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Interfaith Peace Movements as Counter-Movements to Radical Buddhist Nationalism

Interfaith Peace Movements as Counter-Movements to Radical Buddhist Nationalism

This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Countering Hate and Violent Extremism of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Thought Partnerships. 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Orjuela, C. (2020). Countering Buddhist radicalisation: Emerging peace movements in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.Third World Quarterly, 41(1), 133-150. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2019.1660631

Talking Points

  • The diverse actors who have come together to challenge Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka can be understood as a peace movement—one that promotes interfaith understanding, counters hate speech (including through the evocation of “Buddhist values of nonviolence and tolerance”), prevents violence, and protects and advocates for minority rights.
  • Although widely perceived to be weaker than and largely reactive to the Buddhist nationalist movements they oppose, interfaith peace movements “constitute important counter-voices” to these movements, finding creative ways to challenge their narratives and activities even within existing constraints.
  • Social media constitutes an important arena of contestation between Buddhist nationalist movements and the peace movements countering them—one where peace activists need to further build their skills.
  • The movement/counter-movement dynamics reveal the “ambivalent role of religion” in this context and the critical importance of voices within Buddhism drawing on its teachings to challenge the religious justification of violence and to call for peace.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Peace movements countering radical religious nationalist movements can strengthen their efforts by building broad-based, diverse coalitions that reflect their inclusive ethos, investing in their social media skills and strategy, and engaging with faith leaders who can credibly draw on religious resources to promote peace and coexistence.

Summary

Despite its reputation in the West as a uniformly peaceful religion, Buddhism has not been immune to the religious radicalization that has touched other global faith traditions. In both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, radical Buddhist nationalist movements have gained ground in the past decade, directing their energy against Muslim minorities whom they have targeted with hate speech and violence—including attacks against “mosques, Muslim-owned property and individuals.” Camilla Orjuela is interested in what she frames as the peace movements that have emerged to counter these Buddhist nationalist movements—in particular, who is involved, what activities they engage in and challenges they face, and the dynamics between them and the Buddhist nationalist movements they confront. She finds that “although the peace movements are considerably weaker and largely reactive to and restrained by the radical Buddhist movements,” including in the arena of social media, “they constitute important counter-voices” online and beyond.

Religious radicalization: “[t]he process… whereby individuals adopt attitudes and behaviours favouring the use of violence to achieve religious objectives.” Although radical can mean very different things, including the advocacy of fundamental change by nonviolent means, the term will be used here to mean the endorsement of violence as a means to reach objectives.

The author bases her findings primarily on interviews with religious leaders, peace activists, and NGO representatives in Sri Lanka (2016) and Myanmar (2016-2017), supplemented with media reports, first-hand observations of peace activities, and secondary sources. First, the author finds many similarities between Buddhist nationalist movements in the two countries, both of which have diverse majority-Buddhist, minority-Muslim populations. These Buddhist nationalist movements—led by radicalized Buddhist monks, energized by new organizations, and facilitated by social media and global anti-Muslim discourses—developed around the same time in both countries (roughly 2012-2014) and are animated by victimization narratives casting Muslim communities as an economic, cultural, and demographic threat to Buddhism/the Buddhist population. Although the prominent organizations cannot be directly linked to anti-Muslim violence, they are closely related to it insofar as “rumors on social media and speeches by key figures in the Buddhist organisations have spread hatred and legitimised violence.” Enjoying some measure of sympathy from the political elite, these movements mobilize more broadly around the preservation and protection of Buddhist sites, texts, and symbols; boycotts of Muslim businesses and products; and legal protection for and social welfare of Buddhist populations.

The movements that have emerged to counter Buddhist nationalism are closely related to previous democratization and peace movements in both countries and include a range of actors: from interfaith and peace NGOs to moderate Buddhist monks and religious leaders from other traditions. They have engaged in five kinds of activities: interfaith dialogue and broader “contact” initiatives, bringing together religious leaders and laypeople from different traditions/communities; minority rights advocacy and protection; direct intervention to prevent violence; dissemination of counter-discourses promoting coexistence through social media and various cultural outlets; and public demonstrations promoting coexistence.

The interfaith peace movements are widely perceived to be weaker than and largely reactive to the Buddhist nationalist movements, including on social media where peace activists struggle to respond with equal agility and vigor. Episodes of violence are often sparked by online rumors or sensational, false stories about the “Muslim threat”—as well as explicit calls for violence—that go viral. Not only are the Buddhist nationalist movements capable of mobilizing supporters quite easily, but they also create the constraints within which the peace movements must operate and set the agenda to which they must respond. For instance, in contexts where it may be perceived as dangerous for Muslims to publicly criticize Buddhist nationalist activities, these individuals must instead work through moderate Buddhist monks to register their grievances. And even these moderate Buddhist monks often fear the repercussions of engaging in interfaith peace work as it may elicit “arrests, surveillance, obstruction of inter-religious festivals and attacks on social media,” leading activists to be strategic with their involvement.

These counter-movements have learned to use Buddhist nationalist movement dominance to their advantage at times by appropriating some of its language and symbolism towards the promotion of a more tolerant ethos. Some moderate monks publicly contest Buddhist nationalist/anti-Muslim ideology, both on and off social media, by expressing alternative interpretations of Buddhist teachings in support of nonviolence and coexistence—suggesting the importance of intra-faith contestation to countering radicalization. Other activists have started clever social media campaigns that flip the Buddhist-nationalist script or humanize Muslim community members. In addition, these counter-movements have “educated people on news literacy, the use of social media to combat hatred, and Facebook reporting mechanisms,” so they become more critical media consumers, less receptive to calls for violence.

Framing the study in terms of movement/counter-movement dynamics enables us to see how the movements interact with one another, “struggl[ing] for influence” in different arenas, especially social media—an arena that “requires new skills often not held by peace activists.” These movement/counter-movement dynamics especially reveal the “ambivalent role of religion” in this context and the critical importance of voices within Buddhism drawing on its teachings to challenge the justification of violence and to call for peace.

Informing Practice 

One vital, overarching contribution of this research is to frame deradicalization work as movement work. Seeing peace movements as key to countering radicalization or violent extremism provides these deradicalization activities with greater depth and links them to a substantive vision of an inclusive, peaceful national community. Furthermore, it grounds these activities in a commitment to peace that makes it harder to link tactical deradicalization activities to a broader militarized counterterrorism strategy, the dominant approach seen since the inception of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in 2001. Framing deradicalization work in this way also brings to light movement/counter-movement dynamics and the way each movement is vying for public support to gain power—awareness of which can inform more effective peace movement strategy.

Deradicalization: “[A] cognitive shift—i.e., a fundamental change in understanding [with regards to the values or ideals that motivated violence].”

Fink, N. C., & Hearne, E.B. (2008, October). Beyond terrorism: Deradicalization and disengagement from violent extremism. International Peace Institute. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.ipinst.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/beter.pdf

Violent extremism: The “use or support [of] violence to advance a cause based on exclusionary group identities.”Even on the basis of this definition, violent extremism can take many forms—from identity-based hate crimes to acts of terrorism and large-scale, organized political violence—and, as such, encompasses a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that transcend precise categorization.

SFCG. (2017). Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transforming-Violent-Extremism-V2-August-2017.pdf

Whether activists are working in the context of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka (countries that have experienced significant transitions—see here and here—even since the recent publication of this research) or of white Christian nationalism in the United States, a few related practical recommendations stand out.

First, recognition of the easy pull and preeminence of religious nationalist movements vis-à-vis the peace movements countering them can prompt these counter-movements to proactively create diverse, inclusive coalitions that are resilient enough to withstand the exclusionary, polarizing rhetoric of religious nationalist movements. If the power of a movement is ultimately about the extent of public support for it, then peace movements can use their inclusive ethos to their advantage, attracting a broad range of community members to the cause. Whereas religious nationalist movements may have the “benefit” of fear narratives, which can be extremely effective in mobilizing people, especially during transitional periods when uncertainty may create a greater need for the reassuring clarity they provide, interfaith peace movements can use their diversity as an asset—and even as a model of interfaith cooperation and as a source of humanization narratives.

Second, peace movements need to put substantial energy and resources into social media strategy—especially those countering religious nationalist movements, as social media is a major arena for promulgating rumors and hate speech that can trigger violence. Instead of focusing online interventions narrowly on deterring likely recruits from joining extremist groups, these efforts should aim more broadly at the general public where exclusionary ideologies and enemy images can take root. Crafting agile, creative social media campaigns that can flip the religious-nationalist script, humanize the religious “other,” and credibly reinterpret religious teachings in the name of coexistence—drawing on the authority of clergy from within the dominant religious tradition—can go a long way in providing essential discursive resistance to hate speech and violence legitimation. Movements should also consider devoting energy to more general social media literacy to make community members more critical of—and therefore more resilient to—the fear mongering of religious nationalism.

Third and finally, peace activists should not shy away from engagement with religious leaders in their effort to counter radical religious nationalist movements. In fact, moderate religious leaders from within the same tradition are probably those best positioned to credibly challenge the hateful narratives emerging from nationalist groups, as they can draw from the same religious resources—sacred texts and teachings, religious authority, religious institutions and values—to argue against exclusion and violence and for love of one’s neighbors. [MW]

Questions Raised

  • How can peace movements more effectively employ social media to confront dangerous rumors and falsehoods that may incite violence?
  • How can religious actors allied with peace movements best challenge exclusionary narratives coming out of their own religious traditions?

Continued Reading

Fuller, L. (2018). How unarmed civilians saved lives during anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka. Waging Nonviolence. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://wagingnonviolence.org/2018/03/how-unarmed-civilians-saved-lives-during-anti-muslim-violence-sri-lanka/   

Waidyatilake, B., & Sivaloganathan, M. (2018). Can Buddhist values overcome nationalism in Sri Lanka? Carnegie India. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://carnegieindia.org/2018/07/25/can-buddhist-values-overcome-nationalism-in-sri-lanka-pub-76922

Schmall, E. (2019, November 26). Buddhist nationalists claim victory in Sri Lankan election. AP News. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/mountains-ap-top-news-reinventing-faith-weekend-reads-race-and-ethnicity-bf051a4b2673484f8460131a7500b0ec

Beech, H. (2021, August 28). Myanmar’s monks, leaders of past protests, are divided over the coup. The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/28/world/asia/myanmar-monks-coup.html

Hardig, A., & Sajjad, T. (2021, February 8). The military coup in Myanmar presents opportunities to Buddhist nationalists. The Conversation. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/the-military-coup-in-myanmar-presents-opportunities-to-buddhist-nationalists-154459

Artinger, B., & Rowand, M. (2021, February 16). When Buddhists back the army. Foreign Policy. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/16/myanmar-rohingya-coup-buddhists-protest/

McCammon, S. (2021, February 24). Evangelical leaders condemn ‘radicalized Christian nationalism’. NPR. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2021/02/24/970685909/evangelical-leaders-condemn-radicalized-christian-nationalism

Organizations

Christians Against Christian Nationalism: https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/statement

The National Peace Council (of Sri Lanka): https://www.peace-srilanka.org/

Religions for Peace-Myanmar: https://www.rfpmm.org/who-we-are/

Keywords: religious radicalization, Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim violence, peace movements, movement/counter-movement dynamics, social media, Myanmar, Sri Lanka

Photo credit: David Mark from Pixabay

 

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