West Misses Point—and Lesson—of Buddhist Anti-Muslim Sentiment

Ongoing reports decrying “anti-Muslim” Buddhists seem to miss the point: this antipathy did not appear out of thin air but rather in response to Islamic aggression -- the same Islamic aggression the rest of the world is trying to cope with.

A Financial Times editorial titled “Buddhist militancy triggers international concern” opens by describing the “traumatic first-hand view” of a Muslim woman whose home was attacked and possessions plundered by Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Says the woman: “If I could meet those responsible, I would ask: ‘Sir, does your Lord Buddha teach this?’”

Some paragraphs down, readers discover that her home was attacked during the course of “two days of clashes with Muslims,” which were “sparked by a street-corner disagreement between a Buddhist monk and a young Muslim,” and which left three people -- religious identity unstated -- dead.

So even this centerpiece story meant to demonstrate Buddhist intolerance begins with a quarrelsome “young Muslim” who may have been the one to initiate hostilities (unlike, for example, the habitual and unprovoked persecution millions of Christians and other minorities experience in the Muslim world.)  But FT does not allow for that interpretation, arguing instead that the incident “is part of a wider trend: the rise of a new generation of militant anti-Muslim Buddhist organisations.”  At no point does the editorial point out that Muslim minorities regularly provoke Buddhist backlashes.

An Al Jazeera report titled “Myanmar’s Buddhist terrorism problem” cites major clashes that erupted in May 2012 and which displaced numerous Muslims.  But, as one digs further, one realizes that these clashes were sparked after Muslims raped and slaughtered a Buddhist woman.

And a New York Times article tells of how: 

Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk with a rock-star following in Myanmar, sat before an overflowing crowd of thousands of devotees and launched into a rant against what he called “the enemy” -- the country’s Muslim minority.  “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu said, referring to Muslims. “I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers.”

While all such reports are meant to highlight Buddhist intolerance, for those who can read between the lines -- or who are familiar with Islamic teachings, history, and current events -- it is clear that Buddhists are responding to existential threats posed by the Muslims living among and around them.