Why are some Buddhists sitting out the Islamaphobia debate?

Danny Fisher discusses the rising intolerance and Islamophobia in American, and calls upon Buddhist practitioners to step up as allies.

Danny Fisher
27 September 2010

Danny Fisher discusses the rising intolerance and Islamophobia in American, and calls upon Buddhist practitioners to step up as allies.

“Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence…Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.”

The importance of the above words by His Holiness the Dalai Lama became incredibly apparent to me in recent days as my students in the Master of Divinity program in Buddhist Chaplaincy at University of the West and I prepared our September 11th interfaith memorial on campus. Amazingly, in the mere fourth months since they were printed in the pages of The New York Times, his thoughts have taken on exponentially more urgency. In fact, it is impossible to ignore how news of anti-Islamic sentiment in North America almost completely overshadowed remembrances this year of September 11, 2001—a horrific national tragedy not even ten years past, and still very, very raw.

Indeed, it seemed to me an unavoidable issue for us—so much so that I asked one student, Monica Sanford (of the much-beloved blog Buddhist in Nebraska), to reshape some of her insights on the matter into a central “sermon” of sorts. This decision dictated the shape of the rest of the service, and Monica’s talk was definitely not the only time current tensions in the U.S. were alluded to or explicitly mentioned.

It’s an open question just how much the 24-hour news cycle has contributed to the sense that conflict between Muslims and religious others has defined September 11, 2010. (It certainly seems to me that incidents of varying importance and relation to one another have been messily connected into a headline-friendly narrative.) Nevertheless, reportage in the last couple of months has given us disquieting glimpses of our collective soul (if you will): Terry Jones, the pastor behind the over-exposed, stillborn “International Burn a Koran Day,” may be a fringe figure (albeit one with a dangerous effect), but the national debate about Park51 (the “Ground Zero mosque” that is to be neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque, but a community center that will occupy a building on nearby Park Place that used to be a Burlington Coat Factory), occurrences of violence at mosques in the southern United States, and recent discovery that nearly 1/5th of the country thinks that President Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” cannot be as easily ignored or written off.

Let’s focus on that last statistic for a moment. Yes, a recent survey from the Pew Forum found that the numbers of Americans who think the Commander-in-Chief is an a covert adherent of Islam are not quite as few as we might like to imagine—indeed, a full 18% percent of respondents erroneously believe that. (In actuality, the President and his family were members of the United Church of Christ and now attend private services with Camp David’s Protestant chaplain.) Though these numbers are bothersome, what is most troubling is the likelihood that a large portion of the U.S. has with Islam…and, in fact, The Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll recently that found about half of the country has a negative attitude towards Islam.

With Islamophobia so rampant, then, none of the latest headlines are any surprise, really.

As we all think about how to “promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries,” pundits and others have been handicapping the work of our political leaders. Former President George W. Bush has been getting high marks from many (including President Obama and Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core) for attempting within days of the September 11 attacks to make clear that “Islam is not the enemy.” (They do forget to mention his use of the word “crusade” to describe the “War on Terror” early on, though, which probably didn’t help make things “crystal clear.”) President Obama has been getting big thumbs-up too for his own recent comments, despite a frustrating unwillingness to comment directly on things like “the wisdom” of Park51’s location.

But as I think Nicholas Kristof illustrated with one of his recent columns, it’s really on all of us—not just our most foremost public figures—to “promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.” It was with this in mind that the students and I proceeded to craft a service that sought to both acknowledge a somber event and offer something healing at such a challenging time in our country.

Monica spoke about first becoming aware of Park51, saying, “I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea…[How better] to demonstrate the true spirit of American than by embracing the religion that was perverted in order to commit atrocities?” Another of our new students, Holly Hisamoto, in a brief dedication, spoke eloquently about the importance of making the distinction between those who commit violent acts for their own ends in the name of religion and those who do not. (It’s a point well taken: indeed, would it be fair to hold all Buddhists responsible for the acts of Than Shwe and the other generals in Burma’s atrocity-committing junta, who are all nominally Buddhist and invoke that whenever it serves their purposes?)

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the service came from Vanessa Karam—UWest’s Coordinator of General Education and International Services Officer, and a practicing Muslim. Vanessa shared an old story retold in Farid Esack’s book On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today:

The story is told of a rabbi whose disciples were debating the question of when precisely “daylight” commenced. One proposed: “It is when one can see the difference between a sheep and a goat at a distance.” Another suggested: “It is when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree at a distance.” And so it went on. When they eventually asked the rabbi for his view, he said: “When one human being looks into the face of another and says: ‘This is my sister’ or ‘this is my brother’ then the night is over and the day has begun.“

This seemed to me the most important “teaching moment” in our service—especially for us Buddhists. Let me explain.

Not long before planning for our service began, as the debate about Park51 was in full swing, I got a note from Stephen Prothero, the Boston University professor and author of the bestsellers Religious Literacy and God is Not One. The gist of Steve’s note was a question to me: Had I noticed Buddhist Americans weighing in publicly on Park51 and/or the hateful response to it?

At the time, the answer seemed to me to be “Not really.” Though some Buddhist blogs (including this one) had been posting about Park51, the only prominently placed commentary from a Buddhist teacher that I could find anywhere was Robert Thurman’s for The Washington Post’s On Faith blog. But I couldn’t find any other statements of support (or opposition) from individual Buddhist teachers or organizations on their websites or in national newspapers or other major media outlets.

Since then, a couple of things have happened that are worth mentioning: there were members of the Interdependence Project in New York City “bearing witness” at Ground Zero demonstrations on September 11, for example.

More recently, though, members of the Wat Amphawan of America Thai-Buddhist Temple of Murfreesboro held an Asian cultural fair with a special attention on community hearts as well as minds. Murfreesboro has seen ugly, vociferous response to the proposed building of a mosque—a response that throws into sharp relief the opposition to Park51. (With what’s happening at Murfreesboro and elsewhere in mind, we might well ask if resistance to Park51 is really about “sacred ground” or Islamophobia.) Speaking about the fair, Abbot Preeda Momungkun told the press:

In light of the recent and ongoing controversy surrounding the attempt by the Muslim Mosque to expand its facilities, we feel it is important to reach out to the community and encourage people to learn more about each other. We believe that if people know and understand each other well then fear, mistrust and hatred can be eliminated.

The abbot’s sentiments are strikingly similar to the moral of the story shared by Vanessa at our UWest service, and also put the lesson there in the context of the Dharma: we have specific responsibilities as Buddhists in the current religious climate in America, and those include demonstrating our loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity we try to cultivate for all sentient beings much more clearly to our Muslim sisters and brothers.

Buddhists should be more visible and vocal in this situation. Why aren’t we? His Holiness, Robert Thurman, the ID Project, and Bhante Preeda Momungkun offer ways of engaging that are rooted in practice, and there are perhaps many other angles from which we could approach. So… Where are all the other Buddhist voices on the issue of Islamophobia in America? Where are the strong statements of support and solidarity from our communities and organizations? Where are the dharma talks and writings from our most revered teachers on how we “promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries” in light of recent events and findings? Why were there no Buddhist representatives at the ISNA Interfaith Press Conference and Unified Statement to Protect Muslim Civil Rights and Safety?

There are many possible reasons for Buddhist Americans sitting this one out, I suppose: there is our general resistance to political discussion; a sometimes tendency to excuse ourselves from conversations about religion in America (though we enjoy religious freedom rights we also like to say that Buddhism is not a religion but rather a philosophy or “way of life”); orthodoxy (where do the texts say we have to stick up for Muslims?); the fact that President Obama has once again excluded us in his rhetoric (as he has done in the past, he addressed his recent comments to “Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers”); and even, incredibly, the Muslim conquest of India and obliteration of Buddhist culture there has been given as a reason in comments at my personal blog (do some people know how to hold a grudge or what?).

None of these are excuses, though. The time has come. Enough is enough. Our absence is becoming conspicuous, and our silence nears deafening. We must become allies in the fullest sense.

I feel so proud of my students and our university community for modeling this so well in recent days. They have offered a most important lesson for this new semester: It is only when all of us—all of us, Buddhist and otherwise—who recognize our shared humanity stand beside Muslim Americans and say, “This is my sister” or “this is my brother” that the night is over and the day has begun.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.