Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim-Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging edited by Melissa Crouch, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2016, Pages 345.   

Reshmi Banerjee reviews Melissa Crouch’s edited volume on Muslims in Myanmar.

Muslim communities in Myanmar are diverse and not necessarily unitary in status or social standing. But international and scholarly focus on the issue of Rohingya persecution—while important—has often sidelined issues connected to Muslims in Myanmar more broadly or concerns connected to other particular groups. Furthermore, the full extent of the complex relationship between Muslims and the non-Muslim communities has not really been explored in detail in the past. Many people are aware of historical processes of discrimination and exclusion against Muslims and Hindus and the ‘fear of Islamization’ that was evident during the exodus of South Asians from the country in the middle decades of the twentieth century. However, even in the contemporary moment, with the winds of change bringing processes of democratization and self-expression, not only has a space been created wherein the Muslim communities are able to articulate their interests and grievances, it has also given voice to divisive forces that wants to see the country’s future associated with only the majoritarian Buddhist community.

Melissa Crouch’s edited book comes at a very important juncture in the country’s history when it is critical to not only look at the relationship between the state and Islam, but also to further one’s knowledge regarding the ‘Other’, especially in a context where the politics of difference and exclusion is beginning to challenge a sense of belonging required for nation building. The book brings together multiple scholars from different disciplines—religious studies, history, political science, Islamic studies, anthropology and law—to help us unravel the everyday challenges, along with uncertainties, faced by the Muslim community. It also helps us to understand state responses to these issues in terms of policy interventions. Empirical and comparative methods are used to inform us about varied concerns: from Islamic personal law and property rights, to Islamic education and employment; from Islamophobia to the effects of new communication technology. The book is divided into three parts: a) colonialism and law; b) everyday experiences; and c) uncertainty, security and violence. Melissa Crouch’s edited volume with its interesting collection of chapters touches upon the relevant question of identity and perception—not only the question of Muslims discovering their own community, but also of the national and international perceptions about them, which are often steeped in misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge and a reluctance amongst non-Muslims to embrace a shared past and common future.

Melissa Crouch starts the collection by stating that the Muslim mosaic consists of various categories of people: the Pathi (those with Burman ancestry), Zerbadi Muslims (mixed descent), Kaman Muslims (most speak Arakanese), Indian Muslims, Rohingya, Panthay or Chinese Muslims, Pashu or Malay Muslims. The constant dilemma between accommodating the requirements of the state and the need to maintain a unique ethnic identity or identities (most Muslims identify with more than one ethnic group) reflects an emphasis on Burman culture and recognition yet shows that many also retain pride in a separate community history. The existence of Muslim traders and soldiers during the rule of the kings, along with religious symbols of mosques and grave sites, are reminders of the significance of Muslims in Burma’s history but often these are now sites of contestation. The presence of several Muslim-based political parties in the 2010 elections is, in a way, a continuation of the long Muslim political engagement seen during the post-independence period and under the military dictatorship. Melissa Crouch reiterates the need to revive these stories as a means of creating a positive discourse for Muslims and of constructing rich ethnographies of contemporary community dynamics.

The first section of the book, titled ‘Colonialism and the Law’, has two chapters by Stephen Keck and Melissa Crouch respectively, the former reconstructing the trajectory of Islam in British Burma and the latter discussing state-religion relations and Islamic law in Myanmar. Stephen Keck observes that although the British were aware that Islam existed before their arrival in Burma, they considered Muslims to be external to Burma and Islam to be at the ‘margins of Burmese society’, thus not posing any threat to the colonial social order. He discusses the contrast between the Panthay and the Indian Muslims, especially the rejection by Burmese nationalism of Indian influences (Burma was then a province of the British Indian Empire). This obviously had implications for the Muslim Indians, which included the Rohingya who were seen as coming from Bengal. This de-Indian-ization not only impacted Islam in Burma but also led to the painful exodus of Indians from the country as a result of communal tensions in the 1930s, leaving an environment of distrust. Melissa Crouch also gazes at colonial history when she describes the imposition of Islamic law in Burma through ‘double colonization’ or the creation of the law occurring prior to the country’s annexation by British Indian authorities and its insensitive imposition without any regard for local Islamic practices. The chapter delves into the development of the resilient Islamic personal law by citing cases and charting out its evolution through socialist rule and the military regimes.

The second section, titled ‘Everyday Experiences’, has three chapters by Nicholas Farrelly, Judith Beyer and Phyu Phyu Oo, covering issues of Muslim political activity, property rights and women’s education, respectively. Nicholas Farrelly discusses the pressures that are re-shaping Muslim political activities: regional differences, obstacles faced at the national and local levels, and a more assertive Muslim politics. He studies the plurality of Muslim politics, the spread of Islamophobia, mobilization of anti-Muslim groups, ties of Muslim voters to their local religious leaders and the levels of acceptance of non-Muslims towards Muslim leaders. His chapter showcases the overall challenges to the management of religious diversity in Myanmar.

Judith Beyer examines the Kalai Memon Jamaat community in Yangon which has set up a support structure for its members through social security, education, dispute-resolution forums, stipends for old-aged and mixed Memons, widows, and poor children, start-up grants for business, language lessons in English and Arabic, and cultural activities like an Urdu symposium. The chapter also delves into the challenges encountered by the community. Finally, the last chapter in this section by Phyu Phyu Oo focuses on the critical issue of women’s education. The divergent trajectories in education followed by Burmese and Indian Muslims – with the former encouraging attendance of both Islamic and government schools and the latter laying stress on Islamic education only- have influenced the learning and career prospects of students, but especially Muslim women. Besides socio-religious constraints, women themselves often are trapped in a restrictive mindset whereby they are unable to see the value in education. Poverty, lack of female role models, fear of Burman culture, and lack of employment opportunities are some of the challenges that this chapter addresses.

The third and final section, titled ‘Uncertainty, Security and Violence’, has five chapters, each dealing with a facet of threat and violence that the Muslim community faces. Nyi Nyi Kyaw analyses the 969 campaign of Islamophobia, its manner of operation through rituals and symbols and the expansion of fault lines between the Buddhists and the Muslims. A siege mentality among Myanmar’s Buddhists is promoted through floating of conspiracy theories against Muslims and passing of four bills of religious conversion, inter-religious marriage, monogamy and population control in 2015. Matt Schissler captures the role of social media, rumour and new technology in creating everyday narratives of fear and antagonism and constantly scripting stories of Buddhism under threat.

Benjamin Schonthal compares the Muslim ‘Other’ in Sri Lanka with the presentation of Muslims in Myanmar – both countries wrongly seeing the community as a homogenous one with the history of minority nationalist movements and separatist struggles contributing to the deliberate exclusion of Muslims from the mainstream discourse. This chapter not only provides a comparative-regional perspective on the process of ‘othering’ that is witnessed but delves into the influence of the law and legal structures in encouraging ideas around a singularity of Muslim beliefs, practices and institutions. Alistair D.B.Cook discusses the global and regional dynamics of humanitarian aid in Rakhine state, while Clark B. Lombardi’s chapter highlights the knowledge that we currently have related to the vulnerability of Myanmar’s Muslims, along with the need to study areas where research is lacking.

The book is a valuable contribution in the ongoing quest for a better understanding of the diverse Muslim communities in Myanmar, with their multi-faceted challenges and different aspirations. The book strongly brings out the crucial fact that physical safety, emotional acceptance, protection of religious and socio-cultural rights, opportunities for growth—all of which relate to overall human security—can be guaranteed only if state institutions, legal frameworks, and societal networks, including religious leaders and media groups, can come together to promote better Muslim-Buddhist relations. Inclusive structures at all levels need to be created for Muslims: through better political representation, equal education and employment opportunities and a fair, non-violent social apparatus. Internal barriers existing in the mind and stereotypical construction of Muslims and Islam need to be strongly overcome. The book also raises the need to study Muslim communities and Islam in Myanmar as central to understanding this region and its complex dynamics. Melissa Crouch’s edited book brings the Muslim community from an ‘invisible minority’ waiting in the shadows to the animated stage of visibility, discussion and involvement. This book is the first to open a window for much needed research on this subject.

Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).