Issues of fundamentalism and respect cross religious lines


Another cycle of violence between angry mobs representing the majority religion flares up in another nation. What could be truly “new” in this news? This week it was in Sri Lanka, but there was a difference. The mob were Buddhists and their victims were the Moslem minority at prayer in a mosque. It seems to be a spillover from the much more violent confrontations in Myanmar where hundreds have been killed at the hands of “Radical Buddhists” who destroyed the homes of over 400 Moslem families. Has the world gone completely mad?

The short answer is yes, the whole world is going mad. But the apparent rise of violent Buddhist radicals and fundamentalists has to be seen in a larger context of the rise of fundamentalism generally. There is a growing backlash against pluralism, tolerance, and globalism itself. Groups everywhere are being pitted against each other in a desperate bid to preserve the old ways and forge a sense of social cohesiveness. That includes the USofA – and indeed frames the recent legislative battles in Texas and North Carolina in a way that makes a twisted sense of the whole mess. And it doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

It seems more shocking that Buddhist mobs would do the killing if for no other reason than the faith has always shown itself to the developed world as utterly peaceful. Seeing it become radicalized and drift into fundamentalism tells us there may not be any hope for our species at all. But it had to come to this eventually if you see nearly all the events around the world as a response to the great trend that defines our age, globalism.

One world market is at best a two-edged sword. Many people can benefit materially while others can be much more easily exploited and suppressed. Products that were once unobtainable or very expensive now show up at reasonable prices simultaneously across the globe. But if the labor needed to produce them is relatively low skill there is always someone else who can take the place of those who used to toil away to make those goods for generations. Farmers who make a living on marginal land are easily displaced by a ship loaded with cargo containers or sacks of cheaper food made on land worked by machines. Shop workers are herded into larger, dingier factories with salaries utterly at the mercy of the world market.

Not so with culture. Globalism is inherently a threat to “the old ways” and the social cohesiveness that created a world that people can depend on. If all the people in your neighborhood share similar values they will keep up appearances and deal with each other in a known and stable way. For nations that find themselves easily exploited through a lack of education and poor leadership, the lack of economic benefit makes a pluralistic society a clear and obvious threat. And if the benefits of globalism include access to vices like alcohol, drugs, or pornography that was never part of the social program there is little good about a single world market at all.

It is reasonable that much of the world would turn against secular pluralism given the often dubious benefits. But when things go very bad, religious fundamentalism is more than just attractive. It can define life completely in a time when nation-states have lost their power to hold anything together in a way which is tangible or important to people’s lives.

The teachings of any given faith are clearly far less important than the desperation.

The reaction can be violent, but even more peaceful nations are seeking a rock to cling to in a roiling sea of change. That happens even in the developed world where new neighbors may not be very much like the old ones that everyone could rely on to speak and act a certain way. And in difficult times flooded by a tidal wave of uncertainty, certainty within a community is more valuable than ever.

What can or should be done about this trend? Those of us who still believe in a pluralistic society cannot simply slouch into it. Assumptions cannot be made that an open, freely expressive society is the norm. We have to practice and insist on respect first and foremost and actively promote the civil skills that decry “flaming” and similar practices. We have to understand that the backlash is real and emotional, very human at its core, but a genuine threat to a world that is coming together as never before.

Fundamentalism has to be met with the active practice of civilized acceptance and a calming of the very real and understandable fear that drives the backlash towards fundamentalism. It’s hard work. But it has to be done if we are to counter the trends that are growing worldwide.

No one is immune, not even Buddhists. If that dismays and scares you at the core, what are you going to do about it?