The Violence of Buddhist Tolerance: Escalating Religious Difference in Myanmar/Burma—The 2019 Piediscalzi Lecture in Religion

Thursday, April 4, 3:30 pm to 5 pm
163 Student Union (Discovery Room)
Current Students
The public

Speaker: Dr. Alicia Turner, Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, York University


In August of 2018 the Burmese military escalated a campaign of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. The violence against the Rohingya shocked many around the world because of what they understood to be the inherently tolerant nature of Buddhism. And yet, Burmese discourse justified violence and broader anti-Muslim sentiment by appealing to the same tolerant nature of Buddhism and amplifying fears Buddhism could be lost by being overrun by less tolerant religious others. These two intertwined discourses deserve our attention: Why has the idea of Buddhism as tolerant become so fixed both inside and outside the Buddhist world, despite so much empirical evidence of Buddhist intolerance?  And how has the concept of Buddhist tolerance paradoxically produced greater difference and distance to the point of violence? In this talk I explore how roots of this problem lie in structures colonial liberal secularism, with its ways of ordering the world and producing difference on a scale of civilizational achievement.

This talk charts the genealogy of the idea of Burma as a place of particular religious tolerance starting in the 18th century, and its intersections with the European construction of Buddhism as a world religion in the second half of the 19th century. The content of what constituted tolerance shifted over the decades, but the comparators that evidenced exceptional Burmese tolerance did not: there were consistent positive comparisons with Europe that elevated Burma on the colonial civilizational scale and continual negative contrasts with Indian (and to a lesser extent Chinese) others, labeling Hindus and Muslims in particular as backward for their intolerance. By the twentieth century the equation of Burmeseness, Buddhism and tolerance fused within nationalist discourse and led to a drive to defend Buddhism against less tolerant Indian others. The themes compelling the contemporary violence—the radical difference between Burmese and Indians, the need to preserve free Buddhist women from Muslim men and the idea that a tolerant religion could be overrun by the forces of religious intolerance all originate in these secular colonial discourses of religious difference.

For information, contact
Ava Chamberlain
Chair, Depts. of Religion, Philosophy, Classics