By Barçin Yinanç
March 19 2019
My last touristic destination abroad in 2018 was Sri Lanka, followed by Myanmar, my first touristic destination abroad in 2019.
There was no particular intention. It so happened that I visited two predominantly Buddhist countries within two months.
Sri Lanka is the only country in the world to have ended a separatist movement by military action. It is a widespread belief that this was possible because the government disregarded civilian casualties and used military force bluntly and brutally against the Tamil minority.
Myanmar has been equally merciless in dealing with its Muslim minority. Some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military offensive in 2017, an exodus described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Yet whoever you meet in both countries, they would start by saying, “You know ma’am, Buddhism is a religion of peace.”
It is just like Muslims talking about “Islam being a religion of peace.” Yet our neighbourhood, the Middle East, have witnessed the bloodiest wars among Muslims.
I am sure many in the international community were irritated when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the world’s indifference to the persecution in Myanmar based on the conviction that while people especially in the West could equate Islam with violence, it could not accept the same when it came to Buddhism.
But Erdoğan was right. No one can claim that a Buddhist cannot be violent just because of the teachings of the religion. Buddhism, just like Islam or any other religion, might promote peace and be strictly against any form of violence. That does not guarantee its believers to genuinely internalize it as such.
I came across such double standard recently in French novelist Kenize Mourad’s book “The Garden of Badalpour.” At one stage the book talks about the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu fanatics in the city of Ayodhya in India. The main character in the novel, the French journalist who happened to be in India at that time would propose to her journal in Paris to write about it as well as the Hindu fundamentalists’ attacks against Muslims. But she could not convince her editors, as they cannot believe Hindus, the believers of a religion of love, to be able to commit atrocities against Muslims. Only the contrary can be possible. As the novel, published only in French, is an autobiography, Mourad, the daughter of an Indian Rajah who visited India frequently while she was a journalist working for French media was reflecting a reality she faced: The bias in the newsroom of a European media outlet supposedly had endorsed the most democratic standards.
My father studied in France. He won the Turkish government’s scholarship to go to France for his postgraduate studies in the early 1960’s. Looking for a house to rent, he came across an old lady. But she refused to rent out her house, saying: “I won’t rent out my house to a Turk. My husband died in the war in Turkey,” she said, referring to France’s brief occupation of Turkey in WWII.
“But Madame, what was your husband doing in my country?” my father replied.
Probably this was not a question the lady had asked previously. It might be difficult to deal with death if the reason behind are not heroic. The state had called on her husband to go to war; this must have definitely been for legitimate reasons. She would not question whether the French diplomat Picot did the right thing by secretly signing an agreement with the English diplomat Sykes to share the Ottoman lands between France and Britain. Better blame the other, the Turks, for the death of a loved one.
Fast forward to today’s Europe. Not much has changed. On the contrary, those unashamed of having prejudices or being racist are on the rise.
The European Parliament, in its latest decision on Turkey, advised member states to channel all financial funds to Turkish civil society organizations. That’s the most (and perhaps the only) positive part of the decision. Turkish civil society has a lot to do in terms of internalizing democratic standards.
But the same European Parliament has to urgently tackle the issue of populism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism that have gained unprecedented acceptance in European societies.
The recent attacks in New Zealand, as well as the Netherlands, independent of the identity of the victims and perpetrators of the attacks, show that populist trends in Europe have set all of us on a dangerous course and that Europe should fight against its deep-rooted prejudices as well.
There are, of course, lessons to be drawn by the Islamic countries as well. Western bashing and harsh criticism of the West might not bring the desired outcome, but might further fuel the existing prejudices.