There are few differences between humans more perilous than those dictated by religious belief, and thus we see almost constant conflict between Christians and Muslims, between rival Islamic sects (Shiites and Sunnis) and of course between Jews and Islamists.
The war on terror, which has been a major aspect of American lives for the past 12 years, may not have been conceived by the United States and our allies as a war against any particular religious community, but invariably the war’s targets have been Islamic extremists who are taught, by their doctrinaire religious leaders, to detest the west and its values and to believe that acts of terror will be rewarded, in heaven if not on earth.
And so, quite naturally, for most Americans any attention they pay to the topic of religious bigotry or conflict is likely to focus on the enmity toward our nation by extremists among the various branches of Islam or to the never-ending disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Also, there are still remnants of the intense Catholic vs. Protestant rivalries in Northern Ireland, although — with America’s help — there is relative peace in that part of the world today.
But Americans may be surprised to learn that there is a truly nasty religious campaign being waged by, of all people, Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Ancient grudges, and incredible indifference on the part of the government, are helping to fuel a radical Buddhist campaign to punish the nation’s Muslim minority.
If we think of Buddhism at all, we probably think of it as a peace-loving religion that embraces what its founders called “the middle way,” or a lifestyle that is considered the path of moderation and the path to wisdom.
As described in Wikipedia, the middle way “gives vision and knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment …” as well as “right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”
But try to square that image of Buddhism with the reality of what is happening in Myanmar: When a Buddhist mob recently rampaged through a Muslim village, a 94-year-old woman was too heavy for her daughter and granddaughter to carry with them as they fled, and three men armed with machetes and knives attacked her. Hours later, her body was found next to the smoking remains of her home. She’d been stabbed six times.
Four other Muslims were killed and more than a dozen homes destroyed in the attack on that village last month. According to a New York Times report, more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in Myanmar this year.
“But the killing of a helpless elderly woman — and what followed — is one of the starkest symbols of the breadth of anti-Muslim feelings” in the Buddhist-majority country, the report added. It cited “the lack of sympathy for the victims and the failure of security forces to stop the killings.”
The recent violence is astonishing because Myanmar’s Muslims and Buddhists had coexisted peacefully for generations. But extremist beliefs, relatively rare in Buddhist history, have fueled the fighting.
“The match that lit the violence … appeared to be the teachings of a radical Buddhist group, 969, that the government continues to allow to preach hatred and extend its influence throughout the countryside,” The Times reported.
All religions quite naturally believe that they, and they alone, recognize the truth in matters of faith. Yet they can’t all be right, and that particular truth seems to elude many of their believers.
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