Can't Tell A Koran By Its Cover
January 05, 2007
Admirers and accommodationists—including President Bush—have agreed with many Muslims in calling Islam “a religion of peace.” Adherents and fans of Buddhism, though, haven’t found it necessary to similarly define that faith. At this point, Americans equate Islam with angry mobs, and Buddhism—to the extent they think if it at all—with meditation, serenity and the Dalai Lama.
That probably accounts for the lack of controversy, and lack of interest, in the congressional swearing in of two Buddhists. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia became members of Congress with a minimum of attention. For the record, Johnson used a Bible and Hirono used no book at all. Google News reported 56 stories on Hirono and 23 on Johnson.
On the same day, Keith Ellison was the subject of 2643 stories. It wasn’t because he was a proclaimed progressive, or the fact that he’s African American. It’s because he’s a Muslim, and took his oath on a Koran. And that we’re in some kind of war with some kind of Islam. It’s evident that the media, like the population at large, knows very little about Islam—other than it appears to be a threat—and even less about Buddhism
The truth is, Islam is not a religion of peace, nor, for that matter is Buddhism or any faith. All religions are what their practitioners make of them. Pretty much all of them extol peace somewhere in their teachings, but also celebrate bloody victories elsewhere. And you can find examples of each in history, and in current events.
Many Buddhist leaders, for instance, have been a central part of the ultra-nationalism behind the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. Militant Buddhists effectively partitioned and disenfranchised the Tamil minority, imposed Sinhala as the official language and even changed the name of the country to a Buddhist word with religious overtones. As in most civil wars, religion was not the only factor, but Buddhism has been used to justify a campaign that comes dangerously close to ethnic cleansing.
Or, take neighboring Burma. Although many of the Buddhist monks have bravely opposed the military government, some have cooperated with the generals. According to Human Rights Watch, the army has used forced labor to build Buddhist temples. And the junta put together a 2004 World Buddhism Summit in cooperation with Japanese Nenbutsushu Buddhists, an event that was boycotted by many other Buddhists.
Buddhism, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and every other religion has divisions and subsets, some mutually antagonistic. Congresswoman Hirono was born in Fukushima, Japan, and brought up in the Jodo Shu tradition, which itself is split into factions, and has no recent history of unseemly political activity.
One thing that Americans now know about Islam is that it harbors fractious, often violent sects. Few pay attention to the non-violent majority. Or that Islam varies from mosque to mosque as well as from strain to strain, to say nothing of person to person.
There is, of course, long and bitter history of clashes between Christianity and Islam, with Muslims taking most of the casualties in modern times. But there were also long periods of cooperation and relative peace with the various forms of Islam. And while Christians have warred on Buddhist nations—Vietnam being the most recent—Buddhism itself was a minor issue.
The point is, Ellison, Hiroto and Johnson have all been prejudged. We discover nothing about any of them just by using a single word—Buddhist or Muslim—to describe them, and not much more by pinning down what branch of their religion they subscribe to. In short, there is no good reason to probe a public servant’s religion.
Or, as Mazie Hirono herself said when asked about her Buddhism: “"What happened to separation of church and state and religious tolerance? I believe in those things."