Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buddhists, Myanmar, Incitement to Murder, and Responsibility for one's own actions

There are times when I despair of the intelligence of human beings, even those who comment on New York Times articles! The article Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists Wary of Muslim Minority is about a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu who gives wild, inciting speeches against the Muslims of Myanmar.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu said, referring to Muslims. “I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Ashin Wirathu told a reporter after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
In Myanmar in the last year, "images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Ashin Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar — and revealed a darker side of the country’s greater freedoms after decades of military rule. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes."
What began last year on the fringes of Burmese society has grown into a nationwide movement whose agenda now includes boycotts of Muslim-made goods. Its message is spreading through regular sermons across the country that draw thousands of people and through widely distributed DVDs of those talks. Buddhist monasteries associated with the movement are also opening community centers and a Sunday school program for 60,000 Buddhist children nationwide.

In [Ashin Wirathu's] recent sermon, he described the reported massacre of schoolchildren and other Muslim inhabitants in the central city of Meiktila in March, documented by a human rights group, as a show of strength.

“If we are weak,” he said, “our land will become Muslim.”

Buddhism would seem to have a secure place in Myanmar. Nine in 10 people are Buddhist, as are nearly all the top leaders in the business world, the government, the military and the police. Estimates of the Muslim minority range from 4 percent to 8 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 55 million people while the rest are mostly Christian or Hindu.....

Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, says the monks in the country are divided nearly equally between moderates and extremists. He considers himself in the moderate camp. But as a measure of the deeply ingrained suspicions toward Muslims in the society, he said he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”

Ashin Wirathu has tapped into that anxiety, which some describe as the “demographic pressures” coming from neighboring Bangladesh. There is wide disdain in Myanmar for a group of about one million stateless Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya, some of whom migrated from Bangladesh. Clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhists last year in western Myanmar roiled the Buddhist community and appear to have played a role in later outbreaks of violence throughout the country. Ashin Wirathu said they served as his inspiration to spread his teachings.

The theme song to Ashin Wirathu’s movement speaks of people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us.”

“We will build a fence with our bones if necessary,” runs the song’s refrain. Muslims are not explicitly mentioned in the song but Ashin Wirathu said the lyrics refer to them. Pamphlets handed out at his sermon demonizing Muslims said that “Myanmar is currently facing a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.”.... 
Stickers with the movement’s logo are now ubiquitous nationwide on cars, motorcycles and shops. The movement has also begun a signature campaign calling for a ban on interfaith marriages, and pamphlets are distributed at sermons listing brands and shops to be avoided. 
When I read this story, I was struck by several similarities to events that in the past have led to genocide against ethnic groups who are defined as "other" and then dehumanized. Here we have a charismatic leader preaching against Muslims, calling them "mad dogs." He calls them "a most dangerous and fearful poison." He exaggerates the number of Muslims in the country, even though they are a small minority. He is leading a movement that calls for boycotts of Muslim-made goods and for banning interreligious marriages. He is rapidly creating schools and community centers that spread his message of hatred towards Muslims. Fortunately, he is not the only voice in Myanmar - there are people, including other leaders of Buddhist monks, who are speaking out against him. But the central government is not working very vigorously to suppress attacks against Muslims, and in many of these attacks, riot police stood and watched attacks upon Muslims.

When I read the comments to this story in the Times, I hoped for reasoned, rational discussion, condemnation of violence against innocent people, speculation on why this is happening now in Myanmar.

But no. Very few people in the comments to this article wrote rational, peaceful responses.

There were some Buddhists who wrote that this behavior is not supported by the teachings of the Buddha:
It is difficult at any time to talk about "true" Buddhism or what is and isn't Buddhist practice. As a Buddhist I have always been careful to not criticize other Buddhist groups, but, in this case, this is not Buddhist. I can only believe the Buddhists of Burma who are spreading hate have lost their way. There is nothing in Buddhism to justify what is occurring in Burma. Though we typically avoid labels of good and bad we must also call actions which are harmful as evil even if it is only a creation of the mind. Injustice and hate must not be tolerated even from supposed fellow Buddhists.
I understand the impulse behind a comment like this - those of us who find a particular religion spiritually uplifting and enriching, and who experience it as teaching us how to behave better towards other people, find it very difficult to imagine how people who also belong to our religion can engage in acts of violence and hatred in the name of that religion, which leads to us declaring certain people as "not Buddhist" or "not Jewish" or "not Muslim." I don't think we should say that, however, because it's an evasion of responsibility. As a Jew, can I honestly say that there is nothing in Judaism that could serve as a resource for people who wish to hate and murder? No, I cannot. Simply reading the book of Joshua shows that a devotion to the God of Israel can lead to killing the "other." Fortunately, the rabbis of the Talmud did not take the book of Joshua as an exemplar for how Jews should act in the future.

Then there were quite a few people who wrote that, somehow, the fact that Muslims in other countries are violent to non-Muslims, or oppress non-Muslims, justifies violence and murder against the Muslims who live in Myanmar. One of them wrote:
Hatred is a bad thing, clearly. But recent history and current events also show us that control of affairs by Muslims is to be avoided; there are simply too many extremists in those ranks, hostile to women, hostile to peace, hostile to what we know as basic civilized society. Therefore, I would agree that resisting Muslim influence in one's home affairs is understandable.
When challenged, this writer responded:
....I am AGAINST extremism and violence. But I am not against being hostile to a negative force. It is not politically correct to say this, perhaps, but there is something innately wrong and violent in the current make-up of the Islamic religion. Everyone knows this. There is a pure stream of goodness in every religion, but that stream is running pretty narrow in Islam right now, globally speaking.
She may think that she's against extremism and violence, but she's actually justifying it, when it is done against Muslims.

Another commenter wrote:
These Buddhists are treating their Muslim minority exactly the same way Muslims treat religious minorities everywhere they hold sway. Hardly surprising, and extremely difficult to get outraged about.
This is the argument that really gets to me. Does the oppression of non-Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia (which does not allow the public expression of any religion except for Islam, which oppresses the Shi'ite minority, etc.) justify killing Muslims in an entirely different country who are not guilty of any of the things that the Saudis are doing? What happened to the idea that people should be held responsible for the things they themselves have done, not for things that other people who share one characteristic with them (in this case religion) have done? I'm sure that the people who write these comments would be outraged by the biblical command that someone who has committed a crime should be punished in the same way he or she has injured the other person (the lex talionis, or eye for an eye). But "eye for an eye" punishment at least has the virtue of punishing the person who committed the crime, and not other people who are related in some way to the offender.

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