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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(March 10, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," said Isaac Newton, stating a law of nature that Islamic terrorists have obviously forgotten.

But judging from the tone of their increasingly aggressive rhetoric, extremist Christians are remembering it all too well. They see Al Qaeda as the vanguard of an Islamic attempt to destroy Christianity, the terrorist attacks of the last dozen years not being attacks on the U.S. as a political entity, but attacks on the U.S. as a Christian nation.

A mall food court is not the best place to put one's finger on the pulse of public opinion, but it does have the advantages of transiency and anonymity. People tend to be more candid about their opinions when they don't have to stand and defend them with one hand on the Bible. I was sitting alone at two tables that had been pushed together when one-by-one the five empty places were taken by a group of people who had different tastes in food but a similar fondness for guerrilla warfare.

It was impossible to stay out of their conversation. I smiled and nodded, conceding a few points that I hadn't considered before, and gulped for air as they plumbed new depths of bizarre. They listed a dozen or so instances of Islamic persecution of Christians and confided that Osama bin Laden was merely the pen that had written in Christian blood his "Fatwah": The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders . The real authors were the Wahhabi Islamic Fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia "Check it out on the Internet," they advised. I said I would.

Beaming, they reviewed a wish-list of revenge actions. (Irrationality for irrationality, Christian extremists can easily match other extremists.) They skimmed over germs, toxins, nukes - and settled upon their favorite response. The little food-court Band of Brothers wanted an "eye-for-an-eye" retaliation, and their remaining eye had trained itself on the Ka'ba'a, the black draped meteor enclosure at Mecca.

Finished, finally, with my lunch, I stood up and pushed my chair back to the table. Suddenly, a hand shot up making a "V" sign. "Ka'ba'a's in the cross-hairs!" came the shout - which was followed by a fusillade of "Praise Jesus!" I scurried away.

Before we continue, it is perhaps necessary to distinguish between religious liberals, conservatives, and extremists, as we are using the terms.

In actuality, extremism has nothing to do with religion or religious expression. Symbols of religion are simply used to disguise true intentions, much as the Nazis used Buddhism's swastika to reassure their intended victims that their aims were consonant with those of the religion whose symbol they had appropriated. An extremist movement is a sociopathic movement, and its irrationality is readily apparent.

Conservatives prefer to stay with the basics - as an architect's original plans for a building he has designed. They appreciate the sense of continuity which "unredacted" scripture provides. The same articles of faith and moral values which sustained their ancestors, sustain them and will, if they have anything to say about it, sustain their descendants.

Liberals favor a less-rigorous interpretation of defining principles, a relaxed expansion of beliefs, a liturgy that accommodates change. They tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive, opening membership to those who might previously have been ineligible. Preferring "common law" flexibility to "codified law" rigidity, liberals try to keep the standards of acceptable conduct relevant within a current norm.

In any organization there are those who are liberal on some issues and conservative on others, but their positions are susceptible to change without resorting to gunfire.

The strategy of extremist lunatic fringes is to attach themselves to responsible groups. The pernicious aspect of this is the guilt by association that inevitably follows. For, while conservatives may be opposed, let's say, to abortion, and in that cause assemble for a protest march; they are not inclined to commit murder to further their belief in the sanctity of life. But a lunatic killer who carries a sign and walks beside them may be less circumspect. If he bombs a clinic and kills people all conservatives are called bloodthirsty fanatics. Likewise, liberals who favor the protection of forests and the humane management of woodland habitats might find themselves infiltrated by an extremist who will happily embed metal spikes in tree trunks, trusting that a logger's saw will hit the metal spike and snap the cutting chain, causing it to whip back and sever the logger's hand or lacerate his face. Liberals are then called bloodthirsty fanatics.

We all are inclined illogically to spread a "sample" over the entire surface, but this illogicality is not entirely without merit. We have a reasonable expectation that groups of people - families, clubs, associations of all kinds - will be sufficiently familiar with their members or associates to purge their ranks of such troublesome persons, or denounce them upon discovery. On the other hand, we are all loathe to expel or even censure someone who nominally shares our views. Usually, when someone "in our ranks" does something outrageous we scramble to supply a plausible explanation.

For example, after the World Trade Center disaster, the initial reaction from some Muslims was to suspect the Israelis of being agents provocateurs, i.e., of destroying the buildings in order to discredit Islam. When that scenario proved ludicrous, a few Arab news organizations churned out "proof" that 4000 Jews had mysteriously failed to show up for work on 9-11, the implication being that the Jews knew in advance that the Towers would be struck. Muslims believed or disbelieved this nonsense according to their knowledge of world affairs and their individual prejudices or lack thereof.

The most puzzling aspects of the world's religious actions and reactions are the randomness of care, the inability to see what is obvious, the double standards, and the selective amnesia.

Sadly, "religious" terrorism and its extenuation by sympathetic observers are not limited to everybody else.

In Sri Lanka politically active Buddhists have recently burned, damaged, and desecrated several hundred Christian churches. Eight percent of the population is Christian and the Buddhists want this reduced to zero. To punctuate the point they pelt church walls with excrement and poison church wells with used crankcase oil. They recently succeeded in getting legislation passed that would have made Buddhism the state religion and would further have mandated that Buddhists place their children in state Buddhist schools. Other religions would be tolerated provided they met with Buddhist standards of conduct and didn't attempt to convert a Buddhist. Proselytizing would be regarded as a crime and violators would be prosecuted. After ten years of warfare with Hindus, the Buddhists are in no mood to tolerate meddling Christians or to see such public signs of devotion as Christmas observances, which have virtually been outlawed. Although the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka struck down two of the legislative provisions, the bill is being rewritten to conform to the court's requirements. The Christians involved are not standout foreigners. They are ordinary, native Sri Lankans.


A year or so ago we published an essay about militant Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who were photographed burning the flag of Norway. A number of Buddhists objected to this report saying that it was a terrible exaggeration. They refused to believe that any Buddhist monk anywhere, anytime, could do anything so suggestive of violence as burning the Norwegian flag. As to the current persecution of Christians, several Buddhists have told me that they are familiar with the obnoxiousness of Sri Lankan Christians and that, no doubt, the Buddhists are merely reacting to Christian hostility.

Many Buddhists cannot believe that Buddhist clergy can be politically motivated or can take up arms to defend their country as, for example, in the case of Tibet. It is as if the March, 1959 Lhasa Rebellion against Chinese rule never occurred. The whole world saw those sad films of surrendering Buddhist monks placing their rifles on a pile; but sentimental images of ethereal Buddhist clerics passively kneeling in the path of Chinese bullets is easier to believe than the reality of the monk's militancy. The rebellion was not wise but it was courageous - especially since it was fomented specifically against the harshness of Chinese rule.

Al Qaeda, via the Taliban, began its reign of terror against civilization in Afghanistan in 1988. The government not only treated women barbarically, but, in the mid-1990s, in an insane attempt to purge the country of everything that was immoral, except of course the Opium trade and themselves, they removed from their museums all Buddhist artworks - bowls, statuary, works of every kind dating back millennia. Though happy to selloff priceless secular antiquities, the Taliban refused to sell the Buddhist art works; and, calling them "satanic" they systematically destroyed them. If responsible countries cared, the concern was well-hidden.

In March, 2001, at Bamiyan on the old Silk Route to China, the Taliban began shelling cliff-carved Buddhist artworks - huge, faceless statues that had graced the landscape for nearly two thousand years. Taliban officials insisted that infidels worshipped these stone statues. Where these infidels came from they did not say. When their cannons couldn't destroy the statues, the government calmly resorted to well-placed dynamite. There were a few squeaks of protest, but beyond that, only silence followed the falling stones. Not until the Taliban was driven from power and Hamid Karzai took office were plans of restoration made.

Buddhism is a living religion and all of these artworks had meaning and value to millions of us. But nobody noticed the attack on Buddhism: the destruction had only artistic and academic significance.

We can contrast this with the outrage directed against the U.S. when, during the early days of the Iraq war, the U.S. was accused of failing to protect Iraqi antiquities - which, though artworks of dead religions, had familiar Biblical names. (The outrage subsided when the pieces turned up in several European capitals, evidencing collusion between museum officials and collectors.)

In Bethlehem, in 2003, during a confrontation between Palestinian and Israeli soldiers, an Israeli tank gratuitously shot at a statue of the Virgin Mary that stood at the pinnacle of the Holy Family Church, destroying the statue's face and arm. The shot echoed Israeli extremist sentiments about removing all non-Jews from "Jewish lands." Two weeks later, Palestinian militia began a thirty-eight day occupation of the Church of the Nativity, using it as a fort. They tore pages from the Bible to use as toilet paper and swilled sacramental wine. To prevent Israeli attacks on the Church, the Christian world clamored in unison that "by whatever means necessary" the Church had to be spared. Of course, it was.

No one seemed to recall that the current Intifada was initiated because of the El Aqsa Mosque incident in which Ariel Sharon and Israeli soldiers desecrated the Mosque by walking on its grounds. Nobody chastised the Palestinian militants for desecrating the Church of the Nativity. When Buddhists are persecuted in Tibet it becomes a world cause. when Buddhists persecute in Sri Lanka it is of no interest whatsoever.

While the causes of religious extremism are different; the effects are similar, having nothing to do with issues and everything to do with the conflicts of emotional disorder.

No one lives a blameless life, and no one escapes psychological pain. We sin and we are sinned against. How a person deals with guilt, shame, loss and abuse - and even his own hateful wishes - determines largely the course his life will take. If he consciously and constructively acts to integrate his transgressions and his grievances, using the religious methods available to him, or seeking professional therapy to resolve his conflicts, he'll go far to insure his future equanimity. But if he doesn't, if he instead succumbs to his mind's need to escape responsibility, he'll likely resort to an "ego defense" strategy.

These strategies are all unconsciously determined and enforced, i.e., the person is not aware that he has disposed of his problem by dumping it in one of these convenient receptacles. The ones most often resorted to are:

-- repression -- in which all memory of a painful incident in the past is seemingly eradicated "I never did that. If it had done it I would have remembered it.";

-- projection -- in which guilt is removed simply by shifting it onto someone or something else and criticizing it there, "If there's one thing I can't stand it's a liar.";

-- displacement -- in which the need for punishment is actualized by scapegoating it, i.e., inflicting the necessary punishment on a passive target as by punching a wall or kicking a dog;

-- rationalization -- in which a "reasonable" excuse is given for having committed the act. "I intended to repay the money I took from my office - but then I remembered all the work I had done that I was never paid for.";

-- regression -- in which the person cannot cope with his current situation and so returns emotionally to a more safe and exciting time of life as a man entering an awkward middle age buys a sports car and wears teenage fashions or a thin, elderly woman yields to a long-nurtured need to invest in D-cup breast implants;

-- denial -- in which ongoing conduct is minimized or unrecognized (in terms of selective memory) as in the inability of an alcoholic to acknowledge his problem. He truly remembers having only a couple of drinks, (the alpha-omega syndrome- -first and last, with amnesia in between);

-- reaction formation -- in which guilt and shame are transferred to others who then become the enemy, an infinitely more agreeable solution than deserved self-condemnation. It is then a simple matter vehemently to denounce and violently to oppose the recipients of the transferred behavior. In Freud's classic example anti-vivisectionists, who furiously protested the use of animals for medical experimentation, committed various terrorist acts while proclaiming themselves to be too kind to hurt a fly. Freud discovered that these individuals harbored a streak of pathologic cruelty.

Simply put, the terrorist mentality begins with an inability to cope with guilt or shame, an admittedly ticklish problem, which results in feelings of helplessness and frustration. When this burden of failure becomes intolerable it is dumped on someone else. This is an unconscious process, but it creates an exhilarating and palpable sense of relief. A further complication arises when that relief expands into euphoria and the ego inflates. The unfortunate individual then experiences his own apotheosis and, godlike, assumes the rank and privileges of a savior, one who is above civil law in his divinely ordained missions.

While many people will happily transfer their guilt onto another and are likely to do this with greater frequency than they accept responsibility for their errors, they are usually neither particularly violent nor desirous of achieving post mortem notoriety. It is the quest for martyrdom that makes the suicidal terrorist. Or vice versa.

Newton's law of action and reaction is valid for events in samsara, the material world of which the ego is a part. But in the world of the spirit, we use the law as a reminder not to react "in kind," which usually means emotionally, to troublesome events. When emotion is absent, pride, anger, jealousy, guilt and shame can gain no foothold. We can take responsibility for our actions and learn from our mistakes or make amends for them. The recourse to extremism to avoid responsibility and defend our egos is hardly necessary.

Acting egolessly is the non-action of wu wei , the discipline by which we separate ourselves from the effects of our actions and reactions. "Doing" without desire or revulsion is detachment and freedom. Accepting the humanity in everyman as we recognize the Buddha in him is the perfect antidote to extremism.

Humming Bird
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