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'Religion will always be used by politicians'

  • Published at 08:47 pm December 8th, 2017
'Religion will always be used by politicians'
Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide, spoke about the recent refugee crisis at DLF 2017. In between the panels, we caught up with him for a quick interview

In your book, you wrote extensively of earlier mass attacks and subsequent refugee crises. Clearly, this is an ongoing issue. Why is the global media spotlight so focused on it this time around?

The Rohingyas have faced wave after wave of violence for over half a century, but the most recent wave is probably the most severe. I believe this is happening now because in 2016, the Burmese Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing did a dry-run of these attacks and learnt three important things - that Aung Sun Suu Kyi supports him and the military action, that the military becomes very popular when they are seen as defenders of Buddhist values and that the international community's attitude to such massacres is completely benign. He still got an invitation to Europe and he still went on to buy more armaments for his military.

In light of recent events, are you less optimistic about the impact of international pressure on Myanmar?

I am less optimistic now. When I wrote the book, I was still hoping the international community would take action to stop what was not just predicted by myself, but almost every Myanmar expert. Now that almost 615,000 Rohingya have been expelled and so many have been ethnically cleansed, the probability of them going back to their land has diminished considerably. The Myanmar authorities know there is not enough pressure being put on them, so their strategy is now to buy time until international attention moves on and these refugees become a permanent fixture in Bangladesh.

What diplomatic role do you think Bangladesh should play?

I absolutely salute the authorities of Bangladesh who have taken in such a huge number of refugees and have tried to take care of an extremely difficult situation. But at the same time, on a diplomatic level, Bangladesh needs to be more aggressive with Myanmar. For example, they have agreed not to use the term “Rohingya,” which I think is problematic. Bangladesh is also able to refer themselves to the International Criminal Court as a victim of the massive influx of refugees, which will then open up an investigation on Myanmar and put pressure on them.

Are religion and politics inseparable?

Religion will always be used by politicians as a cover for unpopular policies or particular strategies. As long as religion plays an important part in people's lives, which it does for billions of people across the globe, politics will capitalise on it. I believe a fundamental reason religious extremism exists is because people believe normal political systems have failed them. Religion offers answers to very complex socio-economic problems and provides representation to the under-represented.

What's next for you?

My new book, published last month, is called Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism. The central argument is that we can tackle this problem from a military perspective, a fight that was almost conclusively ended in Iraq in 2013, but because we haven't tackled the root of the problem, it has warped into something more dangerous. As a global community, we have to look at the root of the problem of Islamic extremism, which is the ideology that is fueling it. I'm now working on another book that looks at the future of UK foreign policy after Brexit, but that's still in its early stages.