Having seen the type of headlines about Islam and Muslims that have proliferated over the decades I recoil at the association of a religion, Buddhism, with “terror” and violence. This kind of sensationalist treatment is unnecessary and when it becomes a cultural meme can have near irreversible consequences.
That said, it is about time that the violence and ethnic cleansing perpetrated and fanned by violent Buddhist extremist monks against Muslims in Myanmar is finally receiving major national media attention.
By Hannah Beech
The fault lines of conflict are often spiritual, one religion chafing against another and kindling bloodletting contrary to the values girding each faith. Over the past year in parts of Asia, it is friction between Buddhism and Islam that has killed hundreds, mostly Muslims. The violence is being fanned by extremist Buddhist monks, who preach a dangerous form of religious chauvinism to their followers.
Yet as this week’s TIME International cover story notes, Buddhism has tended to avoid a linkage in our minds to sectarian strife:
“In the reckoning of religious extremism — Hindu nationalists, Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews — Buddhism has largely escaped trial. To much of the world, it is synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. But like adherents of any religion, Buddhists and their holy men are not immune to politics and, on occasion, the lure of sectarian chauvinism.
When Asia rose up against empire and oppression, Buddhist monks, with their moral command and plentiful numbers, led anticolonial movements. Some starved themselves for their cause, their sunken flesh and protruding ribs underlining their sacrifice for the laity. Perhaps most iconic is the image of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk sitting in the lotus position, wrapped in flames, as he burned to death in Saigon while protesting the repressive South Vietnamese regime 50 years ago. In 2007, Buddhist monks led a foiled democratic uprising in Burma: images of columns of clerics bearing upturned alms bowls, marching peacefully in protest against the junta, earned sympathy around the world, if not from the soldiers who slaughtered them. But where does social activism end and political militancy begin? Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.”