Not only freedom: the dark ethnic side of the Tibetan Buddhist revolt

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?


29 thoughts on “Not only freedom: the dark ethnic side of the Tibetan Buddhist revolt

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  1. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up!
    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back later on. Cheers

  2. Treating the topic of Muslims in tibet, I think that one must have a deep knowledge about it without misguiding the readers. Generalising and misinterpreting the subjet being treated with once own point of view is navie and it is VERY DANGEROUS!!! Gabriele

    1. Dear Tino,
      thanks for your paternalistic comment. Unfortunately it is a rather empty one and have no critical value. Please, engage with at least some documentation and points. If you read carefully my post you can see that it is far from a “viewpoint”, so if you wish to dismiss it you need to provide at least some other counter-evidences and develop a bit more of argument. From your attitude, it seems that we can imply that you are an expert in the region. Hence, it would be nice and polite if you take time and share your deep knowledge (even a simple reference to your published work on the topic would help to make the comment less abstract and odd). Finally, you may want to sign your comment with your full name and surname and academic affiliation (if any). This would help to take it a bit more seriously.

  3. From Qinghai,

    I am from Singapore watching the events in Tibet closely.

    Thanks for the your info you provided. As a matter of curiosity, if you are still reading, can you tell us whether is it possible GEOGRAPHICALLY to combine all the Tibetan “autonomous” prefectures/counties with the TAR? These areas are all Tibetan majority areas – according to statistics provided in wikipedia. I know it is a problem POLITICALLY. But if it is possible GEOGRAPHICALLY, that might bring STABILITY and the Chinese might one day consider working out the POLITICAL difficulties.

  4. Here’s the official claim of the territory of Tibet on the website of Central Tibet Administration (Tibet govt in exile):

    The explanation of the map says:

    “TIBET here means the whole of Tibet known as Cholka-Sum (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo). It includes the present-day Chinese administrative areas of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai Province, two Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province, one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and one Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province and one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province.”

    Here’s the demographic information listed on Wikipedia of this Tibet area defined by the exiled govt, I know Wikipedia is not a good reference, but this one is based on a very careful calculation, the form and method is listed clearly on the page of Tibet and can be reproduced, here is the composition of ethnicity of this Tibet area defined by the Tibet government in exile:

    Total 10,523,432 Tibetans 5,245,347 – 49.8% Han Chinese 3,629,115 – 34.5% others 1,648,970 -15.7%

    I know some might argue many of these non-Tibetans are immigrants, but many of them aren’t. In the Islamic world, Qinghai and Gansu have been called a part of the Qur’an belt of China for hundreds of years. Many famous Muslims are from these areas in the past hundreds of years.

    Indeed, why would the millions of non-Buddhists (eg. Muslims, Christians and atheists) living here accept a government which has the constitution that guarantees a Buddhist monk absolute power as the head of the government? What if there’s a conflict between different religion groups? Dalai Lama talks about religion freedom, but even within the Tibetan Buddhism, some groups are abused by his followers because the Dalai Lama rejects them:

    “The Dalai Lama’s demons” from France 24.

    What happens when it comes to even another religion? What will happen to the Muslims if the Exiled Tibet government actually becomes the government here?

    Based on your last name Rangzen, I assume you are a Tibetan, but as much as you guys and the Western world praise the Dalai Lama, we respectably disagree on having him or any other Buddhist monk as our government head. The truth is, I have run across so many Free Tibet campaigns, all kinds of news report, this and that, I have never ever hear them mention about the Muslims in Qinghai and Gansu, even though we have a larger population than Tibetans in Qinghai and Gansu area claimed by the CTA. In fact, from my experience with many exiled Tibetans, I am pretty sure many of them do not know Muslims exist in Tibet and many refuse to learn about it. Most people have this impression that Tibet only has Tibetans.

    Rangzen talked about Tibetan Muslims, but even you have to agree you only talked about Muslims in Tibet Autonomous region, which has a very small portion of Muslims, and you also mostly talked about Muslims who are ethnic Tibetans, but even if you include the Hui Muslims in Tibet Autonomous region, they only make up a very small percentage of Muslims in Tibet (defined by Tibet govt in exile). What you talked about is nothing new from the Wikipedia article Tibetan Muslims, i would still say it’s one sided story, you can talk about “Muslims having free life in a Buddhist environment” as much as you want, that does not change the fact the Mosque in Lhasa was burned down by Tibetans and Buddhist monks last March? Which is essentially what professor Gabriele Marranci talked about in this article among a few other things.

    Last but not least, it is striking and frighten to know that the direct reason many young Tibetans attacked their friendly neighbors and strangers with violence last March simply because exiled Tibetans came back from India was passing the “rumor” that the Dalai lama wanted them to do it. (Of course, there’s many other reasons too, but the direct reason for many Young Tibetans to do it last March was the “rumor”)

    Here’s an interview from Radio Free Asia (an American government funded media for the purpose to overthrow “communist” government like PRC)

    Having said all those above, I know many Tibetans are nice and friendly people and I have many Tibetan friends, but as a matter of fact, we do not want the exiled Tibet government to be our government, we simply cannot accept a Buddhist theocracy government and a government that does not even acknowledge the existence of many people living here of different ethnicity and religions.

  5. Here’s the link of their constitution listed on the website of the Government of Tibet in exile:

    It is also included in the website of International Constitutional Law:

    This constitution guarantees religious freedom and freedom of speech, but then, so does the PRC. Moreover, it looks a lot like a Western democracy, except for the references to Tibetan Buddhism, making the Dalai Lama President for Life, and giving him exclusive power to hire and fire elected officials at will, as well as generally pause the democratic reforms he talks about at his own discretion, and I quote:


    Executive Power – Article 19. The executive power of the Tibetan Administration shall be vested in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and shall be exercised by Him, either directly or through officers subordinate to Him, in accordance with the provisions of this Charter. In particular, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shall be empowered to execute the following executive powers as the chief executive of the Tibetan people.

    (a) approve and promulgate bills and regulations prescribed by the Tibetan Assembly;

    (b) promulgate acts and ordinances that have the force of law.

    (c) confer honors and patents of merit;

    (d) summon, adjourn, postpone and prolong the Tibetan Assembly;

    (e) send messages and addresses to the Tibetan Assembly whenever necessary;

    (f) dissolve or suspend the Tibetan Assembly;

    (g) dissolve the Kashag or remove a Kalon or Kalons;

    (h) summon emergency and special meetings of major significance; and

    (j) authorize referendums in cases involving major issues in accordance with this Charter. ”

    Here’s a little conclusion from a friend:

    “I’m not saying that the Dalai Lama’s plan is to use gullible Western support to secure a huge nation at the axis of Asia, announce democratic reforms, and then put them on indefinite hold while he establishes himself (again) as theocratic dictator for life with absolute power over the law and no accountability, I’m just saying that that’s exactly what his proposed constitution allows him to do.”

    For people who’s not familiar with what figure the Dalai Lama is, here’s a little information:

    “The Dalai Lama is a lineage of religious leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the current incarnation of a long line of Tulkus, or Buddhist Masters, who have become exempt from the wheel of death and rebirth. These ascended masters have chosen of their own free will to be reborn to this place in order to enlighten others. He is also the official leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, or the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).”

  6. “If you check out their constitution listed on their website, what they want is an absolutely Buddhist Theocracy.”

    Please kindly show us where this is listed on their website.


    Muslims are known as Khache among Tibetans. This appear to be because the earliest Muslim settlers to Tibet were from Kashmir which was known as Khache Yul to Tibetans.

    The arrival of Muslims was followed by the construction of mosques in different parts of Tibet. There were four mosques in Lhasa, two in Shigatse and one in Tsethang. In recent years, one mosque in Lhasa has been renovated, with Tibetan Muslims from India sending religious inscriptions to it for use. Tibetan Muslims were mainly concentrated around the mosques that they constructed. These mosques were maintained well and were the centres of Muslim social life in Tibet.

    Tibetan Muslims led a reasonably free life in a Buddhist environment. In fact, during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, Tibetan Muslims received the following special privileges:

    i) They were permitted to settle their affairs independently, according to the Shariat Laws. The government permitted the Muslim community to elect a five-man committee, known as ‘Ponj’ who looked after their interest. From among the Ponj, a leader – known as Mia to Muslims and Kbache Gopa – (Muslim headman) among non-Muslims – was elected. ii) Tibetan Muslims were free to set up commercial enterprises and were exempted from taxation. iii) Tibetan Muslims were also exempted from implementing the ‘no meat rule’ when such a restriction was imposed in Tibet every year during a holy Buddhist month. Muslims were also exempted from removing their caps to Buddhist priests during a period in a year when the priests held sway over the town. Muslims were also granted the Mina Dronbo (invitation to different communities) status to commemorate the assumption of spiritual and temporal authority by the fifth Dalai Lama.

    In addition, Muslims had their own burial place. There were two cemeteries around Lhasa: one at Gyanda Linka about 12 km from Lhasa town and the other at Kygasha about 15 km away. A portion of Gyanda Linka was turned into a garden and this became the place where the Muslim community organised their major functions. Gyanda Linka is said to contain unmarked graves believed to be those of foreigners who came to preach Islam to Tibet. Kygasha was mainly used by Muslims of Chinese origin.

    The above privileges were contained in a written document provided to the Tibetan Muslim community by the Tibetan government. These privileges were enjoyed until Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959.

    Tibetan Muslims confined themselves mainly to trade and commerce. Hardly any of them indulged in fanning. As the community grew, Madrasas (primary schools) were set up in which children were taught about Islam, the Koran and the method of offering namaz (prayers). Urdu language was also part of the curriculum. There were two such Madrasas in Lhasa and one in Shigatse.

  7. I am very impressed by your article. Muslims and Islamic culture in Tibet has been ignored by everybody in the west. I am so happy to see you bring out this issue here. Also, I would like to provide you a little more information if you don’t mind.

    The Dalai Lama and the Tibet govt in exile has claimed over a very large area in western China, not just the Tibet Autonomous region, but also Qinghai, Western Sichuan, Nothern Yunnan, Southern and mid Gansu. They call this whole area the Greater Tibet area. If you check out their constitution listed on their website, what they want is an absolutely Buddhist Theocracy. If this becomes true, it will be the disaster to the over one million Muslims living here, (Yes, you read it right, over one million Muslims), especially considering Muslims Warlord (Ma clique) in Qinghai dominated in the military conflict with Lhasa in the past.

    Qinghai (they claim this area to be their province of Amdo and they claim the whole province) has around 850,000 Hui Chinese muslims, Gansu also has a large number of Muslims. These two provinces are the main parts of the Qur’an Belt in China. Within this area the Dalai Lama claims, there’s also Salar, Dongxiang and Bonan people who have the majority of their ethnic groups live here, you can also find Uyghurs, Kazakhs here. The total number adds up to at least 1 million. (850,000 Hui in Qinghai alone).

    Tibetans only makes 20% the population of Qinghai. We, the non-Tibetans, make up 80% of the population here. We also form more than half of the population in this Greater Tibet area claimed by the Dalai Lama, and we are not immigrants. Qiang people dominated east part of Tibet plateau for thousands of years when Tibetans were still some tribes in the Yarlung Zangbo villages. Mongolians have lived in Qinghai ever since Genghis Khan conquered here (700 years ago), many other ethnic groups moved here earlier than that, some followed and we all have been living here for hundreds of years.

    If the exiled Tibet government becomes our government, with their 100% Tibetan background, every single government official being an ethnic Tibetan, and with a constitution that does not allow anybody to challenge the Dalai Lama’s position both as a religious leader and political leader (the head of the government), what can we expect to happen to the Muslims here?

    Besides the Tibetans and Muslims groups I just listed above, there’s also Mongolians, Tu Zu, Buyei, … 41 ethnic groups in total have large communities in Qinghai, why should a Buddhism monk be the head of the government with absolute power? If we were going to have a religious leader as the head of the government, why can’t we have a Muslim Caliph as our government head in Qinghai since we have a larger population? In parts of Yunnan and Sichuan where the Dalai Lama claims, Christianity is the largest religion among the Lisu and Yi people. Why the head of the government is a Buddhist monk ? What on earth makes people in the west think we want the exiled Tibetans to be our rulers? Just because they are closer with some people from the west?

    The current Chinese government might not be good in the eyes of people from the west, but it’s much more fair than a Buddhist theocracy. We want move towards democracy, not move backwards.

    Again, thanks for speaking for Muslims in Tibet. I really appreciate it.

    1. i agree,
      i am an indian muslim. ethnically, i am indo-arab and nepali. i am very concerned about what is happening to my muslim community in tibet. as a journalist have personally met and greeted the dalai lama in december 1996 during kalchakra. yet, i could not help feeling, he is sham

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  9. Dear Carlos,

    First of all thank you for your comment and constructive criticism and congratulations for your Blog and webpage and interesting anthropological research.

    I am glad that you have recognised that this is an ‘often hopelessly muddled debate.’ You are the first anthropologist whom has worked in Tibet or on any other related aspects of Buddhism to react to this post. Of course, as you may have noticed, I tend to write in a very provocative way since this blog is mainly for debates and engagement rather than to represent or advertise my anthropological work. Indeed, I have never conducted, at this stage, research in Tibet or on Buddhism, though I have met some Muslims from Kashmir whom have lived in Tibet and experienced some discrimination.

    Some of your opinions, however, are strangely misinformed, even visceral, and do a disservice to what is an otherwise important opinion.

    I am not surprised that my opinions might be ‘misinformed’ since as you have explained, there is not very much information and I had to use what is available, avoiding of course a certain ‘protectionism’ of anthropologists and religious studies scholars working on Buddhism who seem to carefully hide what I have called the ‘dark side’ of this revolt. I wonder whether you may have any idea of why in particular anthropologists have been so silent about such an issue. I do not think that it is only a problem of access. We need more debate on this, as you surely can agree. I see that we agree on many points and so I will limit my reply to those that I disagree with.

    However, the reasons for the lack of informed and critical analysis of ethnic Tibetan racism lie more squarely in the fact that the very volume and development of contemporary Tibet-based research is still severely limited, and constitutes an as-yet developing field of studies, rather than with any sort of crude attempt at hiding or ignoring uncomfortable truths.

    I tend to disagree on this point. In particular as far as the US and the UK academic world are concerned. I think that it is very difficult to assert that the reason is just a simple issue of the development of a ‘developing field of studies’. Tibetan and Himalayan studies are quite developed today; there are funding, institutes, PhD programs, and associations (at least in the UK). Yet the issue of ethnic tension and racial discrimination remain not only understudied but also in my opinion discouraged.

    I agree totally with your point 2 and of course, I used the terminology of the mass media, after having clarified that there is a single ethnic-Tibetan group or religious organization, but this is what the mass media tells us and this is what the Tibetan-government in exile wishes us to believe. I have to notice that in your reply there is no discussion about the connection (or better de-connection) of the Tibetan government in exile and the revolt. Should we consider them two completely different issues?

    In your point 3, I felt certain defensive attitude. You can disagree with the ‘Aussie reporter’s wankish opinions’, which I just offered to balance the over-simplified discussion over the Dalai Lama offered by the media (by the way, his silence over the burning of a mosque leaves me still puzzled). Yet I would like more evidence of a total disregard of the DL as you seem to assume when you say ‘what he and the broader Tibetan diaspora think and do is very distanced indeed from how Tibetans in Tibet act and think.’ Although I am not an expert, I had the impression that the DL, at least spiritually, has still quite a good influence over Tibet, at least as symbol of possible independence. But I may be wrong.

    Does this justify the hatred and violence?
    Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point here is that there are many complicated grievances (both grounded and fictional) behind the violence of the recent riots, which were otherwise not exclusively directed against Hui Muslims but against any non-ethnic Tibetan persons who were perceived to be the beneficiaries of the accelerated modernisation and inequality that has been pursued by local and national government officials in recent years. In short, this is very much to do with socio-economics AND racism, than with Buddhist inspired Islamophobia or puritanical fantasies of an ethnically-cleansed Tibet.

    Was not this my point? I think that if you read my post again you will find that this was my conclusion. If you read my book, the Anthropology of Islam, you will see that I argue that religion does not exist without individuals and the environment. Yet there is in Tibet, as for instance in Burma, Islamophobic literature and pamphlets written and distributed by different groups of ‘monks’. I would love to know more about it. Have you found any during your research?

    Thanks for reading my blog and good luck with your interesting research. I hope that we may have an occasion to meet sometime, and continue our conversation over a nice coffee.


  10. Whew. A lot of stuff in this post, some of it spot on and worth underlining because it throws important light on an often hopelessly muddled debate.
    Some of your opinions, however, are strangely misinformed, even visceral, and do a disservice to what is an otherwise important opinion.

    I hope that, as one of those Tibet-related anthropologists who might be accused of ignoring the “dark side” of the issue, I can provide a constructive reply in as few words as possible.

    In respect of the accuracies in your argument:

    * “Tibet is neither a mono-cultural geopolitical entity, nor a one-hundred percent Buddhist country…”

    Definitely true, and not represented often enough in both the mass media and a significant proportion of otherwise serious Tibet-related academic output.

    * The realities of Tibetan racism and Islamophobia.
    Both true points, which have been severely underreported in academic publications, not to mention public opinion, and deserve far more extensive and critical discussion than has thus far been the case.

    However, the reasons for the lack of informed and critical analysis of ethnic Tibetan racism lie more squarely in the fact that the very volume and development of contemporary Tibet-based research is still severely limited, and constitutes an as-yet developing field of studies, rather than with any sort of crude attempt at hiding or ignoring uncomfortable truths.

    Nevertheless, I believe you have a point, and that there is indeed an implicit bias and unacceptable silence in Tibet-related research regarding the issues of racism and Islamophobia in Tibet.

    *Your assert that “religion has nothing to do with Tibetan racism, even though it is fostered and provoked by Buddhist monks”.

    This is a rather misguided statement, and goes to the heart of my critique of this post, which is that you seem to be quite skilled at exhibiting the contradictions and nuances of the multi-ethnic and -denominational reality of Tibet, but do so by presenting a blanket condemnation of what you repeatedly refer to as a homogeneous and generalised class of Tibetan Buddhists and, especially monks or “lamas”, who presumably represent the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, and certainly the violent rioters of recent weeks.

    In fact, if we are to nuance the analysis of this situation, rather than quote selectively from Andrew Fischer’s important scholarship and from an Aussie reporter’s wankish opinions, I would simply point to:
    1) the fact that the monastic community in Tibet is not represented by any sort of organised “lamaic” class with retro-feudal interests, but rather by a heterogeneous, young, largely tolerant and mostly toothless set of disaggregated schools and groupings each of which tend to be quite restrained in their political expressions and organisational capabilities, if only because they are the most vigilantly controlled sector of Tibetan life (watched by both lay Tibetan and Han police and Party officials).
    2) What you refer to, beyond the “lamas”, as “ethnic Tibetan Buddhists” becomes a sort of shadow generalisation for referring to Tibetans in Tibet.
    In fact, most non-monastic Tibetans in Tibet are nominally Buddhist and, beyond their personal faith practices, mostly act and think in ways that are about as non-religious (or, if you prefer, earthly) as lay Catholics in Latin America or, indeed, a majority of Muslims across the Islamic world. The point here is that there is no such thing as an ethnic Tibetan Buddhist majority that is easily manipulated by “the monks”, or motivated by specifically Buddhist forms of race hatred.
    3) Both lay Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist monks in Chinese-occupied Tibet act and react in ways that are actually quite beyond the ability of the Dalai Lama or its Government-in-Exile to control. In this respect, to offer up the DL as easy target practice for your critique of Tibetan Islamophobia is rather pointless. Whatever his dark sides may be, what he and the broader Tibetan diaspora think and do is very distanced indeed from how Tibetans in Tibet act and think.
    For the record, this is one of the most important and contentious points in Andrew Fischer’s overall work, and I believe it merits far more consideration than has been given it by many of my colleagues.
    4) Finally, while you accurately differentiate between Tibetan Hui and non-ethnic Tibetan Hui, you then collapse distinctions when you report that “the Lhasa mosque” was burned down.
    While there is no getting round the fact that Hui Muslims (Tibetan and non-Tibetan) were targeted in the recent riots by violent, LAY, disaffected urban Tibetan male youths, it is also true that the “Lhasa mosque” that was targeted was the more recently erected of two mosques in the historical district of Lhasa and represented, for many disaffected urban Tibetans, a symbol of the encroachment of the more recent and economically successful Hui arrivals from other Chinese provinces.
    Does this justify the hatred and violence?
    Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point here is that there are many complicated grievances (both grounded and fictional) behind the violence of the recent riots, which were otherwise not exclusively directed against Hui Muslims but against any non-ethnic Tibetan persons who were perceived to be the beneficiaries of the accelerated modernisation and inequality that has been pursued by local and national government officials in recent years. In short, this is very much to do with socio-economics AND racism, than with Buddhist inspired Islamophobia or puritanical fantasies of an ethnically-cleansed Tibet.

    I don’t know if this long comment helps. I hope it does. I find myself in agreement with some of your points, and thank you for raising the bar in respect of the seriousness with which we should discuss these issues (by contrast, I find my own blogging on the subject to be quite lukewarm, and am determined to be sharper about it in the future).
    But I also think you should be more careful about how you go about arguing the case against Islamophobia in an otherwise multi-layered context which needs less, and not more, stereotyping on both sides.

  11. I’m a new reader here, and I just wanted to thank you for your post. This is an important and under-reported story. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about it, although I did know about state repression in China against Muslims in general. If the international community wants to help Tibet, then it is important to demand that Tibetan political movements include protection of minority rights as fundamental. Otherwise, it all adds up to nothing.

  12. I truly feel enlightened by your post, I am sociology student and it shows me again that there are times that we think we know enough about the world, when we clearly dont. I will be using your post as a reference from now on.

  13. Well… in an idealistic sense (which is what spiritual leaders are supposed to purvey) YES!
    “To be in the World but not of the World” is the idea…
    I’ll put another one forward… Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was basically preached to people in exactly the same situation as the Tibetan Buddhists are in today…
    Compare and contrast with the RHETORIC we see from the Dalai Lama…
    Again, this isn’t my blog, so I’m keeping it short… you seem to imagine yourself pretty clued in, so I hope that’s enough informed and considered thinking for you, mate!


  14. “The Dalai Lama is a SPIRITUAL leader, as are his underlings…”

    Oh yes, and spiritual leaders are entirely cacooned from any kind of real world politics, especially the Dalai Lama. He’s never said anything that could be remotely construed as politically, and if he did, it was due to the spiritual vapours not quite flambusting on the calobidum.

    Someone fetch Russel T. McCutcheon’s corpus and beat this person around the head with it until informed and considered thinking is seen to commence!

  15. The problem is the similar to many minorities and indigenous societies around the globe. After the invation of Tibet, the tibetans themself have lost all the political, cultural and economical power too China. Dalai Lama visited the Sapmi Parlament in 1992 in Norway to see the political model this state had done too prevent a norwegian paternalism towards the Sapmi population which has been the case since 18th Century. He wants a similar solution in Tibet.

    The chinese are not idiots and are using the same split and rule policy in the area as for example England did in Sri Lanka. What is happening there and what are the cause off the etnical conflicts in Sri Lanka? Is it the buddhisme itself that attack the tamilian population or is it a consequens from the Britains colonial rule in the past? I guess the last.

    You have come up with some good information of an minority in Tibet that are an unvisible part in the conflict. I am glad that you bring it up. The tibetans are not an homogenous group. There are often more pluralities in a group than between groups. Even in the minority you are talking about is not homogenous. Do you include the Kashmirians muslims and other muslims in you analyses? I know from India that kashmirian muslims that has settled their bussiness outside Kashmir is not having a good reputation. Not because of their religion, but people comprehension is that they are greedy, corrupt and so on.

    I think your analysis is to functionalistic. It is like you have concluded before you did the actual analyses of the situation and that your glasses are looking after what you want too see. For example you easily compare the situation in Tibet with the situation in Burma. What would for example an real cultural relativist say too that like Franz Boas? Also that your analyses have to much assertions without empirical proof for example when you say “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”. You should have good data for this. What people are saying is not always what people mean or how they are acting. You should know that as an anthropologist.

    In this conflict area we should have more focus and attention towards individuals that gets violated cause of their background. It doesn´t matter who is discriminating who. That is why your attention too this is very important. Keep on your activism.

  16. Sorry to respond on your blog, Marranci, I will keep it short.

    Okawa- I think you are missing the point here. The Dalai Lama is a SPIRITUAL leader, as are his underlings. One cannot dismiss this point with the “human nature” argument, as spirituality aims to assess and then perfect “flaws” in human nature.
    I hope you think about this.
    Perhaps one day I will elaborate in my blog.


  17. Can we have more on…………… ‘racist and violent backlash against the Nepali Bhutanese minority in Bhutan in the late 1980s and 1990s’

  18. Untitled Page

    I think people confuse "Buddhist" teachings with “human nature.” So, I’m not sure where your getting the stereotype of Buddhists? As a Buddhist and a former Christian I know all to well the carnal nature of human beings, and I for one have never presumed to be "non-violent by default." Though each person can have innate characteristics to their own nature, not related to religion.

    Same with any religion, it’s not always the faith, but human nature that causes the problems. Faith if practiced can be good for some people. It’s like every one thinks that Muslims or Islam followers are terrorist, but terrorism goes against Islamic teachings. That’s my understanding.

    I think I might be missing the part where “Western” media is biased toward Tibetan Buddhist people. As a Buddhist, I do know that Buddhist communities have fought bloody wars for political reasons, but that’s just the point, it’s political, not the Buddhist teachings itself. Perhaps your equating the "non-violent by default" to Buddhist teachings, not human nature because human nature is defiantly not non-violent by default, and I think every one knows that.
    Not all Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, and that is my understanding. Tibetan Buddhism also carries with it some practices of the Tibetan Bonpo practice indigenous to Tibet. Buddhists around the world practice Buddhism, but they some times practice other things, and some Buddhist practices have absorbed into it the indigenous teachings of the region. If I go to Japan they may do some thing different than other places like Tibet, or India. Buddhist basic teaching is a pacifist teaching, whether people want to practice it or not. Only half of the Buddhist practitioners around the world actually practice vegetarianism, as they are suppose to, and in the United States that number is even less than half. This is human nature, not Buddhist teaching.

    I don’t know about BBC’s views as I get my news from the worldwide web, and not just from "Western" media.
    I’m not trying to "glorify" the Buddhist practitioner nor any other faith; my intent is only to clarify Buddhist teachings from human nature. To many people are greedy, whether that is political, financial or materialistic greed.
    Anyway, my issue is the confusion of Buddhist teachings and human nature. When people commit violent acts against others, that is not a Buddhist teaching, it is human nature. Buddhism teaches me to do no harm to any sentient being, and as a human I do my best to practice that teaching.
    Also, in many other countries a person can be a Buddhist practitioner and practice Christianity, Islam, Taoism or any other teaching. So, I’m confused why the Tibetan Buddhist’s would treat a Chinese Hui Muslim like you have said? [For clarification, most Hui are similar to Han Chinese, other than headwear and some dietary practices, and who are different from the Uygher Islamic’s in Northwestern areas, who are Turkic people.] Though in some countries for example, in the US a Christian would disparage a Buddhist and call them devil worshipers, though not all of them would do that. So, I think most Christian’s would not practice Buddhism, but Buddhism is not suppose to discriminate, human’s discriminate. Buddhism that I know has alway’s taught me to respect all other faither teachings, but I would have a hard time respecting violent acts, and I don’t.
    Some of what you bring up sounds like a repeat of Michael Parenti’s Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth

    Here is a rebuttal: A Lie Repeated – The Far Left’s Flawed History of Tibet

    I feel the issue is a larger issue than simply Buddhists attacking Muslims or the BBC alleging that Tibetan’s are mono ethnics because Tibetan’s don’t believe that nor do I. Sounds like a simple educational course for the BBC or why would they perpetuate it because it doesn’t to any service to the Tibetan people.

  19. Thank you very much for this post!
    I think it is one of the best on the subject that I have read! (and I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject)


  20. Thanks for the very informative post. The link to Fischer’s article is broken though.

    Here’s an alternative:

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Lhasa and I was surprised one time to be told some shockingly negative things about Muslim Restauranteurs in Lhasa. I would concur that it was sort of a taboo topic as these were half-whispered in similar tones one hears when talking about politics in Lhasa, always a difficult thing to discuss, especially with foreigners.

    Good post, Thanks!!

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