Buddhist monks leading the way towards Islamophobia in Sri Lanka

I first heard about these attacks in a prayer meeting where someone referred to the “militant Buddhists”. At the time, I was surprised to hear that term and made a joke about what an oxymoron it appeared to be. I now understand more of the context of the attacks led by Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka, as discussed in this article http://bit.ly/Zvhgul. However, my initial response is probably representative of how many people, particularly in the west, view typical Buddhist behaviour as peace-seeking Some of these views are correct as the attacks in Sri Lanka can’t be described as common to Buddhist communities throughout the world. And yet, these violent acts and others are not as atypical as the average westerner may think.

The principles of the Noble Eightfold path, central to Buddhism, include right speech and actions which lead to a life that upholds the right ethics (pg 205). In theory, the religion is pacifist where violence and killing is to be avoided at all costs. However, there has historically been some allowance for defensive violence in the context of “just war” (pg.209). Over the years, many Buddhist communities have had need for defence during periods of intense persecution, especially in India and China. However, justification for the current violence towards Muslims in Sri Lanka is less obvious.

The group BBS (roughly translated Buddhist Strength Force), which is credited as a major source of anti-Islamic rhetoric, identifies itself as countering Muslim extremism yet there are not many examples of Islamic extremism by the minority Muslims in Sri Lanka. This group also has strong nationalistic interests. One suspected supporter of the BBS, the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, made a speech that linked the Buddhist religion with race, culture and country, specifically in the context of “protection”, or defence. These examples appear to provide justification of anti-Islamic sentiments and provoke violent action due to undertones of urgency (i.e. “protection” and “countering….extremism”).

On one level, it is certainly possible that this is an example of how religion can be co-opted by politics to justify actions that are sometimes in apparent contradiction to the principles of the religion. This can occur in any religious community and at any scale, within a church or a nation. Are the Sri Lankan Buddhists’ concerns about national and religious identity or about protecting their economic position in the country and preventing a minority group from gaining economic power? Although it is important to be aware of political influence, there are also other questions which arise that may be helpful to consider the whole issue:

1) Is there a history of Muslim aggression in the region (i.e. is this only one side of the coin)?
2) Where else in this world is this occurring and why? Is the basis for these actions similar to what is happening in Burma?
3) Is this part of a “normal” tension between minority and majority religions? Does the exclusive and evangelistic nature of Islam contribute to the tensions?
4) Does Buddhist doctrine have an influence on the uptake of anti-Islamic sentiments in the general population as a result of less strict adherence to religious ethics? In Sri Lanka, the “Lesser Vehicle” Theravadin Buddhism is dominant whereby the laity is not able to achieve enlightenment.
5) Is the Western view of Buddhism partial or faulted, and if so, does this impact reporting on the issue? (SH) #worldrels


2 thoughts on “Buddhist monks leading the way towards Islamophobia in Sri Lanka

  1. It is an attracting post to me as similar incident arouse my concern these few days when I search the global religions news. Another similar non-Muslim attacking Muslim news I found is just happening in Myanmar. Also by Buddhist. I may talk about it in the future.

    I think one of the reasons for non-Muslim attacking Muslim is because of the historical records of some aggressive Muslim groups like Al-Qaeda and Taliban (How coincident that I am editing a story from Reuters about Pakistan pray for peaceful elections after the Pakistani Taliban threatened to destabilize polls with a series of attacks) . There is an old saying in Chinese which is “The first to take action is the stronger”. The majority may threaten the minority by showing they are stronger. Or in stead of being attack, non-Muslim majority may select the approach of starting the attack as the homeland protection initiative, perhaps.

    Regarding to the question about the Buddhist doctrine, I also wonder are there any aggressive teachings within Buddhism. As a Chinese, I only know there are certain “Martial Monks” but they mainly concern about martial art rather than real fight and attack. “Military Monk” is something hard to understand to me. It is also contradict to all Buddha’s teaching and idea that we knew.

  2. Shannon.

    Great post. I find myself thinking of the same questions. In fact in reading the main article for my own post this week (http://econ.st/WThizn) I was struck by this quote: “the sort of desperation that drives people to forfeit their own lives may have more to do with their political circumstances than their metaphysical beliefs”. So I resonate with you when you say: “religion can be co-opted by politics to justify actions that are sometimes in apparent contradiction to the principles of the religion”.

    What I find interesting is that the “metaphysical beliefs” of individuals participating in such “counter-religious” practices seem to provide the very back-drop for the power of the acts. Do you agree?

    I find it interesting also to reflect on my own reaction. I admit I often paying closer attention to these sorts of news stories because they seems so counter-intuitive. They are so much in opposition of what I expect. Underneath it all, I think I assume there must be something horrifyingly pressurized to charge someone to act against (what I assume) are their moral and ethical principles and so I take a closer look. It’s tragic, really that such violence would even be felt necessary – but obviously a felt necessity nonetheless. My query is whether there is a sense among most of the Buddhist participants that the acts are counter to their beleif system (i.e. an unfortunate but felt necessary self-sacrifice). Or – if, as you say, it is felt to be righteous as a “just act”.

    Heart-tugging in any case. How very ungrateful I am most of the time for the blessed peace I live in.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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