Over the last decade, Muslim-Buddhist conflict has escalated in Asia, with casualties on both sides. Although largely forgotten today, the Taliban detonated the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in 2001, six months before the 9/11 attacks. Since then attacks on Buddhist identity and people in Asia has continued. In the last few months, however, the Muslim Rohingya minority of Buddhist Myanmar (Burma) have found themselves the victims of attacks, with possibly as many as 90,000 now having fled and living as refugees. As the intensity of the hostility between Buddhists and Muslims in Asia escalates, it is time to look at the history of the conflict as well as recent events.
The history of the Muslim-Buddhist conflict is a long one. During the eighth century Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims had lived side by side in Afghanistan in an atmosphere of relative tolerance and interaction. Many Buddhists even converted to Islam, which was more straightforward than the relatively esoteric Buddhist faith, with its doctrine of reincarnation, karma, and deities.During the ninth century, however, Sunni Turks — new converts to Islam, whose zeal did not leave room for any faith, or interpretation of faith, that vied with their own – launched a sustained attack on the Buddhists and their monasteries, driving them out of Afghanistan, across the Punjab, and into northern India. By 1021, the Buddhists routed the Muslim armies in Kashmir before being attacked again and pushed further into the Himalayas and Tibet.
Muslim armies conquered much of India, initiating eight centuries of Muslim rule in the traditionally Hindu land. Despite persecutions – especially early on – under the later Moghal Empire (of Muslim rule) much of the better-known aspects of Indian culture was created, from Moghal miniature painting to the Taj Mahal. Sufi Islam — mystical and largely peaceful and ecumenical — also became a large part of the culture. However, the Moghal Empire had virtually collapsed not long after the middle of the eighteenth century, although it lingered 1858, when the British filled the power vacuum, and became the new rulers of India.
The British had already taken over parts of India, and had instituted Warren Hastings as Governor-General in 1773. Hastings respected Indian culture. He learned both Hindi and Persian, and translated the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita and the Islamic texts Fatawa al-Alamgiri and Hidaya. In Bengal, under Hastings, British employees in the East India Company “went native,” marrying Indian women, learning local languages, and adopting Indian customs.
Later, Christians in Britain became determined that Indians should be converted to their faith. Christianity is, of course, a proselytizing faith. But Christians were also shocked by reports of some of the traditions of India, especially Sati, the practice of a Hindu window killing herself by self-immolating on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although this was brutal, the attempt to impose Christian belief and Western norms – effectively cultural cleansing — on the population naturally engendered resentment at the British, who had now turned themselves into the masters of the indigenous peoples. In 1857 rioting broke out in several regions after Indian foot soldiers (sepoys) were imprisoned for refusing to use bullets, the cartridges of which were greased with beef tallow and pig lard, and had to be removed by biting on them and pulling. The majority of sepoys were Hindu (who regard cows as sacred, and believe they should not be killed) and Muslim (who regard pigs as unclean, and are prohibited from eating pork, pig fat, and so on).
Likewise, in Buddhist Ceylon, the colonial British authorities had instated discriminations (such as restrictions on schooling and the banning of traditional holidays) aimed at effacing Buddhism, and replacing it with Christianity. The indigenous religion had virtually died out, but was revived with the help of Henry Steel Olcott, who had been one of the primary investigators of the Lincoln assassination, and a major player in the Theosophical Society (a semi-mystical organization that had been founded in New York by Russian émigré Mme Blavatsky). Olcott lobbied the British on behalf of the Buddhists, helped revive the Buddhist school system, wrote a Buddhist catechism (which is still in use), and helped to design the universal Buddhist flag.
Islam in Asia has tended to be relatively peaceful, mystical, and apolitical – with a strong Sufi presence. In recent years, however, Saudi-funded Wahabism and Islamism have made very significant inroads into the continent, threatening traditional Muslims and those of other faiths alike. Shia Muslim pilgrims are now frequently targeted in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Sunni terrorists, and Sufi shrines have been destroyed. In Pakistan, Hindus are subject to kidnapping, extortion, and, often, forced conversion and marriage. It is in this context that we need to understand anti-Buddhism in Asia.
The first major attack on Buddhist culture in recent decades was the detonation of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan located in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan, in March 2001. The sandstone Buddhas had been carved into the rock face 1,700 earlier. The largest was over 150 feet high. Yet, half a year before the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in the US, the Taliban, blew up the world historic treasures by “drill[ing] holes into the torsos of the two statues and then placed dynamite charges inside the holes to blow them up,” the British Telegraph reported. The destruction was overseen by Mullah Obaidullah, the Taliban defense minister.
(Above: An Islamist propaganda video celebrating the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.)
Attacks on Buddhist culture has continued, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2010, a Buddhist temple in the North Sumatran city of Tanjung Balai, Indonesia, was forced to remove a Buddha statue from its roof after complaints by an Islamist organization.
Illustrating the connection between modern Islamism in Asia and attacks on other faiths, the Maldives republic was forced to remove a wooden monument, given to it by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, because of political “Defend Islam” protests. The protestors demanded the removal of the monument, which “showed how Pakistan became an Islamic country from its Buddhist origins,” and called for the implementation of sharia as state law. A month later, in February 2012, after a coup in the Maldives, Islamic hardliners burst into the national museum and smashed Buddhist statues. Police spokesman Ahmed Shiyam said that, “A mob entered the museum” and “smashed many statues. This included some statues of Buddha.”
In Malaysia in 2012, a Buddhist society, in the city of Kota Bharu, was told that its new temple would not be able to include definitive iconography of the faith in its design, but would have to resemble a mosque. Thirty percent of the inhabitants of the city are Buddhist and Christian, however, it was declared officially Islamic in 2005 by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia. As in Islamist Iran, the Kota Baru Municipal Council has attempted to “Islamize” the public space, of which these restrictions were a part.
Attacks on culture often precede physical violence against persons and populations, and, although relatively rare in Asia as a whole, violence against Buddhists have occurred. They are relatively frequent in Thailand.In Thailand, Malay-speaking Islamist insurgents are waging a civil war with the aim of creating an independent Islamic state in territory in the south of the nation. The area had been annexed by Siamese forces over a century ago, but resentment against the Malaysian state has continued – as tends to be the case in such situations.
In 2005, a Buddhist man was beheaded. According to the BBC, a note found by the body said that the murder had been in retaliation for the arrest of a Muslim student leader.
In 2007, two Buddhist fishmongers were beheaded and a Muslim informant crucified by Islamists. In 2009, insurgents beheaded a Buddhist rubber tapper and shot another Buddhist man. Reuters reported that “The attacks took place in Yala and Pattani, two of the three Malay Muslim provinces where 29 people have been killed and more than 50 injured in the past 10 days, among them soldiers, teachers and Buddhist monks.” According to the Buddhist website, Dhamsara, “Over 4300 lives have been lost since the year 2004 owing to Islamic insurgency. Buddhist monks have been beheaded, children killed and civilians attacked. More than 500 people have been killed in 2004 in there southern Thai provinces.”
Attacks on Rohingya Muslims
In recent months, the Muslim Rohingya minority have found themselves the victims of outbreaks of violence in Buddhist majority Miyanmar.
The Rohingya were incorporated into Buddhist Burma (Myanmar), after the defeat of the Muslim-majority kingdom of Arakan (then their homeland) in 1784. Burma itself was soon to be occupied by the British, who turned it into a colony attached to India. The Rohingya were, and are, denied citizenship and land rights, making them effectively stateless.
In June, 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, by two Rohingya men who were later convicted and sentenced to death, sparked violence by a number of Buddhist vigilantes, who went looking for the perpetrators. They stopped a bus, and killed at least nine Rohingya Muslims (none of whom were connected to the earlier rape). In another act of anti-Rohingya violence, reported Bangladeshi’s bdnews24.com, seven people were believed to have died and at least 17 were believed wounded during unrest that broke out in Maungdaw township.As the unrest grew, Miyanmar declared a state of emergency, and sent naval vessels and planes carrying soldiers to the region, in order to maintain the peace.
However, despite initial conciliatory remarks, Myanmar President, Thein Sein, soon shocked the international community by suggesting that the Rohingya should be deporte to UNHCR refugee camps. “We will take responsibility for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas, who are not our ethnicity,” Sein told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. Myanmar’s President suggested that the “only solution” was to send the Rohingyas to refugee camps, the Daily News reported.
In a press release issued in July, Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher said that Amnesty International had “received credible reports” of “human rights abuses against Rohingyas and other Rakhine Muslims– including physical abuse, rape, destruction of property, and unlawful killings – carried out by both Rakhine Buddhists and security forces.”
In the same press release, Zawacki said that between 50,000 and 90,000 Rohingyas were now refugees. Most of these had fled to neighboring Bangladesh, which already had a sizeable Rohingya refugee population (estimated at around 300,000).
Positive Steps Towards Reconcilliation
Conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Asia are growing, with each new conflict being potentially used in propaganda to urge yet more sectarian violence. A photograph of Tibetan monks surrounded by corpses, left in the wake of the earthquake in Yushul in eastern Tibet, in April 2010, has appeared on several Islamist website, which have claimed, falsely, that the dead are slaughtered Rohingya.
This propaganda appears to have provoked several attacks on Tibetan Buddhists exiled in India, including possibly the stabbing of a Tibetan youth on August 14.
Tibetan governing council, Kashag, has attempted to calm the situation, saying that, “Muslim leaders should be informed about the historically good relationship between the Tibetan Muslims and Buddhists, particularly the consistent commitment and advice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to promote religious harmony during his visits around the world, his pilgrimage to mosques and efforts to strengthen ties with Muslim religious leaders.”
Aside from outreach by the Dalai Lama, there have been other hopeful efforts at bringing Buddhists and Muslims together. Pattani FC, a semi professional soccer club based in Pattani Province, Thailand, has both Buddhist and Muslim players.
Samae Samak, a Muslim member of the team, which plays in Regional League Division 2 Southern, has said that the players “are not divided, whether Muslim, Buddhist or Christian. We are all friends.” Pitsarok Rujakat, a Buddhist player, from northern Thailand, says “In Pattani, no matter how far away people live or if there have been incidents, they come to watch football matches.”
Earlier this year, when Islamists destroyed a Buddha statue in the Maldives national museum, a number of prominent Sri Lankan Muslims spoke out to condemn the destruction. Among them, Sri Lanka’s Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana declared that, “The Muslim fraternity in Sri Lanka vehemently condemns the damage caused Buddhist statues in the Maldives by extremist gangs. They [Sri Lanka's Muslims] voiced their anger over this dastardly act. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka always respects other religions.”