The rise of fundamentalism threatens the culture of tolerance

Faced with the worldwide return of religion with a political vengeance against the laity and between religions, Peter Berger, the American sociologist of religions accepted the failure of his thesis on secularization. He recently remarked that “the assumption that we live in a secularized world is wrong…the world today is as furiously religious as it has ever been.”

The religion-state relationship in South Asian modernity contrasts with the Western model. Southeast Asian states are a diverse mix of democracy, semi-democracy, semi-secularism, monarchy, and military rule, none of which supports an entirely liberal state model.

In South Asian modernity, economic evolution does not necessarily mean evolution towards liberalism. Democracy, liberalism and secularism are not necessarily linked. All politics is local. In fact, the current growing popularity of religious fundamentalisms in Southeast Asia comes primarily from the Middle East and South Asia, which has important implications for Islam and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Religious perspectives in Southeast Asia have long been culturally syncretic. Religious fundamentalism has not been the hallmark of Southeast Asian religious thought. The relations between Islam and Buddhism, hitherto syncretic, are subject to growing fundamentalist orientations.

Imtiyaz: Tolerance at Risk in Southeast Asia. (Photo courtesy of Mahidol University)

The use of Buddhism to protect the race in Myanmar, the exclusive claim by the Malays of the word “Allah” as the name of their God, the call by some Thai Buddhist monks to declare Buddhism as the official religion of Thailand and to attack the retaliatory mosques for the murder of Buddhist monks in the deep south of the country – these are modern faces of ethno-religious politics in the region. They oppose the central purpose of religions as responses to the human search for meaning. The ethical missions of the founders have been overturned in favor of securing the interests of the group.

Buddhist political philosophy and practice is exemplified in the edicts of King Ashoka which place great emphasis on the responsibility to protect and promote the welfare of man and all sentient beings. He argued that all human beings share a common spiritual essence that should be respected and understood. According to him, the contact between religions is good and everyone should learn the good doctrines of other religions. Non-Buddhists were protected in Ashokan State.

As a modern semi-secular state, Thailand is already a pluralistic society where 90% of Buddhists already coexist with Muslims, Christians, Hindus and other religious groups. The modernization of the Sangha by King Chulalongkorn in the early 20th century distributed the powers of state, Sangha and society. His Majesty the King, inspired by the Buddhist philosophy of protecting all religions, has worked hard to build inter-religious understanding, peace, tolerance and development in Thailand.

Thailand cannot afford to jeopardize this religious achievement. Thai Buddhism, with a tradition of tolerance and acceptance, has never been fundamentalist in its orientation. It is necessary to check the spread of different types of religious fundamentalism in Thailand, whether they come from Buddhist or Muslim countries. Their religious conflicts have nothing to do with Thailand. Buddhism is a dominant religion in the country, but it must not become a license to deny or violate the religious freedom of other citizens as witnessed by neighboring countries.

Thai Muslims from north to south enjoy a great deal of religious freedom that is unavailable to their own co-religionists in many Muslim-majority countries. This should not be taken for granted but cherished responsibly. Islam in Thailand, being religiously monotheistic, has always been linguistically and culturally syncretic.

On the other hand, the highly ritualistic traditions of Thai Theravada Buddhism and Islam here provide fertile ground for producing religious fundamentalism and religious nationalism. The acquisition of knowledge is an antidote to the emergence of conflicts. On the Muslim side, therefore, there is a need to produce Thai Muslim thinkers and scholars at the national level to explore Thai Islamic tradition and comparative religions across the country, not just on the conflict in the Deep South which is not a religious problem.

There are two types of interreligious ignorance. One is when followers of one religion are unaware of other religions. The other is when you don’t want to learn the religion of others.

In the midst of interreligious tensions, a critical study of the interface between religions and society is needed. Academia can fill the void. With Buddhist and Muslim experts working to foster a new kind of education for religious coexistence, we can reduce the risk of fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism in order to maintain the tradition of religious tolerance in this country.


Imtiyaz Yusuf, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Director of the International Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

Imtiyaz Yusuf

Assistant Professor at Mahidol University

Imtiyaz Yusuf, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Director of the International Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

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