Interdependent Web Writ Global: Myanmar-Style

About a month ago, I attended a lecture by interfaith community organizer and personal hero of mine, Eboo Patel. He’s the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, which started in Chicago and has gone world-wide, bringing young people – first at the high school level, then creating programming at the college level. He founded the organization at a time when he could be considered one of its constituents: a young adult, but that time is past (I believe he’s in his late 30s now).

In his 2010 memoir he begins with a chapter that demonstrates the importance – nay, necessity – of the work he was imagining. He describes young people, swayed by terrorist recruitment efforts targeted specifically at them, who later went on to commit acts of violence in the name of their religion: Christian, Muslim (Patel is Muslim himself), Jewish, Hindu in India – the impact of fundamentalist views that support or inspire violence are not restricted to any one faith tradition.

In the book, Patel goes on to describe why providing an alternative to fundamentalist interpretations to youth can be an effective way to curb the terrorist presence in our world. The lecture Patel gave was , in my opinion, just barely better than okay. It was a canned speech that he had clearly given before and was, himself, somewhat bored with.

However, During the Q & A, he came alive. That guy is sharp: knowledgeable, responsive, funny, and an interesting mixture of self-confident and modest. Whereas I was somewhat disappointed with the speech, I was impressed and sparked. Y his engagement of questions and comments from the audience.

One of the things he noted was the dire need for someone to crate an alternative to the crazy-effective recruitment over the Internet of Islamic extremist, attracting scads of disaffected youth world-wide. Though we typically hear about the young ones after one of them has committed some heinous action, there is always a time before that individual has been brought over to a violent, extreme version of their religion.

I think of the recent news item this fall when three teen girls secretly headed from Colorado to Syria, without their parents’ knowledge or consent. In fact, the only reason they were stopped – they got as far as Frankfurt, Germany before authorities were able to stop them and send them home – is because their parents contacted the authorities seeking help in getting their girls back. There’s an interesting investigative report about it here.

Patel urged us – those of us in the room and society at large – to create a competitive internet presence that can go head- to- head with ISIL or ISIS or whatever the latest flavor of extremist is recruiting, to provide at least a legitimate alternative understanding of how to interpret religious scripture or law. Something engaging, youthful, and savvy to stand a chance. Patel was clear that this is not his area of expertise (he kinda made himself sound like a faux-Luddite, but that’s hard to believe).

I think he’s talking about efforts that have the spirit like this.

Why am I thinking about this now, as I sit 15 hours on an AirKorea plane, flying first to Seoul for a brief layover, then another 6.5 hours onto Yangon in Myanmar? I am trying to understand the roots of how Buddhist monks and a Buddhist government can call for, or support, or stand idly by while anti- Muslim violence is perpetrated on its own people. How Buddhist is that?!?

In the West, we have a romanticized version of Buddhism – that it is always peaceful. Turns out, this is not so much true, particularly in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Just like in Christian scriptures, and Jewish scriptures, and Islamic scriptures, and Hindu scriptures, there is violence there, either in the original sacred texts or ancient commentaries that are essential parts of the canon and tradition. Turns out, when most any government states a strictly religious identity and does not profess true religious pluralism, power corrupts. Even Buddhism.

Myanmar is going through huge changes. Attempts to open the government to the democratic process after decade of tyrannical military rule are progressing, but not as quickly or effectively or peacefully as envisioned. People are feeling insecure. People in power are feeling insecure and wielding the power in unskillful ways, like some few, but loud and visible, Buddhist monks staging anti-Muslim actions in the name of protecting the religion and race of Burma – encouraging boycotts of Muslim businesses, inciting violence against the Muslim minority then blaming the victim (as I write this, the words sting with the echoes of 1930s Nazi Germany – in this podcast, a human rights activist states unequivocally that Burma has all the circumstances in place for genocide to take place and take place soon).

Contesting Buddhist Narratives Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar by Matthew J. Walton and Susan Hayward, published just a few months ago, is a report I am reading on this long plane ride. It states,

Buddhists in Myanmar keenly feel the pressure to compete with other modern distractions in ensuring that younger generations learn the basics of the religion and see the value in donations to monasteries, material support of monastics, and even advanced scriptural study. “We need to emphasize Buddhist ethics…At this point we are weak in teaching Buddhist tradition and culture, so our antibody is weak. If you do not understand your Buddhist tradition, an attack can come. I can see a lot of weaknesses in us, and it makes me sad. We need to develop a curriculum and teach kids,” noted a monk based outside Mandalay. This has been, of course, a common concern in modernizing societies, but is particularly felt in contemporary Myanmar as the country rapidly opens up after decades of relative isolation. Buddhist Sunday schools created by MaBaTha, as well as related religious educa-tion programs for public schools developed by associated monks and other groups, have gained widespread popularity in the past two years (Marshall 2013a).

MaBaTha is an outcropping, about a year old now, of the nationalist and violence-inciting 969 movement which has gotten some press in the U.S.

While interesting to me (I mean, I am just about to visit this place, though, I must state for the record that we will not be staying in any of the area where a time-Muslim violence has taken place and though we are studying interfaith engagement, it is primarily focused on Christian-Buddhist dialogue), for most people reading this blog, it might be hard to feel the connection to your own lives. Given all that life hands us, joy and no small amount of stress, illness, and sorrow, why does this or should this matter to me?

This same report cited above notes that

US State Department officials recently confirmed in an interview with one of the authors that Al Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups have used recent attacks against Myanmar’s Muslims to recruit Muslims to their cause.

This is the stuff to which Eboo Patel was referring. This is what we are talking about when we are talking national security (yes, U.S. national security and world-wide peace). This is that whole of which we are part – the interdependent web of all existence, writ global.

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