Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

IS and Buddhists

Religious extremism must be treated as an indivisible whole, regardless of whether its source is Islamic, Christian, Jewish or Buddhist, writes Mohamed Al-Dessouki

Fifteen years ago, the terrorist Taliban movement in Afghanistan dynamited the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan. The Arab and Islamic world at the time joined the rest of the international community to decry that barbarous assault against an integral part of human and civilisational heritage. Grief stricken Buddhists had every right to feel aggrieved and claim to be victims of a terrible injustice. The world sympathised and the Western magnifying glass homed in on that tangible testimony to the evils of Islamist extremism.

Several years down the line, we Muslims along with the rest of mankind were struck by the plague of IS (Daesh, or the Islamic State group), that organisation of dubious origins that quickly spread its fury across the Arab region and into Africa and Europe. Following the Taliban lead, IS targeted antiquities in Iraq and Syria with an unparalleled ferocity. Once again, the bane of Islamist extremism riveted regional and international attention. It was generally concluded, correctly, that this misguided movement is hostile to human civilisation and to the diversity with which God blessed this world.

Today, the civilised world is watching with horror the crimes perpetuated by Buddhist extremism in Myanmar where the threats of genocide and ethnic cleansing have descended upon the Rohingya Muslims who are forced to choose between two bitter choices: either to remain in their homes and villages and risk rape, robbery and massacre, or to flee into the unknown as refugees in neighbouring countries where the welcome is rude at best.

Naturally, a large majority of the international community is distressed by the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya people. But what is at once shocking and shameful, is the reluctance of political and media circles in the free and civilised West to confront the Myanmar crisis face-on and to pronounce the true diagnosis, which is that what is happening in that Southeast Asian nation is the direct consequence of Buddhist extremism and that this phenomenon exhibits all the symptoms and traits that Westerners cite in connection with every terrorist incident that is attributed to Islamist extremism.

The Buddhist extremists are no less a threat to our present and future than the extremists in IS. In fact, we could call them “Buddhist Daeshites”. After all, the way of thought and the attitudes are essentially the same. The two forms of religious extremism are virtually identical. The “Buddhist Daeshites” want to create a purely Buddhist state, just as Islamist extremisms cling to the dream of reviving the caliphate. The Buddhist extremists are just as hostile to the “other” and force the other to either bow to their ways and ideas or to leave the country. They justify killing and robbing the other in the name of their faith and believe that such acts will bring them closer to their gods. They also speak in terms of the ethnic “purity” that is sullied by the Muslim presence. This is exactly the same rationale that informed Nazism, the Zionist ideology that sees Israel as the state for Jews alone, and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

This is what is really happening in Myanmar beneath Western noses, but they choose to ignore it. They issue routine appeals for humanitarian assistance and relief that do nothing to stop the violence. But they are reluctant to approach the head of the serpent, the driving force behind the Rohingya massacres, the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. This hate-mongering monk stands shoulder to shoulder with Osama bin Laden, founder of Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation that plotted the 11 September attacks in the US; Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed IS caliph who has disappeared from view and who has a CIA-posted $10 million award on his head for information leading to his whereabouts.

Why does Ashin merit the same universal opprobrium? Because he is the architect of the Rohingya holocaust. He is the chief author of the rejection of religious and ethnic plurality and the main source of incitement to fanaticism and hatred among the Buddhist disciples and the general public. He served five years in prison for his sermons which preached hatred against Muslims, but he was released in 2013 in an amnesty issued by the National League for Democracy Party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate thus left her mark on and gave her blessing to what would ensue. After his release, Ashin founded the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, which has carried out many attacks against the Rohingya since its founding.

Wirathu’s sermons and remarks about Muslims are flagrantly racist. He has called Muslims “cannibals”. He has never condemned violence against them. He has called on Buddhists to boycott Muslim stores and not to intermarry with them. In one of his rallies, he asked the crowd, “What do you think is better, marriage with a Muslim or with a dog?” The crowd shouted back, “A dog!”. He smiled and said, “Yes.” He once compared Muslims to the African carp, “because they breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind”. So said the monk who does not bat an eye when inciting mass murder against Muslims while urging followers to have compassion on a mosquito.

In an interview with Time magazine, Ashin said that it was important to safeguard Myanmar as a Buddhist state (note the pure and unadulterated religious chauvinism). He claimed that the Muslims, who made up five per cent of Myanmar’s population of 60 million, were trying to take over the country. He vowed never to permit this and stressed that protecting Buddhism and the purity of the ethnic group he descends from is ten times more important than democracy. One wonders what rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi has to say, today, about his racist and antidemocratic rhetoric.

The danger of Ashin’s rhetoric is not restricted to his own country. It has found echoes in other parts of Southeast Asia and especially among circles of Buddhist monks for some of whom he has acquired celebrity status. One of his great admirers is the 30-year-old Thai monk Phra Apichart who has an unconcealed infatuation with Ashin. Apichart has repeatedly called for burning mosques in his country in which Muslims account for six per cent of the population. Some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have also fallen under Wirathu’s influence.

Thus, the circle widens and with it the accompanying dangers of racist and religious hate crimes and mass violence. The gates of hell will open in Asia as extremist groups find attentive ears and calls to avenge Rohingya Muslims rise to a roar. One can even picture a kind of recruitment drive for fighters to take up the cause of the Muslims in Myanmar, giving rise to the Asian edition of the Syrian and Iraqi scenarios.

If the international community is to be fair and consistent with itself, it must openly condemn Buddhist extremism and ensure that those responsible for it are brought to justice. International warrants should be put out for their arrest, like all other war criminals. More generally, religious extremism must be treated as an indivisible whole, regardless of whether its source is Islamic, Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. As for Arabs and Muslims, those of us keen to defend the Rohingya Muslims should feel free to do so, but not by sharing photos and video clips of the atrocities they suffer but rather by calling attention to those who incite and justify such atrocities. In addition, Muslim organisations concerned, such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, should produce lists of all individuals who are guilty of the bloodshed of Rohingya civilians and submit these lists to the International Criminal Court so that it can take the appropriate action to bring them to account for their crimes against humanity.

The writer is managing editor of Al-Ahram and expert on East-Asia affairs.

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