Monday, December 11, 2006

ISLAM & the Absence of Chinese Terrorists; Terrorists do not represent Majority of Muslims; but Core Narrowness forms Global Terrorist

In the wake of the most recent eruption in terrorist activity, whether interrupted or successful, the world's media have been full of stories and op-ed pages citing the failures of the West in coming to terms with Islam. For their part, Islamic scholars have pointed out that a very large proportion of Muslims are not terrorists, and thus to confuse the religion with terrorism is pointless. That is contentious. Let us think for a moment of the two ways of wording a statement, and because this is a contentious topic, let's look elsewhere at an older, more sinister albeit state-sponsored terrorist organization, the Waffen-SS. In 1933 (and I have specifically chosen a period well before wartime atrocities began) there were 52,000 members in the Waffen-SS within a population of 66 million Germans.

"The Waffen-SS comprised a ridiculously small minority of Germans" or "All members of the Waffen-SS were Germans." In effect, both statements are correct, but their implications are vastly different. It is in recognizing the second version that post-World War II Germany achieved meaningful introspection, and why the country does not pose a military threat now, nor is ever likely to in future. Prolonging the comforting fiction afforded by the first version of the statement would not have helped Germany repent for its actions collectively. This is the same problem confronting the Muslim world today. The linkage between Islam and today's terrorists can be framed very similarly to the German pyramid of the early 20th century. Then, frustrations and anger within the wider population were radicalized progressively, until they reached the fanatical breadth of the Waffen-SS.

The progression of terrorists through Islamic society, one imagines (because one doesn't really stand around witnessing the birth of new terrorists), is a similar process where a number of local frustrations have fueled the nucleus of modern terrorism. For lessons on how to avoid the spillover of such extremist tendencies toward action, Muslims may want to examine the Buddhist example from history, in particular focusing on its evolution within Chinese culture. Very similar to the schism that developed in Islam between Sunnis and Shi'ites is the one that developed in Buddhism in the 1st century AD. Then, the arguments between the literal sayings of the Buddha and a theological expansion from those sayings laid the ground for the evolution of Mahayana (Greater Wheel) Buddhism, which is the version that thrived in India and was later exported to China and Japan. The older, and arguably truer, form of Buddhism was thenceforth cited as Hinayana (Lesser Wheel) and was primarily followed in countries such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). Mahayana and China

As the Mahayana school spread in China, its greatest appeal was among those following Taoist thought. The antipathy of Confucian scholars to Buddhism is well recorded. They objected to the idea of a man giving up his worldly possessions and abjuring sex, as these violated the importance of relative standing upon which Confucian values of a person's importance are founded. Confucians also opposed the foreign-looking imagery of the Buddha, and in particular to his depiction in statues of exposing one shoulder, as this was barbaric to them.

Taoist beliefs, on the other hand, cited the value of a person unto himself - and it was here that the lower classes in China found a solid echo in Buddhism. By promising rebirth in a better position, and promising besides that oppressors would themselves suffer in a rebirth, Buddhism was able to fill the poor with greater optimism about their lot. The transition meant that stability across the classes was achieved for China and, over a period of time, the Confucian elite managed to strengthen its hold over the country's thought. This was compensated across the lower classes, who focused on self-maximization as guided by Taoist principles, while the more literate among the lower classes focused on the Buddhist principles of seeking an escape from mere bodily pleasures. Needless to add, such people did not procreate, and therefore failed to perpetuate their discontent.

The contribution of Buddhism to Chinese culture and language has been immense. The "butterfly dream" poem of Chuang Tzu in particular occupies a core of Zen thought now. This is a situation where the learned scholar wakes from his dream, where he remembers dreaming of himself as a butterfly. He then inquires whether he did indeed dream that he was a butterfly or whether his current state of being, as a human, could be the dream of a butterfly. The idea of non-attachment (as against detachment) is core to Buddhist thought, and explains away the injustices millions of people have suffered for the past few millennia. I believe that this core of thought, suffused with a Taoist instinct for self-preservation (and maximization), forms the essence of Chinese practicality. It informs the philosophy of action, and can be seen as a guiding hand of common sense in the works of Sun Tzu, which are more popular in the West.

Hinayana and Ceylon
The core practices of Buddhism that were initially exported at the time of Emperor Ashok were to become foreign in their land of birth as India took to the Mahayana form of Buddhism. In foreign lands, Buddhism nevertheless encountered one of the key objections to Mahayana thought, namely the need for deifying the Buddha (which was frowned upon by the Buddha himself) to spread the message wider. That the Mahayana school succumbed to the temptation to deify the Buddha and widen the discussions on his thoughts remains the key reason for the Hinayana school's derision of the other school's adherents.

The natural pessimism attached to Buddhism centers on the sheer pointlessness of one's existence should one fail to secure separation from self. While this is optimal for an individual to examine at some length, it does not form the basis for nationhood. Indeed, much as the Confucians observed, true Buddhists do not form armies and do not join government, as these acts necessarily injure others. Thus challenged, the Hinayana school in practice adopted the sacred relics of the Buddha as its guiding force. The transition of focus from the immutable self to an object proved successful as a way of guarding the basic culture from foreign invasion.

It is thus no accident that all the main adherents of the Hinayana school Buddhism - Ceylon, Burma and Siam - succeeded in creating military societies (I define that term as a society ever-focused on external threats to its culture, with less focus on internal reforms). Indeed, the Hinayana school has a basic openness on religion that is somehow combined with a basic disdain for exceptional behavior. The key exception for Buddhism with respect to terrorism is thus to be found in its oldest school - it does not take any leap of faith for us to examine the modern-day barbarism shown by the Myanmar junta on its own people, nor the atrocities heaped on minority Tamils and Muslims by the majority Sinhalese (Buddhists) in Sri Lanka, as having philosophical underpinnings not in Buddhism, but in the organization of the state around the idea of protecting the religion.

Back to Islam

As with the Hinayana school, today's Islam organizes itself around the sacred experience of visiting Mecca and Medina, and adhering to other tenets laid down many centuries ago. And as with the experience in Burma and Ceylon, this led to the successful establishment of a military society. The evolution of Shi'ite thought was on similar lines to that in the Mahayana school, and very similar to the history of Buddhism: circumstances (ie, history) played a great part in rendering the divide on nationalist lines. The lack of open debate in Sunni Islam today harks back to the Hinayana experience, although with a key difference, namely that while Buddhism's strictest thoughts survived away from its place of origin, the same cannot be said of Islam today.

Evolution has been an integral feature of all expanding religions, be it Christianity's incorporation of pagan beliefs in Europe or Buddhism's adoption of Taoist principles in China. While Islam itself underwent similar evolution - witness the Sufi school of thought, which borrowed much from Buddhism - today's voices speak from the core alone.

Thus the statement that terrorists do not represent a majority of Muslims may indeed be true mathematically, but that does not absolve the rest of the Islamic community of their failure to address the narrowness of the core. This silence forms the basis of the global terrorist pyramid.

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Why No Chinese Terrorists?

Chan Akya has a notable piece in today's Asia Times, "Islam and the absence of Chinese terrorists." Akya makes a culturalist argument, suggesting that deep historical forces, manifest in various elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially including Buddhism, explain why contemporary Islam gives rise to more terrorist activity than does contemporary China. This is an interesting line of inquiry. But the form that it takes in this article is, I believe, fundamentally flawed. The major problem is that Akya is ascribing too much explanatory weight to ancient ideas. For example: Very similar to the schism that developed in Islam between Sunnis and Shi'ites is the one that developed in Buddhism in the 1st century AD. Then, the arguments between the literal sayings of the Buddha and a theological expansion from those sayings laid the ground for the evolution of Mahayana (Greater Wheel) Buddhism, which is the version that thrived in India and was later exported to China and Japan. The older, and arguably truer, form of Buddhism was thenceforth cited as Hinayana (Lesser Wheel) and was primarily followed in countries such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). After further discussing how Mahayana Buddhism interacted with indigenous elements of Chinese culture - Confucianism and Taoism - Akya returns to the idea that the earlier split in Buddhism is of central importance in understanding why terrorism is to be found in Sri Lanka and not in China. Much is missing here, like the twentieth century. Or the broader historical process of modernization, which begins in earnest in China in the 19th century. he China-Sri Lanka comparison is secondary to the China-Middle East comparison and, when considering the latter and the ways in which Islam has been interpreted by some to support terrorism, we really need to look at how more particular political struggles, shaped by the forces of economic and social change, have encouraged and allowed religious or philosophical systems of thought to be mobilized for violent purposes. Ideas do not have political lives of their own, they are taken and used, and their meanings transformed, by political actors who seek power. In the case of China, if we were to ask why we do not find there anything similar to Islamic terrorist movements, the first things we should focus on are not the 1st century Buddhist schism, but the twentieth century revolutionary struggle for power and its outcomes. Most immediately, the creation of the very highly centralized state apparatus, with effective reach into local communities, likely explains more of the absence of terrorism in China than does any ancient strand of thought. Chinese society has, since 1949, been very closely policed and politically controlled. Even peaceful political movements are quickly suppressed. Moreover, that political centralization has been effectively tied to nationalism for decades now. Many Chinese - most Chinese? - are proud of their country and are willing to accept the state's claims that political authoritarianism is necessary to maintain social order. In short, there is no social "water" to support the "fish" of an underground terrorist movement. An al-Qaeda-like organization would thus be more effectively repressed by the state and by the society. Compare this to contemporary Iraq - which is essentially state-less - or Afghanistan under the Taliban, or Lebanon or Pakistan. None of these places comes even close to the socio-political conditions of China, and they are major suppliers of terrorist foot soldiers. Another line of explanation, before we consider the effects of ancient ideas, is the broader experience of modernization - by which I mean the inter-related economic, social and political processes of urbanization, social mobility, industrialization, bureaucratization, secularization and so on. China began to confront and be transformed by these changes in the nineteenth century and the process played itself out violently in the twentieth. Some of the earliest anti-modernizing violence was, of course, performed by the Boxer Movement. Indeed, the Boxers might be understood as a "terrorist" organization. Long story short: the first half of the twentieth century was incredibly violent in China: it was attacked from without and it was riven by civil war within. In the midst of this there was plenty of "terrorist" violence, by Chinese against foreign invaders (in a classically asymmetric manner) and by Chinese against Chinese. Indeed, a classic statement of the terrorist mindset can be found in Andre Malraux' Man's Fate. Nothing in ancient Chinese culture limited or prevented wide-scale terrorist violence. Again, compare to the contemporary Middle East. Although it is obiously a large and complex topic, I think that it it not too controversial to say that many places in the Middle East have not experienced, or are only now in the midst of, the tumultuous modernizing processes that China has already gone through. I could go on. And I realize we could debate the historical interpretations endlessly. But I am quite confident in this conclusion: the absence of terrorism in China today has more to do with the political circumstances of the twentieth century than it does with the religious or philosophical conditions of the first century AD. Confucianism and Taoism are, at base, pacifistic. Buddhism is also, though the Japanese were able to turn it toward state violence in the early twentieth century. These systems of thought generally support a rejection of terrorist violence. But they are merely systems of thought and, as such, they do not determine such historical outcomes like the presence or absence of terrorist movements. They have no force in and of themselves, but are given force by historical conditions and political activists.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

my blog is relevant to the topic of this post

6:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the term terrorist it self is debatable. one freedom fighter in an occupied land is terrorist to another

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you talk bullshit

1:08 AM  

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