Within the last couple of years, news stories began to emerge from Sri Lanka and Myanmar about Buddhist monks partaking in violence against the countries’ Muslim minority. It became so prominent that Time magazine ran a cover story about the head of the 969 Buddhist extremist group in Myanmar. This has been a surprise for some international observers who have always stereotyped the religion as a peaceful non-violent faith (perhaps best illustrated by this satirical Onion article). But now it seems to have adopted extremist rhetoric and violent tactics. Perhaps what is most fascinating about the rise of Buddhist extremism (beside it being relatively new) is how this form of religious extremism has nearly simultaneously emerged in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.
Hindu extremism emerged as a prominent force in India during the 1990’s, best illustrated by the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the subsequent riots against Muslims throughout the country (though Mumbai seemed to bear the brunt of the rioting). It has also been able to influence political discourse in India through its association with the BJP party in India and through coalition politics. While there have been previous incidents of Hindu and Buddhist extremism prior to the dates I listed, it did not emerge as a political force to be reckoned with until the 1990’s and 2010’s respectively.
It should go without noting that while these time periods also represented the rise of Political Hinduism and Political Buddhism, it is related to but still distinct from Hindu and Buddhist extremism. This is similar to how the late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the rise of Political Islam as a prominent political force as well as the rise of Islamic extremism. The political incarnation of each religion can include everything from their version of liberals to the extremists that we see today. While the rise of Hindu and Buddhist extremism is closely related to the rise of their political counterparts, extremism only represents one part of the ideological spectrum.
What is perhaps most fascinating with Hindu and Buddhist extremism is how similar the narratives are. Both seek to portray their respective religions as victims threatened by Muslims (Christians are also discussed, although they’re not as prominent in the discourse as Muslims), and alone in this struggle. Another interesting element of these narratives is combining religion with nationality. Arguably, much of the religious terrorism we see today seeks to define national identity as those who hail from a certain religion or sect. Many religious extremist groups in the Middle East like Hamas combined nationalism with religious identity. The Hindu extremists paint themselves as true Indians while emphasizing the foreignness of Islam and Muslims. Buddhist chauvinists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have also attempted to do the same.
The Shiv Sena from Maharashtra can provide some insight for this. The group is a political party in the Indian state of Maharashtra that ruled along the BJP in a coalition from 1995-1999. The group was also accused of playing a major role in the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots against Muslims and using generally deplorable rhetoric against Muslims. Yet along with their rhetoric against Muslims with the founder Bal Thackeray even going as far as to saying he wanted to create a Hindustan for Hindus that would bring Islam down to its knees; his group has also engaged in similar rhetoric and actions against North Indians, South Indians, and Gujaratis, despite many of them also being Hindus. The Buddhists in Sri Lanka also were pivotal in their support for the campaign against the Tamil Tigers (who were mostly Hindu). So while there is an element of religious extremism, will the future mean that they will turn against members of their own religion or ethnicity if they do not meet the criteria?
In the case of Buddhist extremism, there has already been a wish by the leaders of the extremists to create a network of like-minded groups in other Buddhist countries. While there has so far been no indication that Hindu extremists wish to spread to other countries such as Nepal and a plurality in Mauritius. Another question is if this will lead to a rise in Buddhist or Hindu fighters traveling to other countries similar to the foreign fighter phenomenon we see in the conflicts in the Muslim world. Thomas Hegghammer identified the rise of the Muslim foreign fighter due to the existence of alarmist rhetoric, followed by government and private encouragement for individuals to fight in the battlefield of Afghanistan (both against the Soviets and Americans), Iraq, Syria, etc. The rhetoric is present and with the governments of Myanmar and Sri Lanka turning a blind eye to Buddhist extremism, this could possibly escalate.
This rise of varied religious extremism opens up the road for research on multiple questions: Was the rise of _____ (insert religion here) in response to the rise of another religion’s extremism? Was this in response to domestic or international forces? Does this attempt to combine religion or nationalism mean that in the future similar communities will be attacked for not sharing all the identities defined by the extremists? These are important questions that need to be considered, and there also needs to be an effort to combat these extremist forces by policy makers and important societal figures.