Saturday, May 23, 2015

Refugees and our meaningless celebration of hijrah

Abdar Rahman Koya works for The Malaysian Insider. He considers himself to have all the qualities of an ordinary Malaysian, a practising Muslim, and an incorrigible cynic.

Published: 23 May 2015

So it took several days, and probably several funerals at sea, before Asean leaders realised the value of human lives.

While the decision to rescue thousands of Rohingya refugees starving in their rickety boats in the middle of the ocean is welcome, the whole affair brings to question so-called Asian values, once trumpeted by leaders in this region, including the late Lee Kuan Yew, who is now venerated almost to Orwellian proportions as the saint of Singapore.

It is also interesting to note that until the Najib government finally decided to save human lives, all Islamic rhetoric coming from suspicious groups dressed in Islamic attire was mute. But when they did protest, it was not helpful at all, one group even reinforcing the hate between Rohingya and other Myanmarese with a call on Malaysia to expel all workers from Myanmar.

The undeniable fact is that among the first to call for action to protect the hapless men, women and children, all Muslims, were those groups which the authorities have demonised, using such misunderstood terms as pluralist, secularist, liberal and anti-Islam.

Here were thousands of people risking their lives sailing for hundreds of miles, thinking that this Muslim government, which has made so much noise about the plight of the Palestinians and other persecuted Muslims at the other end of the world, would accept them, at least to have a temporary refuge, so that mothers could breastfeed their infants and toddlers could sleep in peace.

Their expectations were not unrealistic. After all, about two decades ago, this country flew in thousands of blue-eyed, silver-haired Muslims, gave them refuge, scholarships, jobs, even husbands and wives, many of whom ended up as citizens, others preferring Western countries. And they didn’t even have to be practising Muslims. They were nominal, the majority of them hardly able to read the Quran or perform Islamic rituals.

Whether or not the same humanitarian zeal was extended to the Rohingya without hesitation is anybody’s guess.

It was shameful that the leaders actually had to discuss it before they did what any human beings would do when hungry women and children cry for help at their doorstep.

Contrast this with the Libyan refugee crisis faced by Italian authorities. No one waited for top officials to meet before deciding to rescue thousands of refugees who had ventured out into the sea.

Oh, but we must be careful of setting a precedence. We cannot open the floodgates, so goes the clich├ęd argument to push them back to sea. Such false pragmatism has no place when it comes to saving innocent lives, and certainly would not have been shown had the babies crying in the middle of the ocean been their nephews and nieces.

The fact that people from Libya, a victim of European colonial brutality, would confidently seek better lives from their former oppressors shows how much better and more civilised Western countries are about protecting refugees.

The fact that some of their governments are engaged in launching deadly drones does not negate the fact that they place more value on displaced and stateless people when they come crying for help, to live a life with dignity away from war and poverty.

Malaysians in general still suffer from insecurity over a group of people from an underdeveloped country coming in to build their lives here.

The argument against recognising and helping refugees can be summed up like this: our humanitarian gesture could set a bad precedent and undermine the country’s sovereignty. It is the same argument we hear from Malaysians who are so used to treating non-tourist, non-Caucasian and non-Arab foreigners as second class.

Crimes, street begging and social ills are some of the key words used, and politicians from both sides of the divide feed into such xenophobia, no matter how loud the noise they make about domestic human rights. 

Only recently, I stumbled upon one such call from a little known PKR vice-president, Darell Leiking, who blasted his email complete with pictures to all media, calling for action against some Pakistani-looking foreigners, all because they were running sundry shops in his constituency!

We have also heard overzealous calls to expel the thousands of foreigners who have been given citizenship in Sabah using questionable methods. Never mind that their locally born Malaysian children had no role in this illegal exercise, or that they would be forced to leave their “tanah tumpah darah” and become orphans if their parents were expelled, all in the name of sovereignty.

It is like sending children born out of wedlock to the forests because their parents committed adultery and their birth in this world did not follow “proper procedures”.

As a nation claiming to have developed status in five years’ time, this anti-refugee sentiment is shameful. As a nation governed by Muslims and backed by some of the loudest Islamic rhetoric in the Muslim world, it is detestable.

For 15 years, the United Nations has been celebrating June 20 every year as World Refugees Day.

But for 1,500 years, Muslims have unknowingly been honouring refugees, even recognising the act of migration by a group of early Muslims, so much so that it has become the basis of the Islamic calendar.

Prophet Muhammad was probably the most prominent Muslim refugee. At Islam’s infancy, a group of Muslims who were persecuted by the elites of Mecca fled to Abyssinia and sought refuge with a Christian king called Negus, whose kindness is narrated in every story about Muhammad’s prophethood.

Some years later, Muhammad himself set out to venture from his birthplace of Mecca, with hundreds of others, secretly departing to seek refuge in a land faraway, Medina. This was called hijrah, or emigration, and the incident is commemorated till this day on the Islamic new year, or Awal Muharram.

There is a lesson in both stories. In the first, giving protection to refugees transcends religion and race. Here is a Christian king giving refuge to a set of Muslims who are out to propagate a religion that does not believe in his version of Jesus.

In the second, God shows us that no nation is superior. The more “refined” Medinans readily accepted the Meccans, whose character and physical complexion reflected the scorching hot Meccan climate.

Yet, the Medinans offered to share their crops and land and even divorced wives for the Meccans to marry, the highest act of generosity in pre-Islamic Arabia.

The lessons from Negus and the Medinans, which we repeat every year to our children whenever we celebrate Awal Muharram, are lost in wasteful ceremonies.

Every year, we dish out the “Maal Hijrah Award” to individuals for their contribution to society. Not one of these has gone to the men and women who championed the refugees, the same people who engineered the hijrah.

Consider, for example, the treatment meted out to the late Irene Fernandez, who risked her freedom to fight for the rights of migrants and refugees. She was instead prosecuted, indeed persecuted with the longest court trial. Her death didn’t get even a line of condolence from the same people lecturing every year about the hijrah.

Migration and migrants will continue to shape the world, and Malaysia is no exception. But many among us take for granted that Malaysia’s demographical evolution has been completed, never mind the fact that all around the world, some of the most established countries continue to evolve demographically, accepting alien cultures and pushing race to irrelevance, forever changing their definition of national identity and nationhood.

We must stop thinking that only our grandparents who ventured from mainland China, the Arabian peninsula, Thailand, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent deserved to be given citizenship.

Indeed, it is time Malaysians stop thinking that their so-called social fabric is threatened by emigrants who come here with their culture and enterprise. Because human populations will continue to evolve, and so must we. – May 23, 2015.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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