By Graeme Feltham
Growing up in that industrial wasteland I called home, my favourite uncle would always say “never argue about politics or religion”. Usually at the birthday party of one of the relatives in my extended family that numbered over 50 and of which the men worked in factories in Uitenhage - the South African Railways, Volkswagen, Dorbyl, Good Year and the like. Those parties were invariably alcohol-fuelled, so my Uncle Noel’s advice was prudent to be sure.
Nowadays, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, in that I took refuge in what is known as Vajrayana in 2000. This is an admission that I am loathe to make in the public sphere as in the various workplaces - newspapers - where I’ve made my bread and butter because I’ve found that the perception is that I should then be calm of mind, tranquil in spirit and measured in tone much like His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. Truth is I’m a rather lazy sod and an irritable one at that. Whatever the case, why I mention I’m a Buddhist here is that, flawed as I am in terms of Buddhist practice, I fail to even begin to comprehend the brutal behaviour of the Buddhist security cluster in Myanmar in relation to what has been dubbed the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslims in that country by the global commentariat.
I am not here or at any other place interested in comparing religions, finding that to be an odious practice for which I feel underqualified. But I do know from general knowledge that Christianity and Islam (and others) have wrought much violence on the world. For the former think of the Spanish inquisition and the Crusades among a myriad other violent acts and wars. Similarly, Islam has been party to heinous and wide-scale violence that goes far beyond the modern-day trend in Islamist terror of which 9/11 was, arguably, the launching pad. Still from my limited knowledge of Christian and Islamic texts, I know that they contain a measure of ambivalence regarding that nebulous realm that encompasses violence.
The Bible comprises two books – the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament is chock-a-block with violence as in the “smiting” of Philistines and other tribes. The New Testament has a “turn the other cheek” flavour but Christ did take a whip to the moneylenders in a temple if my early childhood recollection of Anglican Sunday school serves me.
Here in my home country, the Bible was used to justify Apartheid on a number of fronts. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God separated humanity into different races, with different languages was for the Dutch Reformed dominees (who played their part in propping up the Nationalist government) proof positive that people are divided and identified by race, and more, that those differences trump similarities. Acts 17:26 states: “From our one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the time of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” From this the Dutch Reformed theologians extrapolated that Bantustans were given the thumbs-up, as it were, by the Bible and, therefore, God. They took it to be irrevocably true that South Africa’s different races should be separated, live apart; hence the word Apartheid.
The Bible was used as a justification of Apartheid ideology to further entrench and assert the dominance of the political and socioeconomic interests of whites. Just as scriptures have so often been adopted throughout human history to entrenched the interests of the hegemony. And the cherry on the top of this particular sponge cake was the reading taken from the book of Romans 13.1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment …” it continues in similar vein. This kind of thinking was widespread, alluding to the diktats of the state as being instituted by God and therefore to oppose the prevailing ideology, in this case Apartheid, was to actively denounce the word of God.
Scriptures – irrespective of religion – have throughout recorded history been used as implements to enforce the sovereign power that pertained in specific sociohistorical periods, and indeed by the revolutionary forces that sought to overturn that hegemony. (Anglican Archbishop Tutu and Dutch Reformed Minister Beyers Naude drew on different passages in the Bible in their fight against Apartheid. Naude and his family were ostracised and he was chucked out of their church, summarily finding himself on the streets without a home or a salary. But I digress.)
As for Islam, there are arguments for different readings of the Qu’ran. Of course, in the past decade or two this religion has entered the shared global discourse as scholars, academics, laypeople and the media debate (usually vociferously) whether Islam is a peaceful religion or a call to arms. It is true that there are more than a hundred verses in the Qu’ran that could be read as sanctioning violence.
A few examples, “Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” And “fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing that is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.” And a last verse from the Qu’ran: “Let those fight in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him we shall bestow a vast reward.” This last one has been read by some as serving as motivation for Islamist suicide bombers.
The long-running and hot-tempered debate around Islam in the western and other milieus shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. The one is adamant that Islamists that read in the Qu’ran a call to arms traduce the faith and are prey to dubious motivations. The other insists that the core beliefs of Islam prompt the faithful to take up arms in a fight for a world based on Sharia law.
Of the latter view, is new-atheist and public intellectual Sam Harris, who insists that widely held Muslim views are drivers of violent behaviour. In his words: “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam. This is not to say we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Qu’ran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us.”
And then you have the view espoused by former Christian nun and bestselling author, Karen Armstrong, who holds that terrorism has “nothing to do with Muhammad, any more that the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity.” She argues her case, saying that in a Gallup poll, 93% of the Muslims, said the 9/11 attacks were not justified, and the reasons they gave were religious, the 7% who supported the 9/11 attacks proffered political reasons based on the violence Islamic countries had been subjected to.
Again, this is not to dis either Christianity or Islam but to point out that their scriptures are open to ambiguous readings, that action flowing from their texts are open to debate.
Still, while we’re on the subject of Islam it’s interesting that in 2015, The Global Burden of Armed Violence found that between 2007 and 2012 for every person killed in a war or by terror, seven were murdered, as in being the victims of homicides. Most of the time murder is a far greater threat to human existence than organised warfare. So it follows that if there was a greater propensity to violence in Muslim countries, their homicide rates should be the highest on the globe. The truth is the opposite is true: the higher the percentage of Muslims in a society, the lower the homicide rate.
In 2011, a major study by political scientist M Steven Fish of the University of California in Berkeley, presented data showing that between 1994 and 2007, homicide rates in the Muslim world were approximately half the homicide rate in the US.
Further, the latest homicide stats from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime reveal that for every murder perpetrated in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, seven people are murdered in the US. And these studies results were released before the recent Las Vegas horror shooting spree.
Back to Myanmar. Accounts vary but somewhere close on 90% of the Burmese population subscribe to Theravadan Buddhism. Theravada is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings.
And on this there can be no dispute. The Buddha’s teachings and scriptures forbid all forms of violence, even in extreme cases of self-defence. What follows are words of the Buddha: “One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.” And: “May all beings have happy minds.” And this: “Radiate boundless love towards the entire world – above, below and across – unhindered, without ill will, or enmity.” And this one: “As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I. Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill.” And then there’s this one: “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause others to kill.”
And this is where the glaring contradictions of the Myanmar military forces and authorities come to the fore as they don’t in any of the other violent acts perpetrated in the name of any number of religions. Nowhere did the Buddha expound on causing harm – he unequivocally taught the eschewing of all harmful actions even for the purposes of self-defence, even committing physical, psychological, mental or other harm for self-preservation was strictly verboten by Gautama Buddha. And the words of Gautama Buddha are the sole inspiration for Theravadan Buddhism.
This is not to advocate that Buddhists are a more peaceful lot than any other (the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar being the most recent argument to the contrary), but it is true that Buddhist scriptures can in no way be interpreted to instigate harm against another person or group of others.
And yet we still have Myanmar – where close to 90% of the population is Theravadan Buddhist – and the Rohingya Muslims are widely reviled.
It’s not a small thing when 500,000 people uproot themselves and flee as refugees, in this case, to neighbouring Bangladesh.
There is a surprising dearth of reportage in the global media regarding this incongruity between Theravadan Buddhism espoused by most in Myanmar and the hostility and, indeed brutality, directed against its Muslim population that number 1.1 million. I suspect that “real news” journalists would rather not get mired in the nebulous realm of comparative religion.
But the Buddhists in Myanmar are not alone in espousing violence. In Thailand there have been virulent calls for monastic Buddhist violence. In the 1970s monks, specifically Phra Kittiwuttho, argued that killing communists did not violate any Buddhist precepts. Thai Buddhist violence flared up again in 2004.
And in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism reared its head at various periods in history, including at the beginning of the 20th century, usually against minorities, especially the Tamils. Most recently were anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka in 2014. Muslims and their property were attacked by Sinhalese Buddhist in a number of towns. At least four people were killed and 80 injured, while hundreds were made homeless following attacks on homes, shops, factories, mosques and a nursery.
And there’ve been incidences of other Buddhist militancy (an oxymoron if ever there was one, much like Groucho Marx saying military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.)
Even with the Chinese “invasion” of Tibet (invasion in quotes because that opens a whole different can of worms), there were Buddhists who formed armed resistance. My personal take on Tibet is that prior to the invasion Buddhism flourished, because Tibetan society was homogeneous, because everyone was Buddhist. And here comes the rub …
Is it possible for a country to adhere to the words of the Buddha in a fractured society? I remember a friend of mine once saying “Nationalism is a flag and an enemy.” While George Orwell was of the opinion: “Nationalism is power hunger, tempered by self-deception.” Both these quotes are applicable to Myanmar, where the military campaign is popular with the Buddhist majority, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.
Can Buddhism ever be put into practice unless in a homogeneous society – an entity that no longer exists anywhere? Can one live according to Buddhist principles in any country, while being a nationalist?
Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy advocate, human rights campaigner and research fellow at the London School of Economics, speaking about Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, has said: “No Buddhist can be nationalistic. There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me’. ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my race’ or even ‘my faith’.
That’s a lot to take in. But the essence of Buddhism is that everyone has the Buddha nature. And that’s according to the Dalai Lama, amongst other Buddhist lamas. So to harm anyone is to harm yourself, and, consequently, is to harm the Buddha.
A Buddhist country is an anomaly. The reports vary – but somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 Rohingya Muslims have recently died in Myanmar. Make that been murdered.
Ashin Wirathu who appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” proclaims that he is not responsible for fomenting violence against the Rohingya. In a Guardian article he uses the analogy of a watchdog, saying the dog barks as a warning if an intruder comes into the house. He likens himself to such a dog, warning, merely warning, others about the Muslims.
On allegations that Muslim women have been raped by the military, Wirathu says: “Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.” Sounds far removed from the words attributed to Guatama Buddha. And this is not to mention the more than 200 Muslim villages that have been razed and, of course, the mass killings.
This thing Buddhism. It can be lived as a personal philosophy, but can it be put into practice as a nation-state? As Islam can and is in Iran, among other countries? The words of the Buddha are very clear – if you are to be attacked you may not defend yourself.
I started this missive with a little bit about my own stumbling Buddhist journey. After a serious motorbike accident in 2010 I needed to use a cane to walk. In one mugging attempt, I used the same cane to clobber the would-be mugger.
As I said, I’m a flawed Buddhist, but how, for example, can a country defend itself against another along Buddhist terms? How can a country that subscribes to Theravadan Buddhism even have a military wing? From the earlier quotes taken from the Buddha’s mouth - how can you take an oath to shoot another if any given situation calls for it? It’s simply not possible. A Buddhist in any military stands a chance of being sentenced to death for treason, for not shooting an “enemy”.
The violence in Myanmar is tribal and it is ethnic. It isn’t Buddhist in origin because that’s an anachronism. It’s simply not feasible to run a country (or a nation-state) along Buddhist lines. That’s a pipe dream. Whatever is happening in Myanmar is connected to Buddhism only in name. What is happening there is rooted in an existential fear and suspicion of the Other. But that’s a different story.