Are Western Buddhists Too Tolerant?

Are Western Buddhists Too Tolerant? September 13, 2012

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?



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.

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