There is perhaps no religion that Western liberals find more appealing than Buddhism. Politicians fawn over the Dalai Lama, celebrities seek out Buddhist meditation, and scientists and philosophers insist that Buddhism has much to teach us about human nature and psychology.
Even some of the so-called New Atheists have fallen for Buddhism’s allure. For most of its Western sympathizers, Buddhism is a deeply humanist outlook, less a religion than a philosophy, a way of life to create peace and harmony.
The Rohingya people of Myanmar take a very different view of Buddhism. The Rohingya are Muslims who live mostly in Rakhine, in western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. Early Muslim settlements there date from the seventh century. Today, in a nation that is 90 percent Buddhist, there are some eight million Muslims, of whom about one in six is Rohingya.
For the Myanmar government, however, the Rohingya simply do not exist. The government is conducting a national census; 135 ethnic categories are listed on the form. One ethnicity is conspicuously absent: the Rohingya, who the government insists must define themselves as “Bengalis” (that is, as foreigners). “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not accept it,” a presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, said recently.
The problems faced by the Rohingya are far graver than a refusal by the state to acknowledge their identity. Their very existence is under threat.
Since 2012, there has been a vicious series of pogroms against the Rohingya. Villages, schools and mosques have been attacked and burned by Buddhist mobs, often aided by security forces. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed, and as many as 140,000 people — more than one in 10 of the Rohingya population— have been made homeless. A report last September from the independent Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention suggested that “recent violence has moved beyond mere pogroms” and toward “the ethnic cleansing of entire regions.”
The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by Buddhist monks, who say their actions are in keeping with the demands of their faith. The principal anti-Rohingya organization, the 969 movement, takes its name from the nine attributes of Buddha, the six qualities of his teachings and the nine attributes of the monks. Its leader, a monk named Wirathu, has reportedly called himself the “Burmese Bin Laden.” Muslims, he told an interviewer, “breed quickly and they are very violent.” Because “the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day,” he argued, “the national religion needs to be protected.”
The extremist monk has proposed a “national race protection law” under which a non-Buddhist man wishing to marry a Buddhist woman would have to convert to Buddhism and obtain permission from the state. The proposal has won support from Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, and may become law by the end of June.
How do we reconcile the perception of Buddhism as a philosophy of peace with this ugly reality of Buddhist-led pogroms in Myanmar?
Few would suggest that there is anything inherent in Buddhism that has led to the persecution. Instead, most would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar has its roots in the nation’s political struggles.
The military junta that came to power in 1962 has frequently sought to build popular support by fomenting hatred against minority groups. It has stripped the Rohingya people of citizenship, and placed restrictions on their travel, education and land ownership. It has even imposed a “two-child policy” on Rohingya families, to limit their population.
Paradoxically, the recent successes of Myanmar’s democracy movement have only worsened the problems of the Rohingya. In an effort to bolster its position, the government has sharpened its rhetoric of hate, while opponents of the regime have refused to support the Rohingya for fear of alienating the Buddhist majority.
The leader of the democracy movement, the Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been shamefully silent, willing only to condemn violence in general. Members of her National League for Democracy are openly involved in extremist anti-Rohingya organizations. It is not that tenets of the Buddhist faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have donned the garb of religion as a way of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. What is true of Myanmar applies to many other conflicts involving religious groups — from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Indonesia to the Central African Republic. The spawning of such violence has led many to see religion itself, and Islam in particular, as the root of conflict.
Religion does, of course, play a role in these confrontations, but it would be wrong to see them as purely religious. When groups vying for political power exploit religion, its role is often to establish the chauvinist identities by which other groups are demonized and the actions of one’s own are justified.
The anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar may make us doubt our preconceptions about Buddhism. It should certainly make us question the stance of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, generally seen in the West as a fearless warrior for liberty.
While many Western observers acknowledge the political roots of Myanmar’s sectarian violence, it is notable that few are willing to be as nuanced about other conflicts involving Islam. Perhaps the plight of the Rohingya will prompt us also to think again about global confrontations where religion plays a role, and will push us to adopt a less black-and-white view.
Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and the author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath.