Sunday, May 11, 2014

Extremist Buddhists? Impossible!

I've seen this now a few times, watching friends titter (with some embarrassment, because they know it's inappropriate) when they hear or read news reports about "extremist Buddhists" in Myanmar.  Why do they laugh?  Because the image of radical Buddhists engaged in genocidal-like behavior is inconsistent with my friends' stereotype of Buddhists as calm and meditative, focusing on the nature of the mind, on clarity and awareness.

This disconnect between our stereotype of how people of a certain religion should be viewed and how some of them behave can be disconcerting.  It happens when the aggressive or hostile political acts of a subset of people of a religion conflict with the underlying premises of the faith, as practiced by the majority.

Our perceptions sometimes then rebound in a dangerous way.  We extrapolate the bad behavior of a religion's extremest members to all members of that faith.

The Aga Khan made this point with regard to Muslims in his recent address to the Canadian Parliament:

"What is highly abnormal in the Islamic world gets mistaken for what is normal."

But it is not only about Muslims.  The same has occurred with regard to extreme actions taken by Christians and Jews in other settings. Think of violent actions by some Catholics and Protestants in North Ireland during "the troubles."  Were the acts representative of the religious beliefs of most people of those faiths?  Of course not.  Ditto for some awful things that some extremist Jews have done to their neighbors in Israel. 

Extremist actions of this sort reflect the appropriation of the name of a religion in support of a political goal.  We observers often fall into the trap of equating those extremist actions with the tenets of the religion.

But, in the US, we do one thing more.  If other members of a faith do not decry the actions of the extremists, we say, "You see, they won't keep their own people from doing harm," or, "They must be the same at heart."

I've seen a lot of my American brethren do this when a Muslim commits a terrorist act.  If the Muslim community does not rise in "sufficient" public outrage, they are assumed to be somehow complicit.

When terrorism or other extreme behavior occurs, is it the special responsibility of those of the religious faith of the criminal to denounce it?

I don't think so.

Each of us chooses to respond in our own way to these terrible events.  Let's not take someone's decision to respond privately, rather than publicly, as a sign of support for extremism.  Indeed, it is likely the case that they are grieving more than we can know because their faith has been improperly used to justify a heinous act.

Or perhaps they have chosen an approach based on forgiveness--a theme set forth over the years by Ghandi, King, and Mandela.  Here's an example, from the family of a person who was recently killed by extremist Muslims in Kabul.  They wrote:

We mourn those who plan and commit these atrocities (who) have never known the beauty of our faith, Islam, or of any other faith in the path of God.


Aditya Pathak said...

Well said about the stereotyping and the associated "expected/ surprised" reaction based on that. While I share your perspective about not forcing a community reaction, I do feel that the reaction from within the community has the most important role in feeding or weakening the extremists within the community. If those on whose behalf the extremists are going to the extremes don't agree with them, the extremists withdraw.

BTW, the picture appears to be of a Hindu ritual, rather than a Buddhist one :)

Paul Levy said...

Gosh, you can't even trust Google image searches anymore! Will leave it up as a good example of something!

Paul Levy said...

On second thought, I changed it to something more identifiable. Thanks.

Paul Levy said...

To your point, which is a good one, I think we need to leave it up to the community to decide what kind of approach is likely to be most persuasive--as opposed to layering on our own cultural expectation of what is right for the situation.