The normative Muslim position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is simple. It is to stand against oppression wherever it may occur.
However, many people and governments from across the global South are not taking a categorical stand against Russian aggression. Instead, their focus is on European racism. They point to the overwhelming response of the West to aid Ukraine and highlight the ill treatment of African and South Asian students by Ukrainian and Polish border guards. However, this line of thought keeps us fixated on complaint and does not allow us to move towards contribution.
Racism is universal and as long as human beings exist, such a prejudice will always remain with us. While the popular social discourse emphasises the racism of white people against people of colour, it also manifests between various people of colour through colourism, casteism and classism. The treatment of the untouchables by upper-class Hindus or of poor Hindu girls by powerful Pakistani feudals showcases how this prejudice manifests in the Indian Subcontinent. The history of India and Pakistan also shows how mob frenzy took over in 1947 where Hindus and Muslims relinquished their humanity in mass massacre. Indeed, existential threat at times brings out the worst in people.
This context of an existential threat could explain the ill treatment of the Ukrainian and Polish border guards. It may also be explained through the environment created by the Belarusian dictator, who used refugees as pawns against the European Union. YouTube educator Dhruv Rathee goes into detail on how Belarus brought Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, gave them wire cutters, and let them fend for themselves at the Polish border. While this does not excuse the ill treatment of the Ukrainian and Polish border guards, it does provide a context to their ill actions.
Racism needs to be condemned anywhere and everywhere, just as the oppression of Ukraine by a much powerful Russia should be condemned without ifs and buts. Otherwise, we risk becoming tribal groups that are always lashing out at each other’s racism with whataboutisms. Such a predilection will not allow us to move away from complaint and towards actions that could help our fellow human beings in need. Thus, instead of worrying about the overwhelming response of white Europeans towards white Ukrainians, we can focus on what we have been doing to help our own people.
There are many resourceful Pakistani businessmen, powerful politicians and well-off Pakistani professionals in the West, who could have used their combined influence to rescue Pakistani students from their predicament. The Pakistani media could have played its role in giving more coverage to the plight of our students instead of worrying about how whites are helping other white people. In short, how does white people helping each other out prevent our people from helping their own?
If people are complaining about the diminished European response on Palestine, Yemen, and Syria, why do they ignore the muted response of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other rich Gulf countries on Muslim issues? In recent news, the Turkish President welcomed his Israeli counterpart on mutual cooperation. I wonder how Pakistanis of the PTI ilk would respond to this move by their favourite “modern day Ertugrul” Muslim leader Erdogan. Similarly, if Mohammed Bin Salman potentially sees Israel as an ally, then should the Palestinians be concerned about white Europeans who are overwhelmingly helping their white brethren, or should they be more concerned about the lukewarm reception by their own Arab brethren? Furthermore, under Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has used Sudanese soldiers in their oppression in Yemen. That is, Arab countries are drawing support from African nations to inflict oppression on fellow Arabs. How much of such news is being reported by Al Jazeera and other Muslim media sources or will their focus remain fixed on the racism of Europeans?
Additionally, do Putin fanboys in the global South (who get awed by his strategic comments against Islamophobia) forget that Russia, like the West, has targeted Afghanistan in the past, wreaked destruction in Chechnya and most recently in Syria? And to top it all, he is also recruiting both Syrian and Chechens against Ukraine, just as he had recruited Chechens in Syria? Are they so naïve not to see through his strategic use of Muslim concerns for leverage?
Black American Muslim scholar, Abdullah Bin Hamid Ali, wrote a critical paper on critical race theory (CRT). His words are worth underscoring:
“… how absurd and idolatrous this belief is to the Islamic teachings. The truth is that colored people all around the world have power, many of them significantly more than millions of white people. If the teachings of CRT are taken to their logical end, this would mean that not one dictator in the Arab world is responsible for the carnage they create every time they massacre their people. Nor are the Chinese, Burmese, or any other person, group, or government represented by a particular ethnic enclave. This is not to say that the European political elite are not in fact culpable for great carnage, oppression, and savage treatment of others for many centuries. They are responsible for what they did and do. However, every soul is mortgaged for it earns. And, no bearer [of] burdens bears another’s burden.”
Thus, if our social discourse remains fixated on CRT and decolonisation, then it takes away scrutiny from the Arab dictators and many other violators of human rights in the global South. Additionally, the whole decolonisation narrative may also be used to perpetuate more oppression. For instance, BJP’s India is bent on decolonising the influence of past Muslim invaders by furthering the dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism) at the expense of demonising present-day Muslims and Islam.
Many Ukrainians are leaving the comfort of their own homes in Canada and other Western countries to return to fight for their motherland. We can learn from the actions of a resolute people who are offering stiff resistance to a much stronger Russia. Indeed, it is time to move our lens away from constant complaint and towards positive action. Pakistanis need to focus on helping their own people in duress in Pakistan and across the Diaspora. Gulf Arabs need to question why is it that their own countries refuse to grant their Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi brethren citizenships and human rights and instead let them suffer at European borders? They need to question the actions of their own governments that are directly contributing to the plight of refugees.
In essence, the discourse that relies heavily on complaint does not lead towards an end goal. We cast stones at the “white devil” for our own catharsis but don’t do much on improving the condition of our own people.