Imagine that the Navy Yard killer had been a Muslim. We would be awash in religious bigotry right now.
The fact that Aaron Alexis was a Buddhist who wore a religious charm and frequently attended prayer services has been treated with bemusement rather than bias. CNN's Ashleigh Banfield and Chris Cuomo actually mused that Alexis couldn't be a Buddhist because his deeds were so contrary to the teachings of the religion.
One blogger, mocking mainstream pundits who regularly lecture Muslim clerics, wrote, "All Buddhists should come out and apologize for the shootings, there's an urgent need for Buddhist leaders to stand up against the rampant extremism running in their communities."
The very contrasting response to the Washington, D.C., massacre is, of course, rooted in the popular American view that Buddhism is a peaceful creed and Islam is a faith with violence at its core.
But the Quran, the Muslim holy book, states, "If anyone kills another without a just cause ... it is as if he has killed the whole of mankind. And whosoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved the whole of mankind." [5:32] Killing people due to any motive "is in opposition to the spirit of Islam, which holds human life sacred and personal culpability a matter for God alone to determine," College of William and Mary Professor Tamara Sonn has written.
Buddhism, for its part, has not been completely free from violence. (Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero reveals that a Buddhist scripture has the Buddha himself killing a Hindu priest to protect Buddhism.) And for those who think that Buddhist societies have been devoid of bloodshed, think again.
"Within the various Buddhist traditions, there is a long history of violence," write co-editors Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer in their introduction to "Buddhist Warfare." "Since the inception of Buddhist traditions 2,500 years ago, there have been numerous individual and structural cases of prolonged Buddhist violence."
The book gives various instances where Buddhist doctrine has been used to perpetrate violence. For instance, Japanese Zen Buddhism justified the killing of unbelievers with the notion that they were being given deliverance to be reborn as Buddhists. The infamous cult Aum Shinrikyo, which was responsible for the 1995 Japanese subway attack that killed a dozen people, based its ideology in part on one of the most famous Buddhist texts. The government of Sri Lanka waged a no-holds-barred war against Tamil separatists that was blessed by Buddhist clergy. Burma has been recently hit with anti-Muslim violence by the Buddhist majority, and is ruled by a repressive junta that is nominally Buddhist.
This is not to knock Buddhism. I hold a special affection for the religion and am proud that I have been named after the Buddha, even though I am not a Buddhist. But the dissimilar manner in which we react to crimes carried out by people of different faiths is unjustified -- and has nasty consequences.
"The different ways we respond to violence perpetrated by Buddhists and by Muslims are based on seeing people as religious stereotypes rather than human beings," writes Josh Eaton or the Religion Dispatches websitef. "The effects on Muslims in the United States are obvious and profound. They face discrimination, hate crimes, intrusive government surveillance and the daily threat of violence. Mosques are burned to the ground. Hard-working immigrants are denied jobs. Women are assaulted on the street."
Let's discard our stereotypes and start treating people as human beings.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).