Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 29, 2012

Burma’s “Muslims” are kalar Bengali

Filed under: Arakan,Bengali,Islam,Rakhine — Razib Khan @ 8:58 pm

The American media often confuses the subtleties of international ethography. For example, there is a tendency to use the term “Uyghur” and “Chinese Muslim” interchangeably. This is misleading. The largest Muslim ethnic group in China are the Hui, who were rather culturally similar to the Han, except in the many areas where the Islamic religion results in their deviation from Han practice (e.g., they do not eat pork). Though Uyghur religious feelings are real, and their resentment at the government of China does derive from religious persecution, it is also an expression of nationalistic alientation. Uyghurs are ethnic Turks. In short, the Uyghurs are Muslims in the People’s Republic of China (the governmental entity which is the heir to the extra-Chinese territories of the Manchu dynasty; Xinjiang, Manchuaria, and Tibet). The Hui are Muslims of China.

“Burmese Muslims”

A similar nuance is surely important when considering the situation of “Burmese Muslims.” In the article itself the author is peculiarity cryptic about who these people are aside from their religious identity, and their putative foreign origins. Who these people are are Rohingyas. They are the Muslims inhabitants of Arakan state, which extends southeast of Bangladesh. And importantly Rohingyas are descended from and closely related to ethnic Bengalis. Their language is a sister to Sylheti, standard Bengali, and Chittagongian, with a particular affinity to the latter. Additionally, there are other Muslims in Burma who are not Rohingya! Some of these are ethnic Burmans, also called Bamars, who are the majority community with Burma/Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi herself reportedly has some Muslim ancestry from the civil servants and soldiers who were to be found around the courts of the kings of old.

There are two issues which need to be highlighted. First, it seems reasonable that the Rakhine people of Arakan worry that the Islamic demographic wave will inundate them. Though Bangladesh now has the same fertility as Burma, until recently Muslim demographic expansion has been a fact on the eastern marchlands of South Asia. The ratio of Rakhine to Rohingya seems to be on the order of 3 or 4 to 1, which is a majority, but not a comfortable one. But there is a clear racial element to the animus here, which would likely not be present if the Muslims were of one of the Sino-Tibetan or Mon people. Following attack, Muslims demonstrate in Rangoon:

“We should either kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist,” said another user.

“Kalar” is used to describe perceived outsiders within the country, especially individuals with dark skin, but the term often carries a pejorative tone. In the Burmese edition of the New Light of Myanmar today, the victims of the sectarian attack were referred to as “Kalar” instead of Muslims.

Second, the Rohingya themselves deny strenuously their association with Bengal and Bengalis, because that would give credence to the Rakhine accusation that they are recent migrants into Arakan. As it happens I think in the main the Rakhine are probably right. Though some of the Rohingya date to the long-standing Muslim minority of Arakan which likely dates to the vassalage of the region to the Sultanate of Bengal in the late medieval period, most of the Rohingya probably are the descendants of peasants from Bengal, who were part of the great global migration which brought Tamils to Malaysia further south.

But, when the ancestors of most of the Rohingya were leaving Bengal a self-consciously Muslim and Bengali identity was inchoate at best. Elite culture in Bengal by the late Mughal period was the purview of Urdu speaking elites, and elite Bengali culture arose in the early 19th century with the Hindu bhadralok. The Rohingya detachment from a Bengali identity is to a great extent natural, insofar as their peasant ancestors were never part of the consciousness raising and nation-creation project of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereby an elite nationalistic and Muslim Bengali identity emerged.


June 16, 2011

Bengali Muslims are new (?)

Filed under: Bengali,Identity,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 10:33 am

A quick follow up to Zack’s post on Rohingya. On the demographics, if you believe the claims of Muslims and Christians in Burma, they are the majority of the population, not the Theravada Buddhists. This means ethnic Burmans are a minority, as are the combination of Burmans, Mons, and Shans, three ethnic groups that are overwhelmingly Buddhist (the majority of Karens are also Buddhist, but these Buddhist Karens tend to assimilate to Burman identity, while the large and politically mobilized Christian Karen minority remains distinct). I wouldn’t put too much stock in the demographic exaggerations, though because of Burma’s lack of a good census it seems plausible that there’s an undercount of minority groups. Until democracy comes, the government and minority activists can keep making up whatever numbers they want.

More interestingly, the Rohingya’s have an ambiguous ethnic identity. As a matter of fact they are clearly derived from the southeastern Bengali people. Their language has affinities to the dialect of Chittagong. And they have the standard look of South Asians (ergo, the Burmese accuse them of being ugly black trolls!), with the tinge of Southeast Asian which is very common amongst eastern Bengali. But from the reading, and some interaction with a few Bangladeshi Rohingyas I’ve met personally (these are the descendants of recent refugees), they have an ambivalent attitude toward identification with the Bengali nation. Some of this is political, as the Rakhine of Arakan amongst whom they reside of accuse them of being arriviste interlopers. This has some truth, the Rohingya demographic heft probably is a function of the last few centuries. But then, so is the white American demographic heft! I tend to think that if a people have a rootedness of centuries in a locale they are local…but then I’m American, so I would think that!

But some of the ambivalence is I think a function of the reality that the Rohingya were not part of the creation of the Bengali Muslim identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is clear when you notice that they don’t utilize the Bengali script! The Rohingya are folk Bengalis. There are many of these in Bangladesh and West Bengal. They speak a Bengali dialect, but are not participants in high Bengali culture, and wouldn’t know literary Bengali because they’re not literate. But there’s a vertical integration between the peasantry and an elite culture which is nationally self-conscious. In West Bengal this is led by the intelligentsia of Calcutta. But in Bangladeshi it’s focused on Dhaka.

To do a quick summary from the history that I’ve read, there’s a two act aspect to the self-consciousness of Bengali Muslims. The first act preceded the Mughals, when Afghans and other Islamic groups patronized literary Bengali as a counterweight to the Sanskrit favored by local Hindu elites (though these groups also patronized Persian naturally). With the rise of Mughal power though the Muslim elite of Bengal shifted toward an Urdu orientation. A large proportion of the Muslim peasantry were Bengali speaking in dialect, but in the 19th century they didn’t have a natural leadership class which identified with them in both religion and language. The Bengal Renaissance was a Hindu affair, because the elite Muslims of Bengal were participants in the high culture of Urdu speaking North Indian Islam.

Economic and social development in the 19th and especially 20th century led to the reemergence of a Bengali Muslim elite. This class did not assimilate to Urdu literary norms, and though it gave due deference to the cultural attainments of Hindu Bengalis, it also asserted its own religious distinctiveness, as is made clear by the strength of the Muslim League in eastern Bengal. Middle class Muslim Bengalis who came to maturity in the time before Pakistan resented the Hindu elite of Calcutta a great deal because of its cultural and political hegemony. They felt their religious difference keenly, not their ethnic one. I know this personally because my grandfather, who was often the only Muslim doctor in a given town where he practiced, expressed this attitude (he began practicing medicine in the 1920s). This is in contrast to my parents’ generation, who were more resentful of the racism and discrimination which they experienced from Biharis and West Pakistanis, and had a somewhat rose-tinted view of the beauty and elegance of Hindu Bengali culture in Calcutta. They felt their ethnic difference more keenly, and have no social discomfort around Bengali Hindus, because they have never have the memory of Bengali Hindu hegemony.

Shifting back toward the Rohingyas: their ambivalence to Bengali identity is due to the fact that they “missed out” on these centuries of interplay between Muslim and Bengali self-identification, at least at the elite level. The Rohingya nationalists don’t want to make aliyah “back” to Bengal. They don’t consider themselves from Bengal, they’re from Arakan, they’re from Burma. Their identity is as nationals of Burma, if not ethnic Burmans. Like many South Asian Muslims they are wont to construct a false identity of descent from Arabs, but at least they often used the Arabic script, unlike Bengali Muslims in Bangladesh and India! The Rohingya are assertive in their Islam, and they certainly wouldn’t part with that. But I suspect that it wouldn’t be a major issue for them if their descendants no longer spoke the Rohingya dialect. The Burmese Rohingya I’ve met exhibit little of the fixation with the Bengali language which Bengali Muslims steeped in Tagore express as a matter of course. I know my parents will be sad when the last Bengali speaking generation passes. The term “mother tongue” has more than clinical descriptive connotation for them (part of this is obviously due to the Language Movement, but part of it is probably the reality that Bengali Muslims accept some of the metaphorical aspects of linguistic unity which Bengali Hindus also espouse).

November 9, 2010

The importance of representativeness

Filed under: Bengali,Genetics,Genomics,South Asia — Razib Khan @ 6:56 am

A few weeks ago when I posted on the results of a high likelihood of a partially eastern origin for the Mundari people I received a message via Facebook that the article really wasn’t relevant to most South Asians, since only 1-2% spoke a Mundari language (along with pointers to old out of date articles). I immediately replied that it is likely that the Mundari were one of the base populations from which the Indo-Aryan speaking peoples of Bengal, Orissa and Assam arose. The Santals are present as a minority in all three of these states, and the likelihood is that Santal tribals were assimilated into the Hindu (and later Muslim) society, not the other way around. My interlocutor was a little too fixated on issues having to do with colonialism to see clearly what I was trying to get at. That’s fine, we all have our own experiences.

But in any case the bigger point of that post was to emphasize the importance of representativeness. This is something that really stands out with South Asians. There are around 1.3 billion of us, but the HGDP sample has only Pakistani groups. Some of these, such as the Kalash and Burusho are cultural isolates, whose sampling was justified on the grounds that these people were likely going to be assimilated in the near future. Of the HGDP South Asians only one, the Sindhi, are Indo-Aryan speakers, the language family which covers about ~80% of South Asians. More recent papers have moderately rectified that situation. Though as a Indian American Bengali friend of mine observed, “there are 200 million of us!” I believe, and hope, in three years that these sorts of worries and questions will seem like ancient history. Below the fold I’ve taken Dienekes ADMIXTURE estimates for HGDP and HapMap3 South Asian groups and appended myself to them.


I’m soon going to get my parents tested via 23andMe, and I’ll have a better sense of my elevated “East Asian” ancestry is due to recent admixture, or part of the normal range in eastern Bengal. If, as I suspect, most of the East Asian is from my father I’ll increase the probability of the former. If it’s more balanced I’ll increase the likelihood that I’m representative of many Bengalis. There are a few Bengalis on 23andMe and most of them have elevated “Asian” ancestry, though not as much as me.

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