Quick, what is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word ‘Buddhist”? The Dalaï Lama? Saffron robes? One hand clapping? I would wager though that the last thing that comes to you is violent extremism. Maybe it should.
I cannot claim to know a lot about Buddhism (a gap I intend to fill when I write my next book on religious extremism) but I do know that despite the faith’s longstanding association with peace and gentleness it is not immune from violence. Just today, the Sri Lankan government has announced a state of emergency in the environs of Kandy after a bunch of local Buddhists went on a rampage against Muslims, accusing a few of them of killing a man who happened to be a Sinhalese Buddhist (Sri Lanka is overwhelmingly Buddhist although there is a robust Muslim minority). This is not the first time that the country’s Buddhists have targeted its Muslim population (for a deeper dive into this check out the section on Sri Lanka in my latest book The Lesser Jihads).
Sri Lankan Buddhists are not alone in their penchant for violence however. For their part Buddhists in Myanmar have been behind what many are calling the genocide of the Rohingya (a Muslim people in that country’s northwest) and Thailand has seen the rise of some worrisome Buddhist violence. Some may argue that the violence perpetrated in these countries has nothing to do with Buddhism or religion but rather with nationalism, and that may be true, although strong nationalism can look a lot like religious fervour at times. As for the argument that what is transpiring has nothing to do with ‘normative’ Buddhism or ‘real’ Buddhism the same argument can be made that Islamist extremism is not ‘normative’ Islam and that the bizarre Christianity adopted by some in the far right is not ‘real’ Christianity. What religion is or isn’t, however, is often is the eyes and minds of the believers: besides, is there such a thing as a universally agreed upon ‘normative ____ ‘ (fill in the blank with your creed of choice)?
What seems clear, to me at least, is that these acts of violence constitute terrorism. Despite the myriad definitions of what terrorism is there seems to be some consensus that it must include a serious act of violence perpetrated for ideological, political or religious reasons. No matter whether you see the riots in Sri Lanka or the massacres in Myanmar as nationalism run rampant or religious extremism, they would certainly qualify as terrorism (as opposed to run-of-the-mill violence). If, then, a Buddhist group were to advocate or support extreme violence, as Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha does (its leader, a monk named Ashin Wirathu, has sometimes been called the ‘Asian bin Laden’, which should tell you something about his reputation), should it be designated a ‘terrorist group’ and subject to the same restrictions as the better known entities liked Al Qaeda and Islamic State? Interesting question that.
In the end what this tells us is that terrorism as a phenomenon is not the exclusive domain of one group of people (which many people would say ‘Muslims’). Any gathering can embrace terrorism, provided that the basic criteria cited above are present (serious violence, motivation).
We need to call out terrorism when we see it and not be constrained by biases (the ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ crowd) or preconceived ideas (‘Buddhists are nice, peaceful people’). We also need to recognise that the kinds of conflict we are seeing today in Sri Lanka between different groups of people, whether that difference is ethnic, religious, racial, or whatever, can lead a small minority to embrace violence as a solution or a weapon of choice. Even Buddhists.