“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Unfortunately, I do not believe we have learned anything whatsoever. Throughout the past century, we have achieved magnificent progress in economic, scientific, and technological fields; unfortunately, we have failed to do the same when it comes to culture.
Starting at home, American history surrounding discrimination can clearly be seen as appalling. To briefly illustrate, from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration to the United States and denied citizenship to Chinese individuals who were living in the country. Preceded by the Red Summer of 1919, during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, thrashes of white assailants attacked Black residents on the streets and in airplanes carrying firebombs, marking the first aerial bombing of a US city and killing up to 300 people. In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans; the Supreme Court even upheld the act two times. I need not list more examples to demonstrate my point.
Since those times, the United States has made some progress in protecting minority groups, but we would be naïve to think that this only occurs in America, and that it only revolves around race. As a Muslim, I’ve been grateful to live in a community where I’ve experienced relatively little discrimination, but I know this is not true across the world. According to a 2018 Pew Study research report, Muslims were harassed in 139 countries either by government or by society (surprisingly, only behind Christians at 145).
There is no single explanation or event that fuels discrimination against Muslims across the globe. In the West, the heinous act of 9/11 fueled a wave of overblown, unjustified Islamophobic rhetoric and physical attacks – this holds true for the UK 7/7, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, the Mumbai attacks in India, and so on. However, with the exception of 9/11, the vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone wolves and small groups with ideologies far removed from mainstream Islamic lifestyle. Historical arcs of power going back to the Ottoman Empire also characterize a great deal of tensions between Muslims and other groups, especially over the disputed territory of Kashmir. As a result of all of these trends and events put together, many cultures have used psychological heuristics to generalize deserved disdain for individual malicious actors toward the entire Muslim community.
However, despite the great harm Muslims face from ill-informed cultural attitudes, far greater danger exists when oppression occurs by means of large-scale, institutional campaigns. Indeed, these campaigns already exist, fueled by nationalistic rhetoric about the “danger of the Muslim community”. Under provision of the 2020 Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance in India, interfaith religions between Muslims and Hindus are banned in the name of preventing “love jihad”. Furthermore, anti-Muslim mobs operate throughout the country, many times with the support of government BJP and RSS officials. Just across the border, the Xinjiang province of China has arbitrarily detained more than a million Muslims in order to “re-educate” them; the limited first-person accounts available suggest there exists a much different, more violent system in place. The Rohingya people in Myanmar face great oppression and discrimination under the military regime; being driven off the land, having their mosques burnt down, and being subjected to forced labor are just a few ways the repression manifests.
Interestingly enough, large-scale discrimination does not only occur against Muslims as a whole group; it also happens between sects of the religion. For example, in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim country, many politicians and the public alike discriminate against the Ahmadi’s, a sect of Muslims who believe, unlike mainstream Islam, that the founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the promised Mahdi/Messiah. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has often been viewed by domestic and international human rights groups as inflammatory, violent, and oppressive towards the country’s Shiite minority.
The constancy with which discrimination exists across time deeply troubles me. In the 1940’s, the international order deeply condemned Nazi and Soviet regimes violently repressing loyalty to a religion that could undermine their own; yet somehow, in the modern era, human rights have slipped under the international radar in favor of trying to maintain geopolitical relations. The problem seems to be that these campaigns of oppression cross international borders; on what basis can any country justify intervening in another’s cultural schema? The answer seems hard to politically justify, but it is necessary nevertheless. Principles of justice do not stop at arbitrary border lines drawn on a map; as long as we allow oppression to occur because it’s a “domestic issue”, we face bleak prospects of creating any long-term change.