things are done strategically to make sure that there is fear so the community would leave. The military takes over these lands and sells them to foreign investors such as the Chinese to build pipelines."


The military’s biggest power-play was releasing imprisoned politician Aung San Suu Kyi – a move that allowed Myanmar to begin doing business on a global scale without boycotts and sanctions. The public relations move effectively hid the state’s actions against the Rohingya.


"The military uses propaganda to show any problems that take place in the country that diminish their support as being done by the Rohingya," said Ullah. "They promote an Islamophobic trope – they deem the Rohingya an unworthy group of people needing to be annihilated."


Not far from Myanmar and bordering India is the province of Xinjiang – the site of another government’s onslaught against Muslims. In this case the Chinese government against the Uyghur people.


Formerly known as East Turkestan, the province enjoyed independence until the Manchu invasion of 1759. The Chinese invaded the province after the collapse of the Manchu Empire in 1911. The Uyghurs have staged multiple uprisings against Chinese rule throughout history, however things have drastically escalated over the past decade.


"Since April 2017, over 3 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained," said Taha Ghayyur, executive director of the non-profit Sound Vision. "Hundreds of camps are located in Xinjiang. Outside of the camps, the 11 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decades-long crackdown by Chinese authorities."


Many detainees have not been formally charged, which leaves little room for legally challenging detention. Those who have been charged have been caught for contacting people in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, or attending mosque services.


"Often their only crime is being Muslim," says Ghayyur.


Conditions inside these detention centres were leaked in November to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).


Ghayyur listed several examples: "Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and renounce Islam, as well as sing praises for communism, and learn Mandarin. They live in prison-like conditions, with cameras and microphones monitoring their every move and utterance. Many freed detainees have reported that they were tortured and subjected to sleep deprivation during interrogations. Women have shared stories of sexual abuse, with some saying they were forced to undergo abortions or have contraceptive devices implanted against their will."


Like the Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China are of a different ethnicity and religion than the national majority Han Chinese. They also happen to live in a mineral-rich area that the government wants to exploit. Xinjiang is rich in resources such as coal and natural gas. It also sits along  China’s Belt and Road Initiative that links Europe and Asia.


"Since the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province make up the majority, they have been the number one target of Chinese government's systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing," said Ghayyur. "As is common with religious persecution and cultural genocide across the globe, the Chinese government has always viewed Islam and Muslims as a threat to Chinese lifestyle. In 2014, President Xi Jinping warned of the ‘toxicity of religious extremism’ and advocated for eliminating Islamist extremism in a series of secret speeches, as has been revealed by the New York Times recently."


Ullah noted that this kind of othering is being seen elsewhere in Asia, such as Thailand, where she resided from age three until her family went to Canada as refugees. Muslims from the south of the country face very similar labels.


Virgin Andre, a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University examined Thailand specifically in her study "Thai Cyber-Actors: Evidence of an Islamophobic Effect for Fear of Muslims?" for the book, "International Perspectives on Islamophobia." She concluded, "Arguably the ‘glocalisation’ of Islamophobia within Thai culture has resulted in the alteration of the Thai cultural stereotype of the khaek (Muslim southern Thai), transforming the khaek into an evil violent Muslim, both in real and virtual worlds. This further leads to discriminatory attitudes and behaviours toward the Muslim 'Other.'"


"(The Thai) call them southern rebels and southern villains," recalled Ullah. "This is the trope that is repeated over and over. This is a global trend. The Rohingya have suffered the worst of it because we have seen the end of it – genocide is the end of it. The end result is the total annihilation of a group of people."


"As part of the genocidal process the world has witnessed in Myanmar, Central Africa, Kashmir, and Uganda, it begins by labelling the target groups as 'foreigners, disloyal, pests,'" said Ghayyur. "In the case of persecuted Muslim minorities, the easiest way to control the narrative is to label all Muslims 'terrorists, extremists and separatists.'"


Islamophobia is a worldwide phenomenon. Though its effects in the U.S. and Europe get much media attention, Asian Islamophobia is not as well documented. This article is an attempt to bring awareness to the rising tide of Islamophobia in the continent, and especially to the ways in which it is linked across countries through methods and motivations. 


The desires of the persecutors may be different, from building nationalism in India, to opening up resource extraction in Xinjiang. However, the methods are eerily familiar, from othering to detention and population control. The result, as emphasised by the interviewees, are always the same – genocide and displacement.



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Asia, International Affairs, Racism, Islam, Islamaphobia