Muslims in Myanmar are experiencing ethnic cleansing and Islamophobic violence. By whom and why? The history of the minority Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar goes back centuries. In recent years, there has been violence by non-state actors, the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who are attempting to purify their country of the “impure”Rohingyan Muslims.They have been supported tacitly by the Myanmar state and their Noble Peace Prize-winning statesman, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Rakhine Buddhist nationalist groups and their silent allies believe that Muslims fundamentally disturb the essence of Myanmar society because they are a race of people prone to raping Buddhist women, irrational terrorism and causing general societal decay. In the age of the global War on Terror, it is not uncommon to find Muslims under attack and pre-emptively associated with terrorism on every continent of the globe; especially in societies with Muslim minorities.
Image source: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
From Meditation and Candles, to Machetes and Guns
On the other hand, it might seemstrange at first to most to hear that Buddhists – a religious community usual associated with peace, meditation and non-violence in the global imagination – are the perpetrators of such barbaric acts. Images of laughing Buddha statues and incense burning in temples have sit uneasilywith that of clean shaven Myanmar monks with machetes and guns, ready to kill a Muslim when they see one.
In this specific context,the perpetrators of violence are Buddhists – a surprise to most – and the victims are Muslim minorities – not necessarily a surprise. How do we describe this problem though? How do we make sense of so-called “religious violence” when we live in an era where religious violence has been mainly tied to the specter of Muslim violence?
Many scholars of religious violence have argued how the Muslim has been constructed as a fundamental enemy to Western civilization. Others have attempted to show that post-Cold War, the Muslim becomes the main enemy of Western civilization. Regardless of which starting point we take, it is clear the Muslim terrorist in a post-9/11 world is the standard of comparison for explaining political violence by state and non-state actors. While statistics show that is actually Western countries that continue to produce the most amount of violence and death due to endless wars and destabilization of non-Western states (let alonetheir own state), the Muslim somehow captures the imagination of a world that is intoxicated with Islamophobia. The international community has effectively normalized the Muslim as the global boogeyman of terrorism and securitization policies.
Islamophobic Language of Political Violence
The language of condemning political violence has become largelyIslamophobic. It assumes Muslims are the normative comparative group to explain acts of violence, whether religious, secular or other. Many articles have thus described the persecution of the Rohingya as a type of “Buddhist terrorism” or “Buddhist fundamentalism” without questioning the very language they are using. By using this Islamophobic grammar, the image that immediately comes to peoples’ mind in order to compare is a long-bearded Muslim with a kalashnikov screaming “Allahu Akbar” in an unidentified jungle, desert or casbah. Postcolonial thinkers have made it clear that both now and for the last five centuries, Muslims have not been the main perpetrators of violence, whether religious or secular. The main perpetrators of violence for the last several centuries have been a Western, white, Christian and/or secular men.
Yet,the Muslim is fixated as a global frame of reference due to the dominance of Western media and governance influencing the economies, educational institutions and even popular culture of non-Western countries. If to call Buddhists“terrorists” and “fundamentalists” is a move that reifies an invisible Islamophobic grammar of condemning violence, the question we must ask is, how can we describe the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Buddhist forces through a non-Islamophobic language?
One of the problems with this narrative is that there appears to be no difference between the language of so called “Muslim terrorism” and “Buddhist terrorism.” How can we differentiate it? It seems that popular response from even Muslims themselves and their sympathizers lacks analytical nuance when comes to the question of Buddhist violence. This means that this is not only a problem of the Islamophobia in the West, but Islamophobia at a global level. The Muslim world as well as others across the planet reproduce the same type of Islamophobic narratives of condemnation to describe political violence.
Reunderstanding Religious and Secular Violence
In order to understand why it is not appropriate to make a simple comparison between differing forms of “religious” violence, we first to need interrogate why religious violence is viewed as somehow different from secular violence. Religious violence is viewed as irrational, medieval and undemocratic to the ideals of a law and order in modern societies. Is this the case though? Or does the logic of secularism describe religious violence in this biased way in order to make secular forms of violence more rational, modern and acceptable.
The unproblematic secular epistemology hovering behind the myth of the religious violence is the marked feature of the use of both Buddhist violence and Muslim violence. There is a need to put both the religious and secular on par as theoretically valid frameworks for understanding violence in different contexts. There is a need to hybridize and see the interconnected and complex relationship between both secular and religious forms of violence, as many have argued.
Yet this conversation of secular and religious forms of violence does not take place in a vacuum. In the world we live in, the Muslim is the standard par excellence of religious violence. The Muslim is a figure whose religious – or even secular – violence is the essential feature of the dominant narratives around political violence and global security. Even if Buddhist violence in Myanmar is treated as a major form of violence for now, it will be made an exception to the rule of Islamophobic narratives on violence for the future.
One way to think about the cause and effect of Buddhist violence against Muslim-minorities in Myanmar is to see it as a hybrid form of violence. This hybrid form of violence contains many agents and factors that lead to the end point of violence – the state, elites, media, religious leaders and their lay followers and the army just to name a few. This approachof analyzing multiple agents of hybridized violence is missing when we make comments around the essentialist notion of religious – and in this case Buddhist – violence.
Non-Islamophobic Frameworks for Analyzing Political Violence
It is clear we need a different language and grammar to explain political and systemic violence – whether religious, secular or both. How would we describe this to escape reifying Islamophobia? Given the long history and dominance of Europe’sreligious and secular crusades against non-European peoples– do we call this a “Buddhist Crusade”? Has Buddhist violence simply become a colonial phenomenon inherited from Eurocentric statecraft? That may be the case; nevertheless, there is a need for Buddhist thinkers to decolonize the narrative along with Muslims in order to respect and uplift our communitiesin solidarity against multiple forms of oppression.
Another way may be to examine this issue through the lens of the modern-nation state and the dynamics created through exclusionary nationalisms based upon a majority-minority complex amongst differing races, religions and ethnicities within a given population. Saba Mahmoodis a scholar who has deconstructed the narrative of the modern-state’s relationship to majority and minority communities and violence between them. In the context of the Muslim Mediterranean, European colonial authorities utilized non-Muslim minorities, such as Christians and Jews, to privilege them in a divide-and-conquer strategy that would cause divisions amongst populations mobilizing forms of anti-colonial nationalisms in the Muslim world. In the contemporary Indian context, the violence against Muslims by the fascist Hindutva state cannot be explained using the simple binary of Muslim vs Hindus. There are multiple factors, such as caste, community and religion which mitigate violence against Muslim-minority communities in India.
In light of this, might we call what is happening in Myanmar a form of exclusionary Buddhist nationalist violence? Or a type of Buddhist anti-minority violence? Or even exclusionary nationalist and anti-minority violence that happened to be committed by Buddhists? The questions and answers are up for debate. What is clear is the need to rethink our grammar of political violence in a world that continuously reaches to an Islamophobic reservoir of language in order to describe all acts of terror and violence.
Ashraf Kunnummal and Alexander Abbasi, (PhD Candidates, Department of Religion Studies, University of Johannesburg)