A cursory glance at world news today may suggest that the fault-line where Buddhism and Islam meet in Asia is increasingly characterized by conflict between the two religions. Of course, in broadest sense, this is not true, as religions are made up of numerous individuals and leaders, who are generally of differing opinions. Yet, there is an unusually high level of tension between Buddhists and Muslims in regions where the two groups share space, including Rakhine state in Myanmar, southern Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Ladakh, the eastern part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
At the root of this tension is the fear among Buddhists — not completely exaggerated — that Muslims will swamp them demographically. Many Buddhists also fear that their countries will lose their culture and become Muslim, as had been the case in many parts of modern day Central Asia, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which were majority Buddhist before the arrival of Islam in the 7th-11th centuries. Often, the arrival of Islam went hand-in-hand with the destruction of Buddhism. When the Muslim Turkic Qarakhanids captured the Buddhist city of Khotan in Xinjiang in 1006 CE, one of their poets penned this verse: “We came down on them like a flood/We went out among their cities/We tore down the idol-temples/We shat on the Buddha’s head.” In the Islamic world, a destroyer of idols came to be known as a but-shikan (بت شکن), a destroyer of but, a corruption of the word Buddha, as Buddhism was prevalent in much of what became the eastern part of the Islamic world.
Unfortunately, this history, and demographics, have lead to great fear of Islam among Buddhists, which in turn has led to genocide in Myanmar, and violence in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Ladakh. If all Rohingya refugees were to be repatriated to Rakhine in Myanmar for example, they would outnumber the local Buddhist Rakhine people. And in Ladakh, the Buddhist proportion of Leh district fell from 81 to 66 percent over the past three decades (relative to Muslims and Hindus). In Ladakh as a whole, which also includes Kargil district, Buddhists are 51 percent of the population, and Muslims 49 percent, a fact of great concern to the region’s Buddhists.
Attitudes reported from Burmese Buddhists in a recent New York Times piece sum up views commonly held among both hardline monks and the lay-population of Myanmar. One monk said of the Rohingya: “They stole our land, our food and our water. We will never accept them back.” A Rakhine politician said: “All the Bengalis learn in their religious schools is to brutally kill and attack… It is impossible to live together in the future.” A local administrator elsewhere in Myanmar said, “Kalar [a derogatory term for Muslims in Myanmar] are not welcome here because they are violent and they multiply like crazy, with so many wives and children.”
Meanwhile, extremist elements in Myanmar, such as the 969 Movement, have pledged to work with Buddhist extremists elsewhere, such as in Sri Lanka, home to the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist extremist organization that lead anti-Muslim riots in that country in 2014. Ladakh was recently the scene of communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims after the marriage of a Muslim man and a Buddhist woman, something seen as threatening to the region’s demographics. A head lama from a local monastery said, “The Muslims are trying to finish us off,” also adding that Buddhist women ought to have many more children.
Buddhism was arguably the world’s largest religion a century ago, if one counts everyone who also followed Chinese folk religion, Shinto, Muism, and other East Asian religions. In the modern era, Buddhism has been particularly vulnerable, however, to both secularism and evangelism from other religions. According to a Pew survey, alone among the world’s major religions (including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion), Buddhism and its adherents are projected to decline both in terms of raw numbers, and as a percentage of the world population. The world Buddhist population is projected to fall from 488 million to 486 million people, and from 7 percent to 5 percent of total share. Christianity and Islam are still growing; in particular, the latter will grow from around 23 percent of the global population to 30 percent by 2050. Put another way, there will be six times as many Muslims as Buddhists by then.
The nature of Buddhism may be related to the issue of the religion’s decline: there is a huge gap between the religion’s lay practitioners, who have adopted a set of customs associated somewhat with Buddhist mythology, and the monastic community, which follows the Buddha’s example. While there is an element of elite-popular division in all religions, in few other religions is the gap so stark. After all, the community, the sangha, founded by the Buddha himself was monastic.
State patronage was also important to the survival of the sangha, as in many Buddhist countries, monks beg, do not produce food, and do not engage in warfare. When a territory was conquered by non-Buddhist powers, or Buddhism was patronized less by certain rulers, the sangha inevitably declined and the lay people merged their folk customs into whatever other religions were dominant.
By the Middle Ages, after a thousand years of growth, Buddhism was sidelined as the elite religion throughout much of its former dominion, except in mainland Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Neo-Confucianism and Shinto prevailed in East Asia, partially due to state policies. In 845 CE, China’s Tang Dynasty launched the great anti-Buddhist persecution, stimulated in part by the fact that too many people were entering tax-free monasteries. Neo-Confucianism thereafter became the dominant philosophy among the elite in China; a similar process unfolded in Korea with the rise of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, and in Japan, where the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) promoted Neo-Confucianism and Shinto at the expense of Buddhism, mostly for political reasons.
Buddhism also all but vanished in South Asia, as folk Buddhism was reabsorbed into Hinduism, with the Buddha being acknowledged as an avatar of the god Vishnu. Hinduism was simultaneously less dependent on state promotion for its survival, and more attuned with the ritual and political needs of kingship, as well as being more aligned with folk beliefs. The destruction of the great Buddhist university at Nalanda in 1193 by Muslim Turkic invaders sealed its fate. Throughout South Asia, after the establishment of Muslim dynasties, conversion to Islam occurred fastest in the heavily Buddhist regions of Afghanistan, Swat, Sindh, western Punjab, and eastern Bengal, compared to other areas where Hinduism was more prevalent.
This history informs Buddhist attitudes toward Islam, regardless of the actual doctrines of Buddhism, or Islam for that matter. History and demographics have created a sense of siege that is unlikely to be resolved soon. Unfortunately, ideas such as education, development, spreading awareness of family planning, or autonomous regions for Muslim minorities are taking a back seat to hysteria throughout numerous Buddhist-majority countries with Muslim-minorities.