There are few differences between humans more perilous than those dictated by deeply held religious beliefs, and that’s a primary reason we see so much conflict between Christians and Muslims, between rival Islamic sects (Shiites and Sunnis), between Jews and Islamists and, especially in India and Pakistan, between Hindus and Muslims.
In the United States, we’ve been spared most of that dogmatic demonization of “the other” (although there is that small church in Kansas that dispatches demonstrators to picket the funerals of American soldiers, believing that somehow their fighting has endorsed tolerance of gays in this country and therefore needs to be protested).
The war on terror, so long an unwelcome aspect of American lives, may not have been conceived as a war against any particular religious beliefs, 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 their acts of terror will be rewarded, in heaven if not on Earth.
And so, quite naturally, for most Americans when they pay attention to religious bigotry or conflict they are 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 there is also a truly nasty religious campaign being waged by Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Ancient grudges and indifference on the part of the government are aiding 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.
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” according to Wikipedia.
But here’s what is happening in Myanmar: A Buddhist mob recently rampaged through a Muslim village, and a 94-year-old woman was attacked by marauding Buddhists armed with machetes and knives. Hours later, her body was found next to the smoking remains of her home. She’d been stabbed six times.
Four other Muslims were slain and more than a dozen homes destroyed in the attack on that same village last month. The New York Times reported that more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed by Buddhists 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.”
What makes the recent violence is so astonishing is that Myanmar’s Muslims and Buddhists had coexisted peacefully for generations. But extremist beliefs, relatively rare in Buddhist history, have fueled the recent assaults.
“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.
It is the nature of religions that all of them naturally believe that they, and they alone, recognize the truth in important matters of faith. They can’t all be right, but that uncomfortable truth appears to elude their true believers.