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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 7   16-31 August 2013

Minaret Research Network

Buddhist Terror in Myanmar

The image of Buddhism worldwide is that of a religion of kindness, compassion and non-violence, which is epitomized in ochre-robed Buddhist monks engrossed in deep meditation and receiving alms from the community at dawn. This image has been shattered by the aggressive posturing of Buddhist monks and their involvement in anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Images of rampaging Buddhist monks, with swords in their hands, attacking Muslims and setting fire to Muslim homes and mosques were flashed across the global media last year and early this year. Buddhist mobs, including Buddhist monks, have lynched more than 200 Muslims in Myanmar, terrified thousands and drove more than 150,000 of them out of their homes.

Ashin Wirathu, Myanmar’s 46-year-old firebrand Buddhist monk, has a rock-star following in the country. He frequently rants against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, whom he describes as “the enemy.” “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Wirathu says, referring to Muslims. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist,” he adds. He exhorts his followers, “Now is not the time for calm. Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.” He sees Myanmar’s Muslim minority, who make up about 5% of the country’s population of 60 million, a threat to the country and its Buddhist culture. He says, “Muslims are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them. They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.”

Wirathu’s vituperative sermons and speeches have clearly stoked the fires of hatred against Muslims. In a recent sermon, Wirathu, who once described himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden,” described the brutal massacre of Muslims, including school children, in the city of Meiktila in March 2013 as a show of strength. “If we are weak, our land will become Muslim,” he said. Wirathu says that around 90% of Muslims in Myanmar are “Radical, bad people.” Wirathu’s hatred for Muslims is not confined to those living in Myanmar; it encompasses Muslims in general. He has said, for example, that US President Barack Obama has been “tainted by black Muslim blood.”

Wirathu spearheads a radical movement called 969—the figure symbolizes Buddha’s virtues, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community. The movement calls upon Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and Muslim-made goods. This message is disseminated through the network of regular sermons, the DVDs of these sermons and pamphlets. Interestingly, President Thein Sein’s office has described 969 as a “symbol of peace” and Wirathu as “a son of Lord Buddha.” This lends credence to the suspicion that Wirathu’s anti-Muslim tirade is tacitly supported by the government. Wirathu and his cohorts are pushing for the enactment of a law banning inter-religious marriages in Myanmar. The law, they suggest, should stipulate that if a Buddhist woman wishes to marry a non-Buddhist, she must seek permission from local officials and that the prospective groom must convert to Buddhism.

Wirathu was jailed for eight years by the military junta for inciting hatred against Muslims in 2003. The July 1, 2013 issue of Time magazine published a photograph of Wirathu on the cover page, with the caption “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The issue has been banned in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The Rohingya Muslims are forced to live like despised criminals. There are restrictions on their movement and travel. They cannot even go to hospital for treatment. Conditions in the makeshift refugee camps, in which thousands of displaced Rohingya Muslims are crammed, are appalling. The camps remind one of apartheid in South Africa. On the other hand, the conditions in the settlements for Buddhist Muslims present an altogether different picture.

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have taken a leaf from their coreligionists in Myanmar and have been involved in attacks on Muslims and the destruction of Muslim houses and shops. A militant Buddhist organization Bodu Bama Sena (BBS), which has thousands of followers, carries on a regular campaign of demonization and vilification against the Muslim minority. It demands a ban on halal slaughter and on the wearing of Islamic headscarves. In Thailand, there is a strong undercurrent of hatred and hostility towards the country’s miniscule Muslim minority. There is a deep nexus between the army and Buddhist monks, some of whom carry arms. Buddhist temples are often used as army bases. This has heightened the sense of insecurity and alienation experienced by the Muslim minority.

On 9 August, 2013, the second day of the Muslim feast of Eid, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. The attack triggered clashes between Muslims and Buddhists, in which at least nine people were injured. In July, hardline Buddhist groups had held a protest rally near the mosque, demanding its relocation to another area.

The Politics of Muslim Demographics

Islamophobia is manifested in several forms, including physical and verbal assaults on Muslims, attacks on mosques and cemeteries, derogatory references to the Quran and the Prophet, deprecation of Islamic symbols such as the veil, and circulation of unfounded stereotypes and myths about Islam and Muslims. One of such myths is the extraordinary population growth among Muslims.

In many parts of the world, including India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Europe, racist and far-right groups are engaged in spreading the belief that Muslims have a very high fertility rate and that they will soon overtake non-Muslim populations. In Myanmar, Ashin Wirathu, the firebrand Buddhist monk, says that Buddhism is under siege by Muslims who are producing more children than Buddhists. In India, a major plank in the electoral rhetoric of organizations and political parties that espouse an ethnocentric and exclusive brand of Hindu nationalism, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is high population growth among Muslims. It is alleged that the Muslim population in India will overtake Hindu population in a few decades, thanks to the very high fertility rate among Muslims. Some far-right groups in Europe have raised the cry of “demographic jihad” launched by Muslims, which is aimed at the “Islamization” of Europe by having large families. Oriana Fallaci, an Italian writer who had a virulent dislike for Muslims, popularized the notion of “Eurabia” – a Europe inhabited and dominated by Muslims.

A seven-minute video called “Muslim Demographics” was uploaded on YouTube by an anonymous user in 2009. It has so far attracted 14 million viewers. The video claims that as a result of extremely high population growth rate in Europe and elsewhere, Muslims will soon overtake the continent’s Christian population. Using dubious and highly questionable statistics, it is claimed that in 39 years France will be an Islamic republic and that Germany will be a Muslim state by the year 2050. The video claims that if the current population trends continue, Britain will be a Muslim-majority nation by 2050. The population of the Netherlands, according to the video, will be half Muslim in the next 15 years. The video warns that “Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities, begin reproducing again and share the gospel with Muslims.” The video is replete with false statements. It says, for example, that Muslims in France have 8.1 children on average while the ethnic French have 1.8 children. The actual figures are, respectively, 2.8 and 1.9. The video says that 25% of Belgium’s population is Muslim. The actual figure is 6%. A German government official is falsely quoted as saying that Germany will be a Muslim country by 2050.

A Roman Catholic priest, Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanian who is president of the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, screened the video at a meeting of bishops at the Vatican in October 2012. The even created an uproar even in the Vatican. The Vatican distanced itself from the row, dismissing the video as anti-Islamic propaganda. Vatican radio called the video “fear mongering.” Incidentally, Cardinal Turkson has said in the past that theological dialogue with Muslims was impossible.

The myth of extremely high fertility rate among Muslims in Europe, and elsewhere, has been exposed by Doug Saunders in his book The Mythology of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? (2012). Saunders shows that family size and population growth rates are falling faster than other groups in large parts of the world, including Muslim countries. In Iran, for example, where a family had an average of 7 children in the 1980s, it has fallen to 1.7. The total fertility rates in other Muslim countries according to 2011 estimates are as follows: Lebanon 1.76; Syria 2.85; Algeria 2.78; Saudi Arabia 2.26; Kuwait 2.60; Morocco 2.19; Tunisia 2.02; Qatar 1.93; Bahrain 1.86; Egypt 2.70; Tajikistan 2.85; Kyrgyzstan 2.73; Kazakhstan 2.41; Turkmenistan 2.14; Azerbaijan 1.92; Turkey 2.13; Bangladesh 2.55; Malaysia 2.64; Indonesia 2.19; Bosnia 1.23. Population growth rates among Muslim immigrants and their descendants in Western countries are also steadily falling. In 2006, Muslim-majority countries, where more than three-fourths of the world’s Muslim population are concentrated, had an average population growth rate of 1.8% per year, compared with the global average of 1.12% per year.

Muslims in India have a higher fertility rate, compared with that of the majority Hindu population. However, since 1991 Muslims have recorded the highest decline in fertility rates among all religious groups in the country. This is also noted by the Sachar Committee report. In 2030 Muslims in India will still make up a modest 15.9% of the country’s total population, as against 14.6% now. Demographers and sociologists point out that the relatively higher fertility rates among Muslims in India are largely due to social and economic factors, including widespread poverty, low literacy rates, lower infant mortality rates and marriage of girls at an early age.

A 2011 report of the Pew Research Centre notes that the world Muslim population is expected to grow at a slower rate in the next two decades than it did in the previous two decades. By 2030 Muslims will make up about 26.4% (2.2 billion) of the global population (from 1.6 billion in 2010). The report says that “the data that we have isn’t pointing in the direction of ‘Eurabia’ at all”. It reckons that the percentage of Muslims in Europe is likely to rise by about two percentile points in 2030, from 6% now to about 8%.

Rising Hatred against Muslims in France

Racist and xenophobic sentiments are deeply entrenched in the cultural consciousness of European societies. Notwithstanding its avowed espousal of the Republican credo of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,” France has a long history of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The deep-seated prejudice and hostility towards Muslims – who constitute nearly 10% of the population – is reflected in the preferential treatment for the country’s white, Catholic majority, in the exclusion and marginalization of Muslims, in institutionalized discrimination against the Muslim minority in respect of education, employment and housing, and in the desecration and vandalizing of mosques and cemeteries.

According to a report of the Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), hate crimes against Muslims in France rose to 469 in 2012 from 298 in 2011. Attacks on mosques doubled to 40 in 2012. The report says that the far-right rhetoric against immigration and against the growing presence of Muslims in the country has fuelled the rising graph of hate crimes against the Muslim minority. The report calls France’s civil service “one of the principal vectors of Islamophobia.” French bureaucrats and officials often adopt a discriminatory posture against Muslims, especially against Muslim women who wear headscarves.

The National Front, a far-right, Islamophobic party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now headed by his daughter Marine Le Pen, is riding the crest of surging Islamophobic sentiments in the country. It polled 17.90% of the vote in the 2012 presidential elections. In a speech in Lyon in December 2010, Marine Le Pen told a gathering of National Front supporters, “First France had seen more and more burkas and after that came prayers in the streets. I am sorry, but some people are very fond of talking about the Second World War and about the occupation. So let’s talk about occupation, because that is what is happening here. There are no tanks, no soldiers, but it is still an occupation, and it weighs on people.” French prosecutors filed a case against Le Pen for inciting racial hatred in 2011. In July 2013, the European Parliament, of which Le Pen is a member, removed the immunity, paving the way for her prosecution. If found guilty, Le Pen could be sentenced to a maximum of one-year jail term together with a fine of €45,000. In response to growing right-wing protests, the French government banned prayers in the streets.

On 10 November 2012, Resistance Republicaine, a far-right group, organized a march through the streets of Paris to denounce “Islamic fascism.” The protesters displayed placards with slogans such as “Islam out of Louvre” and “No to the Islamisation of Alsace-Lorraine.” A new wing of Paris’s famed Louvre Museum, which houses thousands of precious objects and artifacts from the Islamic world, opened in September 2012.

The Alsace-Moselle region in Strasbourg, France, which has a population of 2.9 million people, has intermittently been under German and French control in the past few centuries and was eventually returned to France after World War II. In 1905 France passed a major legislation stipulating a clear separation between church and state. Since Alsace-Moselle was under German occupation in 1905, the principle of laicite does not hold in the region and the local government has continued to involve itself in religious matters by providing subsidies for religious instruction in public schools. Unlike in the rest of the country, the local government offers financial help for the construction of places of worship and pays the salaries of the clergy.

In one part of Alsace-Moselle, Alsace-Lorraine, a third of the 15,000 inhabitants are Muslim. There is a good deal of understanding and harmony between Muslims and the Christian and Jewish communities. The heads of the four established religions-Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Judaism-signed a letter in 1998 supporting the construction of a new mosque, designed by an Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi, with some funds provided by the local government. The city council provided a large plot of riverside land for 50 years and agreed to bear 26% of the construction costs. However, with the defeat of the socialist government in Alsace-Moselle and the assumption of power by a centre-right government in 2001, things became difficult for the mosque project. The new mayor refused to allow the construction of a minaret and a study centre and auditorium. The construction finally started in 2007 but has now stalled for lack of funds and support from the government. However, the local Muslims, with the support of the Christian and Jewish communities, continue to press for the construction of the mosque complex.

It is significant to note that Islamophobic sentiments are harboured not only by the far-right but also by leftist groups and organizations. In April 2011 the French Senate unanimously passed a bill banning the face-covering veil or niqab in public places. France is the first European country to pass such a law. The bill sets a fine of 150 euros for women who would violate the ban, and a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in prison for husbands or other relatives who are convicted of forcing the veil on a woman. France’s leftist parties have backed the ban on the veil. They justify the ban in terms of the Republican creed of laicite (the French version of secularism), which calls for not only the separation of church and state but also the elimination of religion, especially religious symbols, from the public domain.

Since 2001, more than 300 Muslim women wearing the face-covering veil have been questioned by the police and fined. In the second week of July 2013, Muslim youths threw stones at the police and torched cars in the Paris suburb of Trappes. The trouble started when the police stopped a young Muslim woman and asked her to remove her veil. Her enraged husband, who was with her, allegedly assaulted the police. He was arrested but was later released. Muslim youths gathered at the police station where the man was detailed and started throwing stones and torching cars. The police responded with tear gas and baton charges. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France released a statement accusing the police of heavy-handedness and provocation during the identity check on the veiled woman.

The argument that the wearing of the veil in public is in conflict with the creed of laicite bristles with hypocrisy and contradictions. Historically, France has worked out an accommodation with the Catholic Church in many ways. Even after the separation of church and state was mandated by law in 1905, public schools accommodated the desire of parents (and the pressure of churches) for children to have religious instruction and treated it as a right. The secular state also maintains religious buildings as a public responsibility. This applies not only to Christian churches but also to synagogues and to the Paris Mosque, which was built in 1926 to commemorate the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers who died in World War I. Since 1958, the French government has contributed 10 per cent of the budgets of private religious schools. More than 2 million children attend state-supported Catholic schools. The school calendar still observes only Catholic and state holidays. The proposal of the Stasi Commission to add a Jewish and a Muslim holiday was rejected by the former French President Jacques Chirac. In 2005, the French government decreed all public buildings to fly the national flag at half mast following the death of Pope John Paul.

France’s Catholic church has not been able to avoid Islamophobia’s unholy embrace. Leading Catholic bishops in France have voiced their concern about the escalation in anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. They admitted that one of the factors fuelling Islamophobic feelings was the hardening attitude within the Roman Catholic Church. The Bishop of Angouleme, Dagens, says, “It is with much pain that I notice the emergence of a Catholic Islamophobia, in the same way that there has been a Catholic anti-Semitism for centuries.”

Hate crimes against Muslims in France continue unabated. In May this year, a 17-year-old young Muslim woman was attacked by “skinheads,” who knocked her to the ground and called her a “dirty Muslim.” In August this year, a 23-year-old air force sergeant with links to neo-Nazi groups was placed under investigation for plotting to carry out an attack on a mosque near Lyon. The soldier confessed to the police that he was involved in planning the attack and also admitted that he was responsible for firebombing a mosque in Libourne in southwestern France in August last year.

Fox News Promotes anti-Islam Film

The world has never been so interconnected and interdependent as at present times, thanks to the increasing movement and flow of information, people, capital, technology, ideas, cultural patterns and lifestyle. Modern information and communication technologies, which are the lifeline of globalisation, have broken the barriers of time and space and have thereby transformed the global scenario. They have facilitated extensive interaction and exchange among people from different national, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Some commentators argue that the Internet is generating “social capital”—in the form of networks, norms and social trust that facilitate cooperation and coordination among citizens who share common social concerns and commitments. There are more than 5000 transnational NGOs, most of whom coordinate their activities and programmes through the Internet.

Unfortunately, modern information and communication technologies, especially web 2.0 features such as blogs, social networking sites, websites and instant messaging, are being used by racist and neo-Nazis groups in Western countries to spread racism and xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter the video-sharing sites such as YouTube and yFrog are being used by extremist groups to spread a message of hate against minorities and immigrants. On YouTube there are thousands of hate videos that are imbued with racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and intolerance towards minority groups. “MySpace, Facebook and YouTube are the “killer apps” of the Internet today, and they are used by millions, but the virus of hate certainly has infected these technologies”, Christopher Wolf, chair of the International Network Against Cyber-Hate (INACH), told the Global Summit on Internet Hate Speech, hosted by the French embassy in Washington, DC on November 17-18, 2008.

By and large, Western media mirror the economic and political interests and ideological proclivities of Western nations. More often than not, they distort and misrepresent events and happenings relating to Muslims. They popularize and reinforce misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and give currency to misleading and pejorative terms like ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘Islamism’. A survey of 900 American feature films showed that the Arab characters were depicted in an outright racist manner. Western media played a major role in fanning the flames of controversy and conflict over the publication of the derogatory caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. ‘Embedded’ Western journalists, who accompanied Western troops during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and were spoon-fed with one-sided and distorted accounts of the war by the occupation forces, painted a highly biased and distorted picture of the war situation. By and large, TV programmes aired on Western media do not reflect the cultural traditions, identities and aspirations of Muslims.

Fox News is a New York- based cable news channel and is a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, which is owned by the American media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The channel is watched by more than 100 million viewers in the US. Fox News is known for its misrepresentation of events relating to Muslims and for its virulently anti- Muslim comments. In his columns in Fox News, Bob Beckel has persistently argued that restrictions need to be placed on Muslim students studying in the US, adding that some of the 75,000 Muslim students in American schools and institutions of higher learning are likely to harbor terrorist ambitions. Brian Kilmeade, a host on one of Fox News’s programmes, suggested putting listening devices in mosques in the country and wondered why there could not be more racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs. Much before the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings were identified, Fox News speculated that the perpetrator of the attack was an Arab or a “dark-skinned Muslim.” Fox News pundit tweeted: “Let’s kill them all” in response to a message about Muslims.

A white man was fatally attacked by two Muslim men in south London on May 22, 2013. The attack was condemned by Muslim organizations in Britain. On the other hand, Fox News gave a wicked twist to the incident and suggested that “the attack could be explained by the fact that London has an extraordinary percentage of Muslims and that they allowed in.”

The latest in a series of offensives launched by Fox News is the airing of an Islamophobic film “Jihad in America: The Grand Deception.” The film, produced by Steve Emerson for the Investigative Project on Terrorism, claims to expose “the covert structure and growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups, masquerading under the false moniker of civil rights groups in the US, specifically how they are infiltrating or intimidating major societal institutions from Congress to Hollywood, from the mainstream news media to federal law enforcement, from the publishing industry to museums.” The film is shown on YouTube and has received thousands of visitors.

Geert Wilders Launches anti-Mosque Website

The far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands has persistently demanded a halt to all immigration in the country, a ban on the building of mosques and Islamic schools and on veils worn by Muslim women. Geert Wilders, a leader of the party, has called Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture” and the “enemy of freedom”. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and demanding a ban on it in the Netherlands. He said in an article in a Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: “I’ve had enough of the Quran in the Netherlands: Ban that fascist book”. Wilders argues that the Quran is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror” and that the “Islamic ideology has as its utmost goal that destruction of what is most dear to us, our freedom”. Wilders has said that if Muslims wish to stay on in the country they should tear up half of their holy book. He says Europe is in danger of being “Islamised” and that there would soon be more mosques than churches in the country.

Wilders made a short film “Fitna” in March 2008, which shows certain verses from the Quran, interspersed with media clips and newspaper clippings showing acts of violence and terrorism by Muslims. The film also reproduces a caricature of the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban (published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006) and footage of the September 11 attacks on the US, the Madrid train bombing and the terrorist attack on London. The film conveys the message that Islam encourages acts of violence and terrorism, anti-Semitism and violence against women. Wilders described the film as “a call to shake off the creeping tyranny of Islamisation”. As Robert Fisk has observed, “the film is crass in its presentation, crude and vulgar in its message.”

Wilders has launched a new website called MoskNee (Mosque No), which aims to offer advice to non-Muslims who wish to file a legal suit against the construction of a new mosque in their area. The website says: “Netherlands is not an Islamic country and should never be. Yet we see the influence of Islam increase hand over hand….. Under the influence of the fast-growing Muslim population – around one million people in 2013 – the number of mosques has increased sharply. Netherlands now has more than 450….What would be nice is a Netherlands without mosques. The PVV therefore says: enough is enough. As far as we are concerned, there will be no more mosques in Netherlands.”

In an interview with Algemeen Dagblad, Wilders states that the mosque is “a symbol of an ideology of hatred, violence and oppression” and that ideally the PVV would like to ban mosques from the Netherlands altogether. Since this is legally impossible, the PVV has launched another campaign: more resistance to the Islamization of the Netherlands.

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