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(AP Photo)

At a recent symposium on Yemen, one of the panellists, a prominent Muslim social activist, lamented the lack of empathy amongst non-Muslims for human suffering in places like Yemen and Palestine. According to him, non-Muslims tend to see these issues as affecting only Muslims and therefore tend to be unsympathetic.

“The reason is obvious to most of us,” he said, “because the way Malaysians respond to a certain crisis or tragedy is based on their conditioning and their response is coloured by ethnicity or religion.” Continuing, he added that “this is why it is difficult to get non-Muslim Malaysian support for the Palestine cause as well.”

A moral responsibility to act

He makes an interesting point. Human misery, of course, has no colour, ethnicity or religion. No one can simply sit by and watch as innocent children are killed or maimed, when thousands are starving to death or dying from epidemics as in Yemen today. It shouldn’t matter whether they are Muslim or Christian, Arab or Asian. Like it or not, we are our brother’s keeper and we have a moral responsibility to act.

Malaysian civil society organizations and religious groups (including non-Muslim ones), in fact, do outstanding work among refugees,  both at home and abroad. Many Malaysian religious organizations provide education, housing and support for refugees irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. Berjaya’s Vincent Tan and Top Glove’s Lim Wee Chai’s efforts to help Syrian refugees along the Turkish border are an inspiration to us all.

Blinkered responses

If there’s any lack of empathy, it is from the government itself. It is no secret, for example, that successive Malaysian governments have long adopted a blinkered approach to humanitarian issues.

Malaysia, for example, has been quick to welcome Muslims fleeing war and persecution but are less welcoming of non-Muslim refugees. Over the years, thousands of Muslims from Cambodia, Aceh, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Southern Philippines and Yemen have set up home in Malaysia with many going on to obtain permanent residence status, even citizenship. Can the same be said of non-Muslim refugees like the Chin, Karen and Shan who fled genocide in Myanmar?

Even now, Christians are fleeing persecution in Pakistan; are any of them welcome in Malaysia?

Malaysia is also quick to speak out when Muslims are affected by war, persecution and harassment but generally have little to say when non-Muslim groups are similarly affected. We were vociferous in condemning the genocide against Bosnians but were largely silent when Christians and other minority groups like the Yazidis were targeted for annihilation by ISIS.

Perhaps if Malaysia had spoken out against the atrocities that were committed against the  Chin, Karen and Shan decades ago, Myanmar’s army might not have been emboldened to move against the Rohingya today.

Politicizing human misery

It doesn’t help, as well, that our politicians tend to exploit issues like Palestine and the genocide of the Rohingya to burnish their religious credentials. In Malaysia, the  Palestinian issue, for example, is often cast as an Islamic struggle and used to demonstrate how committed some of our politicians are in defence of the ummah. Why would anyone expect non-Muslims to join such an endeavour, especially when it is all an exercise in hypocrisy?

In other countries, the Palestinian issue is seen as a human rights and justice issue and people of all faiths have joined in the struggle to defend the rights of Palestinians. Indeed, several church groups in North America and Europe are in the forefront of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) initiative against Israel. In fact, non-Muslim groups are arguably doing more at this point of time to help the Palestinians than some  Muslim countries.

In the same way, when Najib and Hadi joined forces in December 2016 to protest the treatment of  Rohingya Muslims “in the name of Islam,” they made it an Islamic issue and invited a religious response. No surprise then that non-Muslims saw no reason to join them.

It is for this reason that when we initiated the Stand with Yemen Coalition (of which I was chairman) we went out of our way to encourage Malaysians to see the situation in Yemen as a humanitarian crisis rather than an issue of concern only to Muslims. 

A more inclusive approach 

Clearly, we need to move beyond the current blinkered approach of seeing everything through the lens of race and religion. The multi-religious, multi-ethnic make-up of our nation obliges us to structure a more inclusive response to humanitarian situations, one that all Malaysians can identify with and wholeheartedly support. Perhaps, in reaching out to others irrespective of race or religion, we might learn to better appreciate diversity at home.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 27th February 2019]