Two weeks ago, six gunmen stormed a bakery and began sorting apart Muslims from non-Muslims. They told 18 year old Faraaz Hossain, a student at Emory University in Georgia, that he could leave with the other Muslims. He refused to leave his friends behind. The gunmen, educated men – or really, boys, only a little older than Faraaz – were members of the Islamic State. Hours earlier they posted photos of themselves on their social media pages posing in front of an IS flag, wearing matching uniforms and wide, toothy grins.
While the Muslims were sent to the back of the bakery and later would be held as hostages in a nine-hour standoff with armed forces, the gunmen hacked and stabbed Faraaz and the others to death. They had guns, but wanted gore and bloodshed.
Twenty civilians were killed in the attack. Among the dead included nine Italians, seven Japanese, two Bangladeshis, one American and one Indian national. The mainstream media did a remarkable job on covering the incident, which makes it even more disheartening that it went largely ignored by the international public.
The attack transpired in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Even though a majority of the dead were non-Muslim foreigners, the event acquired little attention by the average person, likely because it took place in an Asian, Muslim-majority country. A few days earlier on June 28th, suspected IS militants invaded Ataturk Airport, one of the largest airports in the world. The militants left 44 dead in their wake, most of whom were Turkish nationals. Perhaps it was for this reason that Facebook failed to offer its users a Turkish flag filter for their profile pictures, the way it had for the Paris attacks last year. However, because Turkey straddles a European, Asian, and Middle Eastern identity, the attack elicited a broader response. The international public responded with compassion. Political leaders condemned the attack, vigils were held around the world for the victims, and individuals expressed their condolences over social media.
But where was the compassion for Bangladesh?
It’s not the first time that the sufferings of Asians, especially Muslims, have been overlooked, denigrated, and simply ignored. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar serve as the greatest example of this monstrous apathy toward Asian Muslims. A report conducted in 2015 by Queen Mary University of London concluded that “Rohingyas face the final stages of genocide”. A state-sponsored one. The government deems Rohingyas as ethnically Bangladeshi (although they refer to them curiously as ‘Bengali’) are consequently treated as illegal immigrants, despite having lived in Myanmar for generations. As a result, the government stripped Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship in1982, and have since restricted marriage and birth rates of them.
In 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya Muslim man sparked riots that left almost a hundred civilians dead—mostly Muslim—and over 125,000 of Rohingyas displaced in what would later be realized as the state’s first wave of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas. After investigating the Rakhine State Riot, Human Rights Watch found that:
“Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home”.
The situation for the Rohingya Muslims has only deteriorated since. Yanghee Lee, a UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, recently accused the government of administering institutionalized discrimination by depriving Rohingya Muslims of their nationality and restricting movement. The state has restricted humanitarian aid from entering camps of displaced Rohingyas, and has denied them access to adequate healthcare. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas have fled Myanmar by taking the dangerous journey on overcrowded boats to neighboring countries who have largely either forced them to live in squalid conditions or refused them altogether. These “boat people”, as the international media callously calls them, are highly susceptible to human trafficking, and simply death from the journey. The UNHR estimates that over a thousand Rohingyas have drowned at sea. But that hasn’t stopped them from making it.
Despite the Rohingya Muslims being one of the most persecuted people in the world, their plight has largely gone unnoticed.
It is an unfortunate reality that people tend to only feel empathy toward those that share their same identity, whether it be culturally, racially, and more significant nowadays, religiously. This, however, is the exact conundrum we face when trying to understand the lack of compassion toward Asian Muslims. They are a part of a 1.6 billion Muslim community, yet their struggles cannot pull at the heartstrings of Muslims the way that the struggles of Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians can. It shouldn’t be this way.
I am perhaps the greatest culprit, and this article is a lame attempt at making amends.
I ignored the attack on Bangladesh, but felt devastated by the one on Iraq the very next day. In one single attack, IS killed 300 Iraqis in Baghdad who were out celebrating the end of Ramadan. The car-bomb marked the most deadliest attack in Iraq since the start of the US-occupation. It wasn’t just the sheer number of people killed that distressed me. It was simply because they looked like me—Middle Eastern—and mainly shared my religion—Shia Islam. I have an undeniable affinity with those killed in Baghdad that I don’t share with the Bangladeshis.
The irony is that I am half Asian. My mother was raised in Malaysia as a Sunni Muslim, but I found my own identity as a Shia Iranian-American growing up in the United States. Most people who meet me don’t realize it until they either meet my mom, or unless it comes up casually in a conversation in the same trivial manner that I would recall what I did last weekend.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter whether I am Asian, or Muslim, to feel for the victims of a terror attack, wherever, or whomever they may be. It’s a struggle I am trying to reconcile with, and one that everyone should as well for not only Asian Muslims, but anyone they may not identify with. What happened in Bangladesh barely two weeks ago, and what continues to happen to the Rohingya Muslims are inexcusable and deserves more attention. It is not a matter of diverting attention and compassion from one issue to another. It is about creating more space to be compassionate towards more people.