By Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 4th Edition
In the past two weeks, at least 313,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, roughly a third of the Rohingya population living in the predominantly Buddhist country. As we seek to understand the Rohingya people’s situation—and why religious power has manifested into violence—we turn to Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God. In this excerpt from the chapter, “Buddhist Faces of Terror,” Juergensmeyer visits the monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority. The author has adapted this excerpt for the UC Press blog.
When I talked with Ashin Wirathu in his comfortable office in the Ma Soe Yein monastery in the central Burmese city of Mandalay he was prepared to defend himself against the terrorism label branded him by Time magazine and by many other journalists. Wirathu was blamed for fanning the flames of ethnic hatred. He is the most well-known spokesman for the “969 Movement”—named after the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six distinctive features of his teachings, and the nine characteristics of monks—which was formed to defend the purity of Burmese Buddhist culture against its adulteration from outside influences, primarily Muslim. Hence it was widely regarded as an anti-Islamic hate movement.
“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” Wirathu said. He claimed that this was the reason that he and the 969 Movement were trying to protect Burmese Buddhism from what he regarded as a program of cultural annihilation.
Representatives of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, however, have seen this differently. They have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Though the Rohingya people claim to have lived in the region for centuries, many Burmese regard them as aliens, and the most recent government census refused to let them identify themselves on the rolls as Rohingya rather than as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Wirathu has been outspoken in his insistence that the Rohingya are not legitimately native to the country but are interlopers.
In the years immediately following Burma’s establishment as an independent country in 1948 there was an effort to extend citizenship to all groups within the country. This was the vision of Aung San, the symbolic father of Burmese nationalism—and the actual father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize–winning activist whose party came to power in the 2015 elections. In the first years of independent Burmese rule, Rohingya were included as cabinet members of the government.
In 2012, however, tensions between Burmese and Rohingya in Rakhine state came to a boiling point. Burmese leaders claimed that the increase in the Muslim population would soon make them the majority, and riots ensued, with killings on both sides. This tension spread throughout the country in a spiral of anti-Muslim activism, fanned by the rhetorical of activists monks like Ashin Wirathu. The government responded to the anti-Muslim sentiment with a series of enactments that greatly restricted the rights of Rohingya within Myanmar, essentially making them citizens without a country. In 2015, some twenty-five thousand Rohingya set sail on crowded boats seeking asylum in surrounding countries. It is estimated that hundreds died attempted to set shore on Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
This dismissal of the rights of Rohingya in Myanmar is one of the things that has been criticized by the UN Human Rights Commission. According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. “It is not the United Nations,” Wirathu told me, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Wirathu claimed that U.S. President Barack Obama was also duped by these influences, and this is the reason why he spoke about the rights of Rohingya people in his visit to the country. From Wirathu’s perspective, however, it is not a matter of human rights but a battle for the cultural integrity of Myanmar. It is a war between good and evil, between Buddhist morality and the Muslim hordes he imagines to be poised to conquer Burma’s soul; and Wirathu would like to be its savior.
Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology and Global Studies and Founding Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Terror in the Mind of God, now in its fourth edition, analyzes in detail terrorism related to almost all the world’s major religious traditions. Drawing from extensive personal interviews, Juergensmeyer takes readers into the mindset of those who perpetrate and support violence in the name of religion. Identifying patterns within these cultures of violence, he explains why and how religion and violence are linked and how acts of religious terrorism are undertaken not only for strategic reasons but to accomplish a symbolic purpose. Terror in the Mind of God continues to be an indispensible resource for students of religion and modern society.