Reality check on Islam, Buddhism in Myanmar

The West has been wondering what has gone wrong with Buddhism in Myanmar since 2012 and the violence primarily by Buddhists against Muslims. Yet I want to suggest that this is the wrong question, and that the West needs to take a look in the mirror. The West’s skewed view of Buddhism as a ‘peaceful’ religion, combined with the stereotypical view of Islam as inherently ‘violent’, are a core part of the problem.

Over the past month several reports and a barrage of media reports have surfaced in an attempt to explain the violence against Muslims in Myanmar. Yet implicitly such reports often promote the ‘real’ teachings of Buddhism as a ‘peaceful’ religion, and this adds to the Western stereotype of Islam as somehow ‘violent’.

Let me illustrate this by taking a different perspective to some of the issued raised by Contesting Buddhist Narratives. This report prioritises understanding Buddhist fears and concerns, represented in the irrational ranting of the monk (and former convicted criminal) U Wirathu, who is mentioned or quoted from at least 25 times in the report. Yes, we need to understand all aspects of the conflict, but we have paid so little attention to Muslim communities in Myanmar, and this lack of information continues to fuel stereotypes about both Buddhism and Islam. This obscures Muslims’ concerns and fails to acknowledge that Muslims have serious fears too.

The basic premise of the report is that one key way forward is to use Buddhist narratives of non-violence. This is one option, but what about other alternatives, such as secularism? There is very clear precedent for this in Myanmar. General Aung San, the revered martyr and national independence hero, was a secularist. For example, in the drafting of the 1947 Constitution, he insisted that Burma should be a secular state. It was only after his assassination (when he died alongside his colleague and Muslim cabinet member, U Razak) that the provision in the draft constitution on religion was revised to give Buddhism a ‘special position’ (this was actually based on the Irish Constitution and its recognition of Catholicism). Things of course turned from bad to worse in 1961 when U Nu passed a constitutional amendment to make Buddhism the state religion, and the coup of 1962 followed soon after. Collective popular memory in Myanmar of General Aung San seems to have conveniently forgotten that he stood for secularism.

The strength of the report is its knowledge of Buddhism, yet it devotes just one paragraph to representing Muslim views. I understand the report does not claim to focus on understanding Muslims, but that’s precisely my point. Why do Buddhists who are promoting violence deserve our understanding, and Muslims who have suffered the consequences do not? This lack of focus on Muslims has led to many misunderstandings, not least the fact that the West equates Muslims in Myanmar with the term ‘Rohingya’. There is little appreciation of the diversity within the Muslim communities in Myanmar, nor is there any acknowledgement that most Muslims in Myanmar are probably not (or do not self-identify as) Rohingya. The concerns of Muslims in Rakhine State are acute and need to be addressed, but we can’t continue to ignore the fact that Muslim communities can be found right across Myanmar and that they have been severely affected by this violence.

The report also hints at the need to reform Islamic education, although it rightly acknowledges that efforts to promote tolerance in religious-based schools should take place in all religions. But let’s interrogate this view that somehow Islamic education institutions in Myanmar are partly blame (which is also what the Rakhine Commission Report indicated). Using Islamic education institutions as a convenient scapegoat indicates both an ignorance about these institutions, and a failure to remember the past. For example, prior to 1962 there were top schools run by Muslims (and there were also Muslim children who attended top Christian schools) and these institutions provided a broad education, alongside an Islamic education. When Ne Win took over in 1962, Islamic schools, like all other religious schools, were at risk of nationalisation. And many of these Islamic schools were nationalised. Some, however, that were able to convince Ne Win’s regime that they would only teach a narrow Islamic studies curriculum were allowed to continue to function as madrasas. So I think we need to keep past government policies in mind, before we go pointing the blame at Islamic education institutions.

The report does provide some interesting examples of how Buddhists are participating in inter-religious dialogue. But it fails to mention that some Muslims have been doing this for decades in Myanmar. There has been a very distinct movement in Myanmar for a very long time of Muslims who have bent over backwards to fit in, to tolerate Buddhism and its traditions, and to show that they belong to Myanmar too. These ‘Burmese Muslims’ have insisted on using Burmese language (rather than Arabic or Urdu) as the language of instruction in Islamic schools. These Burmese Muslims have insisted that their women should be free to wear Burmese dress if they choose (which is more revealing than traditional Islamic teachings allow). I am not saying Muslims should have to identify as ‘Burmese’ or compromise their religion in this way; of course if they chose to retain their Indian or Chinese or Shan identity alongside their Muslim identity, they should be allowed to too.

We need to put aside this preoccupation with proving that Buddhism is an inherently peaceful religion while remaining ambiguously silent on Islam. Western media and scholarship needs to intentionally work to dispel the assumptions that Islam is bad and Buddhism is good, that Islam is violent and Buddhism is non-violent, that a monk in a saffron robe is peaceful, but that a man with a beard and wearing a skull cap is violent. These dichotomies are false and contribute to the tensions.

It is time that the West takes a serious reality check on how it views Islam and Buddhism. While the violence and discrimination against Muslims is a reflection on Myanmar, the response of the West is a reflection of persistent stereotypes in the West about Islam and Buddhism.

Melissa Crouch is a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore