English articles > On the Path toward Peace and Justice
On the Path toward Peace and Justice:
Challenges Confronting Buddhists and Muslims

Phra Paisal Visalo

It had long been a conviction among Western intellectuals and academics that religions would disappear from the world in the 20th century due to the advent and hegemony of Reason and Science. Although time has proven the inaccuracy of this prediction, this creed was still prevalent even in mid-20th century. Many leading sociologists at the time continued to assert that by the 21st century, religions would fade away. Four decades ago, one well-known anthropologist specializing in religions even asserted thus:

“…the evolutionary future of religion is extinction. …(A)s as a cultural trait, belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge…(T)he process is inevitable.

Nowadays, however, no serious Western thinker or academic entertains the idea of the End of Religion. It has been clear to almost everyone that religions have regained their influences in every part of the world during the past 25 years. They have played crucial roles not only in the daily life of their adherents but also in politics and public life. In several countries, religion helped trigger political changes and even regime change. Books on religion have become international bestsellers. And religious symbols or icons have been valorized by the market; some have even been used to add value to products. Needless to say, public campaigns that pick up enormous financial contributions are oriented toward religious issues.

Similar to other religions Buddhism and Islam have not only revived and thrived in countries that long upheld them, but have also been prospering in the Western world. The rise of both religions may be attributed to far-reaching economic and social changes wrought worldwide during the last few decades—e.g., urbanization, disintegration of families and traditional communities, alienation, isolation, and hyper-tension. At the same time, the advent of new values and consumerism has contributed to existential angst—the meaninglessness and emptiness of life—in many people. They feel insecure, an anxiety compounded by the inflows of transnational forces, especially from the West, which are perceived as undermining local identities and cultures. All these are factors that have induced a vast number of people to turn to religion, to hold on to religion as the anchor or pillar of their lives in a time filled with uncertainties.

Religion and Social Healing

No one would doubt the role of religion in social healing. Religion may serve as an important pillar to help ‘stabilize’ life. It has given a sense of direction to many people’s lives. It has made them confident in their identities, and has given them security and a modicum of happiness amidst troubling and complex social currents. As such, religion has helped alleviate the mental sufferings of a great number of people in a way modern institutions will never be able to do.

However, the role of religion should not be limited to only pacifying the troubled minds of its followers. This is especially true in the present context where there are great sufferings in society. They are not simply a matter of existential anxiety and loneliness, but also result from grinding poverty, material deprivation, and lack of access to education and medical care. The latter form of suffering emanates from exploitation at the individual as well as the structural levels—e.g., cheapened labor, diverting local resources away from local use and management, unjust distribution of incomes, etc. All these occur simultaneously with human rights abuses or the denial of the basic rights of citizens such as the rights to voice one’s opinion, to assemble, to hold mass demonstration, and to participate in the decision-making process of the government. These are all vital rights that help improve the people’s quality of life.

Now this situation is happening amidst the widening gap between the rich and the poor, a huge gap that is completely unprecedented. It is occurring in a time when a minority possesses and controls massive wealth on a scale that is unheard of. This is a form of injustice that is readily apparent. And it may be interpreted as a form of violence too because it condemns millions to lives that are short, nasty, and brutish, resulting from poverty, hunger, and easily preventable diseases. At the same time, this injustice has bred mass demonstrations, which often ended in bloodshed. State officials had tortured or massacred demonstrators, for instance. As long as this injustice persists, the victims will eventually take up arms as their last resort. This has been the case in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand to cite a few random examples.

Injustice and violence constitute the reality facing Buddhists and Muslims in many countries in Asia. And it cannot be denied that this reality contradicts the basic principles of both Buddhism and Islam. Both religions were created to enable people to live together peacefully and compassionately. Both respect the sacredness of life and the great potentialities of every life. It is clear that both religions did not teach their followers to single-mindedly pursue personal happiness. Rather they insist that happiness at the individual level is inextricable from happiness at the social level; that is, the happiness of others must also be cultivated, and here ‘the others’ refers not only to one’s family members, friends, or neighbors, but to everyone in society and in the world. Therefore, the elimination of injustice and violence in order to nurture peace and justice in society (and in the world) is a duty that Buddhists and Muslims cannot renounce.

Dual Obligations

In order to cultivate social justice and peace, religious people have two dual tasks, which I will call “external obligation” and “internal obligation.”

External obligation means pushing for social change. In other words, it does not simply refer to interpersonal activities. Rather, it also includes political activities. Justice and peace will not emerge if a helping hand is lent only at the interpersonal level; for instance, in the form of material donations or taking care of the sick and needy. Put differently, structures that contribute to social injustices and violence must also be amended or transformed. For example, power should be decentralized to enable the people to make decisions on matters that directly impact their lives and to make the political system more democratic, transparent, and accountable. At the same time, there should be actions for what is known as redistributive justice—the just distribution of incomes, land reforms as well as progressive taxation. These will help dismantle structural violence and foster justice and peace.

Religious people tend to perceive social problems as simply emanating from personal flaws. Politicians are corrupt. Villagers are lazy or addicted to gambling, thus they are poor. Hence, they only seek to redress problems at the personal level. They demand for good and honest leaders. They lecture villagers on the virtue of diligence and the sin of gambling. They only tend to provide assistance to individuals. These are necessary but insufficient undertakings. They should also focus on the structural level. This does not merely entail legislating laws to counter corruption and to oppose ruinous activities (e.g., leading to the squandering of wealth) because the causes of social suffering are much more than corruption and ruinous activities. New laws alone will not be able to contribute to changes if there are no parallel and complementary changes in other systemic elements or institutions.

To be able to do so, religious people must understand structural problems. They are complex and are interrelated to various other dimensions such as politics, economics, society, culture, and so on. The same approach that can be used to solve familial or community problems, which largely focuses on the individual level, should not be used to tackle social problems; one will not be able to correctly grasp social problems and propose viable solutions if one does so.

As for internal obligation, it means understanding and practicing one’s religion in order to fathom its essence. This is a very important duty since it will lead to profound personal transformations and facilitate one’s being with others. The failure to do so will trap the religious people in the formalities or superficialities of his or her religion. The narrowness of this view may contribute to a kind of fundamentalism and may obstruct both personal development and desirable social changes.

Not infrequently, religious followers or movements are only interested in matters or only demand for things that benefit their respective religions—for instance, the demand to have a specific ministry to oversee their religion. In this context, a religious group or movement has become like an interest group—similar to a business association or a chamber of commerce. This is lamentable as religion should be concerned about universal values, about benefiting humanity regardless of differences.

Transcending Religious Barriers or Demarcations

Both Buddhism and Islam recognize the unity of humanity, seeing every human being as a friend or a fellow sharing the earth. Understanding the essence of one’s religion will enable both the Buddhist and the Muslim people to appreciate this bond and to have compassion for one another. Differences in terms of religion, language, and nationality will not pose as barriers. However, quite a number of Buddhist and Muslim people divide and classify other human beings in terms of religion, race, nationality, language, etc. This has not only led to division between “us” and “them” but also to indifference or callous disregard for the others—even to the point of seeing the other as the enemy.

This view negatively impacts social justice and peace because the religious people will only be concerned about members of his or her own religion; justice and peace will apply to only the members of the same religion. He or she will not care about (or will not be able to perceive) the injustices and violence suffered by the members of other religious communities. Last year, Thai Buddhists experienced revulsion when some monks and novices were murdered in a temple in Pattani province. A section of the temple was burned down, and the Buddha image was destroyed. Many expressed vengeance against the perpetrators of the crime. However, they felt no remorse when approximately 80 Muslim demonstrators suffocated to death after they were arrested and piled in army trucks during being transported to a military camp in that very same province.

It seems that many Muslims also share the same view as the aforementioned Buddhists. During a meeting of the National Reconciliation Commission, I suggested to my Muslim colleagues that they should publicly condemn the murder of the Buddhist monks in the case mentioned above, a tragedy that is believed to be perpetrated by a number of Muslims. But my Muslim colleagues declined to do so, fearing that it would make them the target of criticism or negative reaction from the local Muslim inhabitants.

As I’ve already said, a religious people tends to overlook the crime or injustice committed by the member of his or her own religious community. On the contrary, he or she will clearly see a crime or an injustice when it is perpetrated by a member of a different religious community. When a monk who was my friend was savagely stabbed to death in the northern part of Thailand, there was no moral outrage among Thai Buddhists in the kingdom. In fact, the murder received scant attention. One of the reasons for this is that the murderer appears to be a Buddhist. But there was moral outrage when Buddhist monks were killed by Muslims in the South of Thailand. Likewise, I learned that when Sunni Muslims bombed a Shia mosque in Iraq during the Ramadan period last year (and there have been several more bombings), there was virtually no denunciation of the crime among Sunni Muslims worldwide (including Thailand). But there would be an endless round of moral outrage among Muslims whenever Muslim inhabitants in Iraq (whether Sunni or Shia) were killed by American soldiers.

I believe that any Buddhist or Muslim people who knows the essence of his or her religion will not be able to remain unperturbed whenever a fellow human being (and it does not matter which religion s/he is from, or if s/he has a religion for that matter) is abused in such manner. This is because religion is supposed to enable human beings to transcend the various barriers that have been artificially constructed by humans themselves. Religion opens us to the fact that we are human beings before we are Muslim, Buddhist, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Sinhalese, Tamil, etc.

Religion can be a force for justice and peace because it profoundly transforms human beings enabling them to have compassion and generosity toward all humans. Identities (or “brands”) in terms of nationality, race, religion, ideology, etc. will not be able to sever the ties of humanity. But when we are unable to grasp the essence of our respective religions—when we are trapped in the symbolic and ceremonial aspects of our respective religions—then religion may turn into a major obstacle to justice and peace.

It cannot be denied that at present almost every religion in the world, including Buddhism and Islam, is being used to fan the hatred of others or to justify violence in the name of Good or other Absolute Values. We can see this in communual violence in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, etc. It is interesting to note that religious people who have picked up arms to fight one another feel that they are genuinely upholding the teachings of their respective religions.

There must be a very strong inspiration for a person to voluntarily sacrifice his or her life. For many people in the world, religion serves as this inspiration. The depressing thing is that nowadays religion is able to incite people to willingly die in order to kill others but seems to lack the power to inspire them to sacrifice their lives so that others may live.

Religion should be a force for peace. But this aspect of religion is waning. When millions worldwide demonstrated against the planned American invasion of Iraq in 2003, religious organizations did not constitute the majority in the antiwar movement.

When Israeli troops besieged Ramullah in Palestine in 2002, many innocent civilians were killed. Subsequently, many international activists went to Ramullah to serve as a human shield against Israeli troops and tanks. They were willing to risk their lives. Most of them however did not belong to any religious denomination.

Of course there are religious people who are working for peace. However,one of their preferred activities is holding peace conferences. On the contrary, the religious people who worship violence are willing to die in order to take the lives of others.

At present, a question that is worth pondering is to what extent Buddhism or Islam is able to serve as a powerful inspiration for its followers to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of others. Or at least to convince followers to struggle for global justice and peace through nonviolence without being anxious for their own personal safety. This will be possible when there is no “us” versus “them”.

I feel that this is one of the major challenges confronting Buddhists and Muslims who believe in justice and peace.

Transcending Religious Bigotry

Reaching the essence of religion liberates one not only from the delusion of identities that divide human beings but also from the narcissistic attachment to one’s religion or sect; that is, seeing one’s religion or sect as perfect and superior to all others. This delusion has been the cause of countless violence and tragedies in the past. Buddhism itself had fallen prey to this delusion. When Japan invaded China, Manchuria, and Korea 70 years ago Japanese Buddhist leaders extolled the invasion, even praising it as “sacred war inspired by the great compassion of the Bodhisattava” They felt that Buddhism in China and Korea was deformed and lowly, and that the one in Japan was authentic. It was thus the obligation of Japan to bring authentic Buddhism to China and Korea—and to India. This might ultimately entail “transforming the world into the pure Buddhist land”

Other religions had committed similar tragedies. Attachment to one’s religion extinguishes compassion for other religions, leading to actions or practices that are contrary to religious teachings and that destroy rather than nurture religion.

This is a lesson for both Buddhists and Muslims. And it challenges them to think of ways to prevent such tragedy from resurfacing in the future.

Collective Action against Violence

Buddhists and Muslims should not only be compassionate and open-minded, and thus not take part in violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but they should also help prevent violence from being unleashed in the name of religion. We must not forget that whenever thousands or tens of thousand are killed in a land where a religion has deeply planted its roots, it can be seen that that religion is a failure. This is because all religions reject violence and nurture compassion. It is already worrisome whenever a religion is not able to prevent the outbreak of violence because it shows that it lacks the power of peacebuilding. It is far worse whenever a religion directly incites violence for it points to its moral degeneration or disintegration.

Seen in this light, Buddhists and Muslims bear responsibility for the state of violence in many countries in the present, including Thailand. They have not only been unable to prevent or mitigate violent situations but have at times also allowed violence to be committed in the name of religion (even if the actual perpetrators constitute a minority).

Perhaps most religious leaders and people do not support and believe in violence. But their passivity or inaction enables the few who worship violence to hijack religion, to use religion to legitimize violence at will. This is a major problem confronting religions worldwide and is a condition of violence in many areas of the world.

Therefore, it is highly pertinent for Buddhists and Muslims to put an end to violence done in the name of religion. At least, they should collaborate and condemn the killing of people or of members of different faiths without fearing retaliation by armed extremists or fundamentalists. At the same time, they should cooperate with one another to protect religion and religious places—along with the personal security of religious leaders, monks, etc. They should also work together demanding religious people to strictly uphold compassion and forbearance according to religious teachings, to advocate fraternity and the sacredness of life, and to refrain from violence in solving a problem or dispute.

Of course, this proposal may be against the grain of mainstream currents, which goes by the dictum “an eye for an eye.” It requires a lot of moral courage as well as perseverance to be able to fulfill this task. As such, we must try to go to the heart or the highest ideals of religion. Being at one with the highest ideals will nurture us and enable us to persist steadily on our course despite the gravity of opposition.

Learning from Each Other

The last point I’d like to make is that bridges must be constructed between religions, between the followers of different religions. Working together to denounce violence committed in the name of religion may serve as an important stepping stone for more extensive and intricate collaboration in the future. On the one hand, Buddhists and Muslims should collaborate to bring about positive social changes along the lines of justice and peace. We shouldn’t forget that violence isn’t simply about bloodshed. It also includes exploitation and the deprivation of basic necessities and the lack of access to education and public health. Here cooperation between Buddhists and Muslims is still weak because they are too fixated on the gains and interests of their respective communities.

Aside from cooperation in terms of justice and peace, working together on other public issues, including increasing daily contacts or interactions, is also essential because it helps bridge both religions together and helps reduce any misunderstanding, which may be a source of hostility, between them. Due to limited contacts or interactions, religious people of different religions learn about one another largely through the mass media or even the grapevine. As such, things may be distorted or added, contributing to misunderstanding.

Increased interactions between people of different religions may be facilitated by regular meetings or by collective activities such as trips to important religious sites, celebrations of religious days, cultural exchanges (e.g., the arts and music), social work, and even organizing sports events—keeping in mind the traditions and practices of participating religious communities in mind.

More challenging, however, is the willingness to learn from and about one another, particularly concerning religious teachings, beliefs, and practices. As a Buddhist, I think we can learn a lot from Muslim people, especially about cultivating a sense of justice and developing strong communities through religion; that is, binding ‘worldly’ and religious communities together. At the same time I feel that Muslims can also benefit from Buddhism. They may find Buddhist teachings on compassion, tolerance, interdependence of all sentient beings, and the Dependent Origination useful.

Through open and continuous dialogues, I believe there will be improved understanding between Buddhists and Muslims. We will find that a lot of the differences between us have been exaggerated by a great magnitude, and that the differences between us serve as no legitimate reason to divide us into “us” and “them”.

The road to justice and peace will be blocked as long as we cannot see through “the brands” that we and others ‘wear’, as long as we cannot appreciate the human ties that closely link us all together. Therefore, we should all treat each other as brothers and sisters. Wouldn’t this enable us to make our religious duties, which are geared toward the highest ideals, more complete?

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