Don’t Blame Islam

One or two times in the past, I’ve seen anti-Islamic sentiments bubble up in the comments. Conflicts in Southern Thailand or Bangladesh’s Chittagong division are frequently portrayed as religious conflicts where Muslims are launching a jihad against Buddhists. In reality, the issues lie along much deeper socio-economic fault lines upon which religion has simply been overlaid. To this end, I was pleased to read an article in AsiaNews, a Christian news service, which emphasized that the land conflict in Chittagong is primarily not a religious issue.

The authorities make no attempt to stop the settler attacks, nor to resolve the situation. The tribals, says our source, are really “abandoned to themselves, often when they try to make a complaint, the police do not accept it. Because it’s convenient to see the tribal disappear, or at least take up less Bangladeshi land so that there is an outlet for the overpopulation. Moreover, since the people are in some way favoured by the army, the government does not want to go against the military. There are moments in which it operates, when it tries to do something, but in essence the problem is never resolved.”

The issue therefore, is not religious, even though the perpetrators are Muslim and tribal communities, however, mostly animist (the majority), Buddhist and Christian. “The question—in fact, specifies the source for AsiaNews—it’s only land. It becomes religious in consequence, because the tribal are not Muslims and are more vulnerable, considered inferior, but in any case these are not attacks of a religious or national background. Although the tribals say, ‘Muslims have done this,’ it is only because—he concludes—in everyday language, as they see say it, Bangladeshi is synonymous with Muslim.”

The bottom line is that religion is not the driving force behind the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In other words, Bengali settlers are not moving into CHT because the locals are infidels. They are colonizing the area because they see economic opportunity, and they look down upon “less civilized” locals who speak other languages—or worse, languages that otherwise sound to the settlers like mangled Bangla. If we report on this situation as a religious conflict, we then do a disservice to CHT Buddhists (and Christians, Muslims and all others) by neglecting to address the conflict’s actual causes.