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.