Bearing Witness

The Rohingya Crisis Is Becoming Islam’s Genocide; What Are We Doing About It?

The UN investigates. The Holocaust museum has even rescinded a prize it once gave to Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet, we still risk letting this unfathomable repeat of history go unchecked.

REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Last week, the Pulitzer committee shone its spotlight on The Reuters photography staff for images of violence against the Rohingya as they fled Myanmar. Perhaps this will now ignite more vigorous response.

Perhaps the pleading in the past week by the Rohingya Muslim minority lawyer Razia Sultana for the United Nations Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for “horrific crimes” against the Rohingya may finally spark some outrage.

Perhaps the refutation by both the U.N. and Bangladesh of Myanmar's claim of safely repatriating Rohingya refugees may arouse new awareness.

Perhaps the imprisonment for the past four months of Reuters journalists for reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslim men can instigate action.  

Perhaps the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s recent rescinding of its 2012 Elie Wiesel Award to Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, once a human-rights hero in the West with few equals, for her failure to speak out against the ongoing Rohingya genocide may spur some wider response.

Or perhaps we will stay silent and unmoved by all of these recent reminders of the urgency to witness the inhumanity today being visited upon the Rohingya people. Perhaps we have learned nothing from history’s enduring lessons of violence connecting all peoples.

We may be doomed to forget these atrocities as well as those of the past. A recent study shows that 22 percent of American millennials surveyed had not heard of the Holocaust, and 66 percent could not identify what Auschwitz is.    

This legacy of Jewish memory-- long and filled with pain culminating in the worst genocide in history -- concerns Muslims today, as Muslims find themselves facing genocide in Myanmar.

Relief web, a leading humanitarian information resource began gathering testimony of Rohingya refugees between September and October of 2017. A total of 1,360 published testimonies from Rohingya people displaced in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh confirm an almost universal experience (92 percent) of systemized state-sanctioned violence against them, augmented by civilian vigilante groups.

Events without witnesses – as the Myanmar authorities wish the Rohingya persecution to be—are sinister in their evocation of the ultimate event without witness, the Holocaust.

The stories are of a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women and girls and multiple reports of the murder of infants and children by burning or drowning, indicating an intent to eradicate future generations of the Rohingya.

The United Nations, concerned that genocide is underway, formally launched efforts to document Myanmar’s human rights violations in May of last  year. 

The Rohingya people are long recognized to be among the most persecuted minorities in the world today. Under Myanmar’s Citizenship Law enacted in 1982, Rohingya people are denied all three tiers of citizenship because they are deemed “non-indigenous” and not of the 135 national races that Myanmar recognizes.

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Naturalization, while technically available to them, is in effect inaccessible because they are required to prove ancestral heritage in the Rakhine state prior to 1948. That is simply unattainable for most Rohingya people.

Defining them therefore as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, Myanmar by law renders these people, native born to Myanmar, as stateless. Even when they do have citizenship, they continue to be denied basic rights.

Following her investigative visit last summer to assess the situation in Bangladeshi refugee camps, U.N. Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee announced the Rohingya people  had been subject to state-sanctioned arbitrary arrests, torture, murder of men, women, children and infants, sexual violence and rape, enforced property seizures, torching of  villages, enforced disappearances. forcible displacement and relocation and land grabbing. All of this is at the hands of the Myanmar security forces and authorities. 

The U.N. also added that Myanmar’s decision to deny the U.N. all access to the country “can only be viewed as a strong indication that there must be something terribly awful happening in Rakhine, as well as in the rest of the country.”

Lee underlined that these treatments bear the “hallmarks of genocide,” and “amount to a crime against humanity.” 

It is an unfathomable repeat of history.

Some in the Muslim world have taken leadership on this issue by providing shelter to over 1 million fleeing Rohingya people in Bangladesh as Indonesia attempts to raise international awareness.

For every Muslim around the world, bearing witness to their suffering is a matter not only of participating in lifesaving intervention, but also an opportunity to finally come to grips of their denial of the history of Jewish genocide during the Holocaust.

As inconceivable as it seems, millions of Muslims remain woefully ignorant of the Holocaust. A 2006 Pew study confirms anti-Jewish sentiment remains overwhelmingly centered in predominantly Muslim majority countries.

Holocaust denial has a marked presence in the Muslim majority world, where more than 51 percent of Muslims surveyed said they believe the scale of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is greatly exaggerated. In the Middle East North African region, this rises to 63 percent.

The persecution of Jews has filled collective memory over millennia. This is the same peril the Rohingya people are finding themselves in today and efforts to bear witness are finally underway.

More than seven decades after the end of the Holocaust, The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Executive Director Stephen Smith recently traveled in a skeleton team to record and lend voice to Rohingya Muslim survivors of genocide.

In the 25 years since its inception, the Shoah Foundation’s Institute of Visual History has become the keeper of the world’s largest archive of audiovisual testimonies of 55,000 survivors and witnesses to genocide.

There is great power in bearing witness, which is why perpetrators, whether German Nazis or Myanmar authorities, seek to conceal their acts at all costs. Truth moves humanity and effects change. Bearing witness halts genocide. It is this power of witnessing that holds value for all Muslims, Jews and all peoples around the world.

Events without witnesses – as the Myanmar authorities wish the Rohingya persecution to be—are sinister in their evocation of the ultimate event without witness, the Holocaust. Central to the savagery of mankind’s worst genocide was contemporary humanity’s refusal to witness.

As history repeats, silence is not an acceptable response.

Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed is a British American Muslim physician, Member of The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation’s Committee on Countering Contemporary Anti-Semitism Through Testimony, and Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. @MissDiagnosis