Into the fray: Tibet, racism and Islamophobia

A colleague at one of my blogs of interest recently posted an opinion regarding the oft-ignored issues of Islamophobia and ethnic Tibetan racism in respect of the March 2008 riots in Tibet.

Since I don’t want to quote his post and my subsequent response back-to-back, I will simply point those who might be interested to his original posting and reproduce my reply below:

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.

One Response to “Into the fray: Tibet, racism and Islamophobia”

  1. 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.

    Gabriele

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: