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Can Islam and Buddhism coexist peacefully in SE Asia?

Postcolonial states from Turkey to China are witnessing a contest for power between political liberals and religious nationalists.

In India new Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a religious ceremony before taking office; in Indonesia Islamist parties supported presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a general with tainted human rights record; in Ukraine Jews are fleeing resurgent anti-Semitism; in Britain Prime Minister David Cameron has asserted that the UK is a Christian country; in Brunei Sharia law is being imposed; Nigeria is witnessing the rise of Islamist Boko Haram; and Syria and Iraq are home to the newly established ISIL Caliphate. All are evidence that religion is increasingly being employed in the public sphere.

In many countries, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is being challenged by religious nationalists promoting religious "majoritarianism". Such challenges are coming from the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while in Malaysia Muslims are demanding the exclusive right to use the word "Allah". The resurgence of religion is global and it's not limited merely to Islam. Politicians are using religions for political objectives, rather than merely balancing politics with religious ethics - the fundamental rule of political philosophies.

The current critical state of Muslim-Buddhist relations calls for the development of civil relations between the two religious communities. Positive communication would help Buddhists and Muslims discover their rich shared resources and embark on a dialogical journey to build peace and overcome religious nationalism and fundamentalism. Aside from Hindu India, most of Asia is Buddhist. Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. Southeast Asian Muslims should recognise that while they may call the region "Serambi Mekkah" - the veranda of Mecca, for Buddhists it is the "Mecca", or centre, itself. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China and Japan are the "al-Azhar" and "Medina" - the intellectual centres - of Buddhism. Hence the importance of Muslim-Buddhist understanding and dialogue for the future of Islam in Asia.

The liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung once remarked, "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions." The ongoing Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Asia have to be approached with a method of historical critique at the religious and socio-political levels and addressed with pedagogical strategies and strong political will on both sides - otherwise their will be no end to obstructions for constructive Buddhist-Muslim relations.

In my view, the majority-minority model of citizenship - a colonial construct - has run its course. There is a need to address the issue of conflicts from the perspective of multicultural citizenship, not multiculturalism only, for globalisation has brought with it the challenge of acceptance of diversities. Building a positive future requires transcending the past through the development of relations between Buddhism and Islam as civilisations, not as provincialisms. Whether in Myanmar with the Rohingya, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or wherever, this will help transcend local, regional and international tensions between the two largest religious communities in the Asean region. To realise this, Southeast Asia's Muslims need to take this initiative on their own. They cannot wait for the lead from their Middle Eastern co-religionists, for they live alongside Buddhists in Asia and not the Muslims of the Middle East. Asean Muslims and Buddhists also need to transcend attitudes that equate ethnicity with religion, for the former is local while the latter is universal and diverse.

The history of Muslim-Buddhist interaction is old as Islam and has its positive and negatives aspects. In the case of their 900 years of coexistence in Southeast Asia, though their early relations were syncretic, identities later became "ethnicised". As far as I know, today there is no Southeast Asian Muslim scholar of Buddhism and no Buddhist counterpart who is versed in their respective communities' religious-cultural and lingual exchange, leave alone enjoying an understanding of shared words such as agama/sasana - religion; puasa - fast; hari raya - day of celebration, and even shared personal names, etc. In the face of rising religious nationalism and fundamentalism in both the faiths, there is need to build Muslim-Buddhist understanding through pedagogical and socio-cultural projects that are more than mere tourist symbols.

Otherwise, Asean Muslims from Yangon to Tokyo will soon be faced with the rise of Asian Islamophobia (in fact, it could be here already). Real efforts to build interfaith understanding will also help in the construction of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, which is an integral part of the region's coming Economic Community. The building blocks are all around us, in the messages of compassion, mercy and love at the heart of all religions.

Asst Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.


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