The Rohingya people from Rakhine, Myanmar are among the most persecuted minorities and largest stateless nations in the world. Unlike other stateless groups, the Rohingya have had no distinct movement or leader, at least until the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA arrived on the scene. ARSA’s rise was just as sudden as their withdrawal, but their actions have effectively led to Myanmar launching a campaign which has seen around 700,000 Rohingya people kicked out of their own country and forced to find refuge in Bangladesh.

Unlike other stateless groups like the Palestinians, the Rohingya neither seek sovereignty nor do they have a representative body like the Palestine Liberation Organisation or Fatah, or leadership figures like Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas.

ARSA, which gained popularity and acceptance among the Rohingya community following the 2015 violence because of their rebuilding and relief efforts, has displayed a tendency to disappear following their attacks. The commander of ARSA, Ata Ullah, an expatriate born in Pakistan whose ideologies developed in Saudi Arabia, is an elusive figure.

“We will fight until the last drop of blood,” Ata Ullah had said in early 2017, but has been since missing from the public eye effectively. Throughout the sufferings of the Rohingya people after the 2017 crackdown, neither Ata Ullah nor ARSA appeared to represent the displaced populace.

Forced from their homes, the Rohingya now live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
Forced from their homes, the Rohingya now live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Now, as the Rohingyas find themselves in the most precarious condition in the history of their people, it appears that muftis (Islamic scholars) have started to speak out and issue instructions.

The Rohingya people set great store by their Islamic decrees or fatwas and leaders. Imams (Islamic teachers), a cornerstone of the community, were even recruited by ARSA to act as local level unit commanders and recruiters.

Now, a fatwa from 47 Rohingya muftis condemns any act of jihad, even for self-defence, against Myanmar. The fatwa was issued on October 30, 2017 but only made public very recently. The fatwa has made rounds on Rohingya-exclusive social media groups.

The Dhaka Tribune obtained exclusive copies of the fatwas written in Urdu and Arabic.

Deobandi madrasas could deplete ARSA ranks faster than Myanmar bullets

The two biggest qawmi madrasas in Bangladesh – Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Muinul Islam and Al-Jamiah Al-Islamiah, Patiya (popularly known as Hathazari madrasa and Patiya madrasa respectively) – have lent their support to the fatwa.

Maulana Mufti Jashim Uddin of Hathazari madrasa acknowledged the fatwa saying the Rohingyas lack the power to mount a sustainable resistance.

Maulana Mufti Shamsuddin Zia of Patia madrasa said: “The Sharia does not support any activity which could destroy the entire Arakan Muslim community.”

Further support has come from Pakistan’s Jamia Darululoom Karachi.

But the biggest support is expected to come from Darul Uloom Deoband, whose school of thought – the Deobandi - the aforementioned madrasas follow. Once Deoband madrasa asks the Rohingya to restrain from fighting Myanmar, ARSA will find it immeasurably difficult to muster any forces, let alone mount an attack.

The influence madrasas wield in South Asia is quite something to reckon with. The Hathazari madrasa itself once organised and executed a protest in Dhaka which was tantamount to a siege.

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Conceding defeat or pragmatism at work?

The fatwa strangely does not use the word Rohingya, rather refers to the people as Muslims from Arakan (the Rakhine state of Myanmar).

Instead of directly lambasting ARSA, the fatwa asks two questions:

1. Does the Sharia (Islamic law) condone jihad for the Rohingya against Myanmar?

2. How should one commence jihad?

The muftis answered that Muslims in Myanmar are only 5% of the population. Though they have been oppressed, politically debased, and economically looted by Myanmar for over 60 years, the truth of the matter is the Rohingya do not have any assets to confront them.

In a struggle that has jeopardised an entire ethnicity, Rohingya elders have to resort to religion to prevent the population from further prolonging the conflict to continue their survival. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
In a struggle that has jeopardised an entire ethnicity, Rohingya elders have to resort to religion to prevent the population from further prolonging the conflict to continue their survival. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Ninety percent of the Rohingya people are illiterate, and are mostly involved in farming, fishing, or other primary industry. On the other hand, Myanmar has the 31st most powerful military in the world, according to the Global Fire Power Index 2017. And while Bangladesh has given shelter, and other Muslim countries have given relief, nobody has armed the Rohingya or provide them with any military support.

The fatwa goes on to say that any direct conflict with Myanmar will be a losing effort. But, it asks the community to fulfil three objectives instead:

1. Elect an amir (leader)

2. Self-correction

3. Obtain sufficient firepower to begin jihad against Myanmar

“Trying to wage jihad against Myanmar right now is tantamount to committing suicide.”

The fatwa urges self-preservation repeatedly and maintains that no actions should be taken which could further jeopardise the community. Only the condition of building up firepower and strength prevents the fatwa from becoming a message of complete pacification.

However, Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, said: “I find it difficult to comment since I am unaware of this fatwa. ARSA has done their part and the muftis have done theirs. None of them speak for the entire community. The majority of the Rohingyas believe the genocidal campaign can only be ended by the efforts of international community and the United Nations.”

ARSA has a fanatical stance, the community wants to live

The massive influx of the Rohingyas fleeing the terror in Myanmar has led to the creation of large-scale refugee camps in the southeastern region of Bangladesh. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
The massive influx of the Rohingyas fleeing the terror in Myanmar has led to the creation of large-scale refugee camps in the southeastern region of Bangladesh. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

In October 2016, ARSA first made their presence known by attacking several border outposts. The military crackdown in retaliation sent around 70,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh.

After the attack, ARSA Commander Ata Ullah appeared in a number of videos where he beseeched his fellow Rohingyas to take the fight to the Myanmar armed forces. In his impassioned speech, Ata Ullah said the Rohingya people ought to lay down their lives if need be in the pursuit of their rights.

But the Rohingya refugee community wants to live, regardless of the ARSA sympathisers and members who are a part of it. The muftis who issued the fatwa were among the first refugees to Bangladesh from Rakhine.

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One of the signatories said on conditions of anonymity: “We know better than these groups that we cannot gain our rights by directly fighting Myanmar.”

Another Rohingya signatory said: “A lot of people warmed up to ARSA immediately after the attack. But when the Myanmar armed forces began attacking Rohingyas indiscriminately, that is when people realised what happens when you are affiliated with ARSA.”

Data from 2017 shows the lowest estimates of casualties between August and September.
Data from 2017 shows the lowest estimates of casualties between August and September.

A third mufti said: “When I was fleeing Rakhine, I was stopped several times by the Myanmar forces. Time and time again I have had to explain that neither I nor the people accompanying me were affiliated with ARSA in any way. The ARSA recruits are mostly young. They understand little of the consequences of their actions. We have known oppression all our life. Any instigation on our part could encourage Myanmar to wipe us out entirely.”

The chilling accounts of the muftis maintain the core of the matter – Myanmar’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya.

But as of now, the Rohingyas remain displaced, deprived of their rights, without a leader and representation, in a precarious area teetering on the brink of a full-blown war, while Myanmar continues strengthening their border forces and Bangladesh responds in kind.

Pakistani, Indonesian militants’ calls for jihad a bluster?

Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani outfit that is designated as a terrorist entity by the United States, responded to the “call to arms” for jihad by Ata Ullah.

In September 2017, JeM chief Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi wrote in the organisation’s publication al-Qalam: “Muslims of the world must unite because of the sacrifices of the Myanmar Muslims. We have to do something urgently. Myanmar’s soil is waiting for the footsteps of the conquerors.”

Front Pambela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front- FPI), Indonesia – the leading Islamic radical organisation in the country – also declared in September 2017 that thousands from their ranks had volunteered to go fight in Rakhine.

Jihadis travelling overseas was a novel concept during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It played a key role in glamourising and popularising the concept of jihad. The Islamic State, which was the last organisation and territory to yield migrating jihadis, has been severely weakened. The same effort never materialised for Palestine, and is unlikely to happen for Myanmar. Neither the JeM nor the FPI have boasted of sending any volunteers to Arakan to fight.

Given the heightened security measures adopted by South Asian countries in response to growing terrorism and militancy threats, jihadis migrating from one country to another might be a challenge the organisations may be unwilling to take on. In both Bangladesh and India, counterterrorism is a top priority for the law enforcement.

Indian police arrested six members of Ansarullah Bangla Team in 2017 alone, and several members of New Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh.

Bangladesh police has reported that most of the major militancy figures in Bangladesh has been neutralised – either killed in raids or arrested. Only a handful remain on the run.

Spurned feelings?

Maulana Abdullah, a highly-respected mufti among the Rohingya refugees, reiterated that without weapons and resources, any armed conflict with Myanmar would be self-destructive. Abdullah, who runs a madrasa in a refugee camp, said the Sharia requires a resistance to have at least half the strength of the power they oppose.

When he was asked about ARSA’s stance – that they are active to defend the community – he retorted: “We did not give them the authority to do so. We understand the situation, unlike them. What they did, was wrong. This fatwa is according to Islamic Sharia. If they refuse to stop, they will be violating Islam’s own laws.”

He continued, “We were always afraid if something like this could ever happen, but we did not take any precautions. Because it never occurred to us that someone would actually pull it off. The Myanmar government had made it impossible for Rohingyas to meet and organise into a cohesive, operational body. But when they did form ARSA, they never consulted any of us.”

Abdullah believes the entire Rohingya community will adhere to the fatwa.

The significance of fatwas among the Rohingya is tantamount to scripture. It is essentially a worldly law that provides clear direction by Islamic scholars who are also members of the community.

A fatwa could have legitimised ARSA, at the cost of the Rohingya.

Another popular Rohingya mufti living in Cox’s Bazar confided that four ARSA representatives came to him before October 2016 when the group was still called Harakah al-Yaqin.

He said he was asked to issue a fatwa which could be interpreted as a call to jihad against Myanmar.

“I told them it would not be a good idea,” he said. “Discussing the conditions in the Rakhine state would be more prudent under the circumstances. I thought they were genuinely going to take my advice and abstain from violence. Only much later did I hear of the attack on the border outposts in Myanmar. I was certain it would prompt something big, and when it did happen, it only brought suffering to the Rohingya people.”

The mufti said another ARSA representative had approached him with an offer to become an official advisor to ARSA and lend support to their actions. The mufti’s popularity and acceptance within the wider Rohingya community would have further entrenched ARSA among the general population, had he taken up the offer.

But he appealed to the Sharia to reject the offer, instead suggested the envoy to tell Ata Ullah to speak to him directly.

“ARSA’s actions have given the Burmese military enough reason to proceed with the crackdown. All the deaths – murders and drowning alike, rapes, leaving one’s homeland behind, this is what has happened to the Rohingya people, not independence.

“In Burma, only 5% people are Muslim. Are they to take up arms against 95% of the people? How can they consider putting up a fight with bamboo staffs and machetes against the Burmese firepower? Ata Ullah is no scholar to define jihad. He and his deranged associates have jeopardised our entire community. It is the expatriate Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia and other countries who instigate these problems.”

Rohingyas torn between loyalty to ARSA and adherence to fatwa

No matter which side the Rohingyas take, the fate of the next generation depends on them. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune
No matter which side the Rohingyas take, the fate of the next generation depends on them. Photo credit: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

All the signatories of the fatwa who responded to inquiries appeared to be very cautious when discussing the fatwa.

Since the fatwa was issued following the exodus, its sudden emergence was a concern. When asked why, the muftis admitted the fatwa was initially issued inside the community, and only then to prevent ARSA from carrying out further attacks.

A Rohingya scholar said: “They should understand whatever we have lost so far is because they attacked first.”

But the results of the fatwa have been far from definitive. It has splintered thrown the marginalised Rohingya population into a quandary.

Many dejected ARSA sympathisers confided to the Dhaka Tribune their disillusionment.

An 18-year-old Rohingya youth said: “If now is not the right time, then when is it? The Myanmar government will never recognise us as citizens and they will keep oppressing us. It is better to die than to live as a slave to the Burmese. At least ARSA stands for us with whatever they have.”

This sentiment is popular among the young population only. The middle-aged and the elderly are by far more accepting and supportive of the fatwa.

Maulana Farid Uddin Masud, a notable Islamic scholar from Bangladesh, said: “I wholeheartedly support what Hathazari and Patiya madrasas have said. For the Rohingyas, jihad is as good as committing suicide.”

Another notable Islamic figure in Bangladesh, Maulana Mizanur Rahman – incumbent imam of Baitul Mukarram, the national mosque – said: “I do not want to comment on this subject. Jihad is not something that people can just begin on a whim. There is a process, and there are people who determine how and when it should proceed. Jihad is not popping up and throwing bombs.”

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.