State-sponsored Buddhism is not peaceful or meditative. It is currently waging genocide against hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are effectively stateless.
Mainstream media outlets have finally begun to pay attention to (i.e. cover and write about in any significant way) the horrific, state-sponsored genocide being waged against a Muslim minority population in Myanmar called the Rohingya.
The persecution of the Rohingya by the Burmese government has been going on for many decades (at least since the 1970’s) in the form of state-sponsored discrimination: although they have been living in the western region of present-day Myanmar since at least the 15th century — historians believe that the Rohingya are modern-day descendants of former Arab traders in southeast Asia — Rohingya Muslims, who together make up about 2% of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population, have been denied voting rights, Burmese citizenship, higher education, as well as free movement across borders. The Rohingya have effectively been living under apartheid.
The Rohingya are not the only population of Muslim minorities that suffer persecution at the hands of state-sponsored terrorism across the Asian continent. The Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang, a province in far western China bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, have also suffered persecution by the state and by the majority Han ethnic group in China.
Similar to the Rohingya, Uyghur Muslims have endured forcible assimilation practices such as the inability to speak their own language in public, let alone wear clothing or exhibit practices in public that reflect their religious beliefs. All this is to say: populations of minority Muslim groups around the world have and continue to endure extreme forms of violence and state-sponsored persecution and discrimination.
Recently, the Burmese government has begun to wage an all-out genocide against Rohingya Muslims, murdering over 3,000 people in just three days.
Why, then, has it taken Western media outlets so long to pay attention to such extreme forms of genocide taking place? One answer lies in the long-standing Orientalist narratives around what legal scholar Khaled Beydoun refers to as the peaceful Buddhism/violent Islam binary. Because of Orientalist, distorted, caricatured representations of Buddhism as an inherently peaceful religion, few Western media outlets or organizations have deigned to condemn the actions of the Burmese government, which is an officially Buddhist-backed regime.
On the other hand, he notes, if this situation were reversed—were it an Islamic state enacting genocide against a Buddhist minority, global response to the atrocity would look very different. We are quick to notice what already confirms our bias about particular groups, especially ethnic, racial, or religious groups. And since much of the Western world already believes that Islam is a “violent” religion, few have taken action on behalf of the Rohingya.
It doesn’t help, either, that the current leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi — who has on multiple occasions outright denied that the persecution of the Rohingya is happening at all — is the favored darling of the Western world. She received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and her image is widely revered (read: commodified) on posters, t-shirts, and woodblock prints across the West as a left-wing hero (along with Che Gueverra and others). Yet despite her radical leftwing figurehead status, Aung San Suu Kyi is, at this point in time, effectively an apologist for genocide. She has done nothing to stop the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya, denies in interviews that the genocide is happening, and, recently, even denied entry to representatives of the UN who were investigating the government of Myanmar for possible crimes against humanity.
Here in the U.S., we need to act and speak in solidarity with the Rohingya people, and combat Islamophobia globally — not only when it is practiced in the U.S. by our own president when he closes our borders to Muslim immigrants. An analysis of global Islamophobia through an anarchist lens entails a recognition of the violence inherent in nation states, particularly the maintenance and enforcement of national borders. (Most recently, the Burmese government has begun laying grenades along the border of Myanmar to execute Rohingya refugees who are fleeing state terror). It is crucial too, for our solidarity work, that we resist caricatures and simplifications of religious practices such as Buddhism and Islam. State-sponsored Buddhism is not peaceful or meditative. It is currently waging genocide against hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are effectively stateless.
The idea of Buddhism as an inherently “peaceful” religion comes with its own Orientalist history as well. The introduction of Buddhism into the United States began in the late 19th century, when the colonization (or, in the case of Japan, attempted colonization) of Asian nations by Western powers resulted in a new influx of knowledge about Asian people and culture. Like most types of appropriation, knowledge of Buddhism in the West often came piecemeal — white people were content to adopt the aspects of Buddhism that seemed appealing to them, conveniently leaving out the less desirable parts, such as its misogyny, among other things. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the incorporation of Buddhism into (white) popular culture led to a widespread association of Buddhism with hippy culture — peace, love and understanding.
But the fact is that Buddhism in Asia has a much more complicated and nuanced past, with Buddhist nationalists in Japan and elsewhere weaponizing the ideology for violent, often imperialist ends. Like any ideology, philosophy, or school of thought, Buddhism is not inherently one thing. And living as we do in a time in which Muslim people are persecuted globally by various state powers, we need to clear our eyes of the idealistic fog that causes us to look at Aung San Suu Kyi and her regime as peaceful or just, simply because it is part of a “Buddhist” state.
We need to look at the situation with clarity and act with principled solidarity on behalf of Rohingya Muslims who are living through a time of absolute terror and injustice.