Buddhist-Muslim clashes on the rise in Asia
The recent eruptions of violence of Buddhists against Muslims in Burma/Myanmar and in Sri Lanka inspire fears that such incidents might lead to a Muslim backlash However, there are other cases involving the faithful of both religions that show that even such violent interaction is not necessarily doomed to escalate into a religious war, writes The Economist (July 27).
While a minority of 5 percent of the population in Myanmar, Muslims are now the targets of hate speech and action by Buddhist nationalists. It started with rounds of violence by local Arakanese against Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. While there had been outbreaks of ethnic violence in the past, it has now led to a complete separation between both ethnic groups, and to sectarian violence across Myanmar. Moreover, anti-Muslim rhetoric is built around the idea of protecting Buddhism and preventing the country to be overrun by Muslims due to alleged higher birthrates.
In Sri Lanka, where criticism of Islam had been brewing among nationalist Buddhist monks for years, as a Religion Watch correspondent was able to observe during research travels to that country in recent years, the recent incidents against Muslims (10 percent of the population) have centered around issues such as halal food and the slaughtering of animals in Muslim tradition. For instance, on May 25, a monk self-immolated in protest. Previously, crowds led by monks vandalized shops run by Muslims. Other issues have been agitated by monks for years, focusing on topics such as Christian missions and conversions: groups involved in anti-Muslim violence have attacked both mosques and churches. Self-preservation is invoked by Buddhist activists, similar to Myanmar’s Arakanese people.
While violence builds on primarily economic issues in addition to religious differences, it finds a kind of legitimation through religion. This also creates fear of a Muslim backlash, especially after a series of blasts shook the Bodhgaya temple complex in Bihar, India, the holiest Buddhist shrine in India. There are suspicions that Muslim militants may have supported the (low-intensity) bombings. In Indonesia, Muslim radicals have been arrested for planning to bomb the Myanmar embassy, while other Muslims are suspected of providing support to Rohingya exiles in Bangladesh. There is a fear that some Muslims affected by violence might turn to jihadist groups for help and training.
On the other hand, while there is an international impact of such incidents, it has not yet developed into a wider conflict. The Economist remarks that Thailand has been fighting for years against Muslim insurgents in the Southern part of the country, that insurgents have targeted Buddhist monks, and that there are all-Buddhist self-defense forces located in Thailand. However, this has failed to cause a Buddhist backlash against Muslims in other parts of the country.
The insurgency led to the death of Buddhists, but it is not perceived as a fight against Buddhism itself. Moreover, the king and the political leadership exercise more control over Thai monks.