Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority residing in Myanmar, one of the 135 ethnic groups of the South Asian country. The majority of the estimated one million Rohingya are concentrated in the Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, where they make up one third of the state’s population. The Rohingya have called the region home since the 15th century with the establishment of the Muslim Arakan Kingdom, and many more migrated to the region in the 19th century(1). “Rohingya” only came to use in the 1950s as a self-identifying term to promote political unity. Rohang is generally accepted to have originated from the word Arakan, and gya means “from” in the Rohingya language. In their very name, the Rohingya people assert their deep ties to the land that was once the Arakan Kingdom, land they are now being forced to flee.

For centuries, Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups and central government have persecuted the Rohingya minority, refusing to recognize their name and historical presence in the region. The roots of Burmese hostility towards the Rohingya can be traced to the era of British colonial control in Myanmar from 1885 to 1948. British policies in Myanmar favored ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya over the Burmese majority, and British forces imported large numbers of foreign laborers from India. Many Burmese regarded these policies as a deliberate effort by the colonial power to dilute their place in society after a long history of domination (2).Burmese Buddhist nationalism developed out of this environment of fear, and the Rohingya became the primary target.

How have they historically been treated in Myanmar?

In 1962, the nationalist military seized control of the newly independent Myanmar, institutionalizing ethnic hostility towards the Rohingya. Claiming the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the government has denied them citizenship and documentation, effectively rendering the entire ethnic group stateless. A brief attempt to franchise the Rohingya in the 1990s collapsed under pressure from influential Buddhist nationalist groups (3). Since then, the Rohingya have lived under apartheid conditions enforced by the state. Rohingya must gain government approval to travel, marry, and have children, and face heavy restrictions on religious freedom, education, and employment. Rakhine’s status as Myanmar’s least developed region compounds the suffering faced by the Rohingya. 

These conditions, coupled with bitter religious tension between the Muslim minority and Buddhist nationalists, have lead to episodes of mass violence against the Rohingya. In 2012, after accusing two Rohingya men of raping a Buddhist woman, militant forces killed 280 Rohingya and displaced tens of thousands, many fleeing to Bangladesh(4). In 2016, after alleged attacks by Rohingya militants, the government increased its oppressive military presence in the Rakhine, inhibiting international humanitarian aid and advancing an agenda of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” according to UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein(5). Yet it has been the past few weeks that have consumed the Rohingya in the worst violence they have faced, and it continues today.

What led to the most recent conflagration? 

The underlying tensions between the Muslim Rohingya minority and Buddhist nationalists, as well as the squalid conditions of Rohingya refugee camps on the border of Myanmar, set the stage for the current outbreak of violence in the Rakhine State. In recent months, displacement camps have suffered severe water and food shortages coupled with “mass atrocities” inflicted by Burmese military security forces, according to the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. On August 25th, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant Rohingya organization, launched an attack, killing more than 100 officers at military posts in the Rakhine. Rather than targeting the extremist group, the government has made no distinction between militant and civilian, torching villages and opening fire on civilian refugees(6).

The conflict has resulted in the greatest migratory and humanitarian crisis the embattled Rohingya have faced at any time in their history. According to an Al Jazeera article published on September 8th, more than 1,000 people have been killed since August 25th. The UN estimates more than 400,000 Rohingya—mostly women and children—have fled to Bangladesh to avoid the systematic military raids(7). Myanmar’s neighbors are struggling to provide basic services to the Rohingya already within their borders. Before the most recent event, Bangladesh hosted 400,000 refugees. Now, as tens of thousands of vulnerable Rohingya cross the officially closed border, the crisis threatens to further destabilize the region.

Is the Rohingya crisis primarily religious in nature or are there other factors driving the conflict?

While it is easy to characterize the conflict as soley rooted in religious intolerance, the importance of economic and socio-political factors in the crisis cannot be understated. Through the Rakhine’s history of severe economic underdevelopment, all populations within the region have felt economically exploited and neglected by the central government, leading the ethnically Burmese majority to regard the Rohingya as unrightful competitors for scarce resources, employment, and political authority. Instead of promoting unity and cultural reconciliation in the region, the military has backed the strong Buddhist fundamentalist faction to secure its own national interests in the resource-rich state, rather than the economic and political interests of the local population as a whole(8). Of course, the issue has religious undertones, but mostly in the context of the economic hardship of the Burmese majority resulting in the persecution of the more vulnerable ethnic minority, and the corresponding rise of Buddhist nationalism fueled by fear of political dilution by the Muslim Rohingya.

Where does Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi stand?

Long heralded as a global icon of moral democracy, the Nobel Peace laureate and civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced broad criticism for her lack of action and uncharacteristic denial of systematic human rights abuses against the Rohingya by the military. In 2015, with Suu Kyi’s victory in the first contested election for a civilian head of state in 25 years, many Rohingya were hopeful for change. These hopes have proved to be unfounded. The new government has neither offered any support to the Rohingya or tried to curb the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the military and militant Buddhist groups giving rise to the current crisis(9).In recent comments to the media, Suu Kyi acknowledged the need to address the conflict in the region, and said that those who committed human rights abuses would face the full force of the law. Yet Suu Kyi, who practices Buddhism, has not condemned the military outright, and claims the international community has exaggerated the crisis, adding to ethnic tensions. 

To truly understand the Nobel laureate’s inaction, it is crucial to recognize the complex political predicamentSuu Kyi currently faces in her country, where the military still holds formidable power. As the first civilian premier of Myanmar in a generation, Suu Kyi must strike a precarious balance between military, public, and international interests to preserve Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Those who defend Suu Kyi argue that any support for the Rohingya or condemnation of military actions against the minority could provoke a complete military takeover of the government, possibly resulting in full blown genocide in the Rakhine(10). Still, Suu Kyi’s denial of the factually reported severity of the conflict is alarming, and her decision announced Wednesday, September 13th, to skip the UN General Assembly meeting the following week prompted uproar from authoritative voices around the globe.

What is being done by the UN and the international community?

For years, the UN has monitored the events in the Rakhine and produced reports characterizing the Rohingya as the most persecuted peoples in the world, with crimes against humanity perpetrated against them. However, the current crisis has resulted in unprecedented attention and criticism of the Myanmar government by the international body. Per the request of England and Sweden, two emergency Security Council meetings have been convened on the crisis in the past weeks; the second meeting on Wednesday, September 13th, resulted in a formal condemnation of the situation(11). Notably, Myanmar has completely denied UNICEF, Amnesty International, and all other major humanitarian organizations access to the Rakhine region, an action that prompted particularly furious criticism from UN officials. While the UN cannot reach the Rakhine directly, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance is currently implementing a $7 billion plan that will provide food, water, shelter, and healthcare to refugees in Bangladesh through December(12). The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called the “dramatic tragedy” of ethnically motivated violence and exodus of Rohingya “completely unacceptable” and has urged the Security Council to do all in its power to prevent further escalation in the Rakhine and to aid the Rohingya(13).

While the U.S. State Department has voiced concern over the crisis in Myanmar, top officials have neither criticized Suu Kyi outright, nor acknowledged Burmese government involvement in the human rights violations taking place. They have also refrained from proposing sanctions for fear of destabilizing Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Rather, the U.S. has mostly advocated for humanitarian aid. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has called on the Myanmar government to lift the blockade against aid organizations  in the Rakhine(14). Ultimately, the international community as a whole has been slow to act on rebuking Myanmar’s military leadership.

How has the Muslim world responded to the Rohingya crisis?

Over the past three weeks, popular protests have erupted in Muslim regions through Asia and the Middle East, most notably in Jakarta, Indonesia, where a small bomb was thrown at the Embassy of Myanmar. A handful of prominent Muslim leaders have expressed solidarity with the Rohingya people. Malala Yousafzai said her “heart breaks” over the terror faced by the Rohingya, calling for her fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to acknowledge and denounce military actions in the Rakhine. Pakistan and Malaysia, both Muslim majority countries, have urged Myanmar to hold those responsible accountable and intervene to resolve the conflict. Of all Muslim majority countries, Turkey and Indonesia have taken the most proactive stances condemning the crisis. Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey accused the Myanmar government of genocide, pledging Bangladesh financial support for humanitarian aid to refugees seeking safety in the country. Indonesia’s foreign minister traveled to Myanmar to speak with Suu Kyi and leading military general, Min Aung Hlaing earlier this month, beseeching them to work with the international community to secure the immediate safety of the Rohingya.Indonesia has promised to take in 150,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh(15).

Another important angle of the Muslim response is that of extremist groups who have rallied to wage ‘jihad’ on behalf of the Rohingya. It was, in fact, the militant Rohingya ARSA who provoked the military, leading to the current crisis. There is evidence that this group is funded by independent Saudi donors(16). Already, Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen has called for attacks on Myanmar. The possibility of an international extremist response was a critical factor in the strong responses of Indonesia and Turkey as a preemptive measure to curb radicalism among Rohingya. The Muslim response to the crisis in Rakhine highlights its intrinsically global nature and dire importance, not only in terms of the gross violation of human rights, but also the state of religiously implicated tensions worldwide.

What are possible steps forward?

Due to the decades-long oppression of the Rohingya, a plethora of reports issued by regional and international human rights agencies have been published with expert recommendations to the Myanmar government. Perhaps the most notable was the final report published in August 2017 by the independent Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. The commission, chaired by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was convened last year under the auspices of Aung San Suu Kyi’s office and the Kofi Annan Foundation, and consisted of six local and three international experts. They were designated with the task of making recommendations to the Myanmar government regarding the deplorable conditions of all communities living in the Rakhine state. In its final report, the commission identified the long-standing structural issues that have contributed to the crisis and “which affect the Muslim population disproportionately”(17)–these include severe economic underdevelopment in the Rakhine, lack of transparency and commitment to ensuring a legal path to citizenship for minorities, and a history of violence in the region amplified by ineffective security operations and segregation. In addition, the commission recommended concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of various communities in the Rakhine, such as lifting the ban on media and humanitarian aid, providing a transparent path to citizenship and the associated rights to all peoples residing in the Rakhine, enacting the UN plan on socioeconomic development in the region, training security forces in human rights, and ensuring education and employment opportunities and inter-communal dialogue are provided without ethnic distinction(18). The commission also called on the Myanmar government to establish a national body to implement its recommendations. 

Such recommendations are realistic, if only the Myanmar government would commit to them. The depth of the religious, political, and economic divide in the country coupled with the military’s power have stymied any thought of real progress without tremendous outside pressure from the international community. Right now, when a short term solution is favorable to no solution at all, international pressure and rare unilateral action by the Security Council may be all that can curtail the suffering of the Rohingya, a people who can’t go home. 


How Do We Heal?

Photo credit: VOA News

Photo credit: VOA News

By Leif Maynard

There is a certain kind of shock that follows an act of violence by an extremist group. In the case of Charlottesville, this shock stems from the realization of the widespread prevalence of these extremists. Through the attacks in Barcelona, we see how effective radicalization has become, and how it has a global impact. While these events are very different, both act as wake up calls to the division we face. In America, Charlottesville jolted those of us with the privilege of not encountering the hate and bigotry felt by marginalized groups especially.

How do we heal? What can we do to mend the ideological divides and racial discrimination so deeply woven into American society? It took immense pressure for Donald Trump to send out his 140 character call to “heel”. However, the differences between Trump’s message and the real healing that must occur go far beyond a spelling error. Healing does not mean what Trump seems to suggest: forcing together cracks in the American facade with duct tape to preserve the status quo. Healing means progress, and progress starts with acknowledging the problem, engaging in educated dialogue, and then taking action.

Dialogue matters–forming diverse human connections in the process of grappling with challenges is the foundation of society. In order to heal, we must educate each other, support those we find common ground with, and listen to those we don’t. Understanding is not agreement. You can detest the man chanting ‘white lives matter’, but it is important to hear him, understand why he feels disenfranchised and has resorted to hate, and exemplify the compassion you want in return.

Nuanced and widespread dialogue in communities will lay the foundation for sustained healing if we continue to expand such initiatives. And we must do so, for those who are directly affected by bigotry every day, and for the general health of the society that holds us all accountable to each other.

Leif Maynard is program associate at Critical Connections. He is a rising junior at Amherst High School, where he co-leads a group advocating for Syrian refugees. He is particularly interested in foreign policy and cross-cultural understanding, and is excited to work on promoting nuanced dialogue in the community.

The Orlando Massacre and a Note to American-Muslims


By Mehlaqa Samdani

Critical Connections stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and extends heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

A note to American-Muslims:

Fellow American-Muslims, please don’t let the Orlando shooter’s religious identity consume and paralyze you. He never claimed to, nor does he, represent you so please do not act like he does. This attack is not about you–it is about the people who were attacked. It is about the LGBTQ community that was deliberately targeted. Please reach out to local LGBTQ groups and stand in solidarity with them as they organize vigils in your area. It is time to speak out against homophobia as we have against Islamophobia. People who stand as allies with the Muslim community do not necessarily do so because they believe in Islam or Islamic values—they do so because they believe in the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It is time for us to engage in the same activism in support of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Honest Conversations with our Muslim Neighbors

By Katherine Bruns (Guest Blogger)

The CT Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU), the Muslim Coalition of CT, and Hartford Seminary presented the seventh in a series called “Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors” on January 28th, at the First Church in Middletown, CT, hosted by the Middletown Refugee Resettlement Coalition, of which First Church is a member. It was a well-attended event with about 120 attendees, deftly moderated by Trinity College professor Dr. Janet Bauer.

The four well-spoken panelists represented the diversity of Muslim voices in our community. The list of their accomplishments and involvement in the community is extensive and beyond what can be included in this short blurb. In brief they were: Dr. Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist and founder and past president of the Muslim Coalition of CT; Linda Miller, an African-American Muslim, long-time Middletown resident and retired teacher and nurse; Dr. Feryal Salem, Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at Hartford Seminary whose research focuses on early Islamic thought and the Islamic scholarly tradition; and Maryam Bitar, a native of Damascus, Syria and senior at Trinity in the IDP (adult Individualized Degree Program) and volunteer with the city of Hartford’s Commission on Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (CRIA).

After each panelist gave a brief introduction they took turns answering hand written questions from the audience, presented by the moderator. In the beginning there was a minor, though jarring interruption from about eight protesters who had entered the church and had been quietly handing out pamphlets opposing refugee resettlement as well as some hate speech before the discussion started. A few were escorted out politely and deftly by the pastor of the church. The rest remained and stayed quiet. It was a sobering reminder of the reality our “Muslim neighbors” face daily.

Dr Mansoor, when asked what the biggest challenge was in negotiating interfaith dialogue, replied that poll after poll reveals that the favorability rating of Muslims after 9/11 continues to decrease despite the reality that 60% of the respondents claim they do not personally know a Muslim. He pointed out that 10% of US physicians are Muslim so rather than coming to the U.S. to try to harm, as opponents to (Muslim) refugee resettlement might assert, they represent a significant portion of the healing profession. In response to further questions about “Muslim culture” (there is no one culture! – all the panelists pointed out), Dr Mansoor said that the values in Islam are no different than values held dear by other religions and peoples. He believes that the current “clash” stems more from a lack of knowledge than from real differences. He added that Arabic words like jihad and sharia have “taken a life of their own” in the United States, and proceeded to give in-depth description of both words and how they are misused both by the U.S. media and by ISIS.

Dr. Salem, asked why more Muslim leaders haven’t spoken out against ISIS, responded that indeed they have and encouraged attendees to read both the “Marrakesh Declaration” ( and “Letter to Baghdadi” ( She also pointed out that the media help this misperception by focusing only on negative news and headline grabbing sound bites. She answered many questions about male/female equity and said that the Qur’an clearly states that women are equal to men and, like any religious text, Qur’anic scripture is sadly either taken out of context or interpreted in the narrowest terms. When asked about the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, she gave an explanation but made it clear that current fighting in the Middle East (a Euro-centric term, she interestingly pointed out) is political in nature and gave a historical rundown to the current situation.

As the only American-born, and African-American Muslim Ms Miller brought an important lens to the discussion. She pointed out that non Muslims should not look at the very small minority of Muslims represented by ISIS, other terrorist organizations or extremist clerics and think they represent the vast majority of Muslims any more than she should have looked at the KKK in the 1950’s and 1960’s and let them represent all of white America. When asked about how communities could help welcome refugees she gave several suggestions including volunteering with refugee resettlement organizations, offering to volunteer at schools and simply being kind to immigrants who clearly “look different.”

Maryam was asked if she faced discrimination. She replied yes but that she just turns the other cheek. She pointed out that she is named after (the Virgin) Mary, who is revered in Islamic scripture according to Dr. Salem, and comes from a town in Syria not far from a village that is the last that still speaks Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus. She answered a question about whether Muslim women could leave their houses unescorted by pointing out that she left Syria and flew all the way to the United States by herself in 2010.

It was agreed by all that fear, stemming from the ignorance of facts about Islam, has led to the current view of Muslims in the United States, and to the reluctance to welcome more refugees. The more “Honest Conversations” that can be had, the better.

Looking ahead: Dr Mansoor welcomes youth to his Berlin Mosque on Sunday afternoon, February 14th for a “Youth Hang-out Day” (see the event calendar and contact info at www.berlinmosque,org). Further “Honest Conversations” will be held, including on February 21st in Suffield and March 1st in Windsor. Details will be available on CCIU’s website ( ) and Facebook page. In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum, together with CCIU, will be presenting another Interfaith Film Series in March. (

Righting Our Narrative

By Bernie Pelletier

On December 20th, 2015, Mr. John Larson, U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District convened an interfaith panel of 4 muslim representatives (2 imams and 2 heads of Islamic centers), a rabbi, and a priest for a roundtable discussion on tolerance and inclusion. The event took place at the Hartford Public Library and panelists included Rabbi Debra Cantor, B’nai Tikvoh – Sholom, Father Michael Dolan, Pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in South Windsor, Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim – Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, Mr. Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari – Head of the Greater Hartford NAACP, Imam Mirzet Ef. Mehmedovic Bosnian American Islamic Center, Hartford, and Mr. Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, President of the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

Representative Larson moderated a passionate 2-hour session. He started off describing a similar meeting in West Hartford where Dr. Saud Anwar, former mayor of South Windsor and Representative Larson led a similar discussion. Larson started the session saying:

“Hate has no place in America. Though we have heard some alarming rhetoric in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, now is the time for unity and tolerance, for voices of faith to rise above the fray. To that end, I am hosting a discussion with leaders in the Muslim, Jewish, & Christian communities to discuss interfaith partnerships and dispel some of the divisive rhetoric towards Islam.”

Larson’s first question seemed like a “softball” question: “If someone wants to learn more – where do they go for information?” But the question proved to be surprisingly hard to answer. The panelists suggested that interested people should visit a local mosque, find a trusted Muslim friend, find an authentic Quran with Arabic and English translation, contact the Saudi embassy for a free, and authentic Quran and read works by John Esposito. And yet, conversely, the panel cautioned not to read the Quran without a teacher who can provide the context and under no circumstances rely on “Google” searches because of the prevalence of deliberately misleading websites. The exchange underscored the importance and difficulty in countering decades of ignorance and deliberate misinformation to confound and confuse the uninitiated.

Larson made the point that some of the difficulty is as simple as language. He and others observed that Allah – is the Arabic word for God. In Arabic-speaking lands Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all use this term for their God. Yet – in the United States – many non-Muslims’ believe that Muslims worship a different God. Such basic misinformation makes clear the amount of work needed to be done.

All the panelists agreed with Father Dolan that one of the most effective ways to improve relations in the community is “to meet each other doing good”. There was also agreement amongst all panelists that given the tone of politics today, merely being inwardly-focused was not enough.

Rabbi Cantor spoke movingly of her synagogue where many members had lost family in the holocaust–they felt acutely the change in political climate and were therefore speaking out against it.

Imam Mehmedovic spoke of his life in Bosnia during the ethnic violence there. He recalled running through the woods when he was only 12 not knowing if he would live to the end of the day. When he got to the US as a young man, he felt safe – and focused on creating a mosque in the south end of Hartford. But now he felt strongly about reaching out to the greater community

Khamis Abu-Hasaballah described a very similar story. He emigrated from Gaza and like Mehmedovic felt safe and secure for a long time. Now he is working hard at the Farmington Valley Muslim Center to make it a welcoming place for all the faiths (and even atheists).

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim and Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari spoke of their shared experience as African-American Muslims. They spoke of the need to reach across religious and racial lines on issues of economic and racial justice. Working to understand and influence the media was high on their list of steps to improve Muslim- non-Muslim relations. Imam Abdul – Karim emphasized the need to “right our narrative”.

Representative Larson ended the session with a call to action. He requested those assembled to think of “zip code 06120”, the poorest zip code in Connecticut, as an opportunity to “right our narrative” by working together on the problems of poverty, racism, alienation, and violence. He noted that the media had been invited to cover this event – and that no members of the media were in attendance. This is the struggle we all face – to address a perception problem when the media selectively covers violence and confrontation and ignores outreach and dialogue.

It is appropriate to close with a famous quote from Rabbi Hillel “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”


Muslim Guilt and San Bernardino


By Mehlaqa Samdani

When three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic were brutally gunned down by a white, American extremist last week, as an American, I did not condemn the atrocity. Nor did I condemn every instance of a mass shooting that occurred over the past year in the United States by my fellow Americans.

Nor was I expected to.

And yet, I am expected to condemn the killings in Paris and will be expected to do so in response to San Bernardino because Muslims perpetrated these unconscionable acts. We will hear the popular refrains: ‘Where is the Muslim outrage? Where are the condemnations? After all, these heinous crimes were committed in the name of Islam.’ (Although it should be noted that the motive in the San Bernardino killings has yet to be established)

I am a dual citizen (Pakistani and American) and both my governments commit heinous acts in the name of their respective citizens and their respective ideologies. American citizens are not expected to condemn every single instance in which the U.S. government has killed innocent civilians in drone strikes in their name. Similarly, Pakistani citizens are not expected to condemn every military operation in the tribal areas that kills innocents in their name.

I refuse to perpetuate a double-standard.

I refuse to publicly condemn San Bernardino because by condemning only those acts where Muslims are responsible, I will reinforce the notion that those who perpetrate these horrors represent me in some way. I will reinforce the notion that Muslims are one entity and that if one person commits a crime, we are all responsible. I refuse to internalize the guilt that is collectively imposed on Muslim communities. Instead, I will continue to engage my fellow-Americans and fellow-Muslims in conversations that explore structural, political and societal causes for violence in our communities and collaboratively develop programs that address them.