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Rohingya and the Myth of Buddhist Tolerance

Photo by DYKT Mohigan | CC BY 2.0

When old and young are systematically rounded up and shot. When women are gang raped and their babies thrown into waterways to drown. When their homes and businesses are burned. When all the atrocities of ethnic cleansing are plain to see, international law leaps into action. Global bodies and their constituent states work to simultaneously put an end to the atrocities, provide refuge for survivors and bring perpetrators to book, no matter the identity of the offender or the victim. Or so we are told. For as the on-going slaughter and displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims reveals, international law is not so blind.

Since their citizenship rights have been progressively revoked between the 1940s and ‘80s, thousands of Rohingya men, women and children have been subjected to murder and rape, their villages have been raised to the ground and more than a million have fled to neighboring countries without much protest from the world beyond. Even the UN’s late attempts to investigate the most recent barbarities have fallen short of constituting a full Commission of Inquiry and independent investigators have been blocked from entering Myanmar by the Buddhist-led government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi. “Just imagine, for a minute,” Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi urges in a recent article, “if it were Jews or Christians, or else the ‘peaceful Buddhists,’ who were the subjects of Muslim persecutions.” Given the attention Muslim violence ceaselessly garners, the reason behind the apparent lack of outrage to protect the Rohingya is clear to him: “Something in the liberal fabric of Euro-American imagination is cancerously callous. It does not see Muslims as complete human beings.”

Even when one acknowledges that Muslim Bangladesh (where about 500,000 Rohingya have sought refuge) has long sought to prevent their “infiltration,” Dabashi’s point hits home. According to the UNHCR, ordinary Bangladeshis have opened their villages and towns to the latest influx of Rohingya refugees, providing food, clothing and shelter. And even the state’s seemingly cold-hearted actions only reflect Bangladesh’s inability to accommodate its Rohingya co-religionists without international support, which is clearly not forthcoming. Furthermore, various Muslim-majority governments, as well as the Organization of Islamic Conference, have begun pledging funds and voicing the deep concerns expressed by their constituencies. But is it just the dehumanization of Muslims in the Euro-American imagination that seems to be at play in their voices falling on deaf ears beyond? What of the contrasting image of ‘peaceful Buddhists’?

Academia is in fact rife with examples of scholarship that touts the tolerance and inclusiveness of Buddhists and the general argument is nothing new. According to Thomas A. Tweed, Professor of History at Notre Dame University, increasing awareness of religious diversity due to colonial expansion and Christian missionizing led Euro-American Enlightenment intellectuals repelled by Christian sectarianism to consider Buddhism to fit the bill of the “natural religion” (or “perennial philosophy”) they sought, one that exuded “tolerance” toward people of different faiths and was amenable to scientific progress. So convinced were they that some, such as the nineteenth century German-American scholar Paul Carus, even chastised Asian Buddhists when they launched polemical assaults on Christian missionaries, accusing the Asians of using language the “Buddha certainly would not…” So was born the pervasive myth, characteristically articulated by the early twentieth century Swedish-American Theosophist Herman Vetterling, that Buddhism is “a religion of noble tolerance, of universal brotherhood, of righteousness and justice,” and that in its growth as the religion of a global community it had not “caused the spilling of a drop of blood.”

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Michael Jerryson, picks up where Tweed signs off to show that the tendency to associate Buddhism with tolerance did not die in the early twentieth century or remain bound in an ivory tower. In the wake of World War II, it found its way into the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, marching further forward in time with such works as Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and by the 1980s assumed political dimensions in the form of the Free Tibet Movement. And finally, who can forget (even if you want to) Keanu Reeves in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.

Social history, however, tells a different tale than Orientalists and popular culture. For every instance of forbearance, history also provides examples of violent intolerance legitimated by Buddhist doctrines and conducted by practitioners. As many ancient Jain and Brahmanical texts speak of persecution at the hands of Indian Buddhists, as Buddhists accuse their South Asian competitors of the same. And consider Jerryson’s examples of the sixth century Chinese Buddhist monk Faqing, who promised his 50,000 followers that every opponent they killed would take them to a higher stage in the bodhisattva’s path. Or recall that with the advent of nationalism, Buddhist monks rallied to the cause as with Japanese Rinzai support for the military campaign against the Russians in 1904-5, or Zen and Pureland Buddhist justifications of the Japanese invasions of China, Korea and Singapore during World War II. Buddhism has been corrupted in these places, they argued, and violence is necessary to insure that ‘true’ Buddhism is restored and preserved. The same rhetoric – of some fundamental Buddhism under threat – also underwrites the more recently nationalized bigotry and violence that Buddhist monks and laypersons have unleashed on non-Buddhists in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and, last but not least, Myanmar.

“No religion has a monopoly on ‘violent people’,” Jerryson astutely concludes, “nor does any one religion have a greater propensity for violence.” All religions are vast complexes of thought and institutions and devotees of each can always find legitimacy for hostility or hospitality toward the other depending on mundane needs or wants. It is for this very reason that the apparent disconnect between historical Buddhism and the sustained Euro-American myth of its tolerance is as malignant as the perpetual dehumanization of Islam and Muslims is cancerous. These Buddhists have long been the good guys and those Muslims the bad in this lore. Each is a necessary fiber in the liberal fabric of Euro-American imagination that veils the gaze of international law when it comes to the murder and displacement of the Rohingya.

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M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).

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