Pathologies, Individual and Collective I

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Obama Administration

Nicholas Kristof is visitng the Rohingya Muslims of Burma (Myanmar). This is a situation I’ve been following fairly closely in my capacity as a chronicler of Buddhism for the other website. There’s is no question the predominantly Buddhist majority of Burma is committing a crime against humanity in regard to the Rohingya. I wrote an article with background about Buddhist violence against Rohingya awhile back.

I’ve learned more since, which I included in My Book, Rethinking Religion. Violence connected to religion has been increasing around the world, and to analyze why that is so I used Burma as one of my examples. Another example is Sri Lanka, which has been just as bad and has the potential of being just as bad again, if not worse.

When we hear about violence associated with religion, we tend to think that religion caused someone to be violent. But it isn’t that simple. Most of the time, when you look closely at “religious” violence, there are all kinds of historical, cultural and political factors mixed in as well. This is true even of episodes like the Spanish Inquisition that appeared to be about doctrinal purity; much else lurked beneath the surface. Indeed, most of the time the historical, cultural and political factors are the real drivers of the violence, and religion is called in mostly to act as a moral cover or justification. Motivations that are packaged to be “religious” often are anything but when you look at them closely, and that’s very much true of both Burma and Sri Lanka right now.

A lot of this has to do with our old friend, the existential threat. In both Burma and Sri Lanka, the religious-ethnic majority has become obsessed with the belief that one or more minority groups are about to wipe them out. And in both Burma and Sri Lanka, this is nonsensical. Burma is about 90 percent Buddhist and 4 to 8 percent Muslim. Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist, 10 percent Muslim, 5 or 6 percent Christian (mostly Catholic) and the remainder are mostly Hindu. Buddhism has been established in both countries for many, many centuries and is an inextricable part of culture there. Buddhism also dominates both nations’ politics not unlike the way Christianity dominates politics here. Which is part of the problem.

In Burma, for example, hard-liners in the government are fanning the flames in an effort to prevent reform. There is at least tacit coordination in rhetoric and effort between the political hard-liners and a faction of reactionary monks supporting the oppression of the Rohingya. Both groups are trying to hurt Aung San Suu Kyi by trying to force her to takes sides, either with the Muslims (which would kill her political career) or with the Buddhists (which would kill her reputation with the rest of the world). She has been desperately clinging to a fence and pissing off everybody.

So, it’s complicated. One part that isn’t complicated is Buddhism itself. There is absolutely no justification for violence against the Rohingya in Buddhist scripture or doctrine. This is true in spite of the claims of some western academics who say otherwise, based on gross misreadings of scriptures. I’ve some to think that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who are completely and utterly inept get Ph.D.s in religious studies specializing in Buddhism. That may be the topic of my next book.

Those justifying the violence by declaring they are “defending Buddhism” are, in effect, destroying a village to save it. And in this case the village didn’t need to be saved. It’s mass insanity. And there are a lot of historical, social-cultural, and political factors behind the insanity.

I have more to say, but I think I wil save it for the next post.

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag  •  Jun 1, 2014 @11:26 am

    “Indeed, most of the time the historical, cultural and political factors are the real drivers of the violence, and religion is called in mostly to act as a moral cover or justification. ”

    WOW!
    Truer words have rarely been written!

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Jun 1, 2014 @11:27 am

    Here’s my experience:
    ‘I’ve come to think that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach… teach gym.’

  3. maha  •  Jun 1, 2014 @11:50 am

    I dunno, gulag. Gym teachers know how to bounce a basketball and blow a whistle, at least. That’s something.

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Jun 1, 2014 @12:38 pm

    Ah, but can they do it at the same time?

    Our beloved Gym Teacher, and Coach for various sports, was retiring my Senior year in HS, in 1976. And on his last day, and ours, in the gym, he said, “In honor of this nation’s coming Bicentennial in a few weeks, I want everyone to do 17 push-ups, and 76 sit-ups! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA!!!!!”, as he walked out the door.
    We, of course, didn’t to the 17 push-ups, or the 76 sit-ups.
    We just laughed!
    We loved him, and were happy for him.

    I was in NY City for our Bicentennial, on July 4th of 1976 – and what a sight and celebration it was!
    The entire harbor, and the rivers, were full of tall ships, covering the entire gamut of our history.

    Man, what a country we once were, when we were a “CAN-DO!” nation!!!
    Not the “Sorry, we can’t afford that, because it’ll raise taxes on the rich,” country we are now…

  5. moonbat  •  Jun 1, 2014 @12:40 pm

    I have a lot of respect for gym teachers these days.

    A friend visited Thailand a year ago, and was struck by how their practice of Buddhism is similar to the way Christianity exists in our culture. Both religions are baked into their respective cultures, but people’s real religion is capitalism, getting ahead. Religion is just a backdrop and doesn’t really affect people all that deeply. He was disappointed. The fantastic temple landscapes of south-east Asia have their parallel with the cathedrals in Europe – amazing testimonies to earlier times when their respective religions were the major player in people’s lives, but not any more, just gigantic architectural relics now.

    Re existential threats. I was reminded of the neo-cons fear of the 1% threat (not to be confused with the top 1% of the economic pyramid). In other words, if some tiny threat out there exists, the entire society’s resources must be mobilized to squash it. Their fear is so intense it warps everything, all the more so their need to find a moral / religious cover for whatever evil they feel justified in taking to squash it.

    I remember arguing with a conservative co-worker, a church-goer, who sang in the choir. Don’t remember the topic anymore, but his excuse for any awful behavior was “It’s survival”. Whatever religiousity this guy had wasn’t even skin-deep, and whatever principles he had – which really means no principles – would go out the window at a moment’s trouble. Jesus talked a lot about people like him – the hypocrites.

  6. moonbat  •  Jun 1, 2014 @12:45 pm

    Gulag – I read your note and recalled that I also was in NYC on that same date, 7/4/1976, a rare visit, down in Greenwich Village, and I really thought they were blowing the place up – the fireworks were never ending. It was really getting out of control. Maybe we crossed paths that night.

    I often like to shove that “Can’t Do It” mantra back into conservatives’ faces, usually in a sentence like: “If it were up to conservatives, we would never have gone to the moon, or invented the internet, or built the interstate highways”. Such weenies.

  7. c u n d gulag  •  Jun 1, 2014 @2:46 pm

    moonbat,
    Up to that point, those were the greatest fireworks I’d ever seen!

    But later, I was living in NY City for the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge Centennials – AMAZING!
    The music and fireworks were practically endless!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Stephen Stralka  •  Jun 1, 2014 @3:21 pm

    Even beyond the “can’t do” faction, the libertarians take a “mustn’t do” approach. Because as long as there’s any government at all, you can always insist that the problem is that the government is doing too much, not too little. Thus the proper response to any crisis is to dismantle the government.

  9. Dan  •  Jun 1, 2014 @7:33 pm

    What I have found, in my historical readings, is that wars are all about politics; religion is used in recruiting, motivating, and steeling the troops for the political war and the human abuses they must commit to achieve the political gain (i.e., the gains for the politicians).

  10. erinyes  •  Jun 1, 2014 @8:52 pm

    The mixture of cultural, historical, and political interests does indeed change the dynamics. I remember some problems in Indonesia between Christians and Muslims in the moluccas several years ago being played as persecution of Christians. I don’t remember which American Fundy group was pushing the ides, but religion was a smaller part of the problem than power and politics.
    Another interesting thing about religion in Indonesia; even though the predominate religion is Islam, Balinese Hinduism does not appear to be threatened. Bali is the tourism cash cow, which may have some bearing on the subject. My wife and I went there in the mid 80’s, and it was unbelievable. ( in the most beautiful way ).

  11. Doug  •  Jun 2, 2014 @9:02 pm

    In Burma, for example, hard-liners in the government are fanning the flames in an effort to prevent reform. There is at least tacit coordination in rhetoric and effort between the political hard-liners and a faction of reactionary monks supporting the oppression of the Rohingya. Both groups are trying to hurt Aung San Suu Kyi by trying to force her to takes sides,…

    This is historically classic, from villainizing non-christians in Europe (the Inquisition) or Native Americans to legitimize a land grab or making the Jews out to be a threat (Nazi Germany) or pretending a 2-bit dictator in an oil-rich country is a global threat. The mechanism frequently allows the confiscation of wealth but it always is designed to consolidate power in the government or church authority (or both working together) doing the persecution.

    There have been efforts to find a minority in the US that can become a feared threat no one (including liberals) would dare speak in defense of. Sharia Law was the bogie man for a while – or illegal aliens – or the Gay agenda (they’re after your children) but nothing has really taken off except among the groups that the Right already has in their pocket. But however it’s actually said in conference the gist reads, “Who can we make int o a threat so scary, so despised, soooo dangerous that peope will give us all power and not notice or criticize as we loot the country?”

    Sadly, Burma has created one which allows the military government to survive another day and delays a representative democracy. If Burma is stuck in the abyss, we are teetering on the edge.

  12. Swami  •  Jun 2, 2014 @11:18 pm

    So, it’s complicated.
    Yeah, that it is. One thing that adds to the complication is the fact that Islam has a radical aspect to it that “potentially” precludes the possibility of peaceful coexistence. I can understand how someone in a Buddhist culture whether a practicing Buddhist or not could feel threatened by the encroachment of Islam into their sphere of influence and belief. Not to say that all aspects of Islam should pose a threat, but some of the laws and practices of Islam that have been secured with the reigns of power throughout the world does pose a serious threat to freedom of conscience and religion.
    It could be a case like Sheriff Johnstown saying: “Kill it, before it grows”.



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