Friday, April 7, 2006

The Religious Conflict that Isnt Religious

“The issue is not one of the separation of church and state…for there is no church in Islam. The issue is one of legitimacy: what kind of state and what kind of community? Does legitimacy come down from the divine to the one man, the halife, shadow of God on earth and thence to the ulema and to human society, or does legitimacy arise from a free and open exercise of political rights? The question is indeed central to Islam, and has been central from the very beginning.”

The rebellion in Southern Thailand is often misunderstood and over simplified into the primary dichotomy of Muslim vs. Buddhist.
Yet such a basic dichotomy is not an accurate representation of the role of religion in the conflict.

What lies at the heart of the conflict, in relation to Islam and Buddhism, is not an incommensurable religious difference but a conflict inspired by the use of religion in state-craft.

Thailand has consistently, through both historical and modern periods, employed Buddhist cosmological practices in the pageantry of state ceremonies and rituals.
The problem that arises in the Malay-Muslim population of the South is that Buddhist spectacles of state legitimacy are rejected, and possibly even offensive, to the Malay-Muslim community.

Such rejection of Buddhist forms of legitimacy are evident in the Malay-Muslim tendency to look towards Islamic religious symbols and institutions that supply a similar role in strengthening the Muslim opposition to the Buddhist state.

Such forms of religious state-craft may sound overly abstract yet when religion is used in state rituals it is easy to identify.

A simple example is found in the flag raising ceremony that takes place every morning in all state run schools across the country.

Students are assembled in a school’s courtyard for a brief round of exercise, to listen to school announcements, to say a Buddhist prayer, and to sing the national anthem as the flag is raised.

Although the Buddhist prayer is the most obvious ritual that may draw unease from Muslims, the Thai flag, the emblem of the country that seeks to represent the citizens, also represents Buddhism.

The Thai flag consists of five horizontal stripes of three colors.
The Color red represents the blood of the Thai people, the color blue represents the much revered Monarchy, and the white stripes represent Buddhism (designated as Buddhism in the reign of King Vajiravudh).

As the national anthem is sung, in which citizens sing of their willingness to die for the values of the nation, the flag and its representation of Buddhism is raised into the sky.

Attending a flag raising ceremony in the primarily Muslim deep South one can not only see scores of Muslim students standing in silence as the Buddhist prayer is recited but can also recognize the Buddhist cosmology embedded within such state ceremonies.

Although the flag raising ceremony is just a minor example, the use of Buddhist political legitimacy is more problematic when Buddhist morality dictates the creation of legal codes. Before the Thais extended governance in the South the Malay-Muslims where governed by Sharia law that found its legitimacy as a holy law passed down to man from God – not from a Thai-Buddhist government.

When the South was placed under Thai control there was a crude (from a Southern perspective) replacement of the law dictated by Allah to a law dictated by a state and predicated upon Buddhist forms of legitimacy.

The use of religious legitimacy in government has essentially created an artificial and singular Buddhist state where religious homogeneity is obviously lacking.
If the future of the conflict is to be defused then the legitimacy of the government should have a diluted dependency upon Buddhism and the introduction of an Islamic perspective.

What might be even more appropriate is that the strategy of religious legitimacy be reevaluated in a broader reevaluation of what the Thai state is.

Although traditional governmental sources claim the number of Muslims in Thailand is about 3.9 percent, academic sources claim that the actual percentage could be as high as 8% to 10%. If ten percent of the population rejects the state’s employment of Buddhist legitimacy then the ideology that supports the state is at risk of collapse.

Rendered down more simply, if peaceful relations between the Buddhists and the Muslims have been the norm at the community level in the South then it is the government’s own efforts of legitimacy that creates the sense of illegitimacy and is ultimately the source of conflict.

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