“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” — The Bible
“O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace.” — The Qur’an
“Delusion is born in anger.” — The Bhagvad Gita
“Hatred will not cease by hatred, but love alone. This is the ancient law.” — The Dalai Lama
All religions have a message of peace and tolerance. So why are there conflicts involving followers of God? Maybe conflicts have little or nothing to do with religion, and violence by one against the other has another motive. What might it be?
Conflicts may seem driven by religious zealotry, or hatred against the other. Hatred based on one’s belief in cultural superiority over the other. Against minorities perceived to have amassed wealth. Or because one group thinks the other enjoys too much protection. It is often about privilege and wealth. However, wealth is frequently derived from privilege, so it is wealth in the end. Conflicts which are depicted as religious are actually about who controls how much in society.
Edward Said’s 1978 classic Orientalism is an overarching critique of the Christian West’s historical, cultural and political depiction of Islamic societies of the East. According to Said, Orientalism provides ways to rationalize interference by evoking self-serving history by portraying the targeted community as inferior and dangerous. Conflicts that acquire religious overtones often have economic objectives.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is about land and property; partition of British India in 1947 and Hindu-Muslim riots; Buddhist Sinhalese-led burning and looting of Muslim and Hindu Tamil businesses in the capital, Colombo, in 1983 that triggered a 26-year civil war. Lynching of Muslims by extremist Hindu vigilantes in India, ostensibly to protect cows from slaughter and to force a ban on eating meat.
Worse is happening in India’s eastern neighborhood. Since August 25, 2017, more than six hundred thousand mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their flight has halved the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and quadrupled the number of refugees in Bangladesh within two months.
The United Nations has described this as a crisis on a catastrophic scale. Women, children, old and infirm have given numerous accounts of murder, torture, rape and destruction of Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s military. Thousands, who are stranded, cannot escape. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have said this is ethnic cleansing.
Rohingyas maintain that their indigenous heritage in Myanmar is over a thousand years old, bringing in Arab, Mughal and Portuguese influence. Despite this, they have suffered harsh persecution, first by Myanmar’s military junta, and now under a military-civilian ruling coalition under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
Under the 1982 Burmese nationality law, Rohingyas are denied citizenship, because they are not recognized as one of eight “national races.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s government even refuses to allow the use of the term “Rohingya” and calls them illegal immigrants.
UN investigations have found evidence of incitement of hatred by ultra-nationalist Buddhists against Rohingyas. According to the United Nations special investigator on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the country wants to expel the entire Rohingya population.
Amid a chorus of international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has very little to say. When she feels compelled to break her silence, she denies there being any refugee problem. She demands that human rights and refugee organizations not use the term “Rohingya” in their reports. In occasional conversations with foreign leaders, she has insisted that the aim of military operations in the country is to clear out terrorists. And she has claimed that the crisis is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation.
Her remarks point to government claims that a Rohingya rebel group killed a number of border guards and policemen in August. Details of those encounters are sketchy, but very different from the humanitarian crisis in the region, and the price Aung San Suu Kyi is having to pay in lost reputation.
Among those who have pleaded with Suu Kyi to intervene to stop the atrocities, or at least speak out against them, are fellow Nobel laureates, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains in alliance with the military which kept her in detention for fifteen years, and Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups.
Sigmund Freud had a point when he said that religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.