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Buddhist Monks Against Humanitarian Aid?

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When we last read about Burmese monks in the Western press, it was in the context of mass protests against Burma's brutal military junta and their visit to Aung San Suu Kyi's home in homage of the courageous pro-democracy activist. It is surprising then, shocking even, that Burma's monks have come down on what is so blatantly the wrong side of a humanitarian crisis.

One photograph shows a Burmese monk in saffron robes, looking austere and intelligent in wireframe glasses. On his palm are the words "ROHINGYA NO," written in English. The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority in Burma's western Rakhine state, and are considered by the United Nations to be among the world's most persecuted minorities. Since ethnic violence erupted last month, state-sanctioned and publicly supported oppression has driven thousands of Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where they are treated not as refugees but as illegal asylum seekers. Interviews with survivors in unofficial refugee camps describe how the Burmese army has systematically gone through villages, murdering men and raping women. To justify their actions, the Burmese government has attempted to portray the Rohingya as Muslim radicals, despite consistent lack of evidence, but the "anti-Rohingya campaign [also] wraps itself in calls for ethnic purity, defense of sovereignty, and protection of Buddhism."

Hannah Hindstrom at The Independent writes, "In recent days, [Buddhist] monks have emerged in a leading role to enforce denial of humanitarian assistance to Muslims, in support of policy statements by [Burmese] politicians." The same monks who campaigned against the brutal former regime are advocating against a stateless people, for what appears to be no other reason than their race and religion, "[failing] to practice compassion for all victims of violence." How can we make sense of this, and where do we go from here?

The history of eastern religions in the West is a strange and serendipitous one, where the experience of those faith traditions is often divorced from the cultural, historical, political and even religious contexts from which they emerged. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and other faiths transformed in the crucible of cultural revolution that began half a century ago, taking on new relationships with race and class in the United States. Pop-spirituality, the secularization of meditation and yoga, and the democratization of spirituality have both enhanced our religious and spiritual landscape while simultaneously limiting what we know about global religion and culture.

At the same time, Islam and Muslims are frequently portrayed as the new enemy, Islamic law creeping into our courts, the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating our government -- despite hard evidence indicating that American Muslims seek neither to impose sharia on Americans nor are they fomenting revolution. While this is evidence of a greater need for religious literacy, it also suggests some of the processes by which we construct categories of religions that are "good" and religions that are "bad."

The cognitive dissonance produced by Burmese monks actively preventing humanitarian aid from reaching one of the world's most persecuted minorities is real, and is worth picking apart. In the West, we conceive of certain religious groups as being inherently more "violent" or more "peaceful" or more "compassionate" than others. The victimization of Buddhists in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese state and the popularization of the Tibetan cause in American culture have uni-dimensionally reinforced the notion that Buddhists are, and can only be, nonviolent actors at the mercy of their oppressors.

My point is not to say that Buddhists aren't or can't be those things, but that all religious groups -- simply because they are made up of human beings -- are all of those descriptors while being none of them. The history of Buddhism is bloody, too. If we choose to frame history in terms of violent conflict and oppression, then the same can be said of Islam or any other belief system, including secularism.

Naturally, we can lob back and forth accusations of one religious group causing more suffering than another all day long and to no effect, entirely missing the point that the best of religious thought -- in Buddhism, Islam and elsewhere -- persistently demands compassion. Both Islam and Buddhism underscore that human nature and ego must be overcome through self-discipline and practiced compassion in order to become our best selves.

Cognitive dissonance generates questions. Ideally, stories like this can challenge us to think about one another in less monolithic, more nuanced ways. It allows us as news readers and members of pluralistic societies to complicate our understandings of The Other, whether that "Other" lives in another country or across the street. With greater attention, we can begin to be attuned to diversity and debate within religious traditions, both contemporary and historical, and to acknowledge that they are just as complicated as our own. The case of the Burmese monks also creates room for dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims, and reminds Muslims to be sensitive to the needs of vulnerable Muslim and non-Muslim ethnic and religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. Lastly, the story opens spaces for Buddhists worldwide to put their faith into action on a global level, and to be a voice for compassion in Burma.