Malik’s Piece on Buddhism and Bigotry in the NYT

I thought this was interesting, though Malik clearly undermines his own implied connection between Buddhism and the bigotry late in the article. Worth a quick read perhaps? Here’s a little bit to get you started:

There is perhaps no religion that Western liberals find more appealing than Buddhism. Politicians fawn over the Dalai Lama, celebrities seek out Buddhist meditation, and scientists and philosophers insist that Buddhism has much to teach us about human nature and psychology.

Even some of the so-called New Atheists have fallen for Buddhism’s allure. For most of its Western sympathizers, Buddhism is a deeply humanist outlook, less a religion than a philosophy, a way of life to create peace and harmony.

The Rohingya people of Myanmar take a very different view of Buddhism. The Rohingya are Muslims who live mostly in Rakhine, in western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh. Early Muslim settlements there date from the seventh century. Today, in a nation that is 90 percent Buddhist, there are some eight million Muslims, of whom about one in six is Rohingya.

For the Myanmar government, however, the Rohingya simply do not exist…

7 replies on “Malik’s Piece on Buddhism and Bigotry in the NYT”

  1. Kenan has written about this before and I posted on it at Religious Left Law:

    He is of course right about some folks “romanticizing” (a variation on that Orientalist thing?) Buddhism, about refusing to apply ethical or moral standards to Buddhists that have been invoked elsewhere (e.g., notorious cases where Buddhist teachers have abused their authority with and power over their students), or turning a blind eye when Buddhists in some countries behave badly, as is liable to happen when ethnic Buddhist identity is wrapped up with national identity in states where liberal democratic toleration and acceptance (let alone its entrenchment as a constitutional right) of various minority groups has yet to take hold.

    Malik’s humanism is not the aggressive sort found among the “new atheists” (and those New Atheists he cites above are usually referring to contemporary formulations of so-called ‘secular Buddhism’ by a Batchelor or Flanagan which is shorn of anything metaphysical or supranatural, be it karma, re-birth, or nirvana itself in the tradition) but is more sensitive to and intelligent about the motley variables involved in socio-cultural and political conflict, hence religion is not invariably viewed as the primary or often-cited source of all that ails us in the contemporary world. Nonetheless, this humanism finds him constitutionally skeptical of all non-naturalist religious worldviews, hence he can’t resist a few rhetorical jabs at the tradition. That said, he is right to highlight the reluctance or refusal of people otherwise sympathetic or avowing fidelity to Buddhism to remain silent about the dire (genocidal?) situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma. In short, as in other traditions, there can be a yawning abyss between what the religion teaches and how its adherents behave, and historical or sociological generalizations on this score are hazardous (hence the spate of books of late examining the role of violence in Buddhist history); at any rate, they often admit of exceptions, in this instance (and elsewhere, as in Thailand), of a rather egregious and disturbing sort demanding our attention…and some sort of response.

  2. My reading is that Malik does not mean to suggest a connection between Buddhism and violence; he does not mean to say that there is anything about Buddhism that might lead people toward violence (except perhaps that it is a religion, or that it is not other religions, because religious differences in general can lead to violence). Instead he’s offering Buddhism as a riposte to the widespread view that Islamic violence springs from Islam (from more than its just being a religion) and renders all Muslims suspect. Even Buddhism has its baddies (so lighten up on the religion Islam, on Muslims in general).

  3. Many thanks for linking to my article. Bill is right: I am not implying any intrinsic ‘connection between Buddhism and the bigotry’. To the contrary, I wrote that

    ‘Few would suggest that there is anything inherent in Buddhism that has led to the persecution. Instead, most would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar has its roots in the nation’s political struggles’

    and that

    ‘It is not that tenets of the Buddhist faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have donned the garb of religion as a way of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions.’

    I was making a point about the relative silence over the pogroms on Myanmar. But I was also, again as Bill suggests, making a broader call for a more nuanced view of religion and violence, especially with respect to Islam. I have, in the wake of the article, had dozens of emails accusing me of ‘smearing’ Buddhism. I do think that there is a certain defensiveness on the part of Buddhists, possibly because up till now there has been so little criticism, either of the faith or of the actions of its adherents.

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply! Yes, I think your point becomes clearer on a complete reading of your piece. I fear the title of the piece and the first few paragraphs provide a mistaken implication to the careless reader that somehow it is the Buddhism that is at fault. Unfortunately, in dialogues concerning religion, careful readings tend not to be common practice. Looking forward to more pieces by you that are relevant to our blog!

  4. Re: relevance to this blog

    Kenan’s latest book, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (London: Atlantic Books, 2014) has material relevant to this blog: he treats well-known Chinese philosophers and worldviews in several sections of the book. Should one or more of the experts at WW & W read his book (which has received glowing reviews to date), it would be nice to have a discussion in light of the overall aim of the work (i.e., to provide a ‘global history…’), perhaps inviting Kenan to chime in at some point (bear in mind the final draft is far shorter than he originally planned).

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