By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In 2013 ‘Time’ Magazine ran a cover describing the “face of Buddhist terror.” The same Magazine in 2014 when discussing Islamic State atrocities claimed “ISIS is not just un-Islamic, it is anti-Islamic.” Time’s article claimed ” It exploits counterproductive Western policies driving desperate people into its fold and uses injustices in the Muslim world as a smokescreen to cover its own cruelty.” By even referring to ISIS by its own name, Islamic State, “or in any way grant it the religious legitimacy that it so desperately seeks, we simultaneously boost its brand, tarnish the image of Islam and further marginalize the vast majority of Muslims who are disgusted by the group’s un-Islamic actions.”
Yet when it comes to attacks against Muslims in Myanmar the groups doing it are called “Buddhist.” Not “extremists” and not “violent extremism” as Richard Stengel, the US government official, had termed Islamist attacks. Remember the logic behind turning Islamist terror into “violent extremism”? Stengel explains: “The reason was a much more practical one: To defeat radical Islamic extremism, we needed our Islamic allies — the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Egyptians, the Saudis — and they believed that term unfairly vilified a whole religion.”
Yet when the Guardian sought to write an editorial about violence in Myanmar, it described it as “Buddhist.” It’s September 4, 2017 editorial reads: “The Buddha had something to say about such chains of violence and revenge but it appears that the Myanmar’s Buddhists would rather use chains as weapons, the way Hells Angels did, than be freed from them.” Yet the Guardian ran a piece by Roy Greenslade describing how to confront ISIS that has a totally different take on mentioning religion. “Muslims do not form a united, homogenous entity. We would never think of referring to Christians in a similar way because we are aware that the catch-all description is virtually meaningless. What’s more, is it not blindingly obvious that it smacks of bigotry to blame an entire group of people numbering in their multi-millions for the actions of a misguided minority who falsely claim some kind of religious purity?”
Interesting. So why doesn’t media apply that logic to describing violent extremism in Myanmar? Instead they report on “extremist Buddhists” and claim “It is an ultra-nationalist Buddhist organisation, and for years it has been spreading anti-Muslim sentiment across the country from this unassuming base. Self-anointed protectors of Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist religion.” The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is described a bit differently, “the Brotherhood can barely see itself in these accusations. In its eyes, its is a long-suffering movement with a strong support-base and a rich history of grassroots social work that is doing its best in trying economic circumstances to hold the country together.” Why is it that Buddhist monks in Myanmar who express intolerant views are seen as “Buddhist extremists” but intolerant activists in Egypt, Gaza, or many other places, are not seen as “Muslim extremists” or “ultra-nationalist”?
Mass media should consider this question, why does it ascribe the actions in Myanmar to “Buddhists” but work so keenly to avoid any connection between numerous Islamist organizations, from Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Shabab, Gamaa Islamiya, ISIS and others to “Islam” or “Muslims.” Why not use the same terminology and explanations for violence in Burma? Why not call certain monks “violent extremists” and have articles explaining that Buddhism is a “religion of peace.” Why not stress “economic” issues or “grassroots” structures. Why not try to refrain from blaming “an entire group”? Why not describe the extremists as “anti-Buddhist” or “un-Buddhist”? Why not say that calling them Buddhist might “marginalize” the vast majority of Buddhists? Why not note that calling them Buddhists “unfairly vilified a whole religion”?
The same is true with media use of terms such as “Hindu Nationalists” or “Jewish terrorists” or “Christian fundamentalists.” Why is it that in all other cases use of the blanket descriptions of religion is seen as ok, except with ISIS? Why not call them “militants.”?