Last week, the German newspaper Die Zeit published a profile of the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. One photograph showed him wearing a red robe, standing in front of a gilded shrine. The reporter, Erich Follath, described him as short and gentle, possessing a youthful smile and a melodious voice. Anyone who didn’t read the story itself might have thought it was about some method of Buddhist meditation, or was full of descriptions of infinite compassion.
However, the context of the piece was utterly different: Wirathu is the extremist leader of the Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar and the major inciter against the country’s Muslims. Since last summer, the country once known as Burma has carried out atrocities against members of its Muslim minority. The army surrounds their villages in the western part of the country, whose residents have been massacred and raped. In many locales only burnt houses remain; the others have been bulldozed off the face of the earth. About 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their homes, mass graves are being unearthed and, according to Physicians Without Borders, some 10,000 have been killed.
In the article, Wirathu denies allegations that women have been raped, claiming that no soldier would even agree to touch a Muslim woman, because “her body is too repulsive.” In the past, he urged his followers to expel Muslims from Myanmar, adding that they are “less deserving of protection than mosquitoes.” He maintains that the Muslims – who constitute less than five percent of a total population of some 54 million – pose a demographic threat to the country.
Wirathu, who may be the most influential religious leader in Myanmar, has close connections with the military. He openly identifies with the global front of nationalism and with xenophobia. He congratulated Donald Trump on his election, and has expressed support for both Marine Le Pen and the far-right German party Pegida. “Perhaps Pegida will be the salvation of Germany one day, just as I am saving my homeland,” he said in the Die Zeit interview.
Although Buddhist political violence has recently reached extreme levels in Myanmar, the phenomenon itself is not new. Nor is it aimed only against Muslims. In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, which is rife with racist elements, has flourished for a hundred years. Buddhist leaders there claim that pure Aryan blood flows in their veins – in contrast to their Hindu Tamil countrymen. In Thailand, Buddhist monks incited to the murder of communists, and in Japan four centuries ago, they led attacks against Christians. (In the 16th century, Buddhists in Japan were still executing Christians by means of crucifixion.)
In fact, it turns out that in almost every country that has a Buddhist majority, there have been outbreaks of violence led by religious leaders, many of them in recent decades. Nevertheless, no one has called on Buddhism to “take stock,” as is demanded frequently of Islam. Nor does anyone maintain that “Buddhism needs to undergo reformation” in order for it to adapt to the modern world.
For some reason, people are reluctant to see Buddhist violence as a concrete threat. In the West, Buddhism enjoys the image of a peace-loving, harmonious religion, opposed to all forms of coercion and free of the fanaticism and violence of the monotheistic faiths. But in recent months the atrocities being perpetrated in Buddhism’s name in Myanmar and elsewhere has stirred a trenchant discussion about the myth of nonviolence associated with the religion.
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“This myth of Buddhist nonviolence is a product of Western fantasy,” Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars wrote last September, in Maclean’s magazine, in reference to the horrors in Myanmar. The American scholar of political Buddhism Michael Jerryson noted last year, in the wake of a wave of Buddhist violence in Thailand, that the “popular narratives of passivity and victimhood in Western culture are blind to the diversity in Buddhism and its long history of violence.” Militant monks represent a long tradition in Buddhism, he added. Accordingly, it cannot be said that the Buddhists who support violence are “not true Buddhists,” as that would mean that a considerable proportion of the world’s genuine Buddhists are not really Buddhists.
It is more reasonable to argue that the philosophical-spiritual worldview sometimes called “Buddhism” is actually a Western invention. This is not to say that Buddhism is more violent than other faiths. But recent hostilities involving Buddhists prove that no group is immune to the potential to wield violence, even murderous violence, if it has the power to do so.
Ruffians and brutes
As Nietzsche once wrote, those who purport to desire weakness usually do so because they are perforce weak. In this sense, the only difference between Buddhism and Christianity, for example, is that due to historical circumstances, Christianity was able to attain a position of power. For that reason, the historical record of that religion includes atrocities such as the Rhineland massacres of 1096, the Inquisition and the annihilation of Native Americans. In its essence, Christianity is no more inclined to violence than other religions. In fact, when it first emerged, it was apparently the most submissive and nonviolent religion of all.
In fact, the stance of righteousness and moral purity – which sometimes stems from long periods of persecution, or life under oppression – is easily reversed and can morph into a particularly destructive outburst of holy violent rage. People who have become accustomed to seeing themselves as nice folks who aren’t capable of hurting a fly can sprout terrifying fangs and claws very fast.
Slightly over a century ago, communists were, for the most part, considered to be idealistic intellectuals who objected to the death penalty and cared for every living creature. But a few years of being in control were sufficient to demonstrate that communism could indeed be a murderous force.
And then there’s the Jews, of course. Until the early 20th century, a Jew bearing arms was considered a joke or a bizarre and exceptional phenomenon. But the Zionist project has already accustomed the world to the idea that people of this faith, too, can be ruffians, even brutes.
During Purim, we learn all manner of things from the reading of the Scroll of Esther. But perhaps the most striking message it conveys is that the moment the Jews were given power, even for just a few days, they immediately set about killing tens of thousands of Persians.
Buddhists, Jews, queers, Yazidis, Armenians and women – all these groups are often portrayed as essentially peaceful. In fact, those who do not possess power cannot effectively wield violence, and that’s a situation that can change the moment a group seizes control of the government, or even part of it.