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Militants of the ‘religion of peace’

Mustafa Akyol
Hurriyet Daily News
May 8, 2013

Burma, a country that has been tyrannized by a military junta since 1962, is being terrorized by an additional force these days: Buddhist militants, who carry out systematic arsons, tortures and massacres against the country’s tiny Muslim minority.

First, a few facts: 89 percent of the population of Burma is Buddhist. Muslims only make up some 4 percent of the society. But they are a relatively affluent community, which has led to resentment against them by the militants of the majority. In Arakan (a.k.a. Rakhine), the only state where Muslims make up a majority, the Burmese government and the militants allied with them have initiated an “ethnic cleansing of Muslims” as the Human Rights Watch have put it. (See HRW Report titled, “Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State.”)

In the past two years, the campaign against Burmese Muslims has intensified. It is spearheaded by a militant Buddhist movement called “969.” Their leader is a monk named Ashin Wirathu, who proudly called himself “the Burmese Bin Laden.” He simply advocates a Muslim-free Burma, as he once proudly explained to the BBC: “Around the world there are many Muslim countries. They should go there. The Muslim countries will take care of them. They should go to countries with the same religion.”

To make sure that Muslims really go, Wirathu’s followers routinely terrorize them, in pogroms similar to what Jews went through at the hand of European anti-Semites. Just last week, for example, Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and burned more than 70 homes in the Rangoon province, after a Muslim girl on a bicycle collided with a monk. In many similar instances of Buddhist violence, the HRW reports: “[Muslim] Rohingya men, women, and children were killed, some were buried in mass graves, and their villages and neighborhoods were razed. While the state security forces in some instances intervened to prevent violence and protect fleeing Muslims, more frequently they stood aside during attacks or directly supported the assailants, committing killings and other abuses… Buddhist monks have [even] protested against international aid for Rohingya, physically blocked aid deliveries, and threatened aid workers.” 

But isn’t this a bit confusing? Isn’t Buddhism a religion of poor pacifist monks and yoga-loving hip Westerners? How can this “religion of peace,” as it is often seen, be the driving force for such horror?

That was a question also asked by Alan Strathern, an academic expert on Burma, in a recent BBC piece titled, “Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?” His answer was rooted less in theology, and more in politics: Burmese Muslims, he argued, are simply “a religious minority used as the scapegoat for the frustrated aspirations of the majority.” The peace preached in Buddhist texts did not mean much, in other words, once you had Buddhists enraged in their socio-political context.

For long, I have been arguing that the same thing is true for Muslims as well: The Bin Ladens of the world (the original versions, not the Buddhist version) arise from the political troubles of the Muslim societies rather than the texts of Islam. Yet there are many who like selling Islamophobia (the argument that “Islam is the problem”), and there are many who like buying it. Taking a look at Burma is a sobering corrective to their worldview.