Are Western Buddhists Too Tolerant?

I have been interested in Sam Harris’ work for some time now. I’ve never sat down and read a whole book from him, but numerous articles, youtube clips, and mentions of him have made his name well known to me. In popular literature he is mentioned alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens as the “Four Horsemen” of contemporary Atheism.

In my studies of the Philosophy of Mind and Ethics and Evolution I read Dennett and touched on Dawkins; while Hitchens has long been a well-known face in the media, mainly in the last decade as being a vehemently pro-war leftist, popularizing the term Islamofascism.

Of course we tend to think of the extremists as a very small minority, and no doubt they are. But the question Harris raises in the following video (from 2008) is, what about the moderates? I know this has been a question on my mind, and likely most others, ever since the 9/11 attacks 11 years ago. Who are the moderates? Are they speaking out? Are we listening? Is anyone?


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Two points he makes are interesting:

  1. That not all religions teach the same thing. Some teach more that violence as an antidote to problems, some teach more that it isn’t. This is of course controversial. As Harris notes, we moderates want to say that all religions ultimately teach peace and that the most devout will be – hopefully – the most peaceful.
  2. That it’s not just a matter of social situation: e.g. that poverty and poor education lead to religious extremism. For one thing, the Tibetans in Tibet have been in terrible poverty (even, to some degree for many, before the Chinese invaded) and have had little education. Second, the perpetrators of 9/11 were well-educated and anything but poor. As was, of course, Osama bin Laden.

I appreciated his comments on Jainism (I’m teaching that in one of my World Religions classes now). I also appreciate that he clarifies that he’s talking about ideas – not picking out a race or ethnicity.

But I, as one of the pesky religious moderates that he’s talking about, don’t think he’s fair in saying that the “Mainstream notion of Islam contains this notion of martyrdom and jihad, contains this imperative to convert, subjugate, or kill infidels.” (around 5 minutes in)

In all of the Muslims I’ve known, I’ve never seen one bit of this imperative (I have in the past year lived with Muslims from Turkey, Syria, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia). Although the rhetoric of the extreme does seem to be what comes through in the media – and in Harris’ talk.

But nonetheless I wonder if his point is not well-taken. That in our moderation, and perhaps in my Muslim friends’ moderation, we miss or willfully avoid the horror which is fanaticism.

In terms of Islam, we don’t have to turn far to see the terrible death of the American diplomat and 3 others in Libya and the storming of the American embassy in Egypt yesterday. And in Buddhism we can look to ethnic, but also religious, violence on the part of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and -most recently- Burma.

Several of my Buddhist friends have raised alarm about the Buddhist intolerance toward Muslims in Burma recently, but will they be as quick to condemn the intolerance toward Americans (the West in general?) witnessed yesterday?

I find myself evermore in agreement with the likes of Hitchens and Harris, and often at odds with my Buddhist friends, that tolerance of (what in every way appear to be) intolerant extremists does us no service, and in fact leads to our eventual harm. Part of this stems from conversations with my friend here from Syria, whose family is in danger each day, who fears returning to her country, and who wishes America would not be so cowardly in intervening. (To be honest, given yesterday’s attacks in newly liberated nations and other factors, I can understand some of the hesitance) I also have a friend from Kosovo, who will go home tomorrow with a new Masters degree from England. He is a more staunch defender for American military action than I think I could ever be, and given what he lived through, I can understand why.

Those French tourists in Sri Lanka who fundamentally disrespected Buddhism by kissing a Buddha statue: 3 months jail (suspended) and an $11 fine. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who dared to raise questions about the mistreatment of women in some Islamic societies: murdered. As we enjoy our freedom – to draw Mohammed or  - we also need to think about the lack of such freedoms in so much of the world and  - as Sam Harris wisely pointed out – the ideas fueling that lack of freedom, intolerance, and at times unfortunately fueling murder.

Yes we need to ask the Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhists to chill out (I’ve contacted some of my friends in Burma and though I might not hear back, I’ll let you know if I do). But we also need to ask the more fundamentalist wings of other religions to chill out as well. Religious moderation doesn’t need to equal religious apathy.

Is there room for measured militarism in Buddhism – or a police presence that seeks to protect other beings, in an ever widening circle of inclusion? Or is all such thought just rooted in anger or delusion?

* I should clarify (thanks to some interlocutors amongst the interwebs) that by Western Buddhists in the title I am asking a general question – not implying any universal (the same goes for other religions/groups discussed). I am also somewhat conflating Western Buddhist with Harris’s use of the term Moderate, which is based on my experience of most Western Buddhists and is fully open to comment/criticism.

  • Nathan

    In my opinon, Sam Harris’ views on Islam are only a cleaned up, rational looking version of what you hear on right wing talk radio shows. He routinely elevates his rhetoric when Islam is concerned, quick to point out the negative, rare to point out much positive. I condemn murder, rape, torture, injust laws and the like regardless of who is behind them. Yesterday’s attack was wrong, but frankly so many of America’s foreign policy decisions have led to scores more death and destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere. Just as you can understand your friend from Kosovo’s position on the US military, I can understand that attacks on US officials in places like Libya are about a lot more than a movie – even if the movie was the spark. Again, I don’t at all support the murders that happened, but frankly I don’t think Mr. Harris is anything close to an even handed judge on these issues. And as far as intolerance towards Americans goes, don’t you think over a century of violent, Imperialist policy is going to have a negative impact on our country’s image? We should be, in my opinion, spending much more time going after our leaders, govt, corporate, and others supporting destructive policies and spreading hatred, than lashing out at every terrorist attack that comes along.

    And as for religion, I think every set of teachings has the capacity to be warped for violent, oppressive purposes. I think trying to create a hierachy of peaceful religions is a fools errand. Not saying you are young that here, but I do think that some religious folks are wildly guilty of such nonsense, and people like Harris seem to want to do the same. “I don’t believe in any of this. But at least those Buddhists and Jainists and blah blah blah are more about peace.”

    The problem is that we all want easy answers and clear divisions. Take Syria. I know some folks want a massive military intervention to overthrow Assad. But would that bring peace? How often do such actions truly bring peace? And/or how many generations have to suffer the consequences and fallout of a war so that someone down the line lives in some relative calm? And is that worth it? I can’t begin to imagine how hard it is for people in Syria right now. But what actions from outsiders would help and what will harm? I think we Americans are far too invested in the tools of war as an answer because there’s been so little warfare on our continent over the past century.

    Somehow, it seems to me that more of us need to figure out how to call out specific acts of violence, and be clear about the context around it, condemning the specific groups and/or individual leaders spreading the propaganda to get people to commit that violence. This tends to take time and research, even when something happens in your own neighborhood. I just think that the sloppiness of calling out entire religious groups doesn’t get at the roots. That would be a criticism I have of American and European Buddhist calls against Burmese Buddhists. Let’s get more specific – who is behind this, or at least influencing this, answer what historically and currently might be leading to this kind of thinking and behavior.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hia Nathan – thanks for the lengthy reply. As usual I think we agree on most things. I’m perhaps just a step to the political right of you :)

      Yes, uncertainty will always be a factor (as in Syria), but I think there is a moral imperative toward multilateral intervention. Bush was an idiot and screwed up in both Afghanistan and Iraq on many levels. But I supported the French/U.K.-led strikes in Libya that helped bring about the downfall of Gaddafi. And I’d love to see the French or other powers lead an intervention in Syria; not a prolonged occupation, but a decisive intervention. I agree with you that the recent history strips the US of the moral authority to lead such matters; I’m not a unilateralist-hawk and deplore most of what I hear from the right-wing of US politics. But surely the US should voice its willingness to assist.

      I agree that getting to the specifics is helpful, including in the Burma case, but can you call for attention to specifics in one paragraph just after writing about American Imperialist policy and lack of warfare on our continent in the preceding? Obviously the big issues affect the particular and vice versa.

    • Kevin

      No offense, but this is exactly the kind of wishful thinking that inspired Sam Harris to write “The End of Faith” in the first place. His book might as well be dedicated to you and your likeness. Without going into exhausting detail, he destroys every one of your arguments.

  • Henri Wilson

    Hey, what do you think about the riots in Libya and Egypt more specifically? Is democracy diametrically opposed to Islam? Will there be a cataclysmic clash?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Henri – great blog post. I have been thinking of scenes from South Park lately too. I believe there is one where the Buddha snorts cocaine. Mmm… I don’t think democracy and Islam are diametrically opposed. But I agree with Mehrdad Kia, professor of Islamic Studies at my undergraduate college, that Islam may be in need of something like the reformation which occurred in Christianity. 500 years ago we might have asked, Is democracy diametrically opposed to Christianity? A look at Europe between 1500 and… say 1998 when the IRA and the British government signed their peace agreement will make it clear that religious leaders and people can be totalitarian and intollerant, but that they can also change. As for a cataclysmic clash – I hope not. But again, the evolution of Christianity doesn’t set a good precident…

      • Ted Seeber

        It is 1390 by the year of the Prophet. The fight between Five Pillar and Six Pillar Islamics is just beginning, and is going to get a whole lot more bloody if Christian history surrounding the reformation is any indication. Remember- the Christian Reformation led to a dramatic political upheaval that culminated in nearly two centuries of warfare and strife.

      • Henri Wilson

        It seems that the theocratic regimes are atleast rational actors, they wouldn’t do anything self-destructive. If anything cataclysmic happens, it might be intrinsic and domestic. For instance, in Iran there is a strong push for reform from the youth. We might see an implosion there – something like the Arab Spring. It’s crucial for the U.S. to be open and accessible to welcome these countries into the family of nations. That’s why this particular episode worried me. The U.S. had a new policy in Egypt and Libya- a hands off approach to allow the countries to rebuild and readjust, and one video unleashed all the dormant antagonism and set us back. We shouldn’t have to see sparks every time Western culture comes into contact with indigenous Islam. It seems obvious to me though that a theocratic regime could never enter the family of nations – so political upheaval in this respect seems necessary.

        • Justin Whitaker

          Henri, I hope you’re right re: Iran. The student protests there recently didn’t amount to much though; and I fear the military power/paramilitary thugs might overwhelm any cries for democracy in the near future. Plus if Iran does get attacked, even the pro-democracy forces will concede that they have to defend their country (I assume, thinking back on GW Bush’s 85% approval rating just after 9/11).

  • Robert M Ellis

    I don’t think it’s relevant whether religions teach peace or not: if you teach peace in theory but have an absolute revelatory justification for your teachings, then the group associated with that teaching can easily justify violence and intolerance regardless of the content of the teaching. So I think Sam Harris is wrong to pick out religion specifically as a source of intolerance, when that intolerance is associated more widely with a type of justification used both in religion and elsewhere.
    However, I do agree with you that moderates of all kinds (which I take to be people who are not justifying their position through absolutes, positive or negative) do need to be willing to stand up for that position and not tolerate intolerance. A tolerant system can only be maintained so long as it’s not hijacked by intolerance, so we need to be willing to suppress it (though not oppress it). That’s also a basic reason for having governments and supporting what they do.

  • Ted Seeber

    I think that there is a tendency among a certain western personality type to have a cognitive dissonance between tolerant liberalism and spirituality of any kind; and due to it being one of the five primary developed rational philosophies, Buddhism fits the bill for such people to run to.

    If, on the flip side, they are authoritarian yet tolerant, then they’re drawn to Catholicism instead.

    Judaism is also pretty well developed, but the holocaust reduced them to a minority religion.

    Paleo Atheism also fits, but contemporary Atheism simply hasn’t been around long enough to truly develop the depth of culture and systemic rational thought that these four have.

  • Jim

    Yes, let’s not tolerate intolerance. Let’s not respond to aggressive beliefs with kindness. What a gutter religion Islam is! Kill those sons of bitches!

    Seriously, the question you ask is the wrong question. It is a question premised on categorizing broad groups of people and justifying aggression toward them based on their beliefs. You should ask, what is skillful? How fixed are beliefs? Do we tolerate beliefs or behavior? What is compassion in the face of aggression?