No stereotype seems harder to die than the idea that Buddhists are peaceful and non-violent by default, as if they possessed a kind of genetic resistance to an illness affecting the majority of humanity: hate. Since the revolt in Tibet, the majority of the mass media (with few exceptions) have based their reports of the Tibetan uprising through the lens of such a stereotype and their myopia of the reality of Tibet. The stories report the revolt principally as a struggle for independence from the oppressive power of China which started in October 1950. Surely, there is some truth in this. But the mass media, as unfortunately academics, and even anthropologists specialised in Tibetan Buddhism, have hidden what I call the ‘dark ethnic side’ of the revolt. The reasons are multiple and I will not discuss them here, as I will not discuss here the figure of the Dalai Lama, who surely emanates lots of ‘enlightening wisdom’, but also many, often totally unreported and answered, shadows.
Tibet is neither a mono-cultural geopolitical entity, nor a one-hundred percent Buddhist country, even though the BBC appears to believe so (misleading, as frequently they do, their readers). In this short article, I shall first summarise the complex multi-cultural reality of Tibet, and then focus on the ethnic issues affecting it, which see Buddhist Tibetans rejecting, through racism and violence, the Muslim Tibetan minorities (not so differently from the Burmese case I have reported).
Yet, as we shall see, even in this case, religion has nothing to do with Tibetan racism, even though it is fostered and provoked by Buddhist monks, probably ready to accumulate Karma and forfeit Nirvana in favour of their ethno-nationalistic dreams. I can only provide little information here, so if you wish to know more both abut Muslims in Tibet and the discrimination they face, I suggest reading, as interlocution, Dr Andrew Martin Fischer, whose work Close Encounters of an Inner Asian Kind: Tibetan-Muslim co-existence and conflict past and present, is freely available.
In Tibet there are Muslims: the Hui Tibetan Chinese community, and also more recent immigrants. The Tibetan Hui, despite being linked to the Hui Muslim Chinese, are proudly Tibetan, and indeed prefer to marry Tibetan women even when they were Buddhist, rather than other Muslim Hui from different Chinese areas. Muslims arrived in Tibet possibly during the eighth century EC, but documents start to mention them after the tenth century. It is still unclear, however, when the first mosque in Lhasa was built.
A famous legend has that the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, while observing the surrounding mountains saw a man prostrating towards west on the top of the Genpei Wuzi mountain. Surprised, the Dalai Lama observed the man performing the mysterious ritual for several days at clear fixed times. The Dalai Lama was then informed that the strange man was a Muslim praying to Allah. The pious behaviour of the praying man impressed the Dalai Lama who decided to gift him with some land on which the Muslim built the first mosque. The place, because of the legend, is now called rGyang-mdav-gang, which means ‘agrarian scope within the distance of arrow’s shot from the Dalai Lama’.
We could have expected that this beautiful example of religious tolerance could have been the start for future harmonious relations. Despite the propagandistic claims provided by the Dalai Lama’s government which advertise how well the Muslims were treated under Buddhist leadership and how the struggle against the ‘evil’ Chinese see Muslims and Buddhists together, the reality is pretty grim in particular after the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’.
Dr Andrew Martin Fischer (who whoever has not discussed further the topic of Muslim discrimination in Tibet during the present revolt) has highlighted the tensions between the two communities, which are primarily the cause of ‘economic’ differences and opportunities. He has confirmed that the ‘official’ version of the relationships between the Tibetan Muslims and Buddhists provided by the Tibetan Government in exile is, at its best, affected by historical amnesia,
[They] completely ignore the military confrontations that took place between Tibetans and certain Chinese Muslim warlords in Amdo as recently as the 1930s and 1940s. They also sidestep the fact that during the reforms of the last two decades, Tibetan aggression has come to be increasingly directed against the Muslim minority in Tibet, despite the fact that Han Chinese present by far the strongest exclusionary force in the local economy. In addition, despite popular perceptions of Tibetans as pacifists, the racist and violent backlash against the Nepali Bhutanese minority in Bhutan in the late 1980s and 1990s serves as a poignant reminder of the potential for violent ethnic conflict that lies within even these idealised Himalayan Tibetan Buddhist cultures, particularly towards other vulnerable and stigmatised ethnic minorities” (Fischer 2005: 2)
As I was saying, anti-Muslim sentiments increased during the War on Terror, which the Lamas and Tibetan Buddhists very much supported and used as an excuse to increase the discrimination and sufferance of, in particular the Hui minority. Through this discrimination, the Tibetan Buddhists did not understand that they were actually reinforcing the Chinese government which was seriously concerned about the secessionist attempts of the Chinese Muslim regions (such as the Xingjian). As we shall see, exactly because of these anti-Muslim sentiments, the Buddhist Tibetans have failed in coordinating the recent Muslim protests in a unique front for independence and freedom.
During the 1990s Ethnic Tibetan Buddhist started to fear that the economic success of Muslim Tibetans (particularly their restaurants and shops), would have undermined the economic, and so social, status of the Buddhist Tibetans. The Buddhist monks began a campaign against the economic activities of Tibetan Muslims, which epitomised in the 2003 boycott of Muslims’ businesses and saw also violent actions against innocent Muslim Hui families,
The clash in Chentsa Town in January 2003 served as a call to action for Tibetans, an incitement to take matters into their own hands, especially considering the widespread Tibetan belief that the state-imposed resolution of this episode was biased in favour of the Muslims. Interestingly, it seems that the bravado of Tibetans had also been stoked up by the events of 9/11, the Afghan war and the lead up to the Iraq war, the latter two of which appear to have been overwhelmingly supported by Tibetans in Tibet.
A regional boycott of Muslim businesses therefore quickly gained momentum soon after the Chentsa clash and even extended into areas of Kham in Sichuan that had little Muslim presence. Although the Tibetans in Lhasa that I interviewed were hesitant to talk about it, the boycott had evidently reached Central Tibet as well, finding an accord with the anti-Muslim sentiment already built up over the last decade. While the boycott was meant to target all types of Muslim businesses and trade interactions, including Muslim-owned buses, the main symbolic focus became the Muslim restaurants that dominate catering throughout Amdo. (Fischer 2005: 17)
During these clashes and anti-Muslim actions, the Buddhist Tibetans started to reinforce existing stereotypes against the Muslim populations as well as real myths, which show how little they knew about their fellow Tibetan ethnic minority, among those reported, I think the story of the ‘Imam ashes’ offered a clear example,
It is said that passing Muslim motorists throw the ashes of cremated imams in the air, which then lands on or is inhaled by hapless Tibetan pedestrians and has the same effect as eating a tasty noodle soup. It does not seem to perturb these story tellers that Muslims in fact do not cremate the bodies of their dead, but bury them according to prescriptions given by the Koran. Indeed, Rebgong County itself has been the scene of several well known conflicts over Muslim attempts to rent or buy land for the purpose of establishing cemeteries, in which case it should be obvious that even local Muslims bury their dead. However, this lack of corroboration does not seem to perturb ongoing embellishments of the ashy versions of the myth. (Fischer 2005: 19)
Of course, Muslims reject cremation and they do not cremate the bodies of their fellow brothers and sisters! But racist stereotypes do not need to be ‘real’, they should be just ‘believable’ for the target audience; and what more than ‘magic’ can instigate fear in those who strongly, also as part of their own medical traditions, rely upon it?
Since the beginning of the revolt in March, demonstrations against China are held in all those countries through which the Olympic torch is passing. From the politicians, to the public, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from the scholars (with few exceptions) to the students, from the Trade Unions to the Industrial associations: all show indignation against the ‘oppression of the Chinese government’. Yet they ignore the dark side of this ‘revolt’ which is not so different from that in 2003.
The people who are paying the highest price are the Muslim Hui and the Tibetan Muslims, which again have been the innocent target of Buddhist Tibetan violence, expressed in particular by young unemployed Tibetans and fully supported by lamas. One of the reasons, unsaid, for which the Dalai Lama threatened to resign as the ‘head of government’ is that he personally rejects violence and campaigns for a ‘democratic’ Tibet. However, this is not exactly what the lamas in Tibet wish. The Dalai Lama today has lost the support of many of the leaders in Tibet because of the rich and ‘fancy’ life he is accused of enjoying in the West and India.
The mosque in Lhasa was burnt and destroyed, shops and the possessions of Muslim Tibetans smashed, a family burned alive in their own shop, terror and terrorism have affected this community because of a pernicious form of ethnic (Buddhist) nationalism which seems to be the photocopy of the infamous extremist Indian VHP. Of course, the Chinese authorities, as we can see in some of the videos, protect the Chinese shops and people, but are quite happy to leave the Hui Muslims to the fury and indiscriminate violence and organised banditism of young Buddhist Tibetans. Meanwhile monks and lamas are just stoking the fire in the hope of not just a free Tibet but also an ethnically clean one!
Whay is the interest of the monks and lamas? It is clear that monasteries in Tibet live off of the alms of the Buddhists and so the high rate of unemployment and the often unsuccessful business ventures of the Buddhist Tibetans have an impact on the revenues of the monastery, and consequently of the lamas. Furthermore, not all Tibetan political and religious leaders (and often the two roles entangled) agree with the position of the Dalai Lama, who officially envisages a democratic Tibet. Some hope to return to a feudal system in which the lamas would enjoy power and resources.
The Dalai Lama, who has tried from the beginning, probably underestimating the Tibetan reality, to capitalise on the revolt, has subsequently distanced himself from the acts of violence. Yet, as religious and political leader, he has totally failed to report the ethnic violence, and the assault against Muslims. Not one word of apology, despite his being a rather loquacious man, has left his lips to reach the Hui Muslim community or the victims of ethnic and religious Tibetan Buddhist hatred: a failure that can only have consequences, in terms of religious and ethnic harmony, in a future independent Tibet.
Witnessing this, so misunderstood, revolt characterised by an amalgam of legitimate political struggle, hideous attempts at ethnic cleansing, and globalised Islamophobia, we can only ask: will the future of the Muslim minority of Tibet be similarly dark to that experienced by the Muslims in Burma?