Pogroms that we cannot ignore

The Holocaust, as we know, was not a sudden event and nor is it - as some well-meaning (mostly) religious people often suggest - incomprehensible. Its scale, its ambition was what was remarkable about it. How it came about is not amazing at all.

The most important precondition for the attempt to murder all of Europe's Jews was successfully to depict them as a malign "other"- as not-quite-people who, by existing, represented an existential threat to the majority. So historic ideas about Jewish separateness and hostility to the "goodness" of Christ and Christianity became, in the modern era, ideas about the illegitimate accretion of power, the undermining of the natural community and conspiracies.

Wirathu preaches a message that is horribly familiar

The tropes of ancient antisemitism slowly morphed into those of modern antisemitism and as they did, prepared the way for what came later. The early brickwork for the gas chambers was laid in the acts of exclusion and literal stigma: the word "Jew" in passports, laws about what jobs Jews could do, the boycotting of Jewish businesses, the depictions in cartoons and films.

Of course, you knew this and if you have to read another article about the Holocaust you'll scream. Doesn't he have anything else to write about etc? I understand. But I have a very specific reason for having tried your patience with the above. It is to compare the process of "othering" the Jews with what is happening to a group of Muslims in Burma.

To give a very brief recapitulation. In western Burma there are hundreds of thousands of "Rohingya" Muslims, originally from Bengal. The majority population is Buddhist and ethnically Burmese and for years Burmese governments have refused to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese citizens. They have, however, nowhere else to go and have built lives for themselves in the Arakan province.

For years there has been a campaign against them by Burmese nationalists, including that strange phenomenon, Buddhist extremists. But what have been dubbed "tensions" have become something else. In the last few months, in what can only be described as pogroms, Rohingyas have seen mosques and shops taken over and their houses burned. Some have been murdered. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, many to internal refugee camps.

But what must worry any Jew with a memory is the language of the persecutors. One of the leaders of the anti-Rohingya campaign is a Buddhist monk from Mandalay, who preaches a message that is horribly familiar. Take these elements from a recent speech:

Wirathu warns that the Buddhist public needs to adopt a "nationalist mindfulness" in everything it does, otherwise the "Kalars" (a derogatory term for ethnic Bengalis) will take over. These "Kalars" and their influence have prevented Aung San Suu Kyi speaking out for true Burmese people. Muslims are taking over important positions in politics. Now Rangoon is at risk of falling into the Muslims' hands. And, of course, Muslims only think of their own interests.

He cites examples of Buddhist religious sensitivities being assaulted by Muslims and Muslim businessmen and asserts that no-one "will protect the Buddhist faith". So Buddhists must act. "We must do business or otherwise interact with only our kind: same race and same faith" shopping only at shops marked with the sign of a Buddhist owner. Buddhists must use Buddhist owned buses even when Muslim buses are cheaper, "otherwise the enemy's power will rise".

"Consider that extra you have to pay," he exhorts, "as your contribution to your race and faith". Finally, "once we have won this battle we will move on to other targets".

Wirathu is a modern Nazi, is he not? Which means we know where this one is going and where, if nothing is done, it may end up.

Last updated: 9:45am, April 21 2013