Religious intolerance in Asia: victimizing ‘the other’

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When the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, back in 2001, it sparked a global outcry, and understandably so. After all, these centuries-old and historic monuments represented a unique part of the legacy of a once-vibrant civilization and provided an invaluable window into that past.

In the ensuing years since the destruction of the Buddha statues, there seems to have been a steadily discernible and ominous trend across a number of Asian countries of religious intolerance manifesting itself through a distinct act of violence: the destruction and desecration of places of worship.

One the most recent of these events occurred at the Votualevu Tirath Dham Temple in Fiji on December 16. For several years now, Fiji has been marred by a series of incidents involving desecration of temples. On December 20, The Fiji Sun newspaper ran the front-page headline ‘Temple terror,” while prominently featuring three photos of the destruction at the temple. There are indeed ample reports going back several years now of periodic attacks on Hindu temples across Fiji.

Likewise, in the recent past, Malaysia has been Ground Zero for a series of attacks on places of worship – again, these attacks have typically been on Hindu temples, but by no means limited to them. To be sure, just a few years ago there was some heightened controversy around the legal standing of some of the more obscure temples in the country and whether they were established through the proper legal process. As a result, a number of temples whose legal status was deemed suspect were destroyed by the authorities.

Under this cloud of controversy, it is important to distinguish these instances from the ones that unfolded where legitimately and properly functioning temples were subjected to very intentional and premeditated violence.

Elsewhere in the region, Indonesia has been experiencing instances of attacks on religious minorities as well. Again, no more than a casual perusal of news reports will affirm that the various instances of such acts are directed at more than one religious minority, but it is especially noteworthy that, as in Fiji and Malaysia, there is a discernible and disproportionate targeting and desecration of Hindu temples in Indonesia as well.

While these acts of destruction and desecration can be conveniently seen as seemingly discrete instances of religious-based violence and intolerance, the wider international community cannot remain on the sidelines of what has become a wider trend of targeting Hindus in a series of countries

While it may not be well known by the wider international community, Bangladesh represents an especially vivid and tragic case in point, where the process of desecration and destruction of Hindu temples seems to be very much part of a larger insidious and systematic effort of persecution of the Hindu minority. At the very least, this appears to be part of a process of communal violence that has been perpetrated on Hindus in Bangladesh for several decades, and one that the Bangladeshi government seems especially comfortable to be indifferent about.

The intentional destruction of Hindu temples in Bangladesh goes hand-in-hand with acts of land-grabbing, organized violent attacks, mass killing and raping of Hindus, and forced religious conversions. There is little doubt that the extermination of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh has been well under way for decades, and religious intolerance in that country is at an all-time high.

Indeed, judging by all independent non-governmental accounts from within the country of the pogroms being orchestrated there, the lives of the remaining targeted religious minorities in Bangladesh have reached a state of extreme despair and desperation.

Mauritius presents another ominous and poignant case where the targeting of temples has become chronic. Despite a plurality of the population being Hindus, the targeting and desecration of Hindu temples seem to have taken on a magnitude comparable to the attacks in Bangladesh.

One of the more telling aspects of the escalation of these attacks is the extent to which they are now seemingly coordinated, as illustrated by the nine Kali temples that were desecrated in one night as recently as this past October 29.

While operatives sympathetic to ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, it’s important to realize that unless local authorities and the broader population across all faiths commit to a comprehensive approach to eradicating these kinds of acts of violence, the menace will only become a foundation upon which more destructive communal discord will likely follow.

While these acts of destruction and desecration can be conveniently seen as seemingly discrete instances of religious-based violence and intolerance, the wider international community – and especially the United Nations Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief – cannot remain on the sidelines of what has become a wider trend of targeting Hindus in a series of countries.

The statues and temples that have been attacked and destroyed in more recent years may not be of the historic significance of the Buddha statues destroyed by the fanatical Taliban, but in the final analysis, the perpetrators in all these cases represent the embodiment of hate of “the other” – hate that they are willing to act on to inflict harm on those they deem lesser.

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