Religion and peace: why we shouldn’t judge religious communities by their extremists

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With the sudden rise of ISIS in Iraq and global fears over Jihadi terrorism, it is unsurprising that anti-Islamic sentiment has arisen around the world, particularly in the Western media. However, this reactive discrimination can result in severe human rights abuses and serve only to continue the cycle of ethno-religious conflict. This situation is exemplified in Myanmar, where the local Muslim minority has been repeatedly targeted by extreme Buddhists. According to a report by the United Nations in January, Rakhine State saw over 110,000 people uprooted in the preceding 18 months due to violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. A further report by Fortify rights in February suggests that Government policies are deliberately designed to discriminate against Rohingya Muslims.

This revealing report lists the disturbing extent of the anti-Muslim abuses taking place in Rakhine State, with “entire Muslim neighbourhoods and villages being razed” and casualty levels in the hundreds. While these incidents have received media attention, however, the report also explains that there are many ongoing human rights abuses occurring “under the radar” such as restrictions on freedom of movement and strict population control limits unfairly justified through the claim that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants” despite their communities having lived there for generations. While Myanmar is no stranger to oppressive politics (as exemplified by the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the suppression of political opposition) however, perhaps more shocking is the role of extreme Buddhist Monks in the repression of the Rohyingya. A brief investigation on Buddhism’s tenets reveals a commitment to peace and pacifism, even in the face of extreme violence. Yet despite this, Myanmar in recent years has seen Buddhist monks joining violent mob attacks and spreading hate speech targeted at Rohingya Muslims, with one extreme Buddhist- Ashin Wirathu- being compared to the late Bin Laden; an Islamic extremist long considered to be the ‘face of terrorism’ by many.

Alan Strathern, an Oxford University historian, draws an important implication from this seemingly paradoxical situation. Despite the tenets of mainstream religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism focusing on peace and even pacifism , religious followers and can often end up committing aggressive actions and sectarian violence seemingly in the name of their religion. However, it is not the religion or its community as a whole responsible for these actions. The Buddhist minority in Tibet has suffered years of oppression at the hands of Chinese authorities, who have received a great deal of criticism for their suppression of religious communities. Sectarian conflict is not merely religious- it ultimately comes down to socio-political issues of power and control. When a group feels threatened by others or takes its cause to extremes, its principles can be distorted and used for the pursuit of power. The threats reportedly made recently by rising Islamist group ISIS to kill Muslims that are ‘too moderate’ highlights what I would argue are the true underlying motives of many extremists- gaining dominance using religious rhetoric as a means of twisted control rather than encouraging spiritual beliefs.

While religious extremism is a deep and difficult thing to explain-with many followers likely adhering strongly to their radical views- it is a dangerous assumption to make that a certain religion or group as a whole represents a threat because of these extremists. As evidenced by the situation in Myanmar, doing so simply serves to continue the cycle of contradictory hatred, leading to further human rights abuses which ultimately work to the detriment of all. Religious groups have seen much controversy in the current political climate, but it is important to remember the positive things they can create as well as the risks of extremism; and that ultimately religious followers- like everyone else- are human beings capable of both good and evil.

Written by Alexander Haley

Sources used:

http://www.fortifyrights.org/downloads/Policies_of_Persecution_Feb_25_Fortify_Rights.pdf

http://www.hrw.org/asia/burma

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22356306

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/world/asia/buddhist-muslim-mayhem-hits-myanmars-no-2-city.html?_r=0

http://www.malaysia-chronicle.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=314012:extremism–religious-persecutions-tainting-the-holy-month-of-ramadan&Itemid=2#axzz36REFPWDp

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/tibetan_1.shtml

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/buddhistethics/war.shtml

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