Since 2012, Buddhist violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has escalated, amounting to what many now are calling genocide. Visiting the squalid refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, American imam Khalid Latif, University Chaplain at New York University, remarked, “This is probably the most devastating conflict that’s taking place in the world right now, and also the most overlooked” (“Inside the Rohingya Refugee Camps”). The camps house a population approaching one million, over half of whom have fled persecution by the Burmese army since August 2016.
Burmese Buddhist nationalism is driving the violence, and the once high hopes the world held for the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained largely silent (some would argue, complicit), have evaporated (see Joe Freeman’s “Who Is the Real Aung San Suu Kyi?”). The conflict is driven not only by nationalism but also by the false yet powerful narrative that Muslim violence is responsible for the historical decline of Buddhism in Asia, particularly in its Indian homeland. Orientalist notions of the peace-loving Buddhist and the violent Muslim persist. History tells a different story, however: for over a millennium, Buddhists and Muslims lived peaceably as neighbors in Asia, their relationship perhaps best characterized by their centuries-long cross-cultural exchange along the Silk Road and in Buddhist India itself.
In this issue, Southern Methodist University professor Johan Elverskog offers a long overdue corrective to misconceptions about the historical relationship between Islam and Buddhism (“When the Monks Met the Muslims”). The celebrated 5th century monastic university Nalanda, he notes, carried on for about 100 years after the Mughal invasion, and Buddhism continued in India until at least the 17th century. While media coverage of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed at the beginning of this century focused on Muslim violence, it entirely overlooked the fact that the statues had remained intact under Muslim rule for 1,300 years. It is true, as Elverskog points out, that conflict has been a part of Buddhism’s encounter with Islam, but that has been only part of the story. The history of Buddhist-Muslim relations is largely one of a mutually beneficial exchange that helped to shape and enrich both traditions.
Although it can vary widely in scale, the tendency to stay with the familiar and to be antagonistic toward what is unfamiliar is a constant of delusion, whether we are talking about ethnic rivalry or religious sectarianism. Yet as John Stuart Mill wrote in the mid-19th century, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. . . . Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
In this sense, our present age is not so different from Mill’s, and his advice is no less urgent today. As Elverskog concludes, history has the “power to reveal truths that have been covered over by prejudice and forgotten because of suspicion of difference.” Once uncovered, however, difference, instead of creating a cause for suspicion, can foster the sort of exchange that allows cultures to flourish.
The three articles on the crisis in Myanmar that appear in this issue cut through the sort of false narrative we are all so susceptible to. They are a step, however modest, in the right direction.
Correction: Nalanda thrived for about 100 years after the Mughal invasion, not 700 years as this piece previously stated. We apologize for the error.